Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Saved by the screen - thoughts on Filmistaan

Nitin Kakkar's Filmistaan has many platitudes about Indians and Pakistanis being essentially one people with a shared culture, a shared passion for cricket – and for Hindi cinema, which ordinary people in Pakistan watch with enthusiasm even as religious leaders and militants warn them against its corrupting effects. When Sunny (Sharib Hashmi), an aspiring actor, assistant director and incorrigible movie buff, is kidnapped by terrorists near the border (they were after the American members of his film crew) and awakens to learn he is now in the Pakistani wilderness, he can’t tell the difference – everything looks the same, people have similar faces, speak the same language. In a moving scene that follows shortly after, he hears a folk song sung to the tune of “Yaara Seeli Seeli” and joins in by warbling the lyrics as he knows them – it brings him comfort, as do the nighttime DVD screenings of films such as Maine Pyaar Kiya. Like a benshi providing vocal accompaniment to a silent film (or a “chalta-phirta Bombay Talkie”), Sunny gets to speak Salman Khan’s lines for the wide-eyed audience when the soundtrack on the pirated DVD goes dead.

Even if you can relate to Sunny’s obsession, you might feel ambivalent about him: as film dialogues trip off his tongue in almost any given situation, he can go from being likably funny to exasperating in the space of a few seconds. But by the time he has made friends with a young Pakistani named Aftab – a fellow film buff who wears colourful, flowery scarves, illegally peddles “seedi-yan” and decides to help Sunny escape his captors – the viewer’s sympathies are fixed.

And how can they not be? After all, we are in a hall ourselves, watching a film. And set against these two kindred spirits are the terrorists, who are suspicious – or outright contemptuous – of movies. “Kanjar!” they mutter at the wannabe actor (much like Prithviraj Kapoor’s disapproving father did nearly a hundred years ago, and look how that turned out). Using guns to terrify people and threaten their children is part of their way of life, but the other kind of shooting is an idea only the devil could have thought up, and the camera is a “manhoos cheez” for them. Though they are briefly seduced by it when Sunny goofily offers to help them make the film they want to send the Indian government, listing their demands.

Film chaahe chhoti ho, par dil se banaana chaahiye,” Sunny says as he prepares to shoot this video. Real life meets melodrama in these scenes, which are a little too cute (what with the refrain of “Roll. Rolling. Acting” spoken by the militants) – but perhaps this is part of the point. The divide between fantasy and hard reality is stressed in another scene at the film’s halfway mark: Sunny, fooling around with a rifle – putting on a show for the village kids by mimicking how Mithun Chakraborty and Ashok Kumar might fire a gun – doesn’t realise that his own life is in very real danger. But even this tense scene is followed by a shot of a hakim speaking what we might think of as filmi lines: you are lucky the bullet only grazed your shoulder, he tells Sunny, and then they bond over the hakim’s memories of Amritsar’s kulchas and Sunny’s memories of his dadaji’s love for pre-Partition Lahore and its kebabs.

In some ways then, Filmistaan is a trite film. Like another film about a man caught on the wrong side of the border, Ramchand Pakistani, it is a little too pat and feel-good in places. Characters show unexpected self-awareness in spelling out their own predicaments (as in a dialogue involving a man who grew up in a madrassa under a strict father's supervision and was made to do azaan five times a day without fail but wasn’t assured of two meals); there are stereotypes such as the grinning do-gooder, the hardened older militant and the more introspective younger one. But perhaps the way to look at this film is to see it in terms of wish-fulfilment rather than as a hard-edged depiction of the realities of the India-Pakistan situation. And in this view of things, it may be lack of imagination that handicaps the terrorists, and the power of imagination that allows Sunny and Aftab to get away.

Imprisoned in a room, like a movie star in a screen, Sunny acts out scenes for the children outside – he is upbeat despite knowing he may only have a few days left to live. But perhaps this is because he knows he is in a film himself and that he will be rescued by the magic of cinema; perhaps the universe will conspire to help him. And indeed something amusingly ironic happens in the climax: a character who is not at all interested in cinema – the older terrorist Mahmood (Kumud Mishra) – does something filmi, in the style of the James Bond villain stopping to talk instead of quickly eliminating his quarries, and this buys some time for the good guys. The filmi duniya does have a way of bringing unlikely people into its fold.

  Soon after, it seems like Sunny and Aftab will be separated through the Sholay Trope: one friend will send the other off to safety and sacrifice his own life. But that doesn’t happen, and no matter, for there are other cinematic possibilities available. (Mild spoiler alert) The actual ending of Filmistaan reminded me of the freeze-frame that closed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a scene that suggested cinema’s ability to keep hope alive – or, even if there is no hope, to spare us from seeing bad things happen to the characters we like. Whether Sunny and Aftab get away in the end is a much too literal question, almost beside the point. What matters is that this Indian and this Pakistani have made it together, hand in hand, to some mythical place where barbed wire doesn’t exist, where they can watch seedi-yan of the movies they love and perhaps even make a few themselves. Meanwhile, in the “real world” beyond their ken, life continues in a more complicated, less hopeful way.


  1. So, did you liked the movie?

    I didn't. I, for some reason, was not able to connect. Too steroetyped... in acting and direction. It seemed more like an amatuer attempt at making a movie.

    -- The 'Alco..... guy

    1. Like I indicated, I thought it was trite and a little stretched out in places. Also stereotyped. But I did like some of it.

  2. Is the director related to Prahlad Kakkar?

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