Saturday, March 28, 2009


It is said that every system in the world is self-monitoring: that is, given the cyclical nature of life, every system, when it is at the peaks of success, will also create a reason of collapse out of that success. This is visible in the world around us right now, as we are thrown from an economy at the height of a boom to the depths of a recession.


Similarly, however, systems also have the necessary self-protective function also in-built. Therefore, when things are going wrong, the system also throws up the solutions, and things eventually improve. Take America, for example. In 1932, the combination of fear and inner questioning due to the Great Depression resulted in a political upheaval, and the election of Franklin Roosevelt. A similar thing happened in the before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. This just proves that fear and inner questioning are not ideological but are the components of a change in mind-set- or, perhaps, a mind-set in change. In 2008, this combination resulted in a decisive win for Barack Obama, hailed as the flag-bearer of hope for the world.


There is perhaps no better case study for this than the Indian film industry. We as Indians have a tendency to stick to the tried and tested- wherever we see, taste or smell success, we go and do what those Romans are doing. After all, the sunflowers turn whichever way the sun shines. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that in around a hundred years of Hindi cinema, even though the prototype film remains the song-and-dance filled, melodramatic masala flick, we can divide the timeline by typical films of each era.


The one thing we still have not learnt, however, is that too much of something can truly be a bad thing. After a point of time, there is nothing left to be milked out of something: that is not an understanding we have chanced upon till date. For example, when the recent spate of comedies tasted big success at the box office (starting with Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri) we suddenly saw comedies mushrooming everywhere. In the beginning they worked, but after a point, the audience grew weary, and, in a vicious cycle, the films became increasingly derivative and farcical in an effort to be funny. Thus, what was a nice trend had been milked to the last drop. The same thing happened with the trend of the semi-porn, soft-core flicks which got a lease of life with Jism, peaked commercially wit Murder, and gave birth to a spate of B-Grade sexploitation films and actresses like Meghna Naidu and Sherlyn Chopra.


While both the above trends had started out as a response to an environment that was clearly bereft of and was ready for them, they died out because everybody (the proverbial fools) rushed in to cash in on it.


The ‘Nouvelle Vague’, or the ‘New Wave’, or the New Cinema, or the Art Film Movement- or whatever else you may want to call it- tends to define an exciting, tumultuous episode in cinema all around the world, and came about in the same way. It was a response to a long chain of spectacularly failing big-budget, claustrophobic, visible artificial dramas masquerading as cinema in France, Italy and subsequently both Hollywood and Bollywood. What is ironic is that during the time when this wave reached its peak, the mainstream commercial films figured out what was going wrong, what the public now wanted, and- having incorporated selected feasible elements of the art films into their own films- started being successful again, while the art films began their gradual descent into commercial and critical failure. This is the story of the ‘New Wave’ world over.


My argument in this essay, however, is that India is the only country to have experienced not one, not two, but three separate waves of the Art Film Movement. This is my theory and description of each of them, and both the reasons for their growth and decline in each phase.


The first wave occurred in the late sixties/seventies, when commercial potboilers were at an all time low: films were big budget multi-starrers, all had the same stories, most were revenge dramas; acting, dialogues and settings were totally artificial and melodramatic, and the box office simply was not smiling upon the commercial film-makers. At a time like this, a handful of filmmakers and actors (mostly from the FTII, Pune, and heavily influenced by Truffaut and Godard) brought an alternative cinema to the Indian audiences, one that was much cheaper to produce, needed lesser returns to be successful, had no stars, and put the emphasis sorely on stark realism in every sphere: from the storytelling, to the story; from the acting to the overall look of the film. This wave was aided by the then recent introduction of hand-held cameras which were cheaper, lighter, easier to use and allowed greater flexibility to the cinematographer in terms of shooting on real locations. This movement was wildly greeted with both critical and commercial acclaim, and fueled by the idealism of those filmmakers.


