Incredible as it may sound, last evening’s panel discussion on the Indian movie industry, organised as part of the ongoing Dubai International Film Festival, turned out to be one just on Bollywood. And this in a city where most Indian expats are from the southern Indian States!
There were two participants on the panel. Reliance Big Pictures’ Amit Khanna and actor-director-producer Karan Johar. Both from Mumbai. And I could see two empty chairs on the dais. Did a couple of them fail to turn up?I know there were other Indian filmmakers in town, and with their movies playing in the Festival: Kerala’s Shyamaprasad with his controversial Elektra (based on the Greek mythology, and which reportedly provoked protests
The panel discussion could have been far richer if only the organisers had roped in these helmers, especially when the Festival had been imaginative enough to include movies from several Indian regions. There was also Aparna Sen’s poignant study of celebrity loneliness in Iti Mrinalini (The Unfinished Letter) in Bengali. The director cancelled her trip to Dubai at the eleventh hour.
Admittedly, both Khanna and Johar are well informed speakers and had interesting things to say about India cinema’s links with the Arab world. The ties, in fact, go back to the early 1950s when Indian films were a major attraction in places like Egypt and Lebanon. Khanna pointed out that these cinematic relations were no longer as strong as they once were. Maybe in Egypt and Lebanon. But Indian movies, especially from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, are widely patronised in the Gulf, especially Dubai. Most of them are in fact released a day earlier (on a Thursday) than they are in India. This is largely to check piracy, an effort that still appears not too successful.
Johar hit the headlines with his My Name is Khan, which opened early this year. A moving look at what the Muslim community had to face post 9/11, the film tells it all through a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Johar’s earlier attempts, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna were basically good looking glossies that were set in picture postcard places and generally spoke about beautiful people. They were entertaining, and did raise social issues, though too much artifice blunted the punch reducing them to syrupy sob stories.
But yes, Johar is an interesting talker and at the discussion he had the audience riveted. His one-liners had everybody in splits, and I think he has a great sense of humour and the strength to turn the mirror on himself.
There was a professor in the audience, from the Middle East, who wanted to know why Johar had to fall back on mood music to enrapture his viewers. She compared his movies with that of Moroccan director Nassim Abassi’s (who was in the audience) Majid, which also says a sad story sans any music, and yet succeeds in reducing viewers to tears.
Johar looked foxed for a moment, but then he quickly got his answer. “I am sorry but I do not have the confidence to make a film without background score. Every time, I did that, I went back to the editing room and added a whole lot of instrumental notes”, he admitted. “I love my songs, I love my dances, and I missed them when I did My Name is Khan. That admission needed guts, and the man was willing to share with the audiences what his weak spots were.
But, my own take on this is quite simple. I feel that directors use mood music as an easy way out to control audience emotion. Perhaps, their actors are by themselves not good enough to reduce viewers to tears. They need the background score to prompt audiences. Now laugh. Now cry, and so on. Maybe, the helmers themselves do not work hard enough to get their stars to emote as well as they ought to.
But who cares. For, as Johar quipped, “as long as one can make viewers cry, one can go laughing all the way to the bank”. That is Bollywood for you.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Dubai International Film Festival)