Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bollywood New Wave


The Indian New Wave

In fall 2003, I was asked by a friend of mine, the director Manish Acharya, to co-write a film with him. It would be about a Bollywood singing contest in New Jersey. We were influenced by the movies of Christopher Guest and Woody Allen, and had lived in New York for a numbers of years. At some point, in various coffee shops in Manhattan, as we wrote, I asked Manish who our audience might be. He intelligently remarked that we shouldn’t write with audiences in mind but just try to tell a good story. That’s the sort of answer auteur film directors give at film festival Q&As and grave audiences nod in agreement. It had a sort of nobility to it. I was far more interested in a petty middle-class answer.

“Still, who?” I insisted.
“Whom” he corrected, adding, “New India. This is a film for new India.”

“Hm…” I agreed without understanding what the hell he was talking about. After all, as New Yorkers, we consumed a cinematic diet of IFC, Film Forum, HBO and Sundance, while in the Indian film world (essentially Bollywood), fiefdoms ruled. And these fiefdoms existed to create star vehicles for a handful (the Bachchans, the Khan quartet–Shah Rukh, Saif, Aamir and Salman, the Roshans etc.) of bankable superstars. Stories were loose, informal things that existed solely to move the star from point A to point B on his heroic journey. This predictable melodrama was either preachy (“love is better than arranged marriage”) or polemic (“Hindus and Muslims should get along”), and Non-Resident Indians loved it because, through familiar faces, these films gave them some comfortable, static idea of “home”.

Outside Bollywood, Indian directors such as New York- and London-based Mira Nair and Gurindher Chaddha, took a slice of Indian culture that the West would find appealing, and created films appealing to those sensibilities: Hollywood-influenced movies that examined upended notions of Indian matrimony through verite documentary (Monsoon Wedding) or soccer (Bend It Like Beckham). Into the early years of the 21st century, these were the two recognizable worlds of Indian cinema.

So as we sat in Union Square, writing Loins of Punjab, a comedy with a deadpan comic aesthetic with neither heartstring-tugging expatriate angst nor Indian culture made palatable to the liberal western film-goer, I was certain we were doomed. The Indians we were writing for—cosmopolitan, edgy, ironic, global, full of Bollywood pop trivia and American indie quirkiness—were too few to demand their own genre. I was completely wrong.

As I write this in the summer of 2009, Loins of Punjab has become the highest grossing English language comedy in India, and a cult hit in the United States. One might think that achievement doesn’t mean anything, and it probably doesn’t. But what it did show me was an audience that supported a new kind of Indian cinema. And with it, a new breed of Indian filmmaker.

Somehow, somewhere, someone said enough. The fiefdoms of old-school studios churning out regressive family sagas, the cartel of stars making unreasonable demands like stretch limousines during foreign shoots, silly Hallmark Channel soap conflicts, cheesy glamour, lazy storytelling, laughable dialogue that made us ashamed on airplanes when we read them subtitled, and the clich├ęs of Bollywood (boy meets girl, coy dancing around trees, gratuitous wet sari scenes)… all, in the last seven years, somehow ended.

The “real” India, everyday India, demystified and de-glamorized, was no longer the domain of foreign filmmakers showing a slice of exotic life in an unknown culture to Westerners. It was time to tell modest, observed stories of a people, for those people, depicting familiar surroundings in neighborhood cinemas across metropolitan India. It was time to tell these stories without apology or fake Bollywood gloss. It was time, as the French auteurs called it, for a “new wave.” The difference, of course, was that the French new wave arrived fully-formed, articulated by a handful of European critics and academics who wanted a clean break from the existing French cinema.

The Indian new wave is a process of evolution more than revolution. It gradually evolved over casual chats among like-minded artists, creating together in a place (Mumbai) and a point in history (now), rather than in response to some desperate audience demand.

Traditional Bollywood movies like a David Dhawan’s Partner or Abbas Mastan’s Race still make lots of money at the box office so the new wave isn’t a financial overhaul of the system either. Many of the next generation filmmakers got their start assisting the old guard and some were born into old guard families.

However, they all exhibit a radically different world view, thinking, and moral compass. For the first time since Satyajit Ray, Indian movies exhibited complexity, shades of grey, sophisticated psychological dilemmas, nuance, and ambivalence. Of course, while it happened, we had no idea it was happening because we were in the middle of it, just trying to convince people that ours was not a comedy about pork and no lions were harmed while making it.

