Vasan Bala on creating Cinema Marte Dum Tak, avoiding a whitewash and the problem with new age directors
Vasan Bala spoke to HT about Cinema Marte Dum Tak, the funniest interviews he conducted, balancing heart, humour, and the uncomfortable exploitation of moviemaking in the 90s.
Amazon Prime Video’s new docu-series Cinema Marte Dum Tak examines a forgotten “parallel cinema” movement within Hindi cinema - the sleazy, low-budget erotic movies of the late 90s and early 2000s. The show, from creators Vasan Bala, Samira Kanwar and Niharika Kotwal, explores that thriving subculture by talking to the directors, artists and actors of the time including Kanti Shah, Harish Patel, Raza Murad, Mukesh Rishi and Kiran Kumar. Also read: Vasan Bala calls Salman Khan-Shah Rukh Khan scene from Pathaan as 'greatest meta moment': Mere Karan Arjun aagaye!
A gloriously entertaining and surprisingly affecting look at movie-making and a forgotten corner of Hindi cinema, the show is equally an intimate portrait of the struggles of being an artist and making a living within the fickle world of film. Over its breezy six episodes, the show not only deep dives into the wild wild west that was low budget smut movie industry of the 90s, it also catches up with four directors of that time - Kishan Shah, Vinod Talwar, J Neelam and Deepak Gulati. Each is given the means to make a comeback by making a short film as we follow their…distinctive creative process.
Over Zoom, the show's co-creator Vasan Bala spoke to me about the funniest interviews he conducted, balancing heart, humour, and the uncomfortable exploitation of moviemaking in the 90s, and when we’ll get to watch the four films.
The show has such a specific tonality. It’s playful and cheeky and it makes you laugh a lot but at the same time it didn’t feel like you were making fun of the four filmmakers. You balanced how ridiculous the films of that time were with the sheer conviction and passion of these directors. How did you arrive at that tone?
The idea was to portray them as friends and as fans and to listen to them. The idea was never to give them instructions but to just listen and capture. So, I think that the crew really understood that. We always put the four directors first, and we never spoke down to them. The aim was always that we aren’t the filmmakers teaching them about filmmaking, they’re the filmmakers teaching us about filmmaking. They are the heroes and we are telling the story through their personalities.
And they're all very disarming because they’ve all led such colourful lives. They've seen it all. Success, failure, friendship, betrayal. Kishan Shah, for example always has his defenses up because he can't face his serious side. So, he'll always keep up a very frivolous facade of not caring about anything. Whereas Dilip Gulati wants a more intellectual side of his to be seen, which is why he keeps talking about Kurosawa, David Lean and Raj Kapoor. He really wants to be seen as an auteur. Vinod Talwar is like the honest Punjabi uncle who's warm, open and transparent. J Neelam we always knew would be the star of the show. She’s the feisty alpha and she’s always very articulate. So, there we never a space where we curbed their personalities and we also never judged them. The show was never about what we think they are, but about what they think of themselves and their own work.
You’ve said that the four directors didn’t initially get what you were going for. What was their reaction when they first saw the full show? Did they have a moment of “oh, I get it now”?
Yeah, there was and also just the reaction they were getting from their peers is what showed them that this was an honest representation and not a manipulation. They’re also liking that people are messaging them after a long time and that they’re being remembered and recognised for their work, which is really heartwarming to know.
I imagine it was very difficult not to laugh through much of working on this show and conducting those interviews with actors and directors of that time. Who was the most fun person to talk to? I loved listening to the filmmaker Teerat Singh, for example, who just couldn’t keep a straight face.
Teerat Singh was great because he has a real deadpan way of saying things, and you don't know if he's joking or not. We were all the most excited to meet Harish Patel who’s had this incredible journey from Gunda to The Eternals. Then we had also Mukesh Rishi, Raza Murad, Kiran Kumar. Hemant Birji was a personal favourite ever since I watched Tarzan as a kid. I actually wanted to cast him in Monica Oh My Darling but it didn’t work out. But I've always been on the lookout for all of them over the years. I’ve always been fascinated by “henchman number 3”, so in a way, it all goes full circle.
I imagine putting together your wishlist of 90s icons was also pretty fun. Was there anyone from your dream list that couldn’t be a part of the show?
I was trying to be over-ambitious and tried to get Roger Corman. That would have been huge to talk to him about his cinema and creating an alternate Hollywood and giving breaks to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Coppola to Ron Howard. And to get the chance to tell him about what we do here. We tried everything and even bombarded his Instagram but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. We also couldn’t get Harinam Singh. He made Khooni Dracula which was pretty much on par with Gunda as a cult film. Other than that we got everyone.
I liked that the show also delved into the exploitation of women and the uncomfortable territory of how a lot of these films were made. What were the conversations that went into exploring that side of the industry?
It was definitely a little tough on the crew to work on those portions. But we were very sure that that had to be included and that there shouldn’t be any whitewashing as part of the show. Episodes 3 and 4 were always going to dive into that. That was just the culture of the time. But nothing is going to absolve anyone and it had to be acknowledged. It wasn’t just art and pulp, it was also exploitation.
I imagine most people who watch the show will think everything back then was silly and everything today is better. But was there anything from the industry back then that you think was better than it is today?
I think the one thing I get from them and that time is courage and spontaneity. Today everything is excessively planned and there's a lot of fear about the stakes. As if every film is a make or break. I miss the spontaneity of filmmakers who would make two big films and a small film in between. We’ve lost that freedom and that culture of experimenting. That’s why today we end up with not more than 5 to 7 to 10 films in one filmmaking career because everything is so calculated. Today, if you experiment with a smaller film in between two bigger ones, you’re labeled as someone who has lost their mojo. I miss the fearlessness, and I apply that to myself too.
And lastly, the obvious question - when will we be able to watch the four films?
The films are with the censor board because we had to screen them in a multiplex as part of the show. So, those decisions and the legal back and forth is currently taking place. But the intention is to definitely put the four films out so people can watch them soon.