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The Hinterland strikes back

Forget Switzerland or Mumbai, the aspirations of small town India, playing at a cinema near you, are suddenly the new cool. The aspirations and imagery of small town India are being played out on celluloid like never before.

brunch Updated: Aug 19, 2012 11:55 IST
Parul Khanna Tewari
Parul Khanna Tewari
Hindustan Times
Shah Rukh,Gangs Of Wasseypur I and II,Welcome To Sajjanpur

When you close your eyes and think of celluloid romance, what do you imagine? Shah Rukh serenading Kajol in Punjab’s mustard fields and Switzerland’s peaks in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge? Or Manoj Bajpai ogling Reema Sen’s cleavage as she washes clothes at a hand-pump in Gangs of Wasseypur I? The latter could be far removed from our big-city reality, something Bollywood filmmakers have shied away from for a long time. Yet, as the new crop of films show, they’re no longer in the background of urban consciousness.

WasThe aspirations and imagery of small town India are being played out on celluloid like never before. While Mumbai continues to be the filmmakers’ muse, the action has shifted to Delhi over the last few years. But now, the industry’s lens has zoomed even further inward. Shyam Benegal’s Welcome To Sajjanpur (2008) was set in a fictitious village in central India. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur I and II is rooted in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2012) finds its hero in Chambal, Madhya Pradesh. Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010) sees much of its action in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh and Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade (2012) gives Almor (a fictitious village in UP), its three hours of fame.

The films may be set in the hinterland, but are nothing like the stereotypical village stories of old Bollywood – no village belles in short, ghera skirts; no tales of famine, and definitely no dancing on crushed glass. This time, the locations are real, the plots believable, the details authentic. It’s a world where the new idea of entertainment is Huma Qureshi telling Nawazuddin, "Permeeson to lo! Aise kaise touch karoge?" in small-town Hinglish. It’s changing the way the stories are being told, and larger cities appear to be lapping it up. "We are tired of living our cinematic dreams abroad," says author and film critic Anupama Chopra. "Filmmakers have explored the world, set stories and characters in New York and London and anywhere else fancy. This concept has done its time."

Small towns, big money

So movies, with a rural semi-realistic setting, are giving the urban viewer something different. We’re finally waking up to the fact that there are villages outside of Punjab. We are enjoying the stories even if what is depicted is far removed from what we have experienced in cities. And the box office proves this.Tomar"One of the first films we did that told the story of the hinterland India in a near-real setting was Welcome To Sajjanpur (2008), says Rucha Pathak, senior creative director at Disney UTV Studios. "It was Shyam Benegal’s biggest grosser." Four years later, UTV, still cautious, released only limited prints of Paan Singh Tomar. It was only after the film started to pick up through word-of-mouth, that they released more prints, making the film a runaway hit. "Authenticity does appeal to people," Pathak admits, explaining how the bulk of the revenue came first from big cities and then from smaller ones. "The former contributed to the success of the movie." Pathak has an explanation: migration of people from little towns to the cities with whom these movies resonate.

These are people who respond to a different kind of story. “They would not, even now, understand proms and live-ins. It’s a world they don’t know and a whole lot of it, they don’t even aspire for,” says Chopra. Adding, “Now, the film industry wants to cater to everyone. Everyone wants to get into the `100-crore club. They want to appeal to the person sitting in Dhanbad as well as Delhi. And reaching out to a wider audience is the key.” This explains the recent popularity of Bhojpuri cinema and why mainstream movies now happily include dialogues such as, “Tumhara pyaar, pyar; mera pyar sex,” (from Ishqiya) or risqué lyrics such as “I am a hunter, she wants to see my gun,” (from Gangs Of Wasseypur 1). And it explains why young India – even the big city folks – is parroting them. The song Keh Ke Lunga, from Wasseypur, for example is as popular with radio jingles as it is with students ribbing their friends on the train.

Agents of change

KaranOne reason for this shift in sensibilities is the new crop of directors, producers and scriptwriters that small town India is importing to Bollywood. (See box on directors from small towns, Page 10). "Seventeen years ago, all the directors were over 50 years old and so were the assistant directors," explains Chopra. "Now, anyone who has a brilliant idea can crack it. The new breed of filmmakers is telling stories the only way it knows it, changing the language of cinema."

It’s a departure from the blockbusters that filmmakers like Aditya Chopra have been putting out since Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). Those films told universal tales of romance and painted syrupy fantasies. “When I was making Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), for me, the high point was having my actors wear brands like DKNY,” said Karan Johar on the NDTV show Picture This. “It was something I had aspired for while growing up and that is what reflected in my film,” added Johar.

Dhulia agrees: “The ‘Bandra boys’ show what they’ve seen. The new filmmakers from smaller towns express what they’ve experienced.” He adds that Bollywood, like print and TV news, holds a mirror to society. “Smaller towns are making newspaper headlines. Corruption, scams, murders, political intrigue, even stories of caste and love, are emerging from smaller places. And that’s why the shift, even in movies,” he says. “So you have Shanghai (2012) telling a story of corruption in a small town, Gangs Of Wasseypur telling one of revenge, Ishqiya of a lust triangle and Ishaqzaade of caste politics and love.

Devil is in the details
“You have to be real, there is no other way,” says Dhulia, explaining the secret to successful small-town storytelling. So important is authenticity for these directors, that at times, they defy urban logic. “Many people have asked me that even as everyone in the film is ageing, why doesn’t the person who sings in two voices also age?” says Kashyap about the Wasseypur films. “These small town singers care about their looks. They dye their hair regularly. If you look carefully below his eyes, you will see the wrinkles.” Also, the landscapes of these films would not feature a spiral staircase or a bungalow that would have cropped up in the older movies. Instead there are dilapidated houses on a busy street – recreated from childhood memories of the small town filmmaker himself.

Of course, for every Gangs Of Wasseypur that strives to get a sense of realism, there is a Bol Bachchan that recreates a picture-perfect cosmetic village which could be anywhere in India. But we can’t ignore the shift.

Locale flavour emerges
It’s no fun recreating locations in studios, points out Dhulia. For this breed of filmmakers, everything should be as close to reality as possible. For Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster (2011), Dhulia could only find a haveli he liked in Gujarat. The problem was that the story was set in Uttar Pradesh. “I was worried about the local crowd that would be in the background,” he recalls. “But because Baria was close to Madhya Pradesh, we found people walking around in the typical UP kurta pyjama.”

To make Paan Singh Tomar authentic as possible, the crew shot in the ravines of Chambal and filmed a few parts in the cantonment area of Roorkee, Uttarakhand. The shoot was tough. The crew had to park their vanity vans two hours away from the set, at the edge of the ravine, and use smaller cars to travel back and forth. There was no power or bathrooms. "Mahie Gill would go where the other village women were going. It would rain at inordinate times," recalls Pathak of UTV.

IshqiyaLike any Prakash Jha film, which has been instrumental in putting Bihar on Bollywood’s map, Ishqiya was actually shot in Wai, Maharashtra. It is a small town located some 300 km from Mumbai that looks similar to a village in north India. For Ishqiya, cheaper, safer, more convenient Wai was passed off as Gorakhpur, UP. It looks more realistic than a set and "even the villagers have a close resemblance to those in north India," says Ishqia director Abhishek Chaubey.

Characters get real
For your film to be convincing as a small town tale, you can’t have a good-looking, polished, Mumbai boy dancing to songs in the background or filling up the dramatis personae. Dhulia picked actors hailing from the northern India to play Paan Singh Tomar’s gang members. “One of the other characters, the leader of another gang, was picked up from Chambal itself. He is not a trained actor. In fact, he was helping us around the area and he proved brilliant in the film,” says Pathak.

Then, there are the little flourishes that urban India might not recognise, but Tier III towns and villages will find familiar right away. Launda nach, an obscene dance that the groom and his friends perform before a wedding, is as common in the hinterland as a bachelor party would be in Delhi or Mumbai. Loudspeaker announcements about a wedding, an approaching enemy or something as banal as a new soap brand are as common as Twitter is in urban India, points out Zeishan Quadri, actor and scriptwriter for Gangs Of Wasseypur.

Costumes cut to the chase
For Vidya Balan’s character in Ishqiya, Chaubey reportedly asked his costume designer to pick polyester sarees that looked pretty, yet were not something a girl in urban India would wear. To make the women characters of Wasseypur look true to character, Kashyap gave Richa Chadda worn-out sweaters torn in some places, and also gave Huma Qureshi salwar suits that indicated she was a Madhuri Dixit fan and had emulated her fashion sense in a way most fans copy actors’ clothes in small town India.

Lingo goes cool And if the look is so painstakingly authentic, why wouldn’t the lines be too? Directors have worked hard to recreate the mispronunciations, the dialect, the colloquialisms and the quirky turns of phrase that are dead giveaways to the towns they are set in. “Mera haath tujhe yaad kar kar ke thak gaya” Nawazuddin teases his wife in the typical Wasseypurish way. Contrast this with “You really hate me, na? And I love that,” that Saif tells Diana Penty in Cocktail and it becomes clear just how well two opposite realities of India are now unfolding on the Indian screen.

Quadri, who has written the movie along with Anurag Kashyap and two others, has imparted local flavour with dialogues like “Yeh Wasseypur hai. Yahan kabootar bhi ek pankh se udta hai, aur dusre se apna ijjat bachata hai.” He is unapologetic about the profanities in the film. “Characters abuse each other all the time, even for fun. That’s the way friends there talk. We would not say to each other, ‘You want to go for coffee?”. We would rather say ‘B###### ke, chalna hai?”.

