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Indeed, there is now a way out in sight—in works like Dahan, Swara Mandal, Private Detective, Kaliyattam and The Outhouse, films that have pushed the boundaries of cinematic expression just that little extra inch that could, in the long run, make the crucial difference between a stagnant, dying cinematic stream and a vibrant, living school of movie-making. No wonder,each of these men has a personal story to tell, a story as fascinating as the critically acclaimed films they have emerged with after sustained struggles.
The National Film Development Corporation had shot down adman-turned-film-maker Rituparno Ghosh's script for the 1995 national award-winning and commercially successful feature, Unishe April (19th April), a Bergmanesque exploration of a strained mother-daughter relationship. But his very next film, Dahan (Crossfire), a multilayered, controlled, real life-inspired narrative that revolves around the barely articulated bonding between two young women brought together by a traumatic chance incident, was accorded the singular honour of being the inaugural film of the Indian Panorama section of the recently-held 29th International Film Festival of India in New Delhi. Ghosh, however, has his feet firmly planted on terra firma. Says the man who has kept the Satyajit Ray legacy alive: "I'm only an ordinary filmmaker who tells stories in a neat, traditional way."
Rajat Kapoor, the director of Hypnothesis, the short fiction film that opened the Panorama's non-features segment, is not as self-effacing, though. In his introduction to his film in the festival catalogue, he writes: "Enough of the audience demanding this and that, let the filmmakers demand something more from the audience for a change." Kapoor, mercifully, didn't have much trouble finding a source of funding for his maiden feature, Private Detective, an unconventional, low-key, thinking man's thriller shot in Mumbai in 1995. But the film lay in the cans for over two years as TVI, the television channel that bankrolled the Rs 46-lakh project, found itself in serious financial trouble.
Infinitely worse and longer was Rajan Khosa's wait. His amazingly sure-handed debut film, Swara Mandal (Dance of the Wind), was five years in the making. Three of those years, not surprisingly, were expended on the search for finance: a hyper-poetic film in Hindi sans stars had little that could enthuse the market. But Khosa hung in there, determined to make the film on his own terms—a gentle, quiet celluloid essay that would capture the soul-cleansing serenity of Hindustani classical music—or not at all. Swara Mandal, which explores the 5,000-year-old guru-shishya tradition in a contemporary New Delhi setting, may not be the end of the discerning moviegoer's search for the perfect film but, what is much more important, it has turned out exactly the way its young scriptwriter-director wanted it.That alone makes it a truly precious film: it represents the triumph of the indomitable spirit of an uncompromising young artiste.
Perseverance pays, especially if it has genuine talent as an ally. So, films like Dahan, scheduled for a March release in West Bengal, Swara Mandal and Private Detective have not only seen the light of day, they have also given their young creators powerful calling cards. As have Leslie Carvalho's The Outhouse and Jayaraaj's Kaliyattam (The Play of God). Says Kapoor: "Organising finance for one's first film is tough. But from now on, hopefully, it will be easy."
Attitudes have changed, audience demands have become more complex and fragmented, and technology has advanced beyond recognition. So the advent of a new breed of serious filmmakers capable of capitalising on the new liberalised climate without sacrificing their creative integrity is certainly not accidental. By far the most experienced of the new Indian cinema's 'young Turks' is Jayaraaj, who burst on the scene in the early '80s with the commercially-oriented Kudumbasametham. Until his 10th production, Desadanam (1996), a Rs 22-lakh film that went on to make more than Rs 1.5 crore from the box-office, besides earning a Jury's Special Mention at Karlovy Vary, Jayaraaj stuck to the strictly popular mould. "In mainstream cinema, I was only making money, deriving little artistic satisfaction," he says. "Today, I use popular elements to make meaningful films."
Jayaraaj's latest, Kaliyattam, a marvellously inventive adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello set against the backdrop of the traditional art form of Theyyam, has strengthened the reputation that he earned with Desadanam. Apart from Suresh Gopi, who plays the dark-complexioned, pockmarked Theyyam artiste Kannan Perumalayan, the film has no major stars. Yet, it has already completed 100 days in Kerala. "If you sell your film well, promote it properly, use the right strategy, there is no reason why one can't attract an audience," says Jayaraaj.
While Kapoor and Carvalho are still looking for distributors for their maiden features, Khosa's Swara Mandal is set for release in the five European countries from where he and German producer Karl Baumgartner acquired the finance for the $1.2 million project. "Unfortunately, there's no way a film like mine can be screened in India," laments Khosa. It is not that people don't want to watch it, the fault lies with the distribution-exhibition structure. "Things could get much worse," warns Khosa. "Now is the time for everybody to push his or her point."
That is precisely what Carvalho and Kapoor are out to do. The former's film, shot in 12 days with a budget of Rs 15 lakh, does have its rough edges, but the drama of marital violence in an Anglo-Indian family is played out in a setting which has that rare quality: a ring of authenticity. As a schoolboy, Carvalho, the son of an armyman, would bunk school to watch Hindi films. "I enjoyed them, but I knew I didn't want to make these films," he says. "I went to several colleges on my bike before I made The Outhouse. Many students told me they would love to watch good cinema if only they had the option." The Outhouse is an attempt to give filmgoers that option.
In Private Detective, Kapoor turns the thriller genre on its head to create an unhurried, Hitchcockian tale of adultery and blackmail, subterfuge and murder. Slow-paced, the film grows on the viewer, not least because of the way Naseeruddin Shah, an admirer of Kapoor's theatre work, underplays the eponymous character. But why did Kapoor choose a thriller, a form that is generally seen as lightweight, for his debut? "I like all kinds of genres—gangster films, musicals, horror films, even non-narrative short films," he replies.
No apologies, no hang-ups, a crystal-clear notion of what lies ahead. That is what makes Kapoor and his ilk so different. It is the sense of adventure, the willingness to take risks, the ability to go the whole hog and not succumb to the pressures of the marketplace—attributes that characterised the early films of the parallel cinema movement—that these young film-makers have brought back into non-main -stream Indian films. As a consequence, the picture is much brighter today than it has been for years.