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Pans & Tilts
Beyond Bollywood’s Melodramatic Mishmash
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Bollywood Indian actress
Aishwarya Rai

There is cinema beyond Bollywood as there is life ahead of Bombay, now called Mumbai, though mercifully Mollywood has not flown out of this renaming roulette. For several years now, Bollywood has become stiflingly synonymous with Indian movies, and Mumbai’s Hindi films are often considered – and worse, even projected – as the only ones of consequence representing a nation of a billion plus people speaking innumerable languages and making movies in them. Walk on the streets of Paris or Amsterdam or Berlin or New York or Melbourne or just about anywhere else and most people would invariably quiz you about Bollywood, seldom though about cinema from Kerala or Karnataka or Tamil Nadu or Bengal, let alone from Punjab or Assam or Orissa. It is an Amitabh Bachchan or a Shahrukh Khan or an Aishwarya Rai from Bollywood who would get hearts fluttering and heads swaying. Not a Rajnikanth or a Kamal Hassan or a Mammootty or a Mohanlal, the superstars who reign in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

However, it was not always like this. For over three decades since the mid-1950s when Ray’s “Pather Panchali” (Song of the Little Road) opened up Indian cinema to the world – though after the monumental work was almost given a miss by the Cannes Film Festival jury that eventually honoured it with a minor prize (!) – Bollywood remained fairly innocuous, certainly outside Mumbai. Ray, Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta from Bengal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan from Kerala among a few others ruled the foreign shores with their intimate and often personal, but invariably meaningful cinema, pushed and promoted by mainstream newspapers, such as The Statesman in Kolkata (once Calcutta), The Indian Express in Mumbai and New Delhi and The Hindu in Chennai (erstwhile Madras). Critics like the late Iqbal Masud and Amita Malik, who just passed away at age 87, not only had a fascinating feel for sensible and sensitive movies, but also were close to the leading directors of their time. Malik and Ray were on the first name basis, and Adoor still remembers his “friend” Masud with great affection and respect.

With Ray’s death in 1992, a precious part of Indian cinema was lost. Although there were several interesting helmers then who worked outside Bollywood or the city’s big studios, there really was none who could command the kind of awe and attention that Ray did, his six-feet-four-inch height and a booming baritone voice adding to his majesty. Not that the others did not produce significant work, often auteur driven. But they just did not have the charisma that Ray had. And frankly, there has not been another Indian director of such calibre.

It was this void that Bollywood capitalised on by weaving melody and drama into a melodramatic mishmash to mesmerise the globe. Bombay became the magic metropolis before it became Mumbai. When Cannes, arguably the queen of festivals, chose Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas” in 2002 as part of its prestigious official sections, the enthrallment seemed complete. Even French fans were delirious at the sight of Rai, the picture’s leading lady who played Paro and paraded around the French Riviera.

However, not everyone was hypnotised by the sheen and shimmer that Bollywood iced its movies with. Some understood that there was magnificent motion and movement beyond Mumbai’s essentially Hindi cinema. In 2003, the Melbourne International Film Festival had a special section called Beyond Bollywood where I introduced Dasgupta’s “The Tale of a Naughty Girl”. There were half a dozen Indian entries there.

Germany’s Stuttgart has been holding since 2004 an annual festival of Indian films called “Bollywood and Beyond”, though as I realised that “Beyond” has been growing and overshadowing “Bollywood”. Admittedly in 2008, there were a number of Hindi movies, but these were not typically Bollywoodish with its songs and dances, chases and fights and venom and villainy. Or, more precisely put, they formed part of an expanding group of films whose directors had made a concerted and conscious effort to break away from the Bollywood formula. Their craft and treatment were quite different from the big-budget Mumbai dream products. And the Festival Director, Oliver Manh, kept emphasising that “Stuttgart is not just about Bollywood, but also about that cinema that rolls out of Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and so on”.

In tune with this, the Stuttgart Festival opened with Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni’s debut feature, “Valu-The Wild Bull”. In Marathi, it is an entertaining, though somewhat exaggerated, account of a village and its problems. Though “Valu” is a humorous tale of the villagers’ attempt to capture a “marauding” bull, the film examines the secrets, the vanities and the conflicts below the façade of civility.

Deauville on the French Atlantic coast hosts every March a festival of exclusive Asian cinema in which Indian movies outside Bollywood are shown. Last March, Adoor’s “Four Women” (Malayalam) — four stories poignantly painting their dreams and dilemmas — proved a hit. This year, Nandita Das’ “In Such Times”, an incisive look at those brutalised by the 2002 Gujarat genocide, will open the Festival. Also this March, the Fribourg Festival will screen Adoor’s “A Climate of Crime” (Malayalam), also four stories set in pre-independent princely Travancore (now part of Kerala), and Girish Kasaravalli’s “Gulabi Talkies” in Kannada that probes inter-religious disharmony in a tiny fishing hamlet.

These smaller festivals have undoubtedly done a world of good for non-Bollywood fare in a country which produced in, for instance, 2008, 1321 films. Of these, a mere 248 were from Bollywood. The Telugu cinema churned out 285 films, Tamil 175, Kannada 161, Marathi 116, Malayalam 86 and Bengali 66 among others in the remaining languages.

Despite this, Bollywood bullies the rest. Often, it uses its money and muscle to crush its poor cousin — the other cinema — much like Hollywood’s invasion of Europe and most of Asia that forced the French, Italian and Spanish to start a crusade to save their own cinema. Grand promotions, savvy public relations and astute business sense help Bollywood bigwigs to get plum exhibition slots in swanky multiplexes, and, thereby, big bucks, while helmers like Adoor, Kasaravalli and Dasgupta struggle to find distributors, sometime even in their own territories. The opening of Das’ debut work, though in Hindi, has been put off by several weeks, because big Bollywood releases now have left little space for anything else. And Bollywood does not care, for it believes itself to be the cinema that matters.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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