If there’s one thing that the first quarter of 2012 has shown the Indian film industry, it’s this: never underestimate the power of a good story. Kahaani, a movie by Sujoy Ghosh centred on a pregnant woman played by Vidya Balan, made on a modest budget of Rs 15 crore, made Rs 67 crore in three weeks. Paan Singh Tomar (PST), a biopic by Tigmanshu Dhulia about a national-level sportsman turned dacoit played by Irrfan, was made on a budget of Rs 7 crore, had a limited release, but made Rs 15 crore in two weeks on word of mouth alone.
Before these movies released, no one gave them a chance. In the 80s and 90s, we’d have called them ‘alternative cinema’. There was nothing mainstream about the stories. Yet, weeks later, we’re still talking about them in tones of awe.
Kahaani and PST show us that offbeat, niche movies have finally emerged from their dark corners and settled into our collective consciousness as a kind of cinematic art we can regularly expect to find at the multiplexes, in the same way that we expect to see big Bollywood blockbusters.
This has been building up over the last six years or so, since director Dibaker Banerjee woke us up in 2006 with Khosla Ka Ghosla. Then, we watched films like Bheja Fry (2007), Aamir and A Wednesday (2008), Dev D (2009), but these were one-off, small, subversive explosions in mainstream Bollywood. In 2010, we had no choice but to pay serious attention to the little movie. One after the other, we watched astounded, films like Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, Abhishek Sharma’s Tere Bin Laden and Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live, that made stories the star. In between, we caught Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba, Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD and Subhash Kapoor’s Phas Gaye Re Obama, and wondered: what’s happening in Bollywood? Is the alternative becoming the mainstream? And if it is, how did this happen?
Changing the tide
Think about films that star stories rather than heroes, and you probably have two words in your head: Anurag Kashyap. Almost every contemporary filmmaker brings up Kashyap’s name in any conversation about the new Hindi cinema. Kashyap’s determination to make good, relevant, contemporary films and his support for anyone with the same aspiration is one big reason why there’s such a buzz about offbeat films now, they say. “The credit for reinventing cinema goes to Kashyap,” says independent producer Sunil Bohra. “He had the balls to make Dev.D. People now go to see his films, they don’t care who the actor is. Over the years he has developed that relationship with the audience and now he is extremely influential.”
This ‘community’ is not a gang of friends pushing each other’s work. It is simply a bunch of people in various spheres of filmmaking, who, when they genuinely like someone’s work, will do all they can to support it. “They’re not under one banner, and yet they’re there for each other,” says Vikas Bahl, director of the National Award winning Chillar Party, former head of UTV Spotboy (the division of the entertainment corporate that focuses on small films with big stories), and now partner with Anurag Kashyap and two other filmmakers in Phantom Films. “It’s instinctive. Vishal (Bhardwaj) loved Amole’s (Gupte) film (Stanley Ka Dabba), so he helped him. Salman Khan doesn’t come from alternative cinema, but he did the same for Chillar Party. It came from his heart. You genuinely like a movie, you do it.”
Though this sounds mindblowingly fresh — good heavens! filmmakers who ought to be rivals actually exhorting the public to watch each other’s films or marching into a possible funder’s office and insisting that he take a look at a new boy’s work — this isn’t new in the industry, says Gupte. “Back in good old days, you had Kundan Shah, Sudhir Mishra, Vinod Chopra, Ketan Mehta and Saeed Mirza who supported each other, spoke the language of cinema, and stood up for what they liked,” he says. “That was not the time of complex publicity campaigns. Those were innocent times.”
And the people who are supporting each other are not all from the ‘alternative’ side. “Ram Gopal Varma, Vinod Chopra and many others went through the grind,” points out Kashyap. “So when you see Karan Johar giving a chance to half a dozen new directors under his banner, or Yash Raj Films and Balaji Motion Pictures doing the same, and banners like UTV and Viacom 18 jumping into the fray, it’s a good sign.”
But just the fact that a story is ‘different’ doesn’t make producers and banners whip out their cheque books. Which is why likeminded filmmakers must be like a community. “My fight was not to outdo the other cinema,” says Kashyap. “The fight was to co-exist. We don’t want to adapt to what works, we want to keep changing and bringing new things to the audience. When PST and Kahaani work, the atmosphere changes, and the number of films which were termed alternate cinema are increasing every year. That is a good sign.”