By the time this wave ended, several artists had become household names: Naseeruddin Shah, Om puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, et al. The end came when, post an overdose of art films, not only did the films lose their novelty value, but, in an effort to constantly impress, they also became too gimmicky and complex until they defeated their own purpose and alienated the viewers. These films which had started out as a way for committed film-makers to express themselves had now simply become a sinking ship which many frustrated directors hung onto having no avenue into commercial cinema.    


At the same time, many of the main players of this wave were lured to the commercial cinema due to many reasons- greater remuneration, greater fame, and often, frustration with the ‘art’ film movement. Commercial films had by now become slightly more sensible, having incorporated several aspects of the at film movement, and a new genre had emerged which combined the best of both worlds: the middle-of-the-road cinema, which was both sensible and entertaining, and involved everyone from Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra to Amol Palekar and Farooque Sheikh. Added to this, failure of the art films in terms of marketing, distribution and the sudden upswing in the box office fortunes of the commercial films sounded the death knell on the first wave.


Post this time period, and the end of the dreaded eighties (a nightmare for every Hindi film lover), the nineties came as a breath of fresh air, with the arrival of several new faces (Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan, Shahrukh Khan, Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, etc) and filmmakers (Sooraj Barjatya, Mansoor Khan, Aziz Mirza, Aditya Chopra and later Karan Johar) who pumped up Bollywood with newer stories, newer storytelling, a world view which was truly worldly (worthy of the post-liberalization era).


However, buoyed by the success of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and even Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the late nineties and the first couple of years of the new millennium saw a suffocating flood of clones all about love, romance, soft-glow photography, melodrama, family drama, huge starcasts, actresses in pastel shades and stories usually set in London. The writing was very clearly on the wall when Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, with perhaps the most ambitious starcast in history, was severely criticized for its been-there-done-that storytelling in the face of fresh storytelling of Lagaan, Chandni Bar and Dil Chahta Hai. This was when the second wave occurred.


The second wave was the invention of the Hinglish film: a trendy, up-market genre consisting of stories and protagonists set essentially in the Metros. These stories were largely told in English, with a smattering of Hindi, and dealt with issues which were too sensitive for the mainstream audiences, such as homosexuality, mafia and cultural identities, all handled with a dash of humour.


While the first such film is considered to be Dev Benegal’s “English, August” in 1994, the stars of this genre were essentially a young actor called Rahul Bose, who, with his English sensibilities and diction, created a new prototype of the urbane, confused hero; and a director called Nagesh Kukunoor, who, with his NRI mentality and experimental films burst onto the scene with “Hyderabad Blues” and proved that this genre could also be profitable. Others to later on join this bandwagon were stalwarts such as Kay Kay Menon, Tara Deshpande, Sanjay Suri, etc.


These films were aimed at an audience who had grown up on English films (as opposed to their parents, who had seen the odd “Towering Inferno” and “The Guns of Navarone”), had urbane sensibilities, and were comfortable not only conversing in English, but also dealing with sensitive themes. They enjoyed black comedis, and liked films they could relate to.


Soon, however, this profitable genre turned into a hurricane which everyone wanted to latch onto- budding filmmakers, veejay-turned-actors, models, et al. This meant not only people who had no talent or ability, but also a falling quality of films. The death knell was sounded when switched to Hindi films with “Teen Deewarein”, and Rahul Bose and Kay Kay chose to do films like “Thakshak”, “Jhankaar Beats” and “Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena”.


However, this phase too left its marks on the mainstream industry: films became more urbane, wittier and relating to identifiable, relatable characters who had other things to do besides dance in big, multi-starrer weddings. The clearest indication of this was a film called “Dil Chahta Hai” (2001) which was almost an English film in Hindi. Now that the mainstream cinema could do what the Hinglish makers were attempting, the smaller genre had to die out.


