The news of Vishal Bhardwaj adapting the Cathy Scott- Clark and Adrian Levy bestseller The Exile—that looks at the last days of Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden—as his next project comes in the same month when director Ritesh Batra’s new film Our Souls at Night (2017) featuring screen legends Robert Redford and Jane Fonda is being streamed on Netfl ix.
Amidst the talk of cinema from India finding a global audience, these are also welcome developments where Indian filmmakers would discover newer platforms to tell stories. Despite cinema having a great legacy of artists from different language backgrounds working together—be it the great Chinese- American cinematographer James Wong Howe in the 30s or Christopher Doyle photographing some of Wong Kar-wai’s best films in Hong Kong—it was rare for an Asian to direct a mainstream Hollywood production up until the mid-90s.
It was only with the arrival of the Taiwanese born Ang Lee, who directed Sense and Sensibility (1995) that things began to change. It has been said that some stories are universal in their appeal and combined with the language of cinema, which manages to transcend physical boundaries, it is hardly surprising that mainstream Hollywood studios are now considering filmmakers from Asian. Today, an Indian directing a mainstream Hollywood film might seem like a given, but only two decades ago it was unimaginable.
In an interview where Bhardwaj spoke about his forthcoming project, he said that it was “time for India to tell a global story”. In the past, Indian filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray attempted to mount international projects, including a version of the Mahabharata with Japanese screen icon Toshirô Mifune as Arjun, but it wasn’t until Mira Nair’s The Perez Family (1995) that featured Marisa Tomei, Anjelica Huston and Alfred Molina, that an Indian filmmaker helmed a “non-Indian story”.
Interestingly, both Sense and Sensibility and The Perez Family were made the same year. Yet, when it comes to Hollywood, the trajectory for Indian filmmakers differs vastly from other Asian storytellers. Even though Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) happened only three years after Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, it’s only now that perhaps a filmmaker from India would be seen in the same light. Kapur went on to direct The Four Feathers (2002) featuring the then up-and coming Heath Ledger.
And Mira Nair directed the big-budgeted Vanity Fair (2004) with one of the biggest stars in the world, Reese Witherspoon. Much like Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, Batra’s debut The Lunchbox (2013) was globally acclaimed and opened the doors for him. Earlier this year, Batra had also directed a fi lm adaptation of Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of An Ending. Somewhere a Batra directing a Redford or a Bhardwaj making a fi lm that could be a prequel in spirit to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is in a way laying the foundation for a new(er) Indian cinema, an idea whose time has probably come.
Film historian and best-selling author@gchintamani