The recent dispute between producers and exhibitors (mainly multiplexes) that paralysed the Indian film industry particularly Bollywood triggered concern regarding the unfair split over revenues. Though the dispute lasted for just over three months with many of the Bollywood elite coming out to strongly show their support for producers, the strike perhaps underlines how the multiplexes unfair monopolisation is simply a precursor of things to come. As the number of screens continues to increase each year in India, I have a feeling this is merely the beginning of negotiations not the end. It will be very interesting to see what impact the performance of Hollywood films in this three month period will have on the overall domestic box office and indigenous films at the end of the year.
Currently UK cinemas are being assaulted by a back log of Bollywood tent pole productions which had been delayed by the strike. It has been somewhat of a miserable year in the UK for Bollywood films yet the consecutive release of three major ‘high concept’ films comprising of ‘Kambakkht Ishq’ (Unfortunate Love), ‘New York’ and ‘Love Aaj Kal’ (Love These Days) has kept alive the hopes of producers reclaiming lost ground. I haven’t seen any of these three films and I don’t intend to either as the trailers and music promos predictably blend into one another so that it becomes a full-size cinematic ‘Masala’ frenzy. The first to be released was a long awaited Yash Raj production titled ‘New York’, starring John Abraham and Katrina Kaif (both are models turned Bollywood fashion icons and celebrities). Unlike many of their recent productions, ‘New York’ has been directed by Kabir Khan who arguably made one of Yash Raj’s more politically engaged films, ‘Kabul Express’, also starring John Abraham. Though this film was favourably received by critics, it disappointingly sank without a trace at the box office.
‘New York’ is a film that deals with 9-11 and terrorism through the eyes of the Indian Diaspora but I cannot help feel that this is a film which is about four years too late. Had it been made in the Bush era then it might have had a chance of being better placed in terms of criticising the administration for their persecution of Muslims. However, ‘New York’ exceeded commercial expectations and is already being touted as one of the biggest hits of the year so far. It’s pretty obvious why though – the severe drought of Bollywood films brought on by the strike meant that audiences were collectively anticipating a Yash Raj production. Had ‘New York’ been released in another year and under different circumstances (without the cinematic drought) then I doubt it would have generated such box office. Additionally, the three main leads are in no way renowned for their acting prowess except for Irfan Khan who plays a minor role in the film.
Following on from ‘New York’, Eros International launched an expensive marketing campaign to promote the release of the new Akshay Kumar action comedy, ‘Kambakkht Ishq’, a film which was originally scheduled for release last December. It's a remake of a popular Tamil film which speaks volumes about the direction in which Bollywood cinema is currently headed. Even more derivative than ‘New York’, ‘Kambakkht Ishq’ follows in the vein of bawdy action comedy capers like ‘Welcome’ and ‘No Entry’. Primarily a star vehicle for Akshay Kumar, ‘Kambakkht Ishq’ attempted to differentiate itself from the melee of standard fare by placing added emphasis in the trailers on the star cameo from none other than Sylvester Stallone?! Another mind numbing escapist fantasy, ‘Kambakkht Ishq’ has predictably succeeded at the box office. Out of the three films, the bankability of a major star like Akshay Kumar certainly provided an additional box office guarantee for producer Sajid Nadiadwala who has collaborated with Akshay Kumar on a series of successful films.
The most recent major Bollywood film to be given a wide release has been ‘Love Aaj Kal’. Directed by newcomer Imtiaz Ali who scored a hit with ‘Jab We Met’ in 2008, this is your conventional ‘boy meets girl’ grand musical production which typically characterises much of Bollywood cinema today. Starring Saif Ali Khan (the son of Sharmila Tagore), who also acts as producer – the first film under his new banner, and featuring the current Bollywood it girl Deepika Padukone as the main love interest, ‘Love Aaj Kal’ seems cynically constructed in how it makes deliberate use of the all important Sikh/Punjabi element. Ever since films like ‘Gadar’ and more recently ‘Singh is King’ started performing exceptional business in Punjab, Bollywood producers have been quick to respond to the emergence of this apparently new audience by incorporating a much stronger Sikh element to many mainstream films.
A number of high profile studio films featuring Sikh characters are currently in production – to prove my point, the new film from director Shimit Amin (director of ‘Chak De India’) is titled ‘Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year’. Of course, the question remains whether Bollywood is simply exploiting this current trend for all things Sikh or genuinely responding to a demographic gap in the market? ‘Love Aaj Kal’ was pre sold to audiences through the buzz generated by the soundtrack for the film which was composed by the talented Pritam. I have had disconcerting feedback from friends saying that the film was instantly disposable (nothing new then) and that the song and dance sequences were by far the best aspect of the film. It’s not surprising to hear then that ‘Love Aaj Kal’, a cleverly packaged and superficially intriguing high concept film has had one of the strongest openings for a Bollywood film in the UK this year.