A few years later, a peculiar phenomenon occurred which single-handedly gave birth to the third art wave in India: the multiplex. Having smaller halls meant less people were now needed to make a film run successfully, and one could now aim at smaller sections of the audience rather than making a potboiler which aimed to please the entire country. Thus, a set of filmmakers and actors emerged who, with smaller budgets and tight, entertaining storytelling, seduced the metropolitan crowds, while not even getting a release in the interiors. These were, among others, Abhay Deol, Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Imtiaz Ali, Konkona Sen, Gul Panag, Shreyas Talpade, and the father of them all, Anurag Kashyap.


We are therefore living in an era today where almost every week one such film is released- be it an Abhay Deol drama, or a Vinay Pathak (a superstar after “Bheja Fry”) comedy. However, a dangerous trend can again be seen, mirrored perfectly in Vinay Pathak films- after the success of “Bheja Fry”, a whole slew of films started with him in the lead, all with comic elements- be it “Oh My God”, “Dasvidaniya” or the yet-to-be-released “SRK”: none of these films proved of any great quality or of box office status.


While actors from this club migrate to the mainstream cinema (Vinay Pathak in “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”, Ranvir Shorey in “Chandni Chowk To China”, Konkona Sen in “Aaja Nachle”), and mainstream films integrate aspects of those films into theirs (both “Taare Zameen par” and “Rock On” were both aimed at given, selected audiences in the meros); and revenues of these small multiples films fall- especially in the face of the recession- these films must coordinate and go back to why they started in the first place: provide excellent entertainment or a terrific quality product.


In a world ruled by marketing rather than the product, these multiplex film directors cannot hope to compete on a mass-market level. Therefore, their future too seems bleak unless the lessons from the past two ‘waves’ are learnt and acted upon.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whispers From The Mirror

A friend mentioned recently how she was extremely depressed after watching “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. Her reason? She had seen people get stuck in marriages that might have had love somewhere, but totally lacked passion. She had seen people who thought they wanted to get into a marriage, but after taking the plunge, kept looking for the ever-elusive escape route. Seeing all that around her in her daily life, she didn’t want to come back and see it on the screen too. After all, aren't movies supposed to be all about escapism?


Talking to her got me thinking- as it always does. (She’s a strange person who sees a lot of films and thinks a lot- my favourite combination, one that’s always dangerous and fun- but I have met very few people who think more logically than her. That is why arguing with her is so much fun.) True, cinema is indeed the ultimate form of escapist entertainment- the key word here being not only escapist, but also entertainment. If cinema is our refuge from the pain and drudgeries of real life, why would we want to see on screen the same things we are trying to run away from? To quote her, she’d rather see an “Iron Man” after a long day as opposed to a “No Country For Old Men”. Makes sense, I suppose, on some level.


My take, however, is slightly different. Yes, I value escapist entertainment immensely, and will fight anybody who frowns upon them by calling them a cheap art- if anything, I don’t know what is more difficult than making a crowd-pleasing entertainer (proof? Consider the success ratio of the imitators of “When Harry Met Sally” or “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” or even “Sholay”.) However, there is something extremely exciting and compelling when I see someone portraying on screen the exact thoughts, situations and problems that I encounter in my daily life, without compromising on the complexities.


It is extremely easy to think of a situation (friends falling for each other, say) and make it into a film which pretends to tackle this (“Kuch Kuch Hota Hai”, or the horrible “Just Friends”, and countless other chick flicks). However, popular films rarely have room to examine the complexities of real life. The reason I like “When Harry Met Sally” is that even tough it only ostentatiously examined the above, it had a moment of genuine complexity towards the end: the loneliness which engulfs you when you fight with someone you love, who just happens to be your best friend also. Who do you talk to? The scene with Billy Crystal celebrating New Year at home while watching TV alone is my favourite scene of the film- and I have yet to meet someone who appreciates the truth of the scene, rather than finding it dragging. This is something I could personally relate to, and the loneliness is murderous.


