Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Where's your courage, Bollywood?

“Have you seen Kahaani? Oh, you must watch it, it’s really good. Bollywood thrillers have really come of age”.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Kahaani. I thought the plot was gripping, the pace was tight, the acting was excellent. And yet, and yet. Something was missing. It lacked the watertightness that a really awesome spy thriller should have.

By now everyone who wanted to watch it would have done so, and for those who still haven’t been able to, I would hate to be the provider of spoilers, so I’m not going to get into the story here. But I will say there were a few gaping holes in the plot, which have been covered up, but so flimsily that they lead to more confusion. My question is: how come people think it’s so incredible? Because their yardstick is Bollywood. Kahaani is a great spy thriller by Bollywood standards, and that’s about it. And this is my big problem – the fact that we have lower standards for Bollywood.

When and why did this happen? According to my two-bit theory, it all began in the 1980s. We all know that the ’80s was the worst period in Bollywood – with gory, testosterone-filled violence, garish costumes, and regressive treatment of regressive stories. Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyaar Kiya tried to bring romance back on the scene, and succeeded to some extent. But then, in 1991, came two diametrically opposite films that released on the same day. Phool Aur Kaante was a true-blue masala potboiler involving gangsters and kidnapping, while Lamhe had a girl in love with a man who once loved her mother. No prizes for guessing which movie came out on top. Lamhe was a box-office disaster, because audiences couldn’t come to terms with its suggestion of incest (even though nothing had actually happened between the man and the mother). Phool Aur Kaante, meanwhile, went on to become a blockbuster, launching the industry’s new action hero, Ajay Devgan (yes, I know it’s now Devgn). This was the last nail in the coffin, and film-makers now seemed to have lost the courage to make truly unconventional films that challenged the audience. What followed was an era of easy, safe films with childishly simple, hastily contrived resolutions that stayed within the bounds of convention. Audiences went home happy and unchallenged.

What changed, and when? Some argue that Shah Rukh, with his unconventional looks and anti-hero beginnings in Bollywood, was the pioneer of change. Certainly, both Baazigar and Darr had audiences rooting for him instead of the actual good guy – something that Sunny Deol, the “hero” of Darr, has been unable to forgive Yash Chopra and Shah Rukh for, even to this day. Some argue that Dil Chahta Hai was the game-changer, while others say the same for Lagaan. I would argue that there is no one film that can be credited with a sea-change, because there has been no sea-change. Yet. All of these are still spoken of as aberrations, and while they have been instrumental in the story of Bollywood, and while we have come very, very far, we still have a long way to go. In the last decade, we’ve had some genuinely great movies. There was Chak De! India, which had one surly, snarling hero (SRK in one of his finest performances) and no lead heroine – in fact, in a pleasantly surprising move, the Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress for that year went to all the “Chak De girls”. We’ve had a Band Baaja Baaraat, in all its Janakpuri chhaap, which made no big deal of the fact that its protagonists shared a bed, and later had sex, with no mention of marriage. We’ve had a Taare Zameen Par, in which the big star makes his appearance only halfway through the movie. These are all departures from the norm, and were all hugely successful, both critically and commercially.

Does this not say something to our film-makers? That Indian audiences have grown up, that we’re hungry for good, content-driven films, whether it’s a hilarious spoof like Dabangg or Om Shanti Om, or a hard-hitting, gut-wrenching Paan Singh Tomar? Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu was widely applauded for NOT ending in happily-ever-after, because audiences knew it wouldn’t make sense. Even Lamhe has acquired the status of a classic now. But then we have a Vicky Donor, which, despite a truly great first half, meanders through a muddled second and ends by neatly tying everything up even though it took away from the overall impact of the film. When will film-makers recognize that we are ready to move beyond easy, safe, happy endings, and that they need to stop using us as an excuse for their lack of courage? We clearly have the talent in terms of acting, direction, and writing – be it Irrfan Khan, Jaideep Sahni, Habib Faisal, Shimit Amin, Maneesh Sharma, Aamir Khan, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and so many others. What is lacking is courage. Film-makers need to display courage in their craft, so regularly that it becomes the norm and not the aberration. Only then will we stop mistaking mediocre for good, and good for great. Only then will we stop saying a film is good “especially for Bollywood”.

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