Indian Cinema Heads Back To Its Roots
The late 90s and early 2000s were designed with the template of aspiration. Our cinema looked towards the West, aspiring to be there. It was almost like expecting an invitation to the party we didn’t belong to. It wasn’t uncommon to find lush green mountains of Switzerland suddenly introduced to make up the backdrop of a song, forcefully fitted into a tense storyline, for the sake of a momentary lapse of pleasure. Our perspective towards our own hinterland was laced with a trace of nostalgia, as if we’d already sailed westwards. This idea of escapism, while gullible, is only now beginning to wear off, as our stories are earnestly going back to their roots.
Recently, a New York Times article titled – “Masaan and Other Indian Films Steer Away From Bollywood Escapism”, chronicled this idea very neatly. As opposed to our romantic obsession with wanting to cater to the West, Indian cinema is now starting to look at its own stories pragmatically. To be fair, a lot of this can be attributed to the change in the social and economic construct of India. It is only now that our sentimentality of looking at the West as the ideal society is beginning to wane off, as global struggles are communicated in a manner, stronger than ever. The need to look at our own strengths and the want to repair our own shortcomings is the new order, and several filmmakers are looking at our stories from within, as participants rather than as spectators.
The most well-received films of 2015 are testament to this new reality. Masaan, a heart-wrenching portrayal of love and loss, that lays bare the prevalent caste system and bureaucratic corruption; Court, India’s newest entry for the Oscars, a story that examines justice in India, played out in a trial taking place at a lower court; and Killa, a coming of age story of a 11-year old boy as he grapples with not only the death of his father, but a new place and new friends; all these movies bear one idea in common. They all speak stories of the India that goes beyond the kitschy glamour of the urban construct. One can say that even 2015’s biggest movie, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, based most of itself in the smaller India, as we know it. The same can be said about regional language movies like Baahubali and Sardaar Ji. While the former made use of VFX technology that could rival Hollywood production, at its heart, it looked like a piece of Indian mythology that we grew up on.
The most exciting takeaway from this trend is that this time, even the big guns are giving in. YRF, a production house whose cinema idealized the notions of aspiration, is itself looking to back work that narrates issues exclusive to Indian society. With Dum Laga Ke Haisha performing incredibly well, the production house, which has backed credible films like Rocket Singh : Salesman of the Year and Mere Dad Ki Maruti is genuinely pushing the gun for more earthy stories. Their upcoming release, Titli, co-produced with the man rooted in realism, Dibakar Banerjee, is a gripping portrayal of the complexities of an Indian family. with undercurrents of abuse and violence. Having not only premiered in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes 2014, Titli has also received rave reviews from film festivals all over, and is slated for its Indian release later this year. It’s notable that even India’s most mainstream production house is starting to recognize the potency of the country’s stark sensibility.
There is little logical fallacy in the idea that art does best, when speaking its own language. While trying to ape the sensibility of the West makes for gorgeous cinematic backdrops, the appeal is lesser for people residing in India, than there is for the non-residential Indian, who earns and spends dollars, while his heart aches for his own country. Besides, with the changing political and social scenario in the country, coupled with the vastness of it, one cannot deny that stories are being birthed at every turn. There is a reason why movies like Titli, Court and Masaan are so well received in the international film circuit. The films are not only set against a purely Indian cinematic backdrop, they tell stories the west knows little of thereby sparking curiosity, with a treatment that stands individualistic.
Dibakar Banerjee, co-producer of Titli, agrees. He says, “The world cinema audience does not care about how many six packs we have or how many Porsches we drive. They are interested in us as a society of humans, with our basic human conflicts, emotions, pains and pleasures. If we give them an authentic experience of what it is to be an Indian today in India, they will watch it. Titli is a slice of life film from an average Indian family fighting for survival and triumphing in the face of tremendous odds. Any family in Nairobi or Berlin or Buenos Aires will connect to this universal human document.”
A few months ago, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali returned to be screened again at Museum of Modern Art. The screening was attended by two of Hollywood’s best, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Both, highly original filmmakers with distinct styles, united in their love for Ray’s masterful storytelling. That Ray has been an obsessive phenomenon in international cinema is known, and is often attributed to his poetic vision; but credit must also be given to the strong Indian pathos that has led his cinematic work. Cinema that caters to the west, often goes unimpressed, due to the massive creator’s complex it pays heed to. This can be testified by the fact that the two Indian movies to have ever been nominated at the Oscars, Mother India and Lagaan, both spoke stories of an India we know of, but rarely get to see.
With Indian cinema going through this major existential drive, it’s also nice to see an audience slowly growing to receive cinema that narrates their gritty stories. Cinema, that shows us becoming, than which shows what we falsely aspire to be. And we’re as curious to see us, as the west is.
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