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Cover Story

It’s not only about money, Honey!
In search of success at box office, Indian filmmakers have lost the magic touch of 80s that made the world take a note of Bollywood...
Issue Date - 16/02/2012
It is generally argued that the Indian entertainment industry hit a terrible trough in the 1980s. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a decade of great churning for both cinema and television in this country. Yes, the pan-Indian Hindi popular cinema, in the firm grip of formula narratives and unabashed mediocrity, had fallen a bit into dead habit during the 1980s, but there was much path-breaking creative energy bubbling forth elsewhere during the period. Sadly, the benefits disappeared in a miasma of designer movies, NRI romances and star power-driven action flicks. In the 1980s, Indian cinema enjoyed much greater global respect than it does 30 years on. Today, there is false hype. The box office stars are all-powerful but their movies, more spectacle than art, are unoriginal and shallow. Back then, there was genuine substance in Indian cinema.

In the three decades that have followed, the Indian entertainment industry has no doubt grown in leaps and bounds, acquiring both magnitude of reach and monetary muscle. The Indian movie industry’s exponential growth has, however, only been as a business. In creative terms, whatever progress it has made has only been in fits and starts – one step forward, two steps backwards. That is why India celebrates the wrong cinematic principles.

Today, the domestic box office is the principal hook. Instant profit is the motive. Making memorable works of cinematic art isn’t of the essence. Insularity reigns. The result is there for all to see: Bollywood movies may rake in big bucks in the domestic and overseas markets, but their share of the global showbiz pie is still rather measly, hovering around the 3% mark.

There was a time when India was spoken of in the same breath as Japan as a producer of high quality Asian cinema. Japan had Kurosawa and Imamura. India had Ray and Ghatak. In the second decade of the 21st century, China, Taiwan, Iran, Thailand and other much smaller film producing nations of Asia are way ahead of India in terms of creative impact and influence in world cinema.

Our movie industry barons have mastered only one admittedly crucial aspect of the showbiz game – maximizing profits. But no sense of loss ever shakes them strongly enough for them to pause and consider a course correction. So, let us return to the 1980s in order to understand what could have been had Indian filmmakers and entertainers traversed a path less taken.

1982 was the year of Mrinal Sen’s Kharij, an acute cinematic critique of urban middle class apathy. The film won the Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Had Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama not been in the reckoning that year, Kharij would have brought home the festival’s top prize – the Palme d’Or. A few years later, in 1988, Mira Nair’s breakthrough effort, Salaam Bombay, not only won the Camera d’Or in Cannes, it also garnered an Oscar nomination in the foreign language film category. India was a serious player in world cinema in those exceptional years and it competed on equal terms with the very best.

Today, Indian cinema competes with Spider-Man and Batman and their countless clones. The priorities have shifted and our cinema as a medium of national and self expression has lost its edge. Indian cinema had a conscience in the early 1980s. Filmmakers around the country used this powerful medium to address burning social issues and intervene in political discourses. It was an era that witnessed some of the most trenchant Indian political films ever made. In 1982, Shyam Benegal made Aarohan on a commission from West Bengal’s Left Front government as it neared the end of its first term in power. The agitprop film told the story of an indigent sharecropper struggling to protect the political rights bestowed on him by Operation Barga, aimed at giving land to landless tillers,

1982 was also the year of massive Festivals of India in London, Paris and Moscow. Conceived by Indira Gandhi and executed by culture czarina Pupul Jayakar, these grand festivals were designed to put modern and traditional Indian art, craft and music on the world map. They did. India’s soft power went global in right earnest. 1982, incidentally, was also the year of Richard Attenborough’s all-conquering Gandhi. As the Mahatma’s unique philosophy of non-violent political struggle, hitherto confined to academic studies and a fast-shrinking circle of practitioners, went mainstream, India as a source of stories was on the verge of a global breakthrough. In the 30 years since then, Indian money has acquired a definite global tinge. But the stories of this vast and diverse land remain largely unveiled before the world on the big screen.

In the 1980s, Indian cinema delivered a slew of masterpieces including Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron et al. The mainstream industry, too, threw up such remarkable films as Mahesh Bhatt’s Saraansh, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda and Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, where style was wedded to substance. These films strengthened the prestige that Indian cinema had earned from the 1950s through the 1970s both in the mainstream and non-mainstream spaces through the works of Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt on the one hand and the leading lights of the parallel movement on the other.

After a lull in the 1990s, Indian cinema enjoyed a good critical run at the turn of the millennium when Buddhadeb Dasgupta won a Special Director Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Uttara (2000). The following year, Mira Nair bagged the Golden Lion in Venice for Monsoon Wedding. And 2001’s Lagaan wrested an Oscar nomination the following year. It has been a decade since then. Indian cinema has toted up some impressive box office numbers while drawing a complete bank in major international film festivals and the Academy Awards reminding us the fact that it’s not only about money, honey!

Saibal Chatterjee           

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