Brave New Bollywood: In Conversation with Contemporary Hindi Filmmakers
Nirmal Kumar & Preeti Chaturvedi
Director Shoojit Sircar is not on these pages, neither is Anurag Kashyap, but reading the conversations with eight other contemporary Hindi filmmakers you understand how Piku, which has raked in Rs 75 crore at the box office and counting, got to be made—or why Kashyap could dare to make a Bombay Velvet (it’s another matter that it flopped).
These are interesting times in the history of Indian cinema, write authors Nirmal Kumar and Preeti Chaturvedi in the introduction. Establised, set rules are being challenged, boundaries are being pushed and the chasm between alternative and mainstream narrowing. It sometimes works at the box office (Piku) and sometimes fails (Luck by Chance), but the very fact that these films got made is a victory because a lot of new ground was broken, in terms of story, writing and cinematography, paving the way for fresher stories and their depiction. This has also led to new directors with different backgrounds—many from non-film-industry families—making their debuts in the Hindi film industry today.
Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee, who has contributed to this ‘change’ with films like Khosla ka Ghosla! and LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, says a new idiom is emerging, that of ‘anti-dumb cinema’. So is this new form of cinema alternative or mainstream? Kumar and Chaturvedi admit that it is “difficult to say whether the genre of meaningful cinema is coming into its own, or the very realm of what we hitherto called ‘mainstream’ is expanding to become more inclusive.” If we consider the body of work of these directors (bred in places as varied as Allahabad, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai or a village in Assam)—Banerjee, Kiran Rao, Reema Kagti, Zoya Akhtar, Shonali Bose, Anusha Rizvi, Onir and Tigmanshu Dhulia—it’s clear that they are at the forefront of this ‘anti-dumb cinema’ movement.
The conversations with each give us a peek into why they make the films they do, the social milieu they grew up in and their creative journeys—and it is a fascinating ride. Akhtar and Kagti, for instance, both long-time collaborators on films and writing, decided to be associated with films after watching Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. “There were no Indian films like that in the eighties,” says Kagti about the film, which made a real impact on her. For Akhtar, as soon as she watched the film, she knew “that was it. I just knew I wanted to make movies”.
Asked whether the world had become an easier place to live in after becoming Mrs Aamir Khan, director Kiran Rao, whose Dhobi Ghat was a critical success, candidly admits that “people don’t necessarily give you money because you’re a big name… I find that it’s probably easier if you’ve done 20 housefuls before you try and get money for the next film.” But Rao also adds that “life is easier because doors open”. Among the contemporary filmmakers, her favourites are Banerjee, Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali.
Asked how a filmmaker like him can survive in Bollywood, Banerjee says the “trick is to go on making
what you want to, year after year, and that itself gives you kinetic energy and a kind of standing. Ultimately, some people will say that he knows something we do not, so let us trust him and do this film”.
As Kumar and Chaturvedi were finishing their conversation with Banerjee, his long-time associate Kanu Behl, who co-wrote LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha and has just released Titli to acclaim in various festivals, gave an interesting perspective on the changes in the industry. Explaining why these days we see a lot of stories involving multiple characters—episodic in structure but somehow linked through the cityscape—Behl said it’s because most writers and filmmakers are city-bred and their “conflicts and ideas have to do with narratives that are present in the city”. There are no joint families any more, Behl explains, only single household units, “so you are suddenly staring at a row of flats with 20 windows instead of a big house with five rooms and 20 people, looking and wondering what is happening, in all of those 20 windows. So that one whole big life of 20 people in one house is fractured into 20 lives that you are trying to make sense of”.
Both Behl and director Dhulia rue the fact that there is a dearth of story-tellers in the industry, with Behl adding that “we do not have a strong supply line of directors or writers coming in from the interiors of India, from small towns or villages”.
If there’s one thing Allahabad-bred Dhulia is clear about, it’s that a film has to be entertaining. “I am a cocktail of commercial Hindi cinema and intellectual cinema. I feel there should be the presence of both in my films… Filmmaking is not like writing poetry. It is not for a select audience. Also, a lot of money is involved. It should reach the masses at whatever level it can. At the same time, it should have a profound layer that satisfies you as a filmmaker.” When the twain meet, the result is a Piku or a Paan Singh Tomar, exciting the audience to venture out to the movies in hordes.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer