Cinema in the land of the rustic

Bollywood actor Yashpal Sharma in National Award-winning  Haryanvi movie Pagdi: The Honour
Bollywood actor Yashpal Sharma in National Award-winning Haryanvi movie Pagdi: The Honour

“Manne laage hai ki angrejji mein chhori jaldi pate hai. I love you bolo aur seedha kiss hove hai” (I think hitting on a girl is easier in English. Just say ‘I love you’ and the next moment you’re kissing)

Manne Shahrukh Khan bahut pasand hai. Jab bhi va ladki ki aankh mein aankh daal ke dekhe hai na toh andhi chhori bhi patt jaave hai…” (I like Shahrukh Khan a lot. He can make a blind girl fall in love with him just by looking into her eyes.)

Delivered by Salman Khan in his latest blockbuster Sultan, these dialogues in chaste Haryanavi got the audience whistling the most. If this year Sultan got the crowds raving over Haryana, last year it was Kumari Kusum, a village belle from the state, in Tanu Weds Manu Returns who won hearts more than her urban doppelganger.

From television serials to Bollywood movies, the north Indian state is clearly the flavour of the season. A state that has stood out for its sportspersons, latest being Olympic winner Sakshi Malik, is now making inroads in mainstream cinema after dominating television for close to a decade. Moving away from Bhojpuri and Punjabi caricatures, the Hindi film industry is now carving characters straight out of villages in Haryana replete with all the trappings of its culture — hookah, cattle, ghoonghats, and dialogues — as rustic as it be. After TWMR and Sultan, Aamir Khan’s Dangal is the next movie set in rural Haryana. While stars like Salman, Aamir, Kangana and Anushka are endorsing farmers, wrestlers, and bahu-betis of the state in Bollywood, its regional cinema has been creating waves on national and international platforms. With two consecutive national awards under its belt, and many international honours for two of its movies, the Haryanavi cinema which was gasping for breath till two years ago has embarked upon a new voyage.

While Pollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood are big industries in their own ways, Haryana is yet to emerge on the horizon to groom itself and make a mark

Pagdi The Honour, directed by Rajeev Bhatia, won the National Award for best regional film in 2015, a fête repeated by Satrangi this year. Haryanavi actress Baljinder Kaur left behind bigwigs like Tabu, Kiron Kher, and Priyanka Chopra to bag the National Award for best supporting actor for Pagdi, bringing more cheer to filmmakers from the state. These achievements are also harbinger of a new era dawning on Haryanavi cinema which had faded into oblivion after an initial somewhat successful run back in the 1980s.

Chandrawal (1984) was the first regional movie, and a big hit, made after a good 18 years of the state’s formation. It is a love story of a couple belonging to different castes who, predictably so, end up dying instead of walking hand in hand into the sunset. Its soundtrack, one of the major reasons for its success, remains hugely popular even now. The awe cannot be missed with which locals recall how mini-trucks loaded to the brim reached cinema halls in nearby cities as villagers thronged to watch Chandrawal week after week. The then chief minister Bhajan Lal also played a vital role in promoting the movie by making it tax-free and directing sarpanchs across the state to arrange transport for villagers to reach cinema halls. More than three decades later, Chandrawal is still part of discussions pertaining to Haryanavi films, further accentuating the lull Haryanavi cinema is witnessing, constraining conversations to only a handful of movies. In 2000, another Haryanavi film Laado tried to end this dry spell, and revive regional cinema, albeit with little success. In between Chandrawal and Laado, films like Jar Joru Jameen and a few others that celebrated the patriarchal setup of Haryanavi society never saw light of the day. In 2000, the movie won Indira Gandhi award for Best Debut Film in National Film Awards, but did not stir the state audience, once again creating a drought of good regional movies from the state’s stable even as neighbouring Punjab had its hands full with blockbusters.

Fifteen years after Laado, Pagdi has again brought the spotlight back on Haryanavi movies. The movie is about honour killings — a social evil that has brought much infamy to the state — and comes with a message on the necessity of moving ahead with times. With a fresh star cast and a debut film director at the helm, the film is being hailed by many as a drop of nectar on a barren land which has resuscitated the Haryanavi cinema. His native state was always at the back of Bhatia’s mind, and the dearth of good content in Haryanavi movies always rattled him. “Besides Chandrawal, we have no movie to boast of as commercial success. It was a formula film which was a hit because of its music. If we remove Chandrawal from Haryana, what do we have? A massive vacuum. With Pagdi, I have tried to fill this void,” says Bhatia, who has directed popular soaps like Bade Achche Lagte Hain, Kasam Se, Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki, etc before he headed home to breathe life into the dead industry. “It sounds predictable that hailing from Haryana, I made a film on the most clichéd subject — honour killing — but we have tried to challenge the status quo of masochist outlook through Pagdi. The merciless murders of young boys and girls in the name of inordinate honour greatly affected me and there could not be a better way than a film to send across the message of change and adaptation,” shares Bhatia who is currently taking his movie to different colleges, universities in Haryana, and also plans to screen it in all the villages.

A still from Pagdi, released in April, and exempted from entertainment tax by the state government.
A still from Pagdi, released in April, and exempted from entertainment tax by the state government.

While Pollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood are big industries in themselves, Haryana does not have anything to offer beyond cheaply produced videos that are only about sexist jokes deriding women, and double entendre dialogues. To a state which is notorious for its skewed sex ratio and gender bias, videos like these that are being sold off as Haryanavi ‘entertainment and culture’ are distorting the world’s view of the state further. Bollywood actor Yash Pal Sharma, who also hails from Haryana, and has played a crucial role in the film, feels that paucity of quality content in Haryanavi cinema set the sun on the era started by Chandrawal, which could have snowballed into a major competitor for its other regional counterparts. “We lack good scripts and stories. Barring few Haryanavi characters in Hindi movies, we have, unfortunately, not promoted its culture in our own state. Haryana has so much to inspire good, meaty scripts but we are happy sailing on the boat of shallow content. It’s saddening. We do not need to piggyback on formula films per se, and with movies like Pagdi and Satrangi, we are trying to strike a balance between entertainment and giving a social message,” states Sharma. He rues that Haryana’s image has further taken a beating with the Jat reservation quota stir that left the state on a boil for almost a month, adding that the quintessential damage control can be done only through creative mediums.

The sparse cinematic creations and achievements in Haryana can also be attributed to seeming lack of good literature and indigenous art form. If states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra have been enriched with strong theatre movements like jatra, kathakatha, and tamasha, Haryana has remained largely untouched by such spells of creativity, barring the odd ragini which too is a dying art form. “A state that needs to progress must nurture itself culturally through literature and arts. Haryana is light years away from finer nuances in art, a reason why aesthetic sense of Haryanavi is is still under-developed. Hence, they are unable to appreciate good cinema even if it is made in their language. This is a challenge that directors like Bhatia and actors like Sharma, who are spearheading the revival of Haryanavi cinema, will have to overcome,” says Ashwini Choudhary, director of Laado.

The initial baby steps have been indeed balanced and firm, but the path to glory for Haryanavi movies is definitely not smooth, as Bhatia has experienced during the making of his film. Budgetary constraints, indifferent audience and apathy of government are some of the aspects that ail this regional cinema “The biggest battle that we had to combat while making Pagdi was finance. Months of hardwork and countless meetings later, we got two different producers and both pulled out, one after the other,” laughs Bhatia, whose dream project was ultimately financed by his parents and wife. “Movie-making is a costly affair. While filming Pagdi, I realised that to bring in big production houses, we need to sell Haryanavi cinema as a viable and profitable option. We have a sea of talent lurking in all corners of the state but we are helpless in tapping it without money,” laments Bhatia. State apathy is something which Choudhary faced post-Laado. “We were acclaimed nationally and internationally but the Haryana government did not acknowledge our accomplishment. This step-motherly treatment left us discouraged and dejected. Why would then I want to make films for my state when I know that our efforts won’t be, least of all, appreciated?” he fumes. Bhatia, on the other hand, feels that the cinema of a state which is home to some of the biggest industrial houses and media tycoons, should not be treated as the child of a lesser god.

But people like Bhatia, Sharma and a few others are determined to bring Haryanavi cinema at par with its regional counterparts. As part of their efforts, plans are afoot to organise Haryana International Film Festival in Hisar from September 8-11, where they will showcase international cinema but the main thrust will be on Haryanavi movies, a miniscule number notwithstanding. To further boost their movement, and to expand its reach, they have also roped in established names like television and film
actress Meghna Malik, who is from Sonepat, and was the first TV actor to bring a true blue Haryanavi character alive on screen in her serial, Na Aana Is Des Laado, and Rohtak lad Randeep Hooda. Malik, is all for throwing her weight behind the cause. “Cinema-wise, our presence is negligible. We have a tough fight ahead, one which is not limited only to polity and moolah. We were caught in a time warp after Chandrawal and lost pulse of the audience. Directors who intend to make Haryanavi movies need to have narratives that are interesting, entertaining and highlight social issues. They have to be a mishmash of all these things, and not sound like a moral class lecture,” smiles Malik, who is keen to be part of Haryanavi cinema, if “the role offered is substantial”.

This is precisely the kind of content debut director Sundeep Sharma has tried to present in his upcoming award-winning film, Satrangi. The movie tries to break the stereotypes in a society so characteristic of its false sense of prestige, one that is still steeped deep in patriarchal outlook. It is the story of a young girl who wants her widower father to get married before she ‘flies off the nest’ to her in-laws. “Haryanavi cinema is in a positive and creatively satisfying phase as we speak, even if it is in a nascent stage. We are trying to bring audience back in cinemas only for Haryanavi films, and hence, our movies are an amalgamation of good, clean entertainment that also address social issues. Now that the Haryanvi cinema is reviving, our films should act as agents of change,” says Sundeep Sharma. Both Bhatia and Sundeep are already working on films that are focused on changing the centuries old prude, rigid approach that defines Haryana at the moment.

On the other hand, Sharma, who will be seen in Salman Khan’s Tubelight next, is happy that the Haryana government has noticed their work. “The state government has declared both Pagdi and Satrangi tax-free. This is a big morale booster. The government has also announced a policy for Haryanavi cinema, which will be brought into implementation shortly. These are all feathers in our cap. But there are many more targets to be achieved. We are on it,” he quips.