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We're Running A Donkey's Race

Have things really changed in Bollywood, or are we believing our own hype and hoodwinking ourselves?

We're Running A Donkey's Race
illustrations by Jayachandran
We're Running A Donkey's Race
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Aishwarya's back in Time. Subhash Ghai's at Cannes. Bombay Dreams is coming to life on Broadway. The quintessential India has arrived.

A filmmaker, whose film about the sorry plight of the Indian woman is the toast of the international film festival circuit, calls me in the middle of the night and says...any woman you want to sleep with in Paris, just tell her you're my friend and she's yours.

Wow!

I'll repeat myself.

The quintessential Indian has arrived?

It's not just me who's asking that question. The West is watching us meander into this global arena like little tots with walkers for support.

And asking "Why?"

Things have changed for Indian cinema. Foreign funding is on its way here. Venture capitalists are squeezing in through the door. Everyone from Bandra to Jogeshwari is making the next 'crossover' film. (If that's not enough, now there's even a company called Crossover!) Everyone's speculating as to who's the tallest poppy in the field.

Do we really believe all of this? We certainly seem to. But then why are our films not working? Where is all the insane amount of money pumped into the industry going? Why is everybody adding mysterious alphabets to their names? When successful cinema is all about the beauty of the story being told, then why are Mr 'Numerology' Jumani and Sunita 'Tarot' Menon key decisive factors in the success of our films?

Is it our filmmakers? Or is it the audience?

Everyone bursts their bronchi for "good cinema". And when their voices go hoarse with all that yelling they go spend a quiet afternoon and a few hundred good bucks watching Murder. Critics and audiences alike hail Main Hoon Na as the best thing to happen to Indian cinema this year. That's what they want. That's what they're given. We've attained equilibrium. So why the hue and cry?

Just goes to show that we are an impoverished country after all. And not just economically.

Just a few years back, esteemed critic and filmmaker Khalid Mohamed decried Hum Aapke Hain Koun as the world's longest toothpaste ad. Lately, in a review of Main Prem Ki Deewanee Hoon, he recognised the very same HAHK as a modern classic!

Suniel Shetty (don't miss the newly added 'e') in Main Hoon Na is already being compared to the eternal Gabbar Singh of Sholay!

Either I'm going blind or I've sprouted large blinders on either side of my eyes. Why can't I see what everyone else seems to be seeing?

A Subhash Ghai gets to open a 'film' school long after he has forgotten how to make them. His Whistling Woods sounds more like a retirement plan than the "future of Indian cinema". But we can hardly blame the man. The government approved the plan. And gave him prime land for it in the process.

Team effort. Even losing a match requires a lot of it!

A director calls a press conference to declare that his film Kaun Hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aaya is the opening film of the Cannes film festival and trade magazines instantly go to town with the dubious fact, without so much as checking to see if it is the truth. The story repeats itself with that daily scrapbook of the film industry, the Bombay Times. They have been promoting The Perfect Husband with big, bold letters proclaiming its journey to Cannes. We believe it, shake our heads in slight incredulity and turn the page.

The question is, who is responsible for the hype, the lies? The media who delivers and lovingly nurtures it? The readers who lap it up in silent subservience? Or the filmmakers who are content with this universal belligerence? They want everyone to believe that it is all happening. Why burst the bubble when there's no one around wanting to even take a poke at it? The media itself lends its posterior for the whipping it so richly deserves and often gets. Star-struck and salivating for sound bites, its main agenda is not to rub anyone up the wrong way. The year 2003 saw more hits than 2002 and the Star Screen Awards got so excited by it that they announced seven nominations each in the Best Actor and Actress categories. Were they feeling guilty about choosing the best five? "Policy please" seems to have given way to "Please policy" in their book of resolutions.

Films by relative unknowns that need to be encouraged are wilfully ignored by these awards which are dutifully held annually by prominent newspapers and magazines whose postscripts always sound wanting for great cinema.

What is 'great cinema'? Can we define it? Is it the film that makes money at the box office? Is it the film that makes a critic's day and column? Is it the film that makes it to the film festivals? If it isn't, then what is 'it'? And who is the judge?

Hrithik Roshan in Koi Mil Gaya was the best performance of the year. A good performance, yes. But is that the best we can do? Where does that performance stand when held up against Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot or Sean Penn in I Am Sam? What are our standards?

If we feel we should be marked in bold fluorescent letters on the world map, shouldn't our standards follow?

Why is it that a unique talent like Rajpal Yadav in Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon is not even considered for those awards? Is he not 'star' enough? Is it only because he doesn't speak English? Because of the absence of a lineage?

Quite simply, in a nation and industry of a thousand dynasties, are we ashamed of recognising one of normal birth?

We are running a donkey's race, swimming in the shallow end of mediocrity, believing we are masters of the sea.

We are surrounded by mirrors that make this world of cinema appear as gigantic as our very own desi Bollywood. These mirrors make us look like horses, like thoroughbreds. And sadly we begin to feel like them too. We feel we can win the race. But who are we up against? We don't even aim to compete globally. Our boxing ring is relegated to the local box office.

