Death To Porn & Bloodshed

Indie films are back and this time around they not only have viewers, but are also the toast of the town. What gives?

ByAnuvab Pal
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I remember growing up in the 1980s where Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalini, Saeed Mirza, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and that ilk were rockstars in urban India. Their photographs were in the papers (always black and white), they wore cravats and smoked cigarettes and held forth on this or that, giving away an award here, lecturing on aesthetics there, shaking hands with an Italian auteur somewhere else. Generally urban, left-leaning, progressive artists. Sophisticated people, from corporates to politicos in safari suits, loved them. Their screenplays were essentially urban – infidelity, mid-life crisis, unfair wages and so on. Hipsters of their generation. How very European, very cool, one thought, at that impressionable age. Except, there was one difference, I hadn’t seen a single film they’d made.

Back then, the single-screen theatre that ruled mass taste was essentially populated by Amitabh or Vinod Khanna beating up someone. The stories went from retrieving stolen Indian submarines by foreign hands to mill-owning Capitalist villains who prey on the poor to the favourite – brothers separated at birth who choose different paths (crime versus law etc.). There were songs, dances, a woman wronged, a father killed, a revolving restaurant, disguises, a legless informer, a helicopter, disco, whisky – the works. The masses went insane in the dirty theatres. Anyone with a college education stayed at home and bad-mouthed them (while secretly enjoying the films).

The names I mentioned earlier, theirs’ were the other nuanced films, usually populated by Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Soumitra Chatterjee, Shabana Azmi, which found homes on television in the afternoon (thanks to the government) or an occasional screening here and there, the sort that consulates now have for their country’s film festivals. There were very few people in urban India who didn’t know who these auteur filmmakers were, (no one would ever say, in the 80s at least, Mrinal who?). But apart from opening nights of their movies, which would be media events, one waited for a special screening or a video cassette from a smuggler to participate in this Independent wave.

Not like today, when the Independent wave hits you in the face almost every Friday and the filmmaker’s release becomes the centre-piece of a national conversation.

I happened to be in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta on the weekends Vicky Donor and Shanghai released (No, I’m not a flight attendant, though sometimes it feels like it), and observed no matter what the middle class and upper middle class demographic, whether one went to a Sindhi wedding or a jewellers convention or an ICICI middle-managers offsite or a dinner with friends, the question was the same, “Have you seen…?”

There exists a lot of writing today in India that says film has changed essentially because we have nicer places, plush seats, civil auditoriums free of a semi-pornographic vibe and that’s driving the storytelling. The multiplex has changed Indian cinema. While essentially that might have propelled it, i.e. cleverer urban filmmakers said, Oh nicer halls therefore educated people will come in, the driver of the multi-crore hit at the multiplex is still the same underlying story – someone beating up someone. Earlier it was Amitabh and Vinod Khanna, now it’s Salman Khan, Ajay Devgan, Akshay Kumar.

“Pornography and bloodshed”, was Jack Warner’s response in 1959 when, as founder of Warner Brothers, he was asked what people liked to watch.

Our film media, which is quite clever and very diligently supports good cinema, as it should, has a nobler hope. That fundamentally people change. That somehow everyone becomes educated and sophisticated and understands there’s a world beyond the obvious black-and-white while watching stuff. The hope is commendable, the reality sadly, anywhere, whether us or Hollywood, is that people in general still go by Jack Warner’s quote. Shirtless men thrashing bad men and semi-naked women seducing them are still essentially what millions like to watch (Liam Neeson’s Taken or Jason Statham’s Transporter movies make about two hundred times an average Oscar nominee).

What relief do the new wave directors of today, or those that are considered such, people like Soojit Sarcar, Sujoy Ghosh, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Ashim Ahluwalia, (I’m sure there are many more names others know) take from this? If all that’s demanded is constant implausible sex and violence, then why intelligently share their extra knowledge of the human condition?

That of access. Unlike Ray or Sen, in today’s alternative cinema, the films themselves, exist everywhere. The taste may be alternative, the box office numbers fewer, but the channels of distribution are as extensive, if not more. They share the same hoardings, TV and newspaper ad space, DVD shelf at shops. They are sold to the same channels and now, thanks to Silicon Valley, live permanently, in some shape, online. This constant sea of alternative cinema that exists in the ether, as a Torrent zipped and emailed from Delhi to a cousin in Seattle, as a You-tube uploaded illegally by some IIT wiz, as a movie file burnt to a disc, moved from hard drive in Gurgaon to a pen drive going to London, have created a revolution much bigger than the multiplex one. It has allowed this cinema to enter and capture the urban Indian conversation, a fact no box office number can trace.

We’ve got a billion-and-a-half people living here and scattered around the world, over half of whom are educated, young and they’ll watch what they identify with, often illegally, or by some new technology. And what they want to watch may not be Akshay Kumar throwing a jeep at someone. As despondent as some of our great young filmmakers may feel that their movie is not a box office smash, they can take solace from the fact that they are reaching more people than at any other time in the history of our cinema, and they have a world full of Indians talking about their movie, not to mention a world full of critics loving them. Maybe that’s not a financial victory, but its good enough.

Image: [Swarnabha Banerjee]

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