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Why doesn't Bollywood make good films these days?

Prem Panicker | August 23, 2003 05:00 IST

Same difference!


I knew that anyone writing on cricket tends to draw a response. I didn't realise though that people felt so strongly about movies.

Now here's the trick I got to crack -- just going through the responses is enough to take half a day; answering them is going to take the other half. Not complaining -- it is way more fun reading all these thoughts than doing the work I am getting paid to do.

What I need to figure out is what excuse to give the boss for not having done my work. You college guys and girls out there, got any suggestions? What do you come up with to explain why you didn't do your homework? 'Dog tore it to shreds' used to work in my time, but that dog is pretty long in the tooth by now; he clearly won't cut it any more. Help?

Seriously, though, thanks for the thoughts. Have, below, given a selection, there is more coming over the next few days.

Meanwhile, on the subject of why Bollywood doesn't make good films these days, I was thinking of what a couple of movie types had told me, at different times.

One had this theory. He said, if it is Kerala, for instance, there are differences as you go across the state, but there is much in common.

Buttressing this argument, he pointed out that if in a movie you used the image of a group of chenda drummers playing in front of a temple, it would resonate with audiences throughout the state, it would give them a visual hook and a sense of milieu, because no matter where in Kerala you are from, that is a very familiar sight.

In other words, in states like Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, and Andhra, and Karnataka, and Orissa, and so on, there is -- for all the differences -- a certain homogeneity of culture and experience. Films that are rooted in such cultural sensibilities, this gent pointed out, would work, because audience identification is instant.

Against that, take the audience of Hindi films. Who precisely is your audience? The Hindi speaker in Mumbai is different from his fellows in Bihar and UP and MP and Delhi; there are no real cultural hooks that are common to the pan-Hindi-belt audience; no shared milieus, and therefore, he argued, it is difficult to find commonality of themes and thus appeal to the whole of your audience.

That is theory #1.

Theory #2 runs like this: In earlier days, you had film-makers -- V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Shakti Samanta, Kamal Amrohi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya through to the Prakash Mehras and Manmohan Desais... -- who came from different points of the compass. They brought with them different, individual back stories that shaped the kind of people they were; shaped, too, their artistic sensibilities.

These different sensibilities infused the films they made. Thus, while there may be commonalities in all the films, say, Basu Bhattacharya made, they would be different from what Raj Kapoor was doing, or Hrishikesh Mukherjee was doing, or whoever else was doing.

You therefore had a variety of themes, styles, film-types; individual directors made stories that may be similar in overall theme or treatment to their earlier works, but which were different to what their contemporaries were making.

Against that, today's directors all come from the high-rises of Bombay; they share, to a greater than lesser degree, one cultural backdrop; their sensibilities are shaped by the Bombay milieu they grew up in; their thoughts, therefore, do not fly beyond Bombay, with its weird mix of glitz and dross. The films they make are shaped by this sensibility -- underworld dons, crooked politicians, five-star hotels, dance bars...

The argument is that the directors have all the individuality of desiccated coconut; that, therefore, the flavour is missing from what they dish up.

To these two theories -- both advanced by prominent Southern film-makers -- I'd want to add one more. Theoretically, the story should be king, but in Bollywood, the star -- the male star, in fact -- rules.

For a story to be believable, the character has to be believable; for that to happen, the star has to forget about his 'image' and be whatever the character requires him to be. Instead, characters are diluted because the star leading the cast thinks doing this or that or the other will go contrary to his image.

Take the  most recent example of how this can do harm: Tere Naam. Some three years ago, this young Tamil director from a remote village, Bala, burst on the scene with a film called Sethu. It had a strong central character, a tough who falls in love, and in one life-changing moment, is reduced to a shell of what he used to be.

Bala cast a then unknown Vikram in the role. For the second half of the film, he had Vikram starve himself till he was reduced to skin and bones; he made the star bake in the sun for two, three days till he was burnt blackish brown; he shaved off the leading man's head... he, in short, transformed Vikram from a strapping young man into an emaciated wreck. You really had to strain to recall that the man chained to that wall, in the middle of all those lunatics, was the same guy who was so larger than life in the first half of the film (another great example of an actor becoming the role -- one of dozens, but this one has stayed with me from my childhood days -- is Satyan, the Malayalam actor, in Odayilninnu).

In the Hindi remake of the same film (we won't for now go into the glitzy backdrop, palatial home, and all the rest of the gloss the Hindi version has, which detracts from the central story), Salman is believable as long as he is the tough guy who falls for a simple girl.

Come the second half, though, he is difficult to swallow as the man housed in the lunatic asylum. He looks so sleek and well-built and muscular, it just doesn't gel. And he can't shave off his hair -- eeks, what will his female fans think? -- so there is that weird business with a Marine-style haircut and sandal paste.

Net result: you look at the screen, and you see Salman Khan; not the character he is supposed to be playing. You look at the screen and you don't see an Emperor Ashoka. You see Shah Rukh playing dress-up. How the heck are you to buy into a story, when you can't buy into the central character?

But that is enough from me. From readers all over, there is this flood of thoughts and opinions and insight that made fascinating reading, so I'll take five, and let you guys talk to each other.

Here goes:


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