Friday, January 22, 2010

Izz aal well? Some thoughts on mainstream Hindi cinema

[Okay, I know I already did this post about 3 Idiots, but here’s a somewhat related piece I wrote for Business Standard recently. Was moderately satisfied with it given the 1,000-word space and the very short deadline, but I do think the subject deserves to be discussed at much greater length, and with many more examples from contemporary Hindi cinema]

“So what IS 3 Idiots, really?” asks a friend, “Is it mainly a ‘fun film’ or an ‘issue film’?”

Now, of course there doesn’t have to be a cut-and-dried answer to this question. But the intriguing thing is that you might easily get two different replies from a single fan, depending on the context of the discussion. There are those who endorse the film because of its social consciousness (about the flawed educational system and the unfair expectations many parents have of their children) but who do a quick 180-degree turn when you try to move beyond a very basic level of engagement. Why is teacher’s pet Chatura repeatedly mocked (not just by the three leads but by the film itself) when he’s as much a victim of the System as anyone else? Why does the film set up a pat climax showing that the Aamir Khan character has become more successful than Chatura (who is pretty darn successful in his own right anyway), when the supposed “message” all along was that you should do what you love doing?

“It’s just a fun film,” say the fans when you raise these questions, “Don’t analyse it so much!”

None of this is to say that 3 Idiots is a deeply flawed movie. The reason we can have impassioned discussions about its shortcomings is because it gets many things right in the first place. But the way in which it goes somewhat awry post-intermission tells us something about the conflicting forces currently at work in mainstream Hindi cinema. It tells us about an industry that has to tread carefully while making “issue” films, because one eye must always be on the needs of the mass audience.

This isn't meant to be a negative summary of things. The fact is, commercial Hindi cinema is in an important transition phase just now, one that any major movie-making industry can be expected to pass through. In the last few years we’ve seen improvements at many levels: the films are much more technically polished than before, scripts and characterisations are generally more nuanced, there are young directors and writers with serious talent as well as exposure to the best of international cinema, and the different components of a movie are better integrated. (Remember the Terrible Eighties, when nearly every film had a “parallel” comedy track that had little or nothing to do with the main characters, inserted at random intervals?)

In Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sriram Raghavan,
Dibakar Banerjee and Sanjay Leela Bhansali among others, we are arguably seeing the emergence of mainstream “auteurs” – the term used by French critics of the 1950s for directors who managed to stamp their personalities on their movies, even amidst the hurly-burly of the commercial filmmaking process. The best of Bollywood today can be compared with the Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s when directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Howard Hawks did much great work despite the many constraints of the studio system. Even the best of their films show traces of the compromises that had to be made: the back-stories include accounts of a director being forced at the last minute to incorporate a happy ending or to desist from turning the film’s leading man into a criminal.

So it is with our cinema, especially when it comes to attempts to make "issue-based" movies. On the one hand, there is a felt need to deal with problems that, in the real world, can’t be easily resolved or simply made to vanish (whether it’s a terminal disease corroding a human body or a malaise eating away at society). But on the other hand there’s the kowtowing to the viewer who goes to films expecting not internal consistency but a few enjoyable scenes strung together, ending with a heartwarming sense of affirmation, usually provided by the star who assures us that “aal izz well”.

And we all know how important the cult of the Star Personality is in India. An Aamir starrer (or a Shah Rukh or Salman starrer) will always carry a very particular set of expectations. When the leading man makes his first appearance, we’ll see him in silhouette, walking in slow-motion towards the camera (as we do in 3 Idiots), a mild halo effect supplied by a background light. He will be the one eavesdropping from behind a pillar and shaking his head sympathetically as a martinet professor berates a student for thinking outside the box. His will be the catharsis-providing voice that will whisper words of reprimand into the same professor’s ear after the student has committed suicide. He will get to spell out exactly what is wrong with teaching methods and exactly how they need to be amended.

The integrity of 3 Idiots suffers slightly from these in-your-face moments, but in fairness it’s still many rungs higher than our more tedious “social awareness” movies. Like Madhur Bhandarkar’s work, which deals with social ills by setting up polarities and placing an innocent Red Riding Hood figure (the Konkana Sesharma character in Page 3, Bipasha Basu in Corporate, Priyanka Chopra in Fashion) in a big bad world where she is in danger of losing her soul at every corner; she is saved just in time. In these films, nearly every person and situation is presented in black and white terms, and you rarely get a sense of the slow process by which well-meaning people can become part of an accepted system.

At an even lower level are movies like Ajay Devgan’s astonishingly confused directorial debut U, Me aur Hum, which started as a screwball comedy and then changed tack midway to become a shrill drama about Alzheimer’s, before staggering towards an unconvincing feel-good ending. In comparison, R Balki’s Paa - centered on a Progeria-afflicted child – was a much more engaging film, but that’s because the medical condition was essentially a pretext to cast the 67-year-old Amitabh Bachchan as the 13-year-old Auro; the real focus was a Parent Trap-like story about a child getting his estranged parents together. (When the film did deal with Progeria head-on, it changed its tone completely, trading in breeziness for forced solemnity.)

