The recent flurry of fresh stories from the more intricate corners of lived experience is to be credited to a phalanx of young directors that has confidently trooped into Bollywood this year with high hopes to redefine quality cinema. Brimming over with out-of-the-box ideas, some have proved their mettle in their very first movie, others in their second, but almost all of them have demonstrated an uncanny ability to tell gripping tales in a manner refreshingly different from the hackneyed methods of story-telling that B-town has been known for.
Buoyed by the rapidly changing dynamics of film-making and a perceptible change in the taste of audience in the digital era, these debutants are charting a new course, far away from the beaten tracks, exploring unusual themes to win over the masses. Daring enough to pick up bold but risky projects despite wielding the megaphones for the first time, they are experimenting with diverse subjects—from salvation hotels in Varanasi to a woman dancer’s life in a small town. In short, these nouveau directors are trying to redraft the archaic rules of film-making that the industry has strictly adhered to all these years.
Leading the pack is Advait Chandan whose first directorial venture, Secret Superstar, depicting the struggles and triumph of a teen-aged girl from a conservative Muslim family (played by Zaira Wasim), who wants to become a singer much against the wishes of her father, has struck the right chord with the audience. The movie has already earned about Rs 52 crore in the first ten days of its release in spite of facing a blockbuster like Golmaal Again in the Diwali box-office battle.
Mukti Bhawan, directed by the debutant Shubhashish Bhutiani (Right)
Chandan, of course, had the backing of the redoubtable Aamir Khan, who not only played a wonderful cameo but also reposed his trust in a newcomer by producing the film. But it was by and large the deft handling of a sensitive plot that left the critics singing hosannas to the debutant director.
Chandan, however, is a late entrant on the list of a bunch of thinking directors—all first-timers who have made a mark with their unconventional launch vehicles this year. The first to catch the eyeballs was 26-years-old Shubhashish Bhutiani who sprang a surprise with Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation), which revolved around a mature subject pertaining to an age-old Hindu belief that death in the holy city of Varanasi in old age is an instant gateway to moksha.
The movie has won many national and international awards ever since it was released early this year but Bhutiani had not expected such a plethora of accolades while he was shooting his film, though he knew all along that it would connect with the audiences.
But then, such an unconventional idea did not strike the young director out of the blue. “I had decided to travel around the country, from Kerala to Varanasi, prior to making my first film,” Bhutiani tells Outlook. “It was in Varanasi that I heard about the hotels where people stayed while waiting for their demise. I was surprised by how something like this could exist. But when I met those people, the idea of a story started to grow in my mind.”
Calling his experience “emotionally challenging”, Bhutiani says that making a first movie is difficult for anyone irrespective of age but the journey becomes easier when there’s a great story to share. “There are so many new film-makers with fresh stories to tell right now,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to make movies. We have definitely grown over the past few years. It is amazing to see diverse voices coming to the forefront.”
One such voice was heard this year from Bihar. Avinash Das was doing fine as a journalist when his innate desire to tell a hat-ke (different) story on celluloid brought him to Mumbai. Contrary to his apprehensions, he did not have to struggle hard before he found a producer willing to bet on his story of an orchestra singer who makes a living by dancing to risqué numbers but refuses to compromise on her dignity. His film, Anaarkali of Aarah earned him rave reviews, besides a few awards as the best debutant director.
Avinash Das’s (left) Anaarkali of Aarah
Das thinks that new directors like him are getting opportunities because the industry has ceased to function in a traditional manner. “The corporates understand the language of profits only,” he says matter-of-factly. “Whoever ensures profits fits into their scheme of things. That is their only funda.”
In any case, he reasons, the corporates producing Hindi movies do not have much of a choice given the way world cinema is threatening to capture the Indian market. “It is their majboori (helplessness) in this fight for content. Hindi cinema needs fresh stories if it has to survive in the face of the onslaught of good international projects,” he adds.