So will this change the way Bollywood depicts the other India? Not necessarily, points out trade analyst Komal Nahta. “A Cocktail is still bringing in more money. It’s a passing trend as films are about good-looking people, places and larger-than-life aspirations. There will be exceptions. These films are just the vision of a few directors.” Wonder if the Wasseypur gang has any choice words in response?

Director Kabeer Kaushik

Directors From small towns


Vishal Bharadwaj:

The filmmaker, composer, singer was born in Bijnor, raised in Meerut.


Anurag Kashyap:

The filmmaker, born in Gorakhpur, grew up in Varanasi.


Tigmanshu Dhulia:

The writer, director, actor was brought up in Allahabad.


Raj Kumar Gupta:

The writer, director (No One Killed Jessica), comes from Hazaribagh in Bihar.


Abhishek Chaubey:

The Ishqiya director went to school in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh


Kabeer Kaushik:

Writer, director (Maximum) has grown up in Patna as well as Delhi.


Rajesh Mapuskar:

The director of Ferrari Ki Sawaari was raised in Shrivardhan village, Maharashtra.

A slice of reality

Wasseypur* Director Anurag Kashyap made sure that a few establishing scenes of Gangs of Wasseypur I and II were shot in Wasseypur and the rest in Benares (close to the real Wasseypur).

* Real incidents inspired the films’ scripts. The character on whom Faisal Khan (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is based, is still alive and kicking in Wasseypur.

The other India
* Details in Gangs of Wasseypur II, such as Nawazuddin’s fascination with Amitabh Bachchan, Huma emulating Madhuri Dixit and Definite aping Salman Khan are typical of youngsters in Tier-III cities.
* Dialogues and lyrics are kept as true to the local dialect as possible. Zeishan Quadri, born and brought up in Wasseypur, was responsible for bringing in most of the authentic flavour.

Carbine copy

* To make Paan Singh Tomar as close to reality as a movie can be, it was shot in the ravines of Chambal in Madhya Pradesh.

Paan * Paan Singh’s gang’s costumes were picked from the Chippi Tola market in Agra that sells used NCC uniforms. The clothes were rubbed with sandpaper and crushed and made dirty to make them look the way they did. Blending in

* Unlike the glamourous Vyjayanthimala in Ganga Jamuna (1961), Mahie Gill’s make-up in Paan Singh Tomar made her look like any other village woman. Even while the shooting was on, the locals thought Gill was one of them, says Rucha Pathak of UTV.

* Fido Sachin Lovalekar, the film’s costume designer, picked up saris for Mahie Gill (below, centre) from Dholpur, near Madhya Pradesh’s Chambal region


Drawstrin Inc

* Peepli Live was shot in Badwai, Bihar, to demonstrate the plight of a poor farmer, according to director Anusha Rizwi.

* The roughly stitched crotch of Nathadas’ pants is as real as they come.

Desi is chic
* Vidya Balan made a statement, draped in sarees picked up from Meerut in Ishqiya
* The movie was shot in Wai, a small town in Maharashtra, close to Mumbai. The villagers could pass off as North Indians.

ishqYuva speak

* Parts of Ishaqzaade, shot in Hardoi and Lucknow, were passed off as Almor, a fictitious town in Uttar Pradesh, where the movie is set.

* The protagonist couple speak in a mix of broken English and choicest Hindi abuses, which teenagers in small towns can relate to.

Learn the Hinterland lingo:

Here are a few specimens of the new cool lingo - straight from the hinterland. It is fast becoming the fun language of the urban youth too. For more, you will have to watch the films.

1.Gaggle: [Gaag-gal] Goggles: These are my new Armani gaggles.

2.Sikari: [See-car-ee] Man on the prowl for a woman: He’s such a sikari. Always looking for a woman to hit on.

3.Kahe: [Kaa-hey] Why: Kahe are you being so excited?

4. Ishqzaade: [Eesh-aaq-zaa-dee] Aka lovers or a couple: Only Ishqzaades are seen in Lodhi gardens post 6.

5.Katta: [Ka-tta] Local made gun: The coolest weapon to own nowadays: America's laws on the katta makes people very vulnerable to gun violence.

6. Kamina/kaminey: Is the new ‘bastard’: Does wonders to the cathartic process: That kamina has been troubling me for days. He just wouldn’t stop calling.

7. Premnisaniya: [Prem-nee-sa-niya] Love bite: My colleague came to office with a prem nisaniya. She seems to be getting a lot of action.

8. Womaniya: [Woo-man-ee-ya] Sexy woman: She’s such a womaniya. Makes my heart beat faster.

9. Baagi: [Baa-gee] The ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ way to describe someone who stands up or revolts against the system: He doesn’t care about what his boss says. He’s a baagi yaar.

From HT Brunch, August 19

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First Published: Aug 17, 2012 15:47 IST