“Some of it came from a sudden burst of new talent in Bollywood, and some of it came from a sudden burst in new money. Many were foreign educated and studied film, which was rare in the industry. What’s interesting is how young they all are,” explained a Mumbai-based trade analyst at the Bollywood TV Channel, Zoom TV.

At the beginning of this new millennium, directors showed up in Mumbai and started making films India hadn’t seen before. Suddenly the likes of Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool), Reema Katgi (Honeymoon Travels), Kabir Khan (Kabul Express), Abhishek Kapoor (Rock On), Shimit Amin (Chak De India), Rohan Sippy (Bluffmaster), Anurag Kashyap (Dev D, Black Friday), Sujoy Ghosh (Jhankar Beats), Manish Acharya (Loins Of Punjab), Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla), Madhur Bhandarkar (Page 3), Farhan Akhtar (Don), Zoya Akhtar (Luck By Chance), Imtiaz Ali (Jab We Met), Rajat Kapoor (Mixed Doubles), Sudhir Mishra (Khoya Khoya Chand), Navdip Singh (Manorama Six Feet Under) and Abbas Tyrewala (Jaane Tu) were making widely varied films with fresh perspectives, all around the same time.

“A lot of these guys grew up on contemporary American and European cinema. Unlike the previous generation of Bollywood storytellers who didn’t know much beyond their immediate India,” explained Chako, a Times of India film critic. “But this lot was equally comfortable with the awful years of Bollywood, 70s through early 90s. So they could channel both, a western aesthetic coupled with what’s essentially Indian to their storytelling. They also understood irony from camp from pastiche and created an entirely new, very urban, Indian voice in film.”

Interestingly, a lot of the new wave didn’t come from film families—for a long time, India, like all closed economies, had industries controlled by powerful family businesses. Some, like Rohan Sippy or the Akhtars, did come from such families, but many came from varying professions—Sujoy Ghosh worked for Reuters, Vishal Bhardwaj was a music composer, Madhur Bhandarkar was a video delivery man, Dibakar Banerjee was an advertizing copywriter, Manish Acharya ran a software business. They were all urban, city people (which is why so many of their films are about urban dilemmas) and they had the technical skills and professionalism that the industry severely lacked. Many used story-boarding, foreign cameramen, hand-held guerilla shooting, documentary footage, and animation.

This New Wave of filmmakers also drew upon private experiences for their films, allowing for a range of stories to evolve, each portraying some unique aspect of India. Bhardwaj set Shakespeare adaptations in India’s rural, gangster-controlled hinterland; Imtiaz Ali made sweet little urban love stories, the Richard Curtis of India; Zoya Akhtar looked inward, satirizing India’s film business; Sudhir Mishra obsessed over India’s socio-political history; Anurag Kashyap channeled gritty European auteurs to tell stories of crime, terrorism and unrequited love; Acharya tackled the mockumentary; Sippy, the Guy Richie-esque gangster film; Navdeep Singh, the noir thriller set in Rajasthan.

“Not all of it was good and not all of it was original” Ankush Khanna, a film historian, said of the new wave. “But it is new. And it is speaking an entirely new language that Indian audiences haven’t seen before. Our society is in huge flux. Thousands of years of cultural order is undergoing a silent non-violent revolution as young people make different economic, social, and romantic choices than their parents. 70% of India is under 25. It will be interesting to see who among these lasts as original voices for this nation in rapid transformation”.

For old Bollywood, trying to understand and adapt to this changed (and continually changing) society was (and is) very difficult. The likes of Subhash Ghai, Yash Chopra, David Dhawan, Sajid Nadiadwala, Bunty Walia, Harry Bawaja had all made hugely successful box office hits through the 80s and 90s. Their movies defined the quintessential stereotypes of Bollywood: lavish song sequences with heroes (grown men) in thong bikinis being chased by models on a South African beach, remakes of Hollywood blockbusters like Speed, Hitch and Usual Suspects (all, inexplicably, set in foreign locations), evil men in capes playing villains and raping heroines. Some of these movies made the careers of Salman Khan, Govinda, Sunny Deol–huge megastars almost worshipped in small town India. Back then, the largely illiterate populace looked to film for a voyeuristic view of an unattainable lifestyle, and theaters were dirty places for sexual release. Now, in the new era of urban post-modernism, cinema is trying to mean something…and these stars are camp and mocked.