But the past couple of years have also seen some very promising developments. Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, an excellent portrait of class aspiration and the difficulties of moving up the social ladder, made sharp observations about the contradictions and hypocrisies in middle-class Indian life without once getting preachy. And Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, though a consistently enjoyable movie with many classic “inside Bollywood” moments, didn’t gloss over the heartbreak faced by millions of people who fail to make it in the film industry – or give us the comfort of an ending where the most likable and sympathetic character gets what she wants. These were deeply satisfying movies that knew how to integrate lightness of tone with seriousness of purpose, without falling apart in the process. So here's hoping that mainstream Hindi cinema grows enough in confidence to produce such films on a more regular basis.

[Some related posts from the archives: U, Me aur Hum, Luck by Chance, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!]

18 comments:

  1. I feel that there is, and has been for so many years, such little Hindi cinema that is worth watching, that anything which has even a glimpse of something ‘different’, something enjoyable is much welcomed.
    As long as it's not a completely black and white formula-driven portrayal like, for instance, the Bhandarkar films.. I am willing to forgive the occasional blips of reasoning in films like Chak De, 3 Idiots, the Munnabhais etc.

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  2. I dont understand why we as Indians have to be so patronizing to our cinema. Chak De, 3 Idiots, Kaminey are to a great extent genre exercises made good by high production values and the feeling of apna pan. But this reluctance to call them what they are is very disturbing. 3 Idiots was a compromise and its great "success" lies in its plot devices and shallowness.

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  3. Jai,

    After reading this and your last post don't you think it is time that we had our own Indian equivalent of Cahiers du cinéma. For a few months I was following passionforcinema but the quality of writing their varies from the really mediocre to the rare excellent piece. Also since there are so many authors with the huge volume of posts it becomes difficult to go through each one.

    I just finished reading a book on World Cinema history and I find directors like Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Kaul, MS Sathyu (apart from of course Ray and Guru Dutt of whom quite a lot has been written) about whom I can find precious little to read about.

    And reading a well written piece of movie analysis can have unexpected results with some pleasant outcomes. (Watching Chinatown (reading about which lead me to John Ford) after reading a piece on Manorama Six Feet Under made my day).

    I for one would be queuing up to buy/read a Cahiers du cinéma of Indian cinema.

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  4. Excellent Post jai!!!! This really summarizes mixed feeling I had after watching 3 Idiots.Its good movie, but its not great cinema from any benchmark!!!!

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  5. You are pathetic, increasing your internet popularity by writing such posts. Much like your buddy Mr. Rangan. You pretty much know what type of discussion will follow your post. Why write this then?

    Besides, I pity the Hindi speaking gent who does not like 3 Idiots. He should be a lonely person. Most people who watch films of more than two languages know 3 Idiots is shit. Why write about it?

    You are just a mainstream guy who pretends to watch non-Hindi movies.

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  6. Am very confused by the point Anon #2 is trying to make up there. Anyone willing to shed light?

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  7. Nice piece, Jai but I take objection to the line: "The integrity of 3 Idiots suffers slightly from these in-your-face moments"

    Suffers slightly? They completely ruined the movie for me. It would have been okay if such in-your-face moments had been a few but I would argue that more than 3/4ths of the movie is precisely such moments: (a) Aamir Khan telling people he likes how they ought to live their lives, or (b) Aamir Khan telling people he doesn't like how they ought to live their lives. (Oops, did I say Aamir Khan? I meant his character Rancho. But who am I kidding?) This gets a little wearying after a while since: (a) his intellectual adversaries are either bumbling or wicked or both. (b) His friends are either bumbling or helpless or both. Except for the touching scene between Madhavan's character and his father at the very end, I can't even think of any other scene in the movie that even makes any attempt to establish the other characters as humans. For most of its running time, 3 Idiots uses its other characters as props that Rancho can use to tell us, the audience, some way to live our lives.

    And I want to take issue with the "social message" of the movie too. What exactly is the movie trying to say? That education should a matter of nurturing creativity and not punishing exams? Fine -- but this message applies more to primary and secondary school education. When it comes to college and engineering school i.e. with mature students, this doesn't really fly. I've taken undergraduate classes in both India and the US, and I can report that classes in the US are equally punishing when it comes to assignments and exams. They have to be! At this level, and especially in the study of science and engineering, this is sometimes the only way to teach things, the only way to nurture creativity. The difference between the systems, at least as I see it, relates to choice. American undergraduate schools offer students a wide range of courses to choose from so one can at least sweeten the pill by having to work hard at something one actually likes. But once you've chosen a course, it's a punishment just the same. In an engineering school in India, it seems even more of a punishment because the course itself is something you wouldn't have chosen in the first place (I can count on the fingers of one hand the subjects I actually enjoyed studying in college).