It would be far to easy to suggest that these three films offer a snapshot of what Bollywood cinema has to offer audiences today. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the films released each week – they all seem to be the same. Not only are they packaged in the same way including the requisite ‘item song’, they tend to offer the same perspective on life and also feature the same stars getting up to the same absurd antics. At times, it can be very painful being subjected to such mediocre mainstream cinema from Bollywood. I would argue that UTV Motion Pictures has gone the furthest to challenge this perception, offering audiences cinema that is resolutely mainstream yet characterised by a tremendous range of ideas, energy and new directors who are not afraid of subverting conventions and poking fun at tradition. Take a look at Anurag Kashyap's 'Dev D' if you don't believe me. The vast majority of choreographed song and dance sequences lack any sense of imagination or bear any relation to the narrative or thematic concerns of the film – in a way they have to exist outside the context of the film or else they cannot be used to promote the film. Unfortunately, they can only hope to offer audiences a temporary degree of amusement and titillation.
All this talk about monopolisation, conventional cinema and Akshay Kumar’s star status brings me to the catalogue of struggles that face small, independent Indian films when it comes to distribution and exhibition. The overflowing release schedule means that only a handful of Indian indie’s make it to the UK cinemas each year – most of them tend to go straight to DVD unless they happen to have attracted controversy or have a major star championing their cause. Released in March in India, ‘Barah Aana’ is the second film from Raja Menon and would easily fall into the art house category as it was made on a relatively low budget, features a credible ensemble cast, retains a social message and is devoid of any songs. I watched the film as an import – the IMDB entry for the film lists India as the sole territory in which the film has been released. I am assuming the film will not be given a UK release which is disappointing considering how it is a confidently well made and acted Indian art film – the running time is ninety minutes so this does not bode well for UK multiplexes who would have real problems trying to fit in some kind of justifiable intermission so that they could lure the NRI audience back to the refreshment stalls.
What drew me to ‘Barah Aana’ was the presence of Indian actor Nasseruddin Shah. A stalwart figure of Indian parallel cinema (alongside Smita Patel, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri) and one of the few actors who has succeeded in maintaining a notable career, alternating with great assurance between the standard Bollywood fare and more intimate and challenging so called art films. In Europe and America, Nasseruddin Shah is best known for his role as the neurotic and fickle patriarch in Mira Nair’s award winning ‘Monsoon Wedding’ – a film that was strategic in bringing him together with actor Vijay Raaz and director, Ranjat Kapoor. The three of them would go on to collaborate on a little seen comedy, ‘Raghu Romeo’, a dark satire on the Indian film industry which is reminiscent of Scorsese’s ‘King of Comedy’. Nasseruddin Shah acted as a producer on the film whilst Vijaz Raaz starred in the main lead. ‘Barah Aana’ seems to follow in the dark comedic footsteps of ‘Raghu Romeo’, focusing on the lives of a marginalised underclass – this is symbolised in the menial professions of the three characters at the centre of the narrative.
Shukla (Nasseruddin Shah) is a driver who spends his days chauffeuring the arrogant, middle class wife of a wealthy businessman – she in return constantly belittles him. Such is the daily humiliation that arises out of the stark class conflict, we see it further reinforced in the characters of Yadav (Vijay Raaz) and Aman (Arjun Mathar). Yadav is a Chowkidar (watchman) who stands guard at a gated block of apartments which are exclusively occupied by a middle class elite who treat those around them like Yaadav with disdain. Having migrated from his rural village to the seemingly endless opportunities that await him in the city of Mumbai, it is not by chance that Yadav ends up living in the slums and spending his nights intoxicated whilst cursing the unfairness of today’s society. Finally we have idealistic Aman, the youngest of the three, who works as a disinterested waiter at a trendy café where he falls in love with a European tourist, Kate (Violante Placido). Aman’s aim of wooing Kate is undermined by the persistency shown by Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who runs a general store in the slums in which he lives.
Shukla, Yadav and Aman eventually become embroiled in a kidnapping scam that brings great financial dividends but ultimately leads to their imprisonment. Shot on location in the slums of Dharavi, the film is supported by a really strong script and a set of affecting performances particularly from Vijay Raaz who manages to construct a likeable yet unreasonable character in Yadav – someone who sees the economic and class divide as an acceptable trigger for extorting money. Avoiding the route of angry political confrontation, Raja Menon succeeds in tackling pertinent ideological issues like the underclass and their dehumanisation through the impressive power of a subtle, understated comedy style. The light hearted tone of the film reminded me of the classic parallel cinema comedy, 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro' (1983), directed by Kundan Shah and also starring Nasseruddin Shah.
Whilst researching the write up for this post, I started to notice how very much like the parallel cinema movement in the 70s and 80s, Art cinema in India today also seems to be deeply interconnected especially when it comes to writers, cinematographers, actors and above all, directors. I guess the following is more of an observation of the interconnectedness of the new vanguard of Indian art house cinema and how a film like ‘Barah Aana’ interestingly enough flows from such pivotal figures like Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap.
The Interconnectedness of The New Vanguard of Indian Art Cinema.