True Crime Never Pays in Bollywood
Tons of unaccounted moolah traverses around the globe. Sex, sleaze, incest, greed, scandal with hi-flyers from hi-society making dazzling guest appearances.
The Sheena Bora murder mystery has Indians mesmerized. Murder as a public spectacle and spectator sport has seldom panned out this way, with the media freaking out. And why not? It has all the masala, and more, that goes into creating a lip-smacking tabloid khichdi: A sexy, ambitious woman with a mysterious past. A pretty daughter with an unknown back-story. A gruesome murder of the daughter by the mother for reasons, not yet clear. A hi-profile, media tycoon husband, seemingly dumb and deaf, blinded by love for wife and impervious to logic, reason and any accusation against Biwi No. 1.
Tons of unaccounted moolah traverses around the globe. Sex, sleaze, incest, greed, scandal with hi-flyers from hi-society making dazzling guest appearances. Finally, the sinking feeling — despite the media, societal trials and cops grilling — that much more is hidden than revealed.
Respected veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal says: “I think that this macabre event that has shades of a Greek tragedy is so extraordinary as a narrative and with such hi-profile dramatis personae involved, offering startling new twists and turns each day, that the sheer perversity of the whole event has cast a hypnotic spell over the public, taking on a life of its own, consequently hijacking everything else.
“Admittedly, the girl’s story is heart-breaking but the story of a mother carefully & successfully plotting to murder her own biological daughter is so bizarre, dramatic and compelling that it’s impossible to ignore it. Also, all said and done, even the most refined, educated, sophisticated & evolved among us does have a voyeuristic streak … its human … and succumbs to news, happenings or events that challenge this side of him or her.”
As the plot thickens, with new twists and turns each day, Bollywood, forever looking for sensational, red-hot subjects to cash in on, has been closely watching the proceedings. Film-maker Madhur Bhandarkar has confessed that this is a ready-made dish for consumption, but unfortunately, he has been pipped by the canny and gifted maverick Mahesh Bhatt.
The creator of Arth, Saransh, Murder and Jism frankly confesses that he is astounded by the startling similarities his story to be filmed, (Ab Raat Guzernewali Hai) has with the ongoing, macabre Sheena Bora case: “It’s truly amazing! Mine is a tale written much earlier, relating to crime of passion revolving around multiple partners and the flush of money.”
As we await the release of Bhatt’s film, we can’t but reflect on one simple puzzling thought: How come Bollywood, perennially looking for interesting and sensational subjects, has never ever managed to successfully convert, adapt or transcreate any of the several headine-grabbing real life (dance-of-death) crimes over the last decade, to a convincing film?
Film Critic Partho Chatterjee thinks the reason is a no brainer: “To begin with, I don’t think there is a single Bollywood film-maker with the ability to transfer reportage into a compelling viewer experience. It has to do, possibly, with their training that has taught them to ensure that all their bases be securely covered and not ever overlook the critical entertainment angle. After all, movie-making is an expensive business and so is a trip to the multiplex theatres. Audiences too are not crazy about seeing gore and blood, preferring light, romantic or action stuff with a touch of comedy –—like Welcome Back.”
Producer Mukesh Bhatt agrees: “Yaar, life today is a struggle for survival. Movies are the only escapist routes. Offering terrifying stories of crime and punishment will hardly provide them the paisa vasool bliss they are looking for!”
Gautam Chintamani, author of Rajesh Khanna’s finest bio, The Dark Star, says: “Bollywood has this weird self-driven, hysterical and totally uncalled for obsession of inserting their version of value-addition into a perfectly decent & complete narrative. When you have a ready-made story and sequence of events with all the drama in the world in place, crying out to be made into a film, your task is to simply, professionally and intelligently transfer the narrative from page to screen in an engaging audience-friendly manner. Why meddle with it, introduce distracting and irrelevant stuff that dilutes the intrinsic power of the story? It confuses and pisses off the audience because they neither get a thriller, nor bharpoor manoranjan. This is invariably the case both with crime and biopics.”
From Bhawani Devi (Dirty Politics), Scarlett Keeling murder (Anjuna Beach), Neeraj Grover murder (Not A Love Story), Jessica Lal murder (No One Killed Jessica), the Delhi Nirbhaya gang-rape (The Journey of Love and Passion) and now the Arushi murder case (Talwar), none have broken through won popular audience acclaim. This ongoing Indrani Mukherjee-Sheena Bora drama, tracing the rise and fall of a media-annointed femme fatal, which has totally captured public imagination, could follow a similar route.
Says Mahesh Bhatt: “The enemy, my friend, lies within. Decades ago, we had a film called Yeh Raastey Hai Pyaar Ke (Sunil Dutt-Leela Naidu-Rehman) which replicated the sensational Nanavati-Ahuja murder that shook the public of the 60s big time. Those were calmer, quieter days, high on morality and political correctness, with sin and scandal, a taboo word. Today, with media and technology allowing us to realign, rearrange and reinvent the theatre of our mind — thoughts, feelings, beliefs, touchpoints, values — we live in a different universe.
“Unfortunately Bollywood, despite the giant technical strides, caught up between the burden of a 5000 year old legacy and futuristic resurgent, shining India template, languishes in the middle of the in-between when it comes to confront creatures diabolic & desperate. They just can’t seem to nail it with the conviction or credibility required and invariably embrace compromise, leading to disaster.”
Bhatt says that Bollywood does not have the searing pen of a Capote or a filmmaker with balls, who can fuse blood and electricity to stun and shock the audiences … to applause: “It’s also naïve & silly blaming the audiences for being un-ready for this genre, because it’s the director who has to lead and exhibit his wares before the audiences pass judgement. Didn’t audiences love Murder and Jism? Fact is, if a crime of passion is done in the required edgy, chilling and jagged manner with passion and honesty, pulling out the stops, it could well work.”
Talvar made waves at the recently concluded Toronto Film Festival, with Hollywood publication Screen’s David D’arcy predicting its tale of crime and corruption could shake things up in India when it releases in early October.
Maybe. But Bhatt is likely closer to the mark. Morality today is a moving target and the distance between good and evil, angel and devil, is only a heartbeat away …