There is a lack of funds. We don't have bigger budgets. These seem to be everyone's complaints. Then why do those simply-made, low-budget Iranian films put us to shame?

A certain Pang brothers in Thailand have recently made three films in a row that everyone wants to see. No precedents. No influences. They just walked their own road. And suddenly Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye were on everybody's must-see lists. Instead of looking to them for inspiration, we watched their films for it. Now get ready for Delhi Dangerous and Aankh—The Eye!

What's the conclusion then? Are we insecure? Are we not confident of our own original ideas? Are we so scared of failure that we want 'stars' to underline our projects to make them safer investments? We are not on the lookout for the next great idea but for the next Monsoon Wedding or the next Shahrukh Khan blockbuster.

One of the most powerful people in the Indian film industry, Manmohan Shetty, who has done a lot for Indian cinema, recently gave an inspiring interview in Kodak magazine, but ended it with "...Where are the actors? Except Shahid Kapoor there is no one you can make a love story with...." Are those the only kind of stories we want to make? Love stories?

One Vinay and one Mridul go out and collect money to make a film for Rs 27 lakh and shoot it in 12 days. And we can't wait to see it and laugh at them. Do we deserve to be called an 'industry'? Are we objective and mature enough to appreciate ideas that don't fit in with our individual brand image?

Does brand equity really exist? If so then why do two 'Yashraj' films have different openings at the box office? Why is it that Hrithik can't open seven films in a row and then breaks all records with Koi Mil Gaya? That's because Koi Mil Gaya smelled like fun.The others had no odour. The only brand that has worked consistently (of late) is Shahrukh Khan. There is no other brand equity in Bollywood.

Why and how do we expect to satisfy all the eyes looking at us? "God knows," we say. "Who cares?" But then are we really, really doing our own thing, as we would like it made out to be? When was the last time any of our filmmakers became an adjective? Where is the passion? Where is the eye that spotted a Shahrukh Khan when he wasn't a spot on the force that he is today? Why can't we find newer pastures? Whatever happened to the newer, better actors? What is our 'next, great idea'?

Every time I, as a filmmaker, go to a producer with my script, he asks me, before so much as laying a finger on the document, 'Who is the star?' Directors who don't have a single 'good' film (or a 'successful' one for that matter, as the two are not synonymous in this country) to their credit are heading corporates, taking decisions on how films should and shouldn't be made. They are so plum in their newfound job security that they don't take a decision until and unless it is everyone's decision. So that if they fail, everyone is responsible, not just them.

One head might roll. A bunch of heads generally gets a second chance!

They never say 'no' to that filmmaker sitting across the table, bound script in hand because they see the potential and the talent. But... "We all want to play safe, Anurag. You are not yet a race horse."

Whether or not I am a race horse, sirs, (I humbly submit) none of you is a gambler yet.

Who would want to lose all their perks, that too for the sake of 'cinema'? It takes Ram Gopal Verma to give patient audience to a new director like Saurabh Narang or Vikram Sawant, hear their scripts out, read the conviction in their faces and take just five minutes to say, "You're on." Because he's his own boss. When you look around, you'll notice that all the films that work today are made by directors who produce these films themselves.

Filmmaking is an intuitive art from. Be it commercial or fine art. A body of people or a board of them who never had the intuition to start with can't change the landscape. We need individuals who know and understand how a film is made. What the audience wants is not the criteria. What can we give them? 'What can I do to make my film an experience they won't easily forget?' is the question every filmmaker, aspiring or established, needs to ask himself or herself before exposing a single millimetre of film negative.

We need reforms like every other industry. Firstly, the films we make should stop being pre-sold. This creative product should be made like any other, without a pre-sale value being tagged on to it. This puts the producer at the risk of losing money, hence he pays attention to his film. First and foremost, he makes sure the scriptwriter delivers. Then to cut costs, he plans his film within a minimum expenditure plan. This forces him to look for options. Which in turn puts pressure on everyone involved to deliver a better product. No one takes the film for granted any more. This will save the film from being a proposal or merely a collage of model faces. Now when everything is seemingly in place, the film should be sold. The distributors and exhibitors should then be compelled into more transparency and accountability.

This might sound too utopian, too idealistic to be implemented. Perhaps business is not done this way, period. But then if a change is not wrought, things will always remain the same. And, if I am not wrong, no growth has ever been possible in any corner of history or the world when things have remained the same.

We shall have to content ourselves with the odd LagaanM or Monsoon Wedding.We shall also have to stop bandying about 'good' cinema and allow things to be as they are.

The true responsibility for the situation we are in lies with the individual producer who handles his film like a general store owner. If he seeks to minimise risk, he'll end up with a 'safe' product. Maximising the risk will make it a better film. That probably is too far-fetched a wish. But wishes are meant to be made. Despite all the ugly realities and debates, we are after all the dream merchants. And you can't stop anyone, least of all a non-conformist, from dreaming.




(Anurag Kashyap is a Mumbai-based screenwriter and director.)

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