Mofussil India Sizzles
Are these films really the new cinema, worthy of the hype and celebration and the new directors really the new stars and trail-blazers offering pulsating, exciting, no-holds-barred, creative chutzpah that separates the real from the fluff?
Boy, times, they-sure-are-a-changin’.
Who could imagine that movies like Dabangg, Ishqiya, Gulaal, Paan Singh Tomar, Oye Lucky, Ishaqzaade, Shanghai and Gangs of Wasseypur would not only see the light of day, but become box office hits and garner the appeal of the snooty metro gentry? Also, who would have thought that small-town folks from such unlikely places as Faizabad, Gorakhpur, Allahabad, Patna, Jamshedpur and Hazaribagh might wield the megaphone and direct projects that resonated across the country?
So, wassup guys? Is commercial Hindi energetically powering yet another new wave, unleashing a plethora of alternative narratives, more real, stark and biting, a universe away from the chiffon-champagne, song-dance tamashas of the Yash Chopra-Karan Johar brand? More importantly, as these films make their presence felt in no uncertain terms and directors seal their stamp of excellence with a vision and style that combines knowledge, passion and purpose with a definite and courageous intent to push the envelope, will this new cinema attract the money? More simply, will Shanghai, which premiered at the recently concluded International Indian Film Academy Awards in Singapore and Gangs of Wasseypur, which made big waves at Cannes and later in India, attracting huge attention made it big at the box office, fire up small-budget, non-formulaic, gritty, realism-based movies? Or are these just flashes in the pan, like Aamir, A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan and Welcome to Sajjanpur in 2008-2009?
Let’s get real. Movies on small towns and village life with a rustic flavor have been produced by Bollywood and don’t belong to Ripleyland. Right from Mehboob Khan’s classic, Oscar-nominated Mother India, to Nitin Bose’s Ganga Jamuna to Raj Kapoor’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai to that exquisite gem, Teesri Kasam, Bollywood has been around the block. Mainstream Bollywood in its typical, convoluted way, did throw up the Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, Ganwar, Bandhan, Gora Aur Kala, Dushmans & Melas, with the likes of Gulzar pitching in with Namkeen, Angoor, Khushboo, Kinara and Mere Apne. However, the difference between them, then and now is perspective, focus and perception.
In the earlier movies, the small town exemplified a peaceful, uncomplicated and innocent way of life, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble, strife-ridden, corruption-driven and stress-led lives. Bhaichara ruled and the milk of human kindness manifested itself in full-flowing secular solidarity, across the board. These were, in short, branch offices of Jannat (the real thing, not the Mahesh Bhatt version).
As critic Parul Khanna Tewari points out, “These new films may be set in the hinterland, but have nothing to do with the old stereotype that graced Bollywood movies of yore. No bellies in short, ghera skirt; no tales of famine or poverty and definitely no dancing on crushed glass in front of historical baddies! Here the locations are real, the plots believable, the details authentic.”
Adds critic Anupama Chopra, “We are tired of living our cinematic dreams abroad. That concept is over and out.” The fact the this new focus can resonate with the public was first proved in 2008 when director Shyam Benegal made his Welcome to Sajjanpur, Benegal’s biggest grosser till date, says senior creative director at Disney’s UTV studio, Rucha Pathak.
Four years later the same company released Pan Singh Tomar with apprehension. A slow starter, it soon picked up by word of mouth and a supportive press and was declared a sleeper hit. Pathak insists that authenticity in this genre is critical to people of this target group. Most of the revenue comes from the big cities where migrants have exploded in large numbers. They are the real viewers. Chopra adds, thanks to the Rs 100 crore club, film makers now are anxious to appeal to both the guy in Dhanbad and Delhi. Hence mainstream cinema smartly uses racy dialogue, unthinkable a decade ago (tumhara pyaar pyaar hai; mera pyaar sex!) and risque lyrics (keh ke lunga) and the audience laps them up. The authenticity angle is also manifest in the locales selected (ravines in Chambal for Pan Singh Tomar; haveli in Gujarat for Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster; Wasseypur and Benaras for Gangs of Wasseypur) as well as the clothes and makeup offering viewers a real, raw and authentic experience.
