For a country that produces the maximum number of films in the world there is very little Indian representation at the premier film festivals of the world. Barring the usual red carpet appearance of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan or a gala screening of Devdas (2002) Hindi cinema never meant real business at Cannes, the world's most popular film festival. With three Hindi films cracking Cannes this year, 2012 could be the beginning of a new romance between film festivals and Hindi cinema.
For the longest time Indian cinema has been divided into two very recognizable categories for the people who program leading international film festivals. It's either song-and-dance Bollywood or Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and just about everyone else who doesn't fit into the first. What is that Venice, Berlin, Cannes or Pusan want to see in Hindi cinema before they pick them up? One of the reasons why popular Hindi films never attract that kind of respect that a non-Bollywood film commands, at least in the eyes of an international film festival, is that a majority of the people who make these films don't look beyond their local multiplex. The economics of the trade is as such that anything that perhaps doesn't warrant an assured audience is not promoted and filmmakers are compelled to make market friendly films. Some filmmakers often fight the current but that's not what hampers Hindi cinema on the festival circuit as much as the notion that films that make the cut are to be 'packaged' differently.
The filmmakers who end up making films for an international market often end up botching things up beyond repair. Films like Bandit Queen (1994) and Satya (1998) were as non-packaged as they get and yet would have stood their own in front of any cinema. Had Satya been marketed well abroad it could have made a serious dent in the way contemporary Hindi films were looked at by the west. Imagine a Garam Hawa (1973) in this day and age. The film would have blown the brains of any jury. In the mid 1980s when Iranian cinema started creating ripples across cultures it did so on its own; the films weren't dubbed or packaged or repackaged for a non-native audience. Every cinema that has managed to break in the film fest circuit did it by giving something that was its own. Commercial Hindi cinema believes in its uniqueness beyond repair. It thinks that it's the only cinema that matters in the world and then when it tries to break into new territory it ends up losing its fabric in order to please those who don't understand it as much as they do.
Somewhere the perception of the west, too, is to be blamed. They are still wary of anything that comes out of India and isn't accompanied by an elephant or a snake or a flying carpet. They expect so much exotica the moment someone mentions India that the absence of it doesn't go down too well. That's why the every time a Hindi film is to be showcased there are carriages ferrying stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai to the red carpet! It's in this light that Udaan (2010) might have been nothing less than a revelation. The selection of Udaan in the Un Certain Regard category in 2010 started a new phase that has seen Gangs of Wasseypur, Miss Lovely and Peddlers make it to Cannes 2012. These three films form a nice trinity of urban themes and characters that depict India in a light that no Indian would have trouble identifying with. Vasan Bala's Peddlers has parallel stories with a drug peddling cop at the heart of it; Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur is an generation feud set against the north India's coal stained badlands and Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely is about two brothers who make third rate porn in Bombay of the 1980s and end up falling for the same girl.
Irrespective of its success Slumdog Millionaire (2008), to me, is still distant from something Indian. I don't mind a foreigner making the film, if an Ang Lee could make Sense and Sensibility (1995) Danny Boyle sure as hell can make a Slumdog Millionaire. I don't have a problem with the negative depiction of India as well but my grouse was simply that the film was a figment of Boyle's imagination. We don't talk in English and we believe in crores and not millions. Like Boyle the people who pick films for international film festivals have an idea of India that is more like Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited (2007) than anything else. The three films selected this year are a great step forward in changing the way the west looks at Hindi cinema. If nothing else the programmers will look at some really interesting films from India.
Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
From HT Brunch, March 18
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