As modest films (vis-à-vis Bollywood standards) like ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Kahaani’ overwhelm the film market, the chroniclers of the business, as it were, carefully posit that cinematic trends are changing. In fact, it’s the other way round — the public taste is changing which precipitated the entry of new minds and new ideas in the first place.
At the core of this revolution is the idea that Hindi films are increasingly shifting discourse to small town and provinces and films like ‘Swades’, ‘Udaan’, ‘Jab We Met’ and ‘Dabangg’ have contributed to the understanding that provincial India is shining. This effectively means small town India doesn’t need Mumbai or Delhi anymore to spin dreams for them — or reflect upon their own reality, when young directors and writers from their own backyard are doing a fine job in recording that reality.
The formal success of these films is reflective of Bollywood’s triumph over its assimilatory tendencies, opening itself up to embrace India’s great diversity in its own, provincially-rooted flavour. The urban landscape is out of favour with most filmmakers, and Mumbai, which once formed the backdrop of many films, is nudged into the background. The new locales range from the rural Haryana to the urban chaos of Kolkata, the spoken language and its inflections, unabashedly regional with no effort towards subtitling and the names — with proud references to surnames — make for a richer experience for the new Indian viewer.
Sujoy Ghosh, director of ‘Kahaani’, agrees, “This change was fated to happen because a new generation of viewers is emerging. But what is the reason behind its emergence? Every business is first about demand, not supply. Today, people have access to 24x7 news; kids are fed on world cinema and Korean action films. This has broadened, if not refined, the audience taste.”
If you go by the rule of the book, ‘Kahaani’, led by a heroine (Vidya Balan) who has to frequently take George Eliot- like recourse to the male muscle of a Khan, was doomed from the beginning. “On paper, ‘Kahaani’ was a risk not worth taking.”
If Ghosh’s film explored the cramped bylanes of hometown Kolkata, directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee and Tigmanshu Dhulia make films in a landscape they are acquainted with. Dhulia’s familiarity with the Hindi belt of north and central India, coupled with an upbringing in Allahabad, enables him to get not only the ambience and cadences right but also the motivations and psychology of his protagonists convincingly.
“Paan Singh was full of pride for his nation and the army, and maybe that connected with people across the board,” conjectures Dhulia. He adds as afterthought, “I feel audience smells an honest effort.”
Hindi cinema, like any other cinema or art form elsewhere, has been entrenched in its time, politics, history and society. There was a time when Amitabh Bachchan’s angry Vijay captured the national co-consciousness post-Emergency, in sharp contrast to his predecessor Rajesh Khanna’s romantic enchantment. Dhulia notes, “Rajesh Khanna represented middle-class aspirations in the ’60s and ’70s when the Left movement was on the rise. He gave hope to the youth by getting the girl and singing beautiful love songs. He played mostly lower middle-class characters and romanced the upper-class girls.”
In the ’90s, Shah Rukh Khan’s arrival on the scene brought back some of those aspirations, bookended by the initiation of economic liberalisation. The urban India prospered, people began travelling abroad and sought richness in their film experience. At such a crucial juncture, ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ and ‘Pardes’ released within a gap of two years, opening up the cash-rich, NRI market. Through that decade, Raj and Rahul became a template for an ideal lover-boy who may be living abroad but possessed a heart that beats only for India. Simrans, Priyas and Poojas who were to later make way for Geets, Vidyas (strikingly pregnant) and Chandas, played a vital role in Shah Rukh’s success.
“These movies played to the loss of connection that NRIs felt towards their homeland,” says writer-director Sriram Raghavan. “Today, NRIs aren’t the sort who would weep on ‘Chitthi aayee hai’ and might actually look at soppy love stories with suspicion. They want the real stuff, too.”