[A longer version of my column in the Sunday Business Standard]
“Every film you make is a shadow of the film you had wanted to make,” writer-director Kundan Shah told me during a recent conversation, pointing out that the movie-making process is so full of compromises that the final product might – for better or for worse – have little to do with the original vision; that a scene raised to iconic status by the movie’s eventual viewers might have slipped in accidentally, or been the subject of severe dissatisfaction during the actual shooting.
I thought of Shah’s remark about compromises while watching Bonga, the 22-minute “diploma film” he made at the end of his three-year stint at the Film and Television Institute of India in 1976. Like many of the other FTII diploma films (Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Murder at Monkey Hill and Sriram Raghavan’s The Eight-Column Affair among them), Bonga is now available on DVD – on a collection titled “Master Strokes”, or, alternatively, in the “Indie Corner” section of Palador’s World Cinema titles. Giving this manic little movie a cohesive summary is very difficult, so here instead are disjointed nuggets of information. It’s a tribute to the silent-screen comedies of Keaton and Chaplin as well as the American gangster film, with a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Bande à part.** It has no dialogue but is driven by a lovely, whimsical music score by B Chandravarkar, a perfect complement to outstanding performances of pantomime and physical comedy by a cast that includes a clean-shaven, surprisingly fleet-footed Satish Shah and an almost-slim Rakesh Bedi (nearly a decade before they appeared together in the well-loved TV comedy Yeh jo Hai Zindagi, also directed by Kundan Shah). There are tiny roles for the young Suresh Oberoi (hilarious as a bank teller) and Om Puri, who were students at the FTII at the time. The story, such as it is, involves five people attempting a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are almost irrelevant; what matters is the film’s rhythm and exuberance, which has to be experienced firsthand.
Naturally, such movies provide a template for what is to come. Bonga was made seven years before Shah’s most famous film Jaane bhi do Yaaro, and in the period between the two movies he did very little film work (in fact, he spent a couple of years after FTII working as a typist in England), but there’s a strong connection between them – the use of slapstick and absurdity to heighten the reality of a situation; goofiness interspersed with moments of stark emotional truth; scenes that play like a visual representation of the most inspired nonsense verse.
So too for Sriram Raghavan and The Eight-Column Affair. Twenty years before he made the brilliant heist film Johnny Gaddaar, Raghavan showed his visual inventiveness with this short film about a romance set within a newspaper’s pages: a marathon runner featured on the front page falls in love with a pretty tennis star on the last page, which means that he has to travel through the length of the paper to meet her before midnight strikes and it’s time for the next edition. Along the way, he must negotiate the obituaries section, the matrimonials, the crime pages and the crossword; he nearly gets run over by a motorbike in an advertisement for tyres.
What's notable about these early movies is that they are carry very little baggage. They were made collaboratively by young students who loved films and who had enormous fun pushing the limits of their creativity, throwing ideas at each other, improvising and multi-tasking. ("Even when we had to make a two-minute silent film, we would throw ourselves into it as if it was going to be the last film of our lives," Shah told me.) No squabbling with producers about financing; no ego hassles involving big stars; no fretting about whether this or that scene will be accepted by the mass audience. Poorly preserved as they are, these diploma films are valuable relics – they have much to tell us not just about the roots and early struggles of many of today’s leading filmmakers but also about the idealism of youth; about a stage in an artist’s development when it was possible to work purely on creative adrenaline without being trammeled by other considerations.
[You can watch Bonga online here, though the sound is behind by around 3-4 seconds and this makes a difference because the music is perfectly in tune with the slapstick]
** One of the actors, Chand Gupta, strongly resembles Jean-Paul Belmondo from certain angles. Also, Shah tells me he never saw Bande à part in its entirety but was very taken by the little dance scene in the café – a scene that, incidentally, also inspired Quentin Tarantino when he wrote the dance between Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.