Get real, Bollywood: Acclaimed Iranian director Majid Majidi points out flaws in our filmmaking
Although Majid Majidi needs no introduction to the cinephiles across the globe, his name is suddenly resonating across India thanks to his recent release, Beyond The Clouds. That’s not only because the film is set in the underbelly of Mumbai, but also because this is essentially an Indian film, made partly in Hindi.
Interviewing Majidi is difficult: he speaks neither English nor Hindi. I have his translator, Mr Mirseraji aka Surya, to help me. But photojournalist Prabhat Shetty was not as lucky. He’d started shooting before Surya and I entered the room, and without subtitles, many of his instructions were lost in translation. Still, when Majidi examines the photos, he flashes that elusive smile, points out his favourites, and pats Prabhat on his back. Clearly, art and human emotions can transcend the boundaries of language, a message that Majidi’s films also convey.
The song of sparrows
The title of Majidi’s 2008 film, The Song of Sparrows, sums up the entire oeuvre of his films. Just like sparrows, the characters of his films are small, ordinary people who live humdrum lives in concrete jungles. Only if you stop and really look and listen can you hear their individual life songs and see the beauty in the mundane. Majidi can create classics out of themes as simple as a little girl losing her shoes, or a father going to the city to buy a hearing aid for his daughter.
“There are so many stories around us,” Majidi says. “Yesterday, I saw a man taking a bath on the road. He had a tiny bucket of water. I had just enjoyed a lavish shower in the hotel, and was feeling rather guilty about my privilege. Then I saw how much he was enjoying his bath; he seemed happy with what he had. He is probably living a more fulfilling life than me.”
The search for these real stories had brought the Iranian auteur to India. “I am fascinated how human life plays out in the streets of this city,” he says. “You see a woman making rotis on the side of the pavement while the stream of humanity walks past her. She is unperturbed. I have always been keenly interested in watching people in their intimate spaces, I am curious to know how life unfolds behind the walls. In the streets of Bombay, there are no walls to obstruct your view. These are stories unfolding right in front of you. I want to translate these on celluloid.”
The similarities in culture and language between India and Iran also drew Majidi to Mumbai. “I was introduced to India and Indian cinema through the films of Satyajit Ray. My vision is deeply influenced by his slice-of-life cinema. But we don’t usually see this life reflected in Bollywood cinema. How you see life and how you project it on screen are very important. India needs to tell stories that talk about the real India and not of a make-believe world, and needs to do it in a far more artistic way, armed with more nuanced scripts.”
Majidi’s films often explore the beauty of Islamic tradition while exposing its negative aspects, especially the politically motivated version of ‘Islam’. But he uses symbolism to smoothen the rough edges of realism, a concept rooted in the country’s literary heritage.
“We take a lot of inspiration from our rich literature, especially from the mystic poets. Although India has an equally rich literary heritage, I have not seen many Indian filmmakers taking inspiration from that,” says Majidi.
The Bollywood trap
He points out that India has no dearth of talent. “I have met many interesting and talented directors in the last year,” says Majidi. “They think that initially they will make movies that will bring them money, and then they will indulge in creative and artistic cinema that suits their sensibilities. But that post interval twist never happens. Once you fall into the quicksand of Bollywood, the more you struggle, the deeper you get into it.”
The box office imperative that rules producers is why the support of government and its culture ministry is absolutely necessary for any kind of innovation, explains Majidi. “In Iran we have organisations funding artistic cinema. That enables us to do the kind of cinema we truly believe in. Abbas Kiarostami got support from a local organisation that works for the development of children’s education. Not all his films made money, but he could keep on making his kind of cinema because he had financial aid. Even a Kiarostami couldn’t have become a Kiarostami if he had to always think about the commercial viability of his films.”
Since he is so well acquainted with Bollywood movies, what is the last Bollywood film Majidi watched and liked? “Watched many, liked none,” he says with surprising honesty.
To show or not to show
Censorship is an issue Majidi and his fellow filmmakers have been fighting back home for a long time now. But the auteur is not finding things much easier in India either. “The CBFC had asked me to mute certain words,” he laughs. “I don’t know how anyone can make realistic cinema if you can’t use the language spoken by real people!”
What pains him most is that there is seldom any logic behind government censorships. “A few years ago, I was part of an international film directors’ contingent that was invited by the Beijing government to create a documentary short film to introduce the city,” he recounts. “I wanted to shoot at the Tiananmen Square. As I set up my cameras, the state representative who accompanied us for the entire duration of filming told me that I can’t shoot the buildings from the left, but can do so from the right. Those were the rules in the documents he carried. Later I learned that during the 1989 protests, the agitators had marched from the left and so they don’t want to show the square from that angle. I find this absurd and whimsical. If you must put down restrictions, at least do it sensibly.”
Still, this champion of artistic freedom once pulled out of Denmark’s largest film festival to protest cartoons satirising Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication. “The first condition for any artist is to respect every culture. You can question things, but you need to respect them first. Being hurtful or mocking doesn’t make anyone a bigger artist, although it can make you a talking point,” says Majidi. “At the same time, it is not for the government to impose restrictions on creative freedom. It has to come from within. That is basic. I have a moral structure. Even when I have the freedom to express myself, I will not be hurtful just to celebrate that freedom.”
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From HT Brunch, June 3, 2018
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