This new breed, also unapologetically remain determined to take the road less travelled. Led by the daring, iconoclastic, trend-smashing Anurag Kashyap, this talented and courageous bunch remain committed to exploding myths in their own cathartic way. First, by staying away from Bollywood’s staple template (big stars, exotic foreign locales, sexy songs and glam, glitzy item numbers). Next, by standing the earlier, much-loved-and-nurtured virginal image of the small town on its head. Placing them as focal center-pieces of their movies, these directors have attempted to smash the old idyllic version and bring a horrific, menacing, gritty update of the real goings-on in this space. Crime, lawlessness, caste-wars, mafia-wars, cross-generational conflicts, inequity, exploitation, rampant corruption — these spine-chilling narratives are a far cry from our idea of the cute, sweet, small towns we’ve known, seen and loved from earlier movies, dramatically turning Jannat to Jahannum!
Media commentators and social scientists, however, invite the horrified, traumatized, shocked, bewildered and disillusioned sections of the audience to chill, pull back and get real. The past is history. Rapid urbanization has led to a massive exodus from these small towns to cities, looking for opportunities to live the good life. Also, hardly any recent film — post 1991 — has seriously attempted to focus on this story, as they were fixated on the dizzying impact of the new consumerism that swept the land. Result? While the smug, tunnel-viewed metro-creature had little knowledge (and even lesser interest) of the other India, the small town guys, thanks to satellite TV and consumerism, were waking up to deliciously savor and sample all the ills of this boom, with aspirational values and greed heading the list.
Like a hand-grenade, all set to explode, this wild, smart and courageous bunch of directors entered the scene with all cylinders firing. Sharp and savvy, they set about identifying and targeting the Achilles’ heel of the audience before zooming in. This, they discovered, in Mofussil (small town) India. Ready-made stories culled from blazing news headlines, observations, first-hand experience and imagination offering lusty, moving, stark, violent and dramatic narratives, raw and rooted, a zillion miles from the synthetic NRI products, done-to-death, cosmetic underworld capers or multi-starrer toilet humor cornballs. Says behavorial scientist Ruby Joshi: “To the metro/urban audience, this was cataclysmic, cathartic, a shocking (but voyeuristic) peep into a life of another India they knew little about. It was both horrific and fascinating, much like the fatal attraction that draws the city-slickers to religiously watch their weekly dose of Aamir Khan’s S.J.” Superbly packaged, skillfully crafted, brilliantly executed and magnificently pitched to an eager-to-consume audience for whom this entire terrain/theme/world is unknown, it is little wonder that these products — fleshed out by actors (not stars) of hi-voltage talent — are grabbing eyeballs, big time.
But are these films really the new cinema, worthy of the hype and celebration and the new directors really the new stars and trail-blazers offering pulsating, exciting, no-holds-barred, creative chutzpah that separates the real from the fluff?
Critics are not so sure. While these hard-hitting, daring, fearless leaps of faith certainly need to be applauded, encouraged, the over-the-top response from mainstream critics and city-slickers, they believe, seems wildly disproportionate to the orgasmic hoo-haa’s making the rounds. They feel it is symptomatic of the times we live in. In a I-me-myself driven world, where the metro creature is totally bonded with props that he can immediately relate to, consume with ease, comfort and convenience and derive pleasure from, these dark thunderbolts from the edge — a total antithesis of their version of entertainment — provide a fascinatingly crude and terrifying version of reality that somewhere offers, both perverse thrills and insight into a never-before-experienced experience. This instantly provokes huge hype and hoopla and anoints this genre as ground-breaking, landmark, milestone, among other breathless superlatives. Fact is, clever, smart, sharp, imaginative and creatively put together as they are, in actual fact they are high on hype and low on soul. Aping generously from the likes of Coppola, Tarantino and Scorsese, these gaali-filled, brutal, unembellished, raw themes, focusing on hard close-ups of life-with-warts-and-all in the badlands of small town, rattle the genteel sensibilities of city-slickers who don’t know how to react; but somewhere, deep down, the exterior and superficialities of both form and content grab them, resulting in … wow! For any perceptive viewer, however, there is less insight, more audience-friendly sound n’ fury.
If that is so, why are these films capturing popular imagination and earning big bucks? “Simple,” declares respected journalist and commentator Siddharth Bhatia: “Way beyond merely repackaging old clichés, it is about celebrating Mofussil India as the new cool and gamcha, as the new fashion statement.” So, while Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan can do their number in monster-budgeted blockbusters across exotic, foreign locales, like it or not, the newly-converted city-slicker has found a new, real, earthy, daring, violent and lusty lover that rocks — Bharat!