Thinking unusual helps. It's helped filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar. The acclaim for Chandni Bar had died down, infamous flops like Aan and Satta followed, as did a shadowy reputation (remember the alleged Preeti Jain rape case?) even as Bhandarkar kept hunting for a box-office, and personal, resurrection. Now, with his latest flick, Page 3, he may well be on the road there.
An interesting take on the rich and famous, the film looks set to become the first hit of 2005. It's about a young journalist, Madhavi (Konkona), who covers the Page 3 beat and interacts with society high-fliers. It also gives us a glimpse into her personal life, about her growing up—from being a happy youngster in a vacuous world to facing nasty betrayals, disillusionment, cynicism and the final, pragmatic compromise with life's many ironies. Hardly the kind of film to make commercial sense, but it does. The trade puts it to sheer economics, after all it has been made with a modest Rs 2.5-crore budget. "It is doing well in cities but that's enough for it to be called a success because of its low cost," says Film Information editor Komal Nahata. Delhi distributor Sanjay Mehta is ecstatic: "We released Page 3 in North India with 12 prints, in the second week we are adding another 10."
It is certainly not a great film. It could have been more refined and incisive. But it makes fairly engaging viewing. Bhandarkar is sensible, even though his idea is new the execution is never consciously self-indulgent or esoteric. In fact, Bollywood's traditional melodrama is retained; a reason why "mass" entertainment values don't get diluted for "class" novelty.
So what do the rich and famous have to say about this slice of their life? Opinions, expectedly, are divided. But, at last count, Bhandarkar has got more appreciative nods than disapprovals. "It feeds on the viewer's curiosity. There's a voyeuristic pleasure in peeping into celeb lives," says columnist and socialite Nina Pillai.
What's clear is that a media phenomenon which has been staring at us daily from the news pages and TV screens has now got celluloid certification. "It acknowledges that Page 3 culture has consumed mindspace," says Malavika Sanghvi, consulting editor, TOI. "It is an acknowledgement of changing social mores," says Priyanka Sinha, editor, Society.
But why a subject like Page 3? "I had seen people talk and interact at parties and found it intriguing. Initially, I wanted to make the film from a socialite's driver's point of view, but then decided to focus on the journo," says Bhandarkar. So he shows it all—the networking, the drinks and drugs, casting couches, wife-swapping and paedophiles, inane conversations, hugging and bitching. The film has a spread of 45 characters. Some appear real, others remain caricatures. Konkona is utterly believable while sassy Sandhya Mridul, Madhavi's ambitious air-hostess flatmate, plays to the gallery with abandon.
However, the accuracy of the social picture emerging through these characters has come under the scanner. Do celebs actually misbehave the way they are shown in a long funeral sequence? Are even solemn occasions used to make fashion statements and strike business deals? Or is this deliberate, heightened farce? "No one behaves like this. He is making caricatures of people. I couldn't relate to them as they were cardboard cutouts. Bhandarkar should have let in a few grey shades instead of making them so black and white," says actress Lilette Dubey.
But theatre person Dolly Thakore claims that there is not a single incorrect aspect in the film. "Either the critics haven't been exposed to this society or are trying to hide things under the carpet," she says.
Some moments do strike a chord, like how the event management company creates a celebrity from nowhere. Or, how the young journalist is caught in a dilemma—how relevant is a beat like Page 3? Is it entertainment or journalism? And how the editor talks about creating celebrities if none exist. "While one can disagree over the choice of clothes, make-up and linguistic details that may look gauche, the film's basic premise is sound," says Sinha.
"The film makes the newspages come alive. It is about the truths of our society," concurs Kishan Mulchandani, Mumbai socialite and restaurateur.
In the process, the film had to get judgemental. "Bhandarkar doesn't do justice to the Page 3 culture. It is serious business and he makes a joke of it," complains Delhi-based painter Naresh Kapuria.
"The director had already made up his mind and his point of view is written all over it. The viewer isn't allowed to decide for himself," says Dubey. So the Page 3 society comes across as fake, shallow and hedonistic, necessarily a world of moral vacuum. The tacit self-righteousness irks some. "There are real people in this industry, so it's unfair to treat it like a glamour guinea pig," grumbles model Indrani Dasgupta. "Good people also party," says Kapuria. "How can you pick up one strata of society and make everyone look ridiculous? Who says the lower middle class doesn't have shallow people?" says Dubey.
According to Sinha, the film doesn't consciously try to take a stand. "But the nature of incidents woven into the story make for an unflattering picture," she says. Sanghvi feels Page 3 culture is a synonym for the frivolous. "It is like saying water is wet, an obvious thing," she says. "The community, of late, has become shallow," says Suhel Seth, CEO, Equus Advertising.
For Dubey, the film is too sensational, simple and superficial. "It had the potential to really go for the jugular as it is a complex subject," she says. Bhandarkar himself admits he has merely shown "25 per cent of what Page 3 is all about".
"There is a gory side to Page 3 as well. But Bhandarkar couldn't have gone deeper as it would have upset many people," says Mulchandani. He doesn't portray the divide among Page 3 people, for instance.
"The Page 3 hierarchy—its schizophrenia is fascinating—is something which the film doesn't quite address," says Sinha. But for her, it does hold up a mirror to a socio-economic system. "It is a look at perversities that cold materialism can generate even in fairly nice people, even conservative middle-class values can come undone in this social churning," she says.
There are others for whom the film is three years late. "Page 3 culture is passe, it's irrelevant, dead and over. It's a non-subject. How much can you milk it?" wonders Nikhil Khanna, MD, Avian Media.
Seth thinks that Bhandarkar has very intelligently turned a sociological reality into a smart marketing idea. "He has optimised and captured a name," says Seth.
Or, as Nina Pillai puts it: "From a social nobody Bhandarkar, too, will now become a Page 3 boy." He certainly won't be complaining.
Namrata Joshi with Lata Khubchandani in Mumbai