Das also gives the credit for the changed scenario to predecessors such as Anurag Kashyap who forced the industry to change its attitude towards new talent. “We owe it to the directors from the Hindi belt like Anurag, Imtiaz Ali, Subhash Kapoor, Shoojit Sircar, Habib Faisal et al, who prepared the ground for us with their path-breaking films. It is because of them that the producers started believing in us. They have made our job easier,” he says.
But the main reason, admits Das, is the audience, the ultimate arbiter of talent. “Thanks to digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, audiences are aware of the best of international cinema and can easily tell you whether your movie is worth watching or not,” he says. “They are the ones who love Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sultan but at the same time reject a film like Tubelight. Shahrukh Khan has a phenomenal fan following but his films too are not doing well these days.”
With the industry opening up to new directorial talent, even actors have joined the fray. Konkona Sen Sharma made the critically acclaimed A Death in the Gunj, a coming-of-age story set in the small Anglo-Indian town of McCluskieganj; Well-known ad film-maker Ravi Udyawar’s Mom had Sridevi in the titular role of a mother who ventures out to punish the rapists of her daughter.
“I was lucky that a big producer like Boney Kapoor reposed his faith in me for Mom. I had a fabulous star cast—Sridevi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Akshay Khanna—for my film as well,” says Udyawar. Other debutants like Anshai Lal (Phillauri), Sankalp Reddy (The Ghazi Attack) and R.S. Prasanna (Shubh Mangal Savdhan) have also impressed with their craft.
But then, all did not pass muster with the audiences. Ranjit Tiwari (Lucknow Central), Dinesh Vijan (Raabta), Shlok Sharma (Haraamkhor), Ajay K Pannalal (Behen Hogi Teri), Abhishek Saxena (Phullu), Amit Roy (Running Shaadi) and Aparnaa Singh (Irada), all failed to hit the bullseye. Tiwari, who directed the Farhan Akhtar-starrer Lucknow Central, says expectations from cinema have risen manifold. “It’s a challenge to lure people to theatres these days when every form of entertainment is available to them in their living rooms,” he says.
Tiwari says that he and his team worked hard on his film, which earned good reviews but failed at the box office. “I’ll try to work harder the next time,” he adds.
Tiwari has a reason to be hopeful about his second chance. This year, many directors hit the purple patch with their second movie after flunking in their maiden test. Alankrita Shrivastava made her debut with Turning 30 (2011) but her latest, Lipstick Under My Burkha, became a hit following a prolonged bout with the censor board over its bold subject of women’s sexuality. Amit Masurkar, too, made a forgettable Sulemani Keeda (2014) before Newton, a black comedy on India’s electoral system, was chosen as India’s official Indian entry in the best foreign film category at the Oscars this year. Ashtar Sayed delivered a gripping Matr with Raveena Tandon in the lead after his Bijuka (Scarecrow) failed to create ripples in 2012 while Shree Narayan Singh had a mega hit in Toilet Ek Prem Katha five years after his nondescript debut in Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai.
Rakhee Sandilya’s (left) Ribbon
All this implies that the field is wide open, though every new director cannot hope to have a smooth ride in their first outing. Rakhee Sandilya whose first film, Ribbon, starring Kalki Keochlin, is releasing this week, says that though she didn’t face any gender bias while making her film, she had to overcome many challenges as a newcomer. “During a pre-production discussion, one executive producer mocked me by saying that all new directors think they are making another Sholay,” she recalls.
She had to contend with a few experienced and award-winning technicians who had their own opinions about the way a film should be made. “They initially had reservations about the way I wanted my story to be told but I remained firm. Thankfully, by the time our movie went on the floors, we were on the same page and I was able to make the film exactly the way I wanted. There was no pressure on me from any quarter to interpolate an unnecessary song or another sequence.”
That tells a lot about the growing self-confidence of young directors whose tribe is only going to grow in future, what with the audiences showing their predilection for anything uplifting on the screen like never before.