Three movies. “Bheja Fry”, “Mixed Doubles”, “Life in a Metro”. Multiplex hits. How would they have faired in those pre-multiplex times? Difficult to say, but guesses are that they may have been overlooked, underrated or simply vanished straight to DVD. Or, more worrying to contemplate, never even got made. It’s just possible that what pushed the team behind “Bheja Fry” to make the movie was the strong hunch that they’ll find a readymade audience at the multiplex. With the multiplex, the small-scaled, song-less, star-less independent movie is less of a gamble now than it was even five years ago.
Three movies. “English, August”, “Hyderabad Blues”, “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”. Pre-multiplex hits. These movies connected with an audience at once, and triumphed at the box office without a tailor-made multiplex audience. They created their own audience. It tells us that when movies resonate with a generation, they will always find a place. The multiplex just made it easier. By the time Kukunoor’s “Iqbal” rolled in, he knew exactly who its audience would be: young, urban middle class.
Three movies. “Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi”, “Black Friday”, “Omkara”. Not your average multiplex film, but they still found a large multiplex audience. These films, with their seriousness, intensity and ambition, redefined what we usually think of as a multiplex film. The thing, though, is that the “typical multiplex movie” spoils an audience (a mostly young audience) with its undemanding storytelling, accessible humour and chic MTV casting. When an ironic, surreal movie like “No Smoking” comes along, they (and the critics) don’t know what to make of it. New directions
Photo: Rajeev Bhatt Room for politics too: Sudhir Mishra, director of “Hazaaron”.
The small, different film from the last five years exemplifies the new direction contemporary Indian cinema has been taking, or can take. “Amu”, “Hazaaron” and “Black Friday” are crackerjack political dramas, “Life in a Metro”, “Mixed Doubles” and “Bheja Fry” are comedies about class, “Manorama Six Feet Under” is the kind of textured thriller you rarely spot in our cinema.
“No Smoking” takes us to places Hindi cinema hasn’t been before, while “Kalloori”, “Anjathey”, “Katradhu Tamil”, “Paruthiveeran”, “Arai En 305il Kadavul” and “Subramaniapuram” are entertaining, artistic, modestly-scaled Tamil movies that continue to challenge the big Kollywood blockbusters at the box office.
“Mixed Doubles”, for me, is the perfect multiplex movie. I think it’s the smartest independent Indian movie made so far. It holds up to several viewings. Smartly crafted, deftly paced, and convincingly acted, “Mixed Doubles” offers intelligent entertainment. Two other filmmakers, both at opposite ends of the new independent spectrum, seem to now be unerringly in touch with a new and eager audience: Madhur Bhandarkar and Vishal Bharadwaj. They are successful in a way Rituparno Ghosh never could be. (What is it about Ghosh’s films that left an audience unmoved? I can never tell if his studied pace is the elegant meditativeness of Ray or simply the sluggish artiness of our parallel cinema).
Speaking to The Times of India in 2007, Bhandarkar said, “If I had made ‘Page 3’, ‘Corporate’ or ‘Traffic Signal’ 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have enjoyed the success they have. Exhibitors would not have been keen to run my films in a 1000-seat theatre.” In the same TOI interview, the producer of “Khosla Ka Ghosla” notes, “It’s because we have multiplexes that distributors are ready to take a risk with small, different films like ours.” Being different pays
Photo: H. Satish In touch with changing tastes: Vishal Bharadwaj, director of “Omkara”.
In the end, the success of these films is not really because of the multiplex but because they are offering an audience tired of Bollywood and Kollywood, movies that go beyond the formulaic, beyond teen romances. These independent or new wave of Indian cinema (of course, what I mean by independent Indian cinema is not independently financed as much as corporately financed — Pritish Nandy Communications and UTV being the most prolific examples) seems to be able to fuse the energy and entertainment of a commercial film — without its formulaic excesses — with the complexity and sensitivity of an art film — minus the sombreness and sluggish pacing.
It’s the triumph of the multiplex that it is inclusive enough, with its 12 screen marquee, to embrace blockbusters, independents, crossover, Diaspora and Hinglish cinema. “Hazaaron” was mostly a word of mouth success, but I’ve actually seen how the multiplex brings an audience to an unknown, star-less new release. You’re in the queue for a blockbuster, the show turns houseful, and you quickly consult the marquee and take a chance on an independent movie. In some ways those Ram Gopal Varma produced genre movies (“Bhoot”, “Darna Mana Hai”) got the multiplex movie going. They demonstrated that a song-less, romance-less movie could still seduce an audience.
Yet, what the multiplex makes up for in desi cinema and variety, it takes away from foreign cinema. Did you notice how all the English movies that play in these multiplexes now are only Hollywood? And the drama as a genre is mostly missing — what plays now is only action, romance, comedy, and horror. Occasionally there’s a Michael Clayton (though only after a few Oscar nods). I mean, here’s a chance for all of us to see the latest European and Asian movies creating so much buzz around the rest of the world. “Tell No One” is currently the hottest thriller (Hitchcockian is what critics are calling it) playing in the U.S. and U.K. It’s origin? French. Forget European, there’s so much exciting independent cinema coming out of America and Britain, that our multiplexes can show. “Frozen River”, “Redbelt”, “Elegy”, “Brideshead Revisited”, and “Vicky Christina Barcelona”.
I’m not being merely nostalgic when I recall the astonishing range of movies pre-multiplex, single screen talkie theatres showed pre 2000. A cosy little theatre called Blu Diamond in Bangalore (no more now) was the closest thing the city had to an art house theatre. It was partly by default — small, intense movies that other theatres didn’t have space for (the blockbusters took it all up) would be shown here. I’m sure every Indian city had one or two movie houses like this one that had to be razed down for a multiplex.
The closing of all those grand old single screen talkies marked the end of a certain kind of movie-going culture in India that existed up to the 90s. Going to a movie was a thrilling, singular experience then. Those were the days when you had to stand in a long queue to get a ticket. You came an hour and half before the show. Standing in the queue, you came across regulars. That was what was so cool about the whole thing: you stood there talking to a total stranger about a movie that both of you saw the last time you were here. Catering to an urban audience
Rooted and entertaining: From “Paruthiveeran”.
The multiplex movie is characterised by style, personal filmmaking, a shorter running time, and urban themes — looking at sex, adultery, relationships, work pressure, crime and everything else that contemporary living throws up. This leaning towards an urban upper class audience means eschewing a rural, small town audience. South Indian cinema, however, is still rooted in a small town milieu.
It makes entertaining, meaningful films for a more rooted audience. Movies that reflect their reality and interpret that world in an entertaining, intelligent and smart way — and not with the dreary, bleak realism of some of our well meaning but artless art cinema. The characters here are rooted in family, culture and tradition but are forced to break with everything because of their personal choices — usually love or ambition.
Plenty of hope
But how exactly did this new cinema evolve? It’s very likely that its new young audience, now exposed to better cinema from around the world, began to tire of the more formulaic, fantasy-driven films. And that the young filmmakers (of these movies) themselves now desired to tell new stories in new ways. There’s a lot of mediocrity and trash here, but there’s hope too.
The small, different film — the multiplex film — is important not just for reasons of entertainment but also because it is doing something Bollywood and Kollywood, lost in a fantasy, didn’t or couldn’t do these many years: to finally tell our stories, the stories that need to be told, stories that are more personal, and to mirror and interpret our lives in the way only good cinema can.