Lovers of Hindi cinema have for long bemoaned the paucity of quality original screenplays. Scriptwriters are indeed known to be a neglected species in Bollywood, but on the evidence of a slew of films released in the recent past, the balance might be beginning to tilt back just a little.
While one section of the Mumbai movie industry is still merrily cannibalising hits of the past and Hollywood blockbusters as an easy way out, a bunch of more self-respecting filmmakers and writers have broken free from the copycat syndrome.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai are three signing examples of original thinking, an attribute that was until recently under serious threat of complete extinction in Bollywood.
|Omkara was a remarkable interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello.|
Of course, this isn’t an overnight phenomenon: the tide had begun to turn way back in 2001, the year of Ashutosh Gowariker’s
and Farhan Akhtar’s Dil
. The two films, informed with a sensibility rooted in the values of non-formulaic filmmaking, rewrote the rules of the Bollywood game and gave popular Hindi cinema a degree of respectability that it hadn’t had for many, many years.
In the last couple of years, the movement towards originality has gathered appreciable momentum even as a large part of the industry has continued down the path of least resistance by churning out brazen rip-offs and slapstick comedies.
Films like Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal yanked Bollywood away from its mindless entertainment-at-all-cost moorings and gave the Hindi movie audience narratives with substance and depth. Both Bhandarkar and Kukunoor have followed up last year’s successes with two equally original cinematic essays – Corporate and Dor respectively.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the kind of cinema that the likes of Bhandarkar and Kukunoor make now has more takers than ever before, allowing a section of Bollywood to maintain a steady stream of films that use the medium far more meaningfully than the mainstream segment of the industry usually does.
The year 2006 will go down in the annals of Bollywood as a back-to-the-basics year, given the sheer originality that shines through in films like Rang De Basanti, Omkara and Lage Raho Munnabhai. All these three films, in a sense, mark a return to the past, both in narrative and historical terms, but deliver entertainment that is entirely grounded in the present.
The manner in which the text of Rang De Basanti merges India’s present with the past or the way in which the sprightly Lage Raho Munnabhai weaves a delightfully droll comedy around the ever-relevant but nearly forgotten political aphorisms of Mahatma Gandhi bear testimony to the fact that the script is probably close to being king once again. The formula is dead.
Neither Rang De Basanti nor Lage Raho Munnabhai owe anything in terms of ideas to anything we have seen in the past. Nor are they films that can be imitated by lesser writers and filmmakers. Having sprung from fiercely individualistic sensibilities that embrace the unknown and the offbeat without necessarily renouncing the tried and tested, these films are uniquely tamper-proof.
Omkara is in much the same league, with its remarkably innovative reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Othello, in the cultural context of Uttar Pradesh’s political badlands. Again, it’s a film that is completely original and beyond the reach of those Bollywood quickie churners whose life and works depends on the latest fads and fancies.
Rang De Basanti, Omkara and Lage Raho Munnabhai may be inimitable as films, but as a collective trend they are certainly worth emulating. Having struck it rich at the box office, these films, and others like them, have demonstrated that the audience is game for narrative experiments, unusual storylines and a few challenges. It’s time to build on the gains.