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The politics of playing safe

B'wood biggies shy away from offtrack films, writes Saibal Chatterjee

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 19:47 IST

George Clooney is a quintessential Hollywood star that we all love to adore. He has built his strong acting career on a string of crowd-pleasing performances in big-budget blockbusters. But Clooney isn’t obviously a slave to the commercial machine that frenetically cranks out money-spinners for global consumption.

As a director, he has only two films in his booty, but he has already built up a reputation as a creator with a mind of his own and the courage to stick his neck out and make unambiguous political statements.

Clooney’s latest film, Good Night, and Good Luck, is fetching him unstinted accolades all around the world just as his directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, had done. With these two sensitive, politically inflected films, Clooney has emerged as a high-profile face of dissent in contemporary Hollywood.

In spirit, Good Night, and Good Luck, a political parable woven around the story of broadcast journalist Edward Murrow’s battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist fear-mongering, is a welcome throwback to the era of Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, a time when stars and actors possessed the conscience and the moral courage to take stands on political issues of import.

The Hollywood production and distribution machinery is driven primarily by money. That does not however stop independent-minded producers with non-Hollywood backgrounds to frequently enter the fray and look at the business with fresh eyes. These are producers who assess a film’s efficacy on dual parameters – the box office bottomline on the one hand and social impact on the other.

As a result, Hollywood has seen a host of films that have varying degrees of political undertones – Syriana, North Country, Jarhead, Munich and The Constant Gardener, among others – in recent months.

Bollywood, in contrast, is controlled entirely by big stake players that are complete insiders incapable of taking a larger view of things. The small films that dare to address real political and social issues are compelled to exist on the fringes of the production and distribution space, a fact that makes the industry that much the poorer.

It is therefore rather interesting when a mainstream actor like Anupam Kher produces a film for a director like Jahnu Barua (Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara) and the film gets picked up by Yashraj Films for mainstream distribution. Sadly, such occurrences are too few and far between to make a long-term impact on how Bollywood operates.

Usually, the likes of Kher opt to make their directorial debuts with run-of-the-mill films like Om Jai Jagadish, and Yash Chopra, one of the biggest brand names Bollywood has ever known, chooses to foist hours of utter vacuity on audiences. Political shenanigans, social aberrations and economic realities are the last things on their minds. Playing safe is the name of their game. Like Nero, they fiddle while the world burns.

The reigning superstars of Bollywood determine the contours of commercial Hindi cinema and none of them in the business today are endowed with the sort of vision that could enable them to translate their clout at the box office into a propellant to change the spirit and substance of popular movies.

Well, Indian cinema does have actors like Aparna Sen, Amol Palekar, Revathi and, to a lesser extent, Rahul Bose, who haven’t walked down the beaten track as directors, but none of them, unfortunately, has ever come remotely close to the inner circle of the industry. The actors who have are the ones that have made their name, fame and moolah from conventional Bollywood films – the likes of Feroz Khan and Rakesh Roshan. They are far too worried about the health of the careers of their progenies to devote a long, hard thought to the shape of Indian cinema as a whole.

Consider the contrast that Hollywood presents. When Redford turns director, he makes a film like Ordinary People, about a family grappling with the pain of bereavement. Warren Beatty debuts with Reds, about a radical American journalist who gets drawn into the Russian revolution and hopes to carry its idealism to the US.

But those films were made in the early 1980s. In more recent times, the likes of Tim Robbins and Sean Penn have forayed into the domain of political filmmaking. In 1999, Robbins, whose best-known film is Dead Man Walking, directed Cradle Will Rock, a true account centred on a 1930s leftist musical play and attempts by the authorities to stop its production.

Sean Penn, who debuted as a director in the early 1990s with the introspective The Indian Runner, about two brothers with diametrically opposite perceptions of life, was one of the eleven directors that helmed a segment each of 11’ 09’’ 11 – September 11 in 2002. His name in the credits was alongside such masters as Shohei Imamura, Claude Lelouch, Youssef Chahine, Ken Loach and Amos Gitai. The list had an Indian name as well – Mira Nair.

But can any Mumbai actor ever hope to break into a company as august as the one above? Well, hope, unlike mindsets, has no boundaries. But can our actors stop worrying about their bank balances and look beyond at newer galaxies of creativity?

First Published: Jan 28, 2006 19:47 IST