Nov 17, 2008

Entertainment - Bollywood;New Directions


A slew of Hindi films have hit the multiplexes recently, not one of them melodramatic, each one of them atypical of genre and all of them entertaining, or at least amusing. The last half dozen Fridays have seen one thriller, “A Wednesday”, one film about a traumatised city, “Mumbai Meri Jaan”, one cult film about making music, “Rock On”, a movie about an eccentric Shakespearean actor, “The Last Lear”, and a satirical comedy, “Welcome to Sajjanpur”. While none of these films are profound works of cinema, they are, nevertheless, expressive of strongly felt ideas and quite individualistic in style.

Are we seeing a change in audience taste? Are filmmakers getting into a sudden experimental mode or are the economic goalposts of movie making being shifted? It is an interesting question. Over the last year or two, there has been the odd “alternative” film being released every few months — “Iqbal”, “Chak De”, “Tare Zameen Par”. But this time speculation has turned into a trend, the penny has dropped, producers are clearly looking at a new direction.

Space for more

Traditionally, of course, Hindi cinema has worked exclusively on the star system to finance, produce and release a film. A producer wants a complete script , not for its merit, but for giving a star something to read and decide on. Financiers have often thrown up their hands at good scripts and said “sign on the stars and I’ll give you the money”. It is not as if this system of production is anywhere near an end — going by the sums offered major stars, it is alive and healthy.

But smaller budgets, the arithmetic of these films, their rate of recovery at the box office, the manageable size of the speculation involved, all seem to be speaking in a different language. “A Wednesday”, a film advocating citizen vigilante policing in dealing with terrorists, has done profitable business. In truth, the film is mediocre as cinema and director Neeraj Pandey sets up the movie like a Hollywood thriller of the “Die Hard” kind. Naseeruddin Shah holds the film from one end while Anupam Kher, playing a clown of a Police Commissioner, almost derails it from the other. But what is remarkable about the movie is its length — it is over and done with in about 100 minutes. As the Hollywood executive will tell you — pace the film quick and pack it with so much action that the audience will not have the breathing space to detect how absurd the logic of the narrative is.

Much better as a movie that shows you the wounds of Mumbai city during and after the multiple train blasts of 2006 is “Mumbai Meri Jaan”. The film is a poignant tribute to the city and the sensitivity of director Nishikant Kamat comes as refreshing antidote to the vulgarity of the media coverage of those tragic events then. He mourns with the city in five lovely vignettes, told as parallel stories.

The first is of the Soha Ali Khan character, a reporter for a major TV news channel who has lost her fiancé in the blast and has to continue reporting on the carnage. Her performance is totally unexpected, almost shocking in its intensity, and is a complete revelation. Through her character, and via the cynicism with which the TV channel uses her to increase its TRPs, director Kamat expresses the nausea that media vultures trigger in us. Then there is the R. Mahadevan character, a corporate type with an altruistic streak who just cannot board a train again. He develops post-traumatic stress disorder and alterations in his erstwhile confident personality.

In two other lovely roles are the excellent Irfan Khan as a coffee vendor and Kay Kay Menon as a Muslim baiting kind of street talker. But the finest of the vignettes is a Police Inspector in the twilight of his service, played by Paresh Rawal. This actor is in the same bracket as Naseeruddin Shah, but never spoken of as such. He just gets better with age.

Interesting times

Five years ago a film like “Mumbai Meri Jaan” would have been despatched to the film festival circuit. Today it gets a premiere and a decent first run in major urban multiplexes. This is change you can count on. Sensitive movies are starting to work. It is a silent entertainment revolution. For example, a short time ago a movie like “Rock On”, about a rock group who get together again after 10 years, would have been impossible to release. At best, if made, it would have remained a cult film for a niche audience and no distributor would have touched it with a barge pole. Today it is mainstream.

Two other films, “The Last Lear” and “Welcome to Sajjanpur”, are more stodgy and verbose, but even these find release. For films based entirely on conversation, one of them in English and the other in the rustic Hindi of rural North India, with little or no screen action, this is an astounding development.

Producers, directors and distributors in Hindi cinema are starting to feel the pulse of their audience once again. The 1980s and 90s were decades which saw the greatest qualitative decline in Hindi movies. They were a period in film history which cast its shadow on freshness, poetry and imagination, killing all creativity. So is a golden age, like the one in the 1950s, about to return in Hindi cinema? We can keep our fingers crossed!

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