I am fascinated by Woody Allen because- leave his exhilarating writing aside- he considers issues which lesser filmmakers never have the courage or the intelligence to explore fully. Take “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, for example, a film while nowhere near his best, is still pretty darned good. Imagine Vicky. What do you do when, in a sudden flash, you start feeling that maybe the comfortable, secure lifestyle you are on the brink of attaining is not what you want after all? You can’t share your feelings with anybody- people will think you have lost your mind! Not only have you always wanted that lifestyle, but the person you have chosen is absolutely wonderful! At the same time, even though you are thinking about rejecting it, the only other option that you would have considered is both unavailable as well as impractical. What do you do?


Imagine, now, Juan Antonio. You love a woman, but somehow, when you are with her, you are ready to kill her. And yet, you can never find the same connection and passion with anyone else. What do you do? And what f the only possible stabilizing element is another woman? Then?


Another example is the Michael Caine- Mia Farrow- Barbara Hershey track from “Hannah and her Sisters”, where a nice, respectable accountant falls into love and has an extra-marital affair with his wife’s sister. Any other director would have shown dramatic scenes of contemplation, hysteric arguments, and a final, melodramatic moment where he must choose between his two women. Mr Allen decides to show it as it is: a man who momentarily- albeit passionately- thinks he loves another, sleeps with her and enjoys it, yet is not sure whether he truly dares to give up the comfortable life he has made for himself. He’s confused, thinks about confessing, yet never manages to tell his wife. The affair simply fizzles out, both parties agreeing with time that it was impractical and myopic. In my opinion, that is far more realistic. And Mr Allen ensures that it never seems forced, as you recognize scene after scene as if it could happen to you, and you would behave exactly the same way.


Another terrific example is the yo-yo love story of “Manhattan”, where Woody Allen’s character breaks up with the 16 year old Muriel Hemingway, only to realize at the end that she is whom he waned after all, and yet, so absorbed is he in his self-pity and ‘glamorous’ loneliness, that he has the audacity to ask her to leave her studies and stay with him.


One of the most depressing phases in my life was in my 12th standard, a period of intense loneliness and tempestuous introspection, when I realized I was extremely fed up of the moral decay I saw around me and, if I could, I would just take a gun and blast everything away. During those highly implosive days, almost as if it was meant to be, I discovered Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. And it is till date my favourite film- a storyteller in direct contact with me, saying and doing things I could relate to, almost as if reading my mind.


A similar thing happened the first time I saw Aditya Chopra’s “Mohabbatein”, and was amazed to see Shahrukh Khan saying aloud things about the nature of love in the tense climax which I thought only I had felt. I could perfectly well understand loving someone so much that even after her death you can still feel her around yourself, see her all the time, talk to her whenever you wished. I nodded along, as I saw Mr Khan speak- “Mohabbat mein shartein nahi hoti, mere dost. Maine usse kabhi yeh shart toh nahi rakhi thi ki woh mere se zyada jiyegi. Uske marne se se meri mohabbat bhi khatam nahi ho jayegi.” Absolutely.


These are all moments where I have seen a film hold a mirror to my face and show me things I see all around myself. While it never depresses me, I get strangely excited- how can a man I have never met, a film I have never seen, words which I have not written convey exactly the thoughts that I have, and that too so vividly?


The best part about Mr Allen is that he never provides answers. Perhaps he doesn’t have any. As he says in “Manhattan”, when he wonders who would jump off a bridge to save a drowning person- he cannot swim. But that does not make his stories and his scenes any less profound. He may not be able to swim, but he knows that there are people drowning in the world, and we will probably not jump in to save them. And we are indeed quite shallow people who will then sit in cafes and explain our handicap. The fact that someone else understands this fascinates me. It amazes me. The fact that he can say this directly to me makes me jump up with joy and salute the power of cinema.

We don’t always like to look at a mirror without make-up on, knowing fully well it will show our flaws- our warts, our blisters, our dry skin, our expanding waistlines, our receding hairlines. But sometimes, just sometimes, if you listen carefully, the reflection speaks to you. In a whisper, it tells you to relax, to breathe, and to smile- this is life, it tells you. It’ll go on. And then it winks at you and assures you that you are not alone.