Away From Musicals
- We have come a long way from the 1990s when it was ruled by KJo-style family drama
- The tide began to turn with Paan Singh Tomar in 2012, a bio of the athlete-turned-bandit
One look at the trailers gives the impression that India suddenly has so much happening that it’s creating endless material for commercial cinema. Political crises, unsolved crime and homophobia have all found their way on to the silver screen. It happened in 2015 with Meghna Gulzar’s Talwar, a gritty take on the murder of Aarushi Talwar which has now been followed by Ram Madhwani’s Neerja, based on the flight attendant who saved the lives of scores of passengers; then Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, based on the largest-ever evacuation of Indian refugees during the Kuwait war; and finally Aligarh, the story of the suspension of a gay professor and his subsequent death.
So, are we suddenly into a compromise with full-blown documentary filmmaking? Are filmmakers themselves keen on getting their hands dirty with controversial subjects? “I think it happened in three stages. Filmmakers were thinking about such cinema much earlier but the success was limited. It used to get slotted as parallel cinema. Then the studios started backing such films and then the numbers happened,” says Meghna Gulzar, who made Talwar and also took a risk of taking a position on the case. “I didn’t look at it as a controversial subject but as a complicated story, one painful at many levels and so compelling that it had to be told. We walked a tightrope because of fears of illegality and defamation. But in the end, if you do it honestly, people understand. There was nothing malicious and that was its biggest strength.”
Honesty and research (or at least protestations of such) are the biggest appeal. “Facts are vital to a film like Aligarh or Shahid,” says Apurva Asrani, who wrote both. “We showed them to the people who were close to the protagonists or other characters. While Shahid was styled more as a documentary, with Aligarh we seem to have struck the right balance.” With the successful precedent of Shahid, it became slightly easier, says Hansal Mehta. “When you are attempting something new it takes more pitching. There is greater acceptance now.” Trade analyst Taran Adarsh echoes the sentiment, “Earlier we used to make escapist cinema. But with multiplexes and a change in audiences that inclines more to real life, movies such as Airlift and Neerja are doing well. Moreover, famous actors like Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpai, Sonam Kapoor and Irrfan are now doing such films. A lot of the time people may not be aware of the cases, so making films on them serves a dual purpose. The makers just need to be faithful to the subject.” Mehta emphasises that they have to be well-crafted. “Let us not rush into computing formulae and reading too much into the trend. A poorly made film on a real-life event will not be popular at all.” Duds like Hawaizada, Manjhi and Bombay Velvet confirm his point quite succinctly.
Apart from the stress on authenticity, there is also the matter of depth. It’s crucial if the film is to last beyond the first couple of weekends. “Hazaron Khwayishein Aisi was about the Emergency era, it was also much more than that. Same was the case with a film like Bandit Queen. They are not just real-life depictions, they have value as symbols and stand for something that people identify with long after they are released,” says director Sudhir Mishra.
Moving ahead of the unanimous agreement that these are indeed good times for ‘good cinema’ in Bollywood, Meghna Gulzar says that time has come to delve into Indian literature—and not just Hindi—for finding and telling good stories. A piercing film on a Vijay Tendulkar work would be wonderful. But for now solid performances from the likes of Sonam Kapoor and Manoj Bajpai should whet our appetite well enough.