    I understand that a commercial Hindi movie can't be expected to go into the nuances of engineering college. But since the movie's "social message" would have been appropriate if its student characters were twelve years old rather than eighteen and on the verge of adulthood, the whole movie became quickly unbearable.

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  8. Nice post. However, I thought you're being rather charitable towards the "best of Bollywood" by drawing the contrast with the Old Hollywood auteurs.

    Yes. Compromises do exist in the works of the American directors you mentioned. But those were invariably very minor compromises, generally in their lesser films. Like for instance Cary Grant being rendered innocent in Suspicion. Or John Ford having to accomodate an old Irish drunk in each of his films.

    Despite the pressures of the studio moguls, those directors did some extremely personal projects, some of which were even bereft of any elaborate plot. Eg: Ford's Wagon Master, Hitchcock's Trouble with Harry.

    The Aamir Khan starrers in contrast (esp. TZP, 3 idiots) are bereft of nuances from the start to the finish, with just about every scene seemingly co-authored by the producer to elicit cheap chuckles.
    Eg: Since when did a grown-up "topper" in a premier college use the word "chamatkar" a dozen times in a 2 minute speech.

    And yeah, I found the typecasting of urban poverty as "1950ish" downright offensive and in bad taste. But I suppose the audiences are desensitised enough not to mind it. After all, the issue of "rote-learning" is a more pressing national problem than the hand-to-mouth existence of millions.

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  10. our grandparents lived in bleak era, but never once did they say that the films they were seeing had any message. they were merely commentaries of the times. "do bhiga zameen", "mother india", "do ankhen barah haath", "patita" were inspirational films but did not attract so much hype. since our films lack substance, we attribute so much significance to their trivial message (mostly they are a commentary about current fashion trends) so that we are justified in spending our time and money and the film industry can justify the obscene amounts of money spent in creating such frivolous enetertainment.

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  12. I am carrying forward the point made in the post on film lit.
    Hindi mainstream cinema has to be analyzed in terms of the fact that the real auteurs are the stars here, not the directors.I think a lot of anomalies will fall into place if we go ahead with this assumption.

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  13. @Scritic- agree with you completely. And, hello, it's high time we gave up compromising on our expectations when we go to see a movie, just because it's a Hindi/Bollywood movie. Movies are either good/bad, irrespective of whether they are Hollywood/Bollywood.
    Using a different set of standards for Bollywood 'mainstream' versus 'arthouse' is just an excuse for us to be told 'the masses want this'. Bullshit.

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  14. Great post, but I thought you ended abruptly. Was there more written just before the last paragraph, which you had to edit out?

    Please do write a longer post on the same topic, would love to hear your entire pov.

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  15. Hindi movies should never be made to suck up to western sensibilities, so balls to Dibakar and all these other America's arse lickers. Hindi movies should be for Hindi speaking masses, not them

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  16. @Jai

    Thoughtful. The only problem is that you announce some of those directors as auteurs. It's a big thing to say, and even for the casual film fan, a classification whose consequent responsibilities those filmmakers are just not ready to bear right now. Especially Bhardwaj, Raghavan and Bannerjee - who really have no distinctive style.

    @nightwatchmen

    Depends on how hard you've been looking really. If you are really looking for an Indian publication modelled on the great Cahiers Du Cinema model, you should check IndianAuteur.com out. They have been taking on Bollywood for sometime now. Much to some readers' chagrin, they like to flaunt that association too much sometimes(starting with the name)

    They are a bunch of film critics in their early 20s writing seriously on film, and having been a regular reader, I can safely claim quality content.

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  17. Also, to the poster who misread Suspicion's ending, if you see the closing shot of the film, where Grant and Fontaine walk off - just before Fontaine turns her back onto us, you can read the reluctance to go along with Grant all over her face. Hitchcock never quite makes it clear if her doubts had any basis in truth or not - or whether they will be vindicated in the near future, because just as Rebecca - it is his parable of the nature of marriage (thus, Fontaine in both the films) - where newly weds often enter their new marriages in great uncertainty and doubt. There can never be a satisfying ending to such a film.

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  18. Lovely read! I agree very much and this post really echoes my own thoughts. Hindi cinema is fighting twice the battles Hollywood is fighting, and I love the way you've phrased it (about keeping an eye on the masses). :)

    I love Aamir Khan for doing these message movies - while some argue Aamir Khan just sells dreams, I think Bollywood is a fantasti medium to educate and raise awareness. I am looking forward to Peepli Live and apparently he is doing an AIDS awareness movie with Priyadarshan - yay!

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