The Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF wound down last weekend. And Bollywood managed to make its presence felt, through its absence.
Yes, there were films from India, films starring Indians, films shot in India, but the major Bollywood entry, Pankaj Kapur's directorial debut Mausam, underscored the unreliability of the Mumbai film industry by accomplishing the almost unprecedented feat of pulling out from the festival barely a day before its international premiere. Mausam's no show was the 800-pound gorilla that never made it to the room.
Its red carpet moment turned into a time for red faces.
Indian film industry representatives were shocked. They carped about how this would impact Bollywood's credibility in the future. After all, TIFF, along with its European cousins at Cannes, Berlin and Venice, is the place to be seen at.
The official reason for the premature withdrawal was that the Indian Air Force hadn't provided the filmmakers with its approval. The reaction among desi filmi types in town was a collective eye-roll. "Bollywood doesn't care, it only cares about the box office," an industry insider said.
Whatever the real reason, it was the producer's responsibility to deliver the film on time once a commitment had been made to a screening at TIFF, period. Instead, the pullout showed up Bollywood as an insular film factory.
TIFF's co-director Cameron Bailey, Bollywood's biggest booster on the international festival circuit, said they were "extremely disappointed". He could have said more, but then Canadians are just really nice, polite people.
But Bollywood should care. And going by earlier examples, it does. Which is why Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna had its gala premiere at TIFF, with Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan walking the red carpet. Which is why Aamir Khan shepherded his home production Peepli Live to Sundance last year. Which is why Karan Johar seemed excited about an international cut of My Name Is Khan playing at a boutique, Angelika Theater, in New York. Or why Hrithik Roshan has the talent agency Brillstein repping him in Los Angeles. And why Amitabh Bachchan may be doing The Great Gatsby without compensation, or so the reports will have it.
As an avid Bollywood fan, I want to see it reach the global mainstream, without the likes of AR Rahman having to piggyback on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, to get there. But the heavy weather over Mausam just shows an amateurish outlook that continues to stymie the industry.
Bollywood has gone pro with cinematography, music, plots, even acting at times, but its attitude can sometimes still be a con. Take for instance the Curious Case of the Reluctant Actress. While casting the film based on Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the author tagged along with the movie's director, Deepa Mehta, to Mumbai to try and enlist a "celebrated" Bollywood actress. "Your script, I love it," she told them. But, she had a 'problem'. That of playing the mother of a teenager. Recalling that encounter, Rushdie said that he told her, "Look, actually, when we first meet your character, she's 17 years old." What he left unsaid, but added in brackets to himself was: "Unlike you, madam."
Think about that, passing up an opportunity to work in a film based on a novel that won the Booker of Bookers, and directed by Mehta, whose Water was nominated for an Oscar.
Therein lies the difference. A-listers crammed the TIFF red carpet: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, even Bono and The Edge of U2, Madonna, and the Maldivian President. The Kapurs - and the Kapoor - of Mausam didn't get there. This at a festival that attracts every possible international media outlet, from the US and Europe, sure, but also crews from Japan, China, Africa and South America.
Here's the bottomline. Bollywood can either continue to navel gaze or get its act together to become a truly global phenomenon, just as the Hong Kong film industry has done. Fortunately, the biggies of Bollywood, Aamir Khan, SRK, Akshay Kumar, appear to get that. But their efforts get torpedoed by embarrassments like Mausam.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal