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Nihalani leaps into Big B league

What is Amitabh doing in offbeat filmmaker, Govind Nihalani's film? Saibal Chatterjee finds out.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2003 19:23 IST
Saibal Chatterjee
Saibal Chatterjee

Crowd-pulling megastars and low-budget non-mainstream cinema have rarely crossed paths in Mumbai in the 30-odd years that they have co-existed. And even when they have done so on stray occasions, the outcome has seldom been happy. So what is the much in demand Amitabh Bachchan doing in a Govind Nihalani film?

The Big B heads the cast of the under-production Dev, which is far and away the most expensive film that cinematographer-director Nihalani has ever helmed. His has been a career marked by remarkable highs. Nihalani has delivered some of Mumbai cinema's most talked about films of the past two decades - Aakrosh, Ardh Satya and Tamas, to name a few. Coming off the disaster of Deham, Nihalani's leap into the Big B league is quite remarkable. The cast of Dev also has an array of other stars- Om Puri, Fardeen Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

Produced by Manmohan Shetty of Adlabs and the new-fangled Applause Entertainment, a division of the Aditya Birla group, Dev is believed to be an update, to a certain extent, of the hard-hitting Ardh Satya, the cult movie made by Nihalani 20 years ago. The 1983 film achieved huge commercial success though it had no stars of the mainstream Hindi cinema. But this is 2003 and the rules of the game have changed.

Says Nihalani: "Dev narrates a tale of contemporary relevance. But the presence of big stars is needed because they alone can bring people in. If the people also find a substantial story in the film, they will keep coming." Today, men like Nihalani and Bachchan, despite the appreciable distance that exists between them in terms of artistic orientation, are really in the same business: the business of making viable films.

Dev certainly isn't Nihalani's first shot at commercial Hindi cinema. Only a few years ago, he had made Thakshak, with Ajay Devgan, Tabu and Rahul Bose in the cast. The film, despite a powerful narrative and a classy look and feel, fell between two stools. Critical acclaim eluded it, while the masses stayed away. The success of Dev will hinge primarily on how much Nihalani has learnt from the Thakshak experience.

For Bachchan, however, Dev represents a first. It is indeed the first time that the Big B is doing a full-fledged role in a film directed by a leading exponent of non-mainstream Hindi cinema. The commercially oriented films he has done in recent months haven't exactly been runaway success stories. Is that why the Big B has deemed it fit to play a part in Dev?

Well before he achieved stardom, Bachchan had lent his rich baritone to the voiceover of Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome, which had incidentally marked the beginning of the New Indian Cinema movement in 1969. In 1977, he did much the same for Satyajit Ray's only full-length Hindi-Urdu feature, Shatranj Ke Khiladi.

Bachchan also played a guest role in 1988 in Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor, as he did in other Gul Anand-produced films like Pankuj Parashar's Jalwa and Ketan Mehta's Hero Hiralal. But that's where it all ended. Barring these occasional brushes with offbeat Hindi cinema, Bachchan had stayed firmly in the Prakash Mehra-Manmohan Desai orbit, stepping out once in a while to star in a less conventional Hrishikesh Mukherjee film.

If having a somewhat reluctant superstar on board isn't bad enough, Dev does not seem to have history on its side either. Past attempts by non-mainstream filmmakers to deliver hits with the help of superstars haven't been particularly successful. The fate that befell Thakshak is still fresh in public memory.

Ketan Mehta, who built a huge international reputation with films like Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, found the going extremely tough when he forayed into mainstream cinema (Maya Memsaab and Oh Darling Yeh Hai India). He had the star power of a Shahrukh Khan at his disposal on the two films but that counted for nothing when it came to wooing the masses. No wonder that he fared even worse when he chose to lean on none-too-hot Jackie Shroff to bail out a rather vapid Aar Ya Paar.

But Bachchan is Bachchan, a star who enjoys cult status, and Nihalani is once again on a wicket that he has been on before. Yet the question refuses to go away: Can Dev live up to its name and rewrite history?

First Published: Jul 29, 2003 14:26 IST