Reality has stopped selling. Popular and even unconventional Indian cinema refuses to touch it, as if it were an illness to be forgotten, like a childhood outbreak of chicken pox. The more fanciful and incredible the story, the more its chances of attaining that pot of cash at the end of the multiplex rainbow.
Till a decade ago, attempts to retell stories concerning the spectre of terrorism were not exactly welcomed, but aroused curiosity as long as they were topped by star names, hip-swinging musical interludes and strong underpinnings of romance. In the last two years, Mr and Mrs Iyer, Black Friday and Parzania broke free of the norm to discuss the effects of communal politics on its hapless victims — minus the mandatory frills. But following the blockades and protests they faced — even though both the works gathered public and critical recognition — there has been a near-freeze on real stories on the disruption of the lives of real people.
Also, while Black Friday and Parzania did draw a major amount of deserved public and media attention, smaller-scale, intimate stories of communal divides — like Ammu and Khamosh Paani — were accessed only by the ‘aware intelligentsia’, which is still stalwart enough to seek out films on DVD if they vanished in the blink of an eye from the multiplex. It’s another matter that neither Ammu nor Khamosh Paani was not promoted adequately. If they were, who knows?
The business mantra is that any film whose promos are ‘bombarded’ on the satellite channels or, better still, ignites national newspapers’ front-page controversies, attracts a sizeable number of ticket buyers. Even if there’s a ban imposed by animal rights activists or protests against a Chief Minister-supported stance on the Narmada, the head count in the auditorium rises splendidly (read: Rang de Basanti and Fanna). After all, there’s nothing like a rip-roaring controversy to fuel public curiosity, like the absolutely unnecessary bans on Jodhaa Akbar.
The take on reality-oriented pictures is dodgy. Most film producers, and corporate houses which have multiplied faster that rabbits, make the token gesture of weighing the pros and cons of a ‘meaningful’ project. Then comes the predictable recommendation: “Why don’t you do something light and entertaining? Fun-fun, you know?” The dark side of the moon is out. Instead, let the sunshine in. Go on feel good, suffuse the screen with a 1001 smileys.
Take the case of a 30-something filmmaker who has been striving to acquire funding for a film set in the contentious Kashmir valley. Neither any saleable actor nor any producer is willing to be part of her obsessive, painstakingly researched endeavour. Known for her technical expertise, thanks to her contribution as an assistant to record-breaking romantic blockbusters, she is invariably advised to shift the location from Kashmir to Zurich or Sun City. In not so many words, she is told that the audience wants sweetness and light today. So how about a beggar’s chocolate banquet?
This aspiring filmmaker is also considered dubious quantity because ‘women-oriented’ are dicey propositions commercially. And a woman director is mostly expected to do a whine piece on her gender. Conversely, if a male director presents a woman as the centrepiece of his work, he is likely to be asked even by women, be it a TV-bite reporter or a film academician, “Why this concern for women? Is it something personal?” Of course, no filmmaker is ever quizzed — be it Subhash Ghai or Yash Chopra — why he is stuck in the male-dominated scenario. After all that is a given, ever since India’s first film Raja Harishchandra.
Besides the in-born gender prejudice, a film that focuses on any minority community is shunned by the film industry at large. To address issues involving Muslims or Christians is a box-office no-no — unless it blends in the ingredients of all faiths in equal portions, a kind of a bhaji biryani. Narrations of scripts, featuring a Salma or a Suzy, are stopped midway with a suggestion: how about changing her to a Sushma or Shweta?
The snag is that practically every film producer believes he knows the selling formula, or at least one that will return his investments, allow him some tax records fudging... and who knows?... maybe an award or two. The ambition is to receive a National Award from the hands of the President.
At this very moment, a grab is on to rope in any director who can organise a marketable star, and a script that will not ‘tax the audience’. The hymn is that viewers should leave their brains behind at home. They should not be given the time to reflect (forget think). Only a few truly gifted auteurs can accomplish that trick. After Manmohan Desai, there have been only second-rate imitators.
The grab is on because more, many more than the annual stock of 800 films are needed for the rapidly rising number of multiplex screens. New formats — on cell phones and the internet — are just a techno-sneeze away. A hundred different kinds of films could bloom. They do not. There’s an almost fascist production rule — hack out escapist fantasies or buzz off. Don’t talk politics, don’t talk police corruption, don’t touch the stories of the ‘bhookha-nangas’. Go rich and famous, baby.
In effect, then, it is infinitely simpler for a wannabe filmmaker to extract a budget of Rs 20 crore for a no-brainer from a film producer or a corporate company than Rs 2 crore for a topical, potential groundbreaker from any UVXYZ TV. Go ahead, do a risible Welcome or a Partner. Don’t even dream big about a Pather Panchali.