With Bollywood producers and distributors on strike, here’s a sample of what is playing in the theatres now: “Martian Child“, “New Police Story 5“, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly“, “Dashavatar” and “Iron Maiden Flight 666“. Last week, the Times of India had an ad that claimed “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” was being brought back in the theatres “by popular demand!!!” (don’t miss the exclamation marks). In this barren wasteland of cinematic entertainment, NDTV Lumiere decided to have a film festival called Experience Cannes. The films being screened were all past winners at Cannes and the list included “Persepolis“, “Silent Light” and “The Edge of Heaven“. The opening film was much-lauded Laurent Cantet’s “The Class“.
Within 20 minutes of “The Class”, half of the audience had left, the ones that remained were checking their messages and director and indie darling Sudhir Mishra was snoring gently.
The posh set of Mumbai is constantly bleating about how there’s nothing to do in this city. The plays are substandard, the movies are all being downloaded at home from BitTorrent and those twits in Apple still haven’t opened up iTunes India. But here’s the bitter truth: twenty years of almost unadulterated Bollywood and we’ve forgotten the fact that good art makes some demands on the viewer. It asks for your patience, your attention and some commitment. And it asks you to keep your eyes open. Give us inane ads starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Shekhar Kapur instead (why does she have to unzip her dress to drink Schweppes? And in answer to Nicole’s breathy “Hey, what did you expect?” at the end, I expected a semblance of reasoning and much better continuity. I also expect departments teaching postcolonial theory to collapse like vampires faced by Buffy if this is how an Indian shows India 60 years post colonisation). We’ll manage to pay attention for one minute and 4 seconds, especially since it’s as earnestly Bollywood as anything could be.
Once upon a time, the Indian International Film Festivals had packed houses because getting to see films like these were rare. Some came for the story; most came for the sex and sat through the story because they had to. It didn’t seem like the ideal setup but at least those deprived times produced directors like the young Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. In the nineties was born the bastard child “middle of the road cinema” and it’s one contribution to Indian cinematic history is destroying the country’s nascent independent film culture. It didn’t have song-and-dance sequences, which meant it must be intelligent, and it didn’t shy of showing sex, which made it modern. Woohoo.
It was called “middle of the road” because the films of this category were supposed to be clever but slick and punchy enough to appeal to a mainstream audience. When it began, everyone had hopes of the industry producing a Woody Allen; instead we produced Nagesh Kukunoor, whose most recent directorial venture is the incoherent “Tasveer 8×10“, and Rahul Bose, who seems to have retired from acting to pursue a career as the world’s shortest rugby player. Let’s not forget Rituparno Ghosh, the man Bengal expected would carry on Satyajit Ray’s legacy but who seems to be intent on inheriting Boy George’s make-up and outfits instead. Commercial Bollywood improved somewhat – without “middle of the road cinema, we’d never have had “Dev. D” or “Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi” – but ably-made mainstream cinema is rarer today than it was back in the 60s and 70s. Most importantly, it doesn’t earn the kind of moolah in either ticket or dvd sales that can make it seem lucrative to producers.
The grand plan now is that producers will put in money to revamp the single screen theatres with their few-hundred seaters while the distributors and owners of multiplexes will invest money in indie cinema, which will be screened at these smaller theatres. Someone drunkenly said with belligerent confidence, “You watch! Every Inox will be an Angelika!” Maybe if Mr. Mishra and other cinephiles can be made to wake up and drink lots of coffee, it might just happen. Until then, we’ve earned ourselves “Mr. Bean’s Holiday”.