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The battle for global eyeballs

Indian cinema is still driven by the clout of superstars, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2006 16:00 IST

It has so far been a wonderful year for popular Hindi cinema, thanks to a wide array of products having achieved varying degrees of commercial success in the last nine months. Rang De Basanti, Fanaa, Omkara, Being Cyrus, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Lage Raho Munnabhai, among others, have found ready takers, niche or otherwise, at the box office.

What is particularly striking in the current situation is that none of the above-mentioned films bears any resemblance to the others. Each exists in a space of its own. That has raised hopes that Mumbai cinema is steadily coming of age, having rediscovered the power of originality.

But where, pray, is the film that is going to further India’s cause in the global market? KANK has reportedly collected enough in the North American circuit to become the biggest Indian overseas grosser ever. But its global impact has been rather limited for it is hardly the kind of film that could have western audiences flipping big time for its facile storytelling devices.

Films like Rang De Basanti, Being Cyrus and Omkara, haven’t really travelled as much as they deserve to.

India has drawn a blank this year in Cannes, Locarno and Venice, front-ranking international festivals that are regarded as launch pads into the global arena. In the one major festival where India did have considerable presence with as many as five films in the official line-up – the just-concluded 31st Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – the world’s largest filmmaking nation fell well short of generating a buzz despite the high-profile presence of the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan.

India simply did not have the quality in Toronto this year that could have catapulted its cinema to top of the mind status. Besides the overlong KANK, which was screened in its original uncut form at TIFF, India was represented in various sections by four interesting debut efforts – Kabir Khan’s Kabul Express, Chitra Palekar’s Maati Maay, Rajnesh Domalpalli’s Vanaja and Haobam Paban Kumar’s documentary, A Cry in the Dark.

All these four films were unusual in both conception and execution, but suffered appreciably because of the gap that remained between intent and achievement. And that is where the irony lies – Indian films of the past few months that have scored high on the intent-versus-realisation scale, the likes of Rang De Basanti, Being Cyrus and Omkara, haven’t really travelled as much as they deserve to.

Programmers attending the Cannes and Toronto film festivals have found the going rather tough when faced with the prospect of selecting a handful of films from India for different international cinema events. The world has been waiting for the completion of Mani Ratnam’s Guru and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s EklavyaThe Royal Guard simply because there is very little in the currently available lot to enthuse them.

That brings us to the inevitable question: which of the films in the running this year will represent India in the foreign language Oscar race? Will the Film Federation of India, the industry’s apex body charged with selecting India’s official Oscar nomination, use its discretion to project a film that has a realistic chance of putting up a fight, rather than one that brazenly peddles the song-and-dance formula, which, it is becoming increasingly obvious, is losing its novelty.

In Toronto, Shahrukh Khan insisted that Indian cinema should not sacrifice its own special character in trying to grab global eyeballs. Fair enough, but then neither Chinese nor Iranian cinema has done anything resembling a sell-out to Western tastes. They have wrested sustained international attention by simply telling high-quality stories in styles that blend their own cultural peculiarities with world-class cinematic trappings.

Indian cinema hasn’t got even remotely close to where films from China, Taiwan and Iran are today. One obvious reason is that, as things stand, our style of filmmaking is still driven more by the clout of the superstars than by the robustness of the themes and the inventiveness of the treatment. We are probably getting there – hope floats on films like Rang De Basanti and Omkara. But there is no guarantee that either of these two films will be up for the consideration of the Academy voters when Oscar time is upon us.

But then, we do not really need the Oscars, as many in Bollywood are prone to saying. The world – and I do not mean only the NRI crowd – doesn’t need our cinema either, thank you.

First Published: Sep 21, 2006 13:41 IST