“I think the country has changed, I don’t recognize this audience” said 80’s megastar Mithun Chakraborty to the press. Chakraborty had starred in several seminal classics of the 80s, especially Disco Dancer and Dance Dance (India’s remake of Travolta’s Saturday Night Live). He voiced his bewilderment when his film Jimmy (starring his son, and also about a disco dancer’s struggle to fame) left cinemas the day it opened. In today’s India, Mithun’s films (he also did an Indian Bond trilogy called Gunmaster G-9) are watched by urban hipsters to laugh at over drinks. “It’s our Austin Powers,” explained a Mumbai DJ, “except they weren’t intending to be funny in 1981”. Mithun’s long time producer, the 80s legend B. Subhash (who also remade a Bollywood version of Tarzan, as a musical) doesn’t have enough cache left to get a film funded today. He wants to make a musical about the November 26th Mumbai terror attacks.

“The only producers from the earlier era who will survive are those who are trying to change. You need to bring in new writers and directors to make that happen” explained a studio executive at The Indian Film Company. “Look at Aamir Khan–he starred in terribly silly movies playing lovers in sailor hats. Today he’s India’s leading cutting-edge producer of the new wave. And look at Subhash Ghai. Once with the Midas touch, now critics say he’s lost the pulse of his audience.”

As a writer of alternative films in Bollywood, I see the studios’ daily struggle to be relevant as every Friday some new director releases a cult hit. I’ve been in script meetings for a Bollywood remake of Motorcycle Diaries, an adaptation of “half” a remake of Steve Martin’s Bowfinger, and I got offered a screenplay based on “a story about a murderer/singer/dancer in Paris”.

Clearly, producers are hungry for new material and simultaneously unsure of new ideas. Instinctually they recoil, but are worried the changing audience might think otherwise, so they second guess. “Today’s Bollywood is like the Jazz age America,” a magazine writer at Cine Blitz, India’s most popular film tabloid told me. “Everything is trendy, though no one knows the next trend”.

Into the middle of all this parachute-dropped Slumdog Millionaire, the global phenomenon which immediately made both old Bollywood and new Bollywood exhilarated and angry at the same time. Angry because new wave directors like Sudhir Mishra or Anurag Kashyap did similar (and arguably much better) films like Satya and Dharavi, on similar subjects — i.e. set in slums amongst Mumbai gangsters. Angry because no Hollywood studios swooped in with distribution deals that would have ensured a similar global (especially American) audience. Angry also because the term “poverty porn” was being thrown around as if India’s biggest cinematic export was its destitution. Exhilarated because Hollywood studios have flocked to India in the last few years, and Slumdog has cemented their stay.

The Hollywood suits arrive, not only to release their Shreks and their Batmans, but to fund and partner with Indian film companies, thereby granting the New Wave access to unimaginable money. It’s also a glimmer of hope for fading Bollywood stars—they see what’s happened to the almost retired Anil Kapoor (a post-Slumdog gig as a series regular on the hit U.S. TV show “24”), and the fairy tale of Freida Pinto, a previously unknown Mumbai model. Like India’s relationship to Britain, Bollywood’s relationship to Slumdog (a British production with Englishman Danny Boyle at the helm) is deferential and accusatory concurrently.

“It had to happen,” a famous actor who chose to remain anonymous explained. “New Bollywood was the next step,” he added, implying forces at work long before, cultivating the emergence of this new breed of directors.

In the mid 90s, Yash Raj (India’s largest film studio) opened the door to foreign locations in Europe. Big directors like Karan Johar played to Indian audiences in New York and London with sappy love stories set in those foreign locations. Then directors like Maniratnam and Ashutosh Gowariker came along and unleashed huge epic films like Yuva and Lagaan, revolutionizing Bollywood storytelling, and doing away with dreamy tones for gritty real ones. Then in the late 90s Farhan Akhtar made Dil Chahta Hai—a hip, urban, comic love story (and box office hit) that did away with pathos and melodrama for a Hollywood style slice of life film. All these strains merged to create a new wave. Our current Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the man responsible creating new India, the consumer-driven free market capitalist society which has allowed the new Bollywood to evolve, once said, “Victor Hugo believed you cannot stop an idea whose time had come”.

He was referring to the country’s transformation from a government planned socialist economy. But nowhere is this axiom truer than in Bollywood, where economic freedom has led to a freedom of ideas.

1 comment:

Seema said...

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