These are interesting times for the Indian film industry. While big banner, star-driven films are no longer guaranteed to set the box-office afire — for proof, take Jai Ho! (2014) — surprise hits like Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2012) reset the dynamics for content-driven, non-starry attempts.
Brave New Bollywood: In Conversation with Contemporary Hindi Filmmakers by Nirmal Kumar and Preeti Chaturvedi is a brave effort at decoding what makes this a new phase in the evolution of cinema in the country. Kumar, an academic with an interest in and feel for cinema, teams up with Chaturvedi, a marketing professional, and together they provide an insight into the changing values of Indian cinema through the prism of the filmmakers’ experiences.
In the introduction to the book, the authors introduce the readers to phenomena such as the “multiplex ecosphere” and the emerging idiom of “anti-dumb cinema”.
That they are sure of their target audience is evident in the language they have chosen to supplement their arguments. The book will be useful for students of cinema and engage lay film lovers.
Through simple arguments, they show at the very outset the economics and social factors at play behind the cinematic trends. They pick up, in particular, the “trend of ‘multiplex cinema’” and interview young filmmakers who have successfully become a part of this wave.
The choice of the eight filmmakers — Dibakar Banerjee (Love Sex aur Dhoka), Kiran Rao (Dhobi Ghat), Reema Kagti (Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd), Shonali Bose (Amu), Zoya Akhtar (Luck by Chance), Anusha Rizvi (Peepli Live), Onir (My Brother… Nikhil) and Tigmanshu Dhulia (Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster) — reflects a wide cross-section of the multi-cultural Indian milieu even as it brings to the fore the similar concerns that they share as practising filmmakers.
It is laudable that five of the eight chosen filmmakers are female — a reassuring trend in a country that frequently gets distracted by majoritarianism. Moreover, Onir’s inclusion in the mix represents a voice from the Indian LGBTQ (Lesian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning/Queer) community, of which he is a dignified flag-bearer.
The nod to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World (1932) in the book’s title is anything but a mere gimmick. Leafing through the pages, one comes to realise that the echo of Huxley is meant to serve as a warning of sorts.
The authors have followed an easy-to-read individual introduction and interview format with the filmmakers. The questions asked reflect an earnest spirit of trying to arrive at an analysis of the current prevalence of “anti-dumb cinema”. And instead of confining themselves to academic enquiries about the process of filmmaking, the authors also bring in autobiographical insights into the lives of the filmmakers.
This dual perspective of the filmmaker as an individual with his own socio-political and economic influences and then as a part of the apparently inclusive film industry gives the reader a fair idea of the practices and forces that steer the hydra-headed beast simplistically labelled Bollywood.
So while Banerjee is asked repeatedly about his choice of subjects, Bose is allowed to determine the choice of her concerns with her life’s experiences. Another dominant theme in the book is the issue of labelling. None of the female filmmakers interviewed is subjected to the clichéd trope of being a female in the industry. They are treated as independent voices in a democratic set-up. Even Onir objects strongly to being called a “gay director” and distinguishes between being an artist and using his tool of expression to support a social cause close to his heart.
Kumar and Chaturvedi have clear directions of enquiry with the former taking up the cinematic, psychological and autobiographical concerns while the latter pursues the issues of film distribution and the commerce involved.
The book also throws up interesting nuggets on the lives of the filmmakers. While the reader comes to understand that all of them have faced a journey of displacement — except Akhtar, who provides a certain balance with her insider’s perspective — each one has had his or her unique point of departure from the norm. While Banerjee was expected to appear for the IIT entrance tests, Rizvi had chosen a career in journalism.
Another commonality is the lack of method in the filmmakers’ conception of their respective first films. Though they come from different parts of India, all of them have been affected by the changing social and economic fabric of the country. While these changes have brought some of them hope, the others are wary and warn that this societal “imbalance” should not be left unaddressed for long.
Although aesthetes will lament the absence of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj, for instance, the book does manage to project a panoramic view of the concerns, causes and methods that are shaping the possibility of a new brand of “intelligent but engaging” cinema in India.