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Do dark flicks have bright future?

Saibal Chatterjee wonders why our films are always sugar-coated.

india Updated: May 13, 2006 16:57 IST
WIDE ANGLE | Saibal Chatterjee
WIDE ANGLE | Saibal Chatterjee

Feel-good cinematic confections do work big time, but the dark side of the human psyche, too, exercises a strange appeal on the minds of moviegoers. The world, therefore, has no dearth of filmmakers who have built their careers almost entirely on the exploration of the vast expanses of grey that lie at the heart of the human experience.

The rules in Bollywood are a touch different though. Driven by the nine emotions of the classical navarasa theory, a large majority of Indian films seek to deliver a ‘holistic’ entertainment package to the audience. That leaves little room for concentrated probes into the areas of darkness in the human soul.

Is that the reason why most of the recent dark films to emerge from Bollywood are largely derivative efforts? It probably is. The Indian filmmaking sensibility, despite the plethora of exploitative flicks that Bollywood routinely dumps on its audience, is grounded, at least ostensibly, in positive, traditional values. Popular Hindi cinema, in particular, packages and sells dreams. It, therefore, continues to uphold noble attributes like fidelity, honesty, honour, valour and fairplay.

The social reality in large segments of urban India – commercial Hindi cinema’s principal constituency – has, however, undergone dramatic changes. Consumerism is rampant, corruption is a way of life, and the me-first generation seeks to get ahead in life by hook or by crook. Hence grey is gradually inching its way towards the centre of the Bollywood universe.

Sanjay Dutt starrer Zinda  explored the darker side of life. The film was an Indian adaptation of powerful 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy.

A small but steadily growing number of Mumbai filmmakers are turning their backs on sugarcoated fantasies hinging on an ideal but non-existent society.

"My film," says Suparn Verma, the maker of last year’s con thriller Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena, "has only black and grey, no white." Each one of the ten-odd characters that people the wickedly funny film is a con artist who is out to gyp the world.

Is that how the world around us really is? "Yes, I believe that we live in times where nobody can be trusted," says Verma, who is now planning a film with 25 characters, none of whom is worthy of trust. The one thing about Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena that stands out, apart from its elliptical editing, is the illusion of originality that it creates despite the obvious fact that it is inspired from the hundreds of film noir classics that the world has known.

Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante and Zinda, tales set deep in the heart of darkness, were outright copies of well-known foreign films – Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent Reservoir Dogs and Chan-wook Park’s powerful 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy. Well, both Kaante and Zinda had their moments of style and panache, but they suffered because the effort to indigenise an alien source material yielded severely frayed edges.

Bollywood’s reigning master of dark cinema is, of course, the inimitable Ram Gopal Varma. The advantage that he has is that owing to his enormous brand value, he can afford to refuse to follow set rules. He can make films like Satya, Company and Sarkar and not only get away with it but also achieve big-time commercial success.

Several other Mumbai filmmakers – the likes Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap, to name only two – have followed RGV to the dark edges of human existence and achieved overwhelming critical, if not commercial, success. They have carved a niche for themselves simply because of the uniqueness of their vision and style.

Vishal Bhardwaj, first with Maqbool and now the upcoming Omkara, has tapped the depths of Shakespearean drama to narrate underworld tales about mean men and women using amorality and their survival instincts as a shield against lurking danger. Maqbool was a small film. Omkara is a big budget multistarrer. Clearly, the Vishal Bhardwaj brand of filmmaking is on the upswing.

Anurag Kashyap, with the unreleased Paanch and Black Friday behind him, is currently working on Gulal, a political drama set in a lawless future where power brokers call the shots. He makes films that represent the very antithesis of escapist Bollywood fare. His films sock you in the face. They aren’t pleasant. They are about reality. Is that kind of cinema here to stay?

In the hands of filmmakers like Bhardwaj and Kashyap, Bollywood neo-noir certainly has the potential to evolve into a full-fledged, viable genre. How this form pans out in a climate where number-crunching proposal makers far outnumber true creators will depend a great deal on how much popular support these films can garner.

First Published: May 14, 2006 09:00 IST