Anti-establishment’ may be too big a load on Pakistani director Omar Ali Khan’s first feature, but he is loving it. “Naag, nagin, rape, revenge is the staple of our Punjabi movies. Hell’s Ground is my anti-everything film,” he says. The Censor Board, which many directors across the border say, exists to block or scissor avant-garde efforts, has in fact nourished them. “It’s great to break genres and open things up,” says Omar. “The ‘revival’ of the Pakistani film industry is a marketing gimmick. Our cinema halls are like public toilets. The annual production of Urdu cinema is down to single figures. But these hurdles are giving birth to new creative forms.”
With no help from nanga dances.
“For four such numbers in a film, the Censor Board even has a rate going,” says Omar, in whose film six teenagers race their car under a full moon night to go to a rock concert after having lied at home. In some quarters of Pakistan, that’s Original Sin.
Omar who has a fine taste for the lowbrow, grindhouse movies of 60s-80s’ America, uses the horror movie template for other subversions: His teens dope, swear, forget to attend mosque and the two sexes meet unchaperoned. A burqa-clad ghost gives him the opportunity for a sly dig at religious extremism.
“Hell’s Ground is the first Pakistani film where girls utter the F-word,” says the director wryly. “Our Censors’ rules, made during general Zia’s oppressive years, continue. They show disrespect for art. Twenty years later, I can look back and say I was the one who burst through that door.”
If the sub-text of the Pakistani film in the First Feature category at the Osian film festival was transgression, Bombay-boy Sarthak Dasgupta made his debut chasing a butterfly. Sandhya Mridul and Aamir Bashir, his actors, battle work stress and the attractions of third-party Koel Purie, to do what balls of wool do —unwind. “Aamir’s redemption is in looking for the butterfly, Sandhya’s in dealing with abortion,” says Sarthak.
With the butterfly, the director does offer a new metaphor for happiness, but the same urban angst story. “Where will the story come from? From us,” reasons Sarthak, partly agreeing to the charge of having made middle-class cinema. “If I had made a story that was political or outrageously experimental even with the same subject, the funds might have dried up. The final call on the film comes from a person who wants to sell it as a product.”
Films on couples getting hitched, divorced and counselled now have a ready market, multiplexes and an audience. As actress Koel Purie, a permanent feature in such films, says herself: “I find myself in movies projecting slightly misfit, slightly rebellious characters in society. The more I play a certain kind of character, I end up repeating them and get trapped in different aspects of the same character.”
When did middle-of-the-road cinema in India become an excuse for asking very small philosophical questions?
While veteran director Govind Nihalini gives first-time directors a long rope by saying they are “handicapped by money”, Saeed Mirza blames it on an absence of politics. “When our youth talk of reservation, the only position I see them take is ‘for’ and ‘against’. No one talks of the larger issues of education,” he says. “These attitudes get reflected in the films of this generation. They keep the action small. If the story is about a couple’s marriage, it will actually be just about that one marriage. Why not situate that relationship in the many struggles that are on in society? On top of that, we have a very happy middle class, which does not like being asked probing questions. For them, the fight for an IT job is struggle.”
Sarthak Dasgupta’s second feature will surely be a better film. But he must learn to rock the boat.