Sonia Singh: These young people with me have changed cinema. We all only have to think of the cinema.
Abhay Deol: She called me young!
SS: In the cinema of my growing up years — which, of course, ages me — the soundtrack was dishum dishum and bachao, the hero’s first and last love was his mother and a heroine’s heaving bosom was always sari-clad. Well, now when we can watch Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Dev D and Delhi Belly, we know it’s truly a cinematic and cultural revolution that has taken place.
Dibakar Banerjee: I think Bollywood is afraid to make movies India is afraid to see. When we make films about some kind of sexual freedom, it actually helps us elude the real issues.
SS: Like political content…
DB: The most unkind cuts in Love Sex aur Dhoka(LSD) were not the sex scenes. It was a scene where a man about to kill another man calls him, “Chhotey jaat ke kuttey!” and kills him. The Censor Board asked us to remove that line. I think the films that Bollywood is afraid to make are about the elephants in our living rooms.
SS: People say we wish we had many more Abhay Deols with the right surname and the right looks to act in movies like these. What are the kind of choices you look at when you’re taking on a movie?
AD: With me, it was a little different. I didn’t have success, I wasn’t a star. I had nothing to lose.
SS: With Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, you have become a more conventional Bollywood star. Does that make it more difficult for you to make alternative choices?
AD: Sometimes. It’s very difficult to turn down a lot of money and then turn towards a subject I truly want to be part of and earn almost nothing for it. Maybe pay out of my own pocket to complete a film I’ve done before.
DB: (Shakes his hand)
AD: (I) did offer to pay for the soundtrack…
SS: Both of you have Shanghai now, a political thriller.
DB: It’s a Shanghai we want to be overnight.
AD: In fact, it’s quite topical. It is about SEZs coming, about displacement.
SS: Bollywood films have become increasingly urbanised. So, in a way, the issues that you are addressing do not reach a large mass of the country.
DB: When we make a film today, our profit margins at multiplexes are far higher. Once we are settled in life, we might have some time to think, ‘Oh, whither are we going?… Pass the caviar.’ AD: Can I say something? You do a film that is successful and you make a film like Dev D and they say it won’t work. And you want to make something like Shanghai and they say, “No sir, that won’t work.”
SS: How do you deal with that?
DB: Well, I didn’t choose the world I live in. I do choose the way I live it.
SS: Well, I’m going to ask another actor to join us. Imran Khan, the Delhi Belly entertainer. Imran, you have been listening to Dibakar and Abhay. I want to talk to you on how the suits are killing Indian cinema. Are they? What are the pitfalls?
Imran Khan: There’s been an increasing trend in the industry of corporates coming in from international production houses — from Universal to Sony and Warner Brothers. And while they have brought in a lot of good practices, like transparency, I feel the industry has begun to lose a clear creative vision. Today, people look at it as a business.
SS: Delhi Belly would have never been picked up by a suit.
IK: Delhi Belly was rejected by every producer in the industry.
SS: I recently went to see a so-called blockbuster on the second day and the hall was pretty much empty. But that same film had been trumpeted as a hit. There was a hit party on the day of release. How does that happen?
IK: That’s marketing and PR… You can’t take that stuff seriously.
SS: How does that work, Imran?
IK: This is post release. I’m talking about the actual idea of making a film, the idea of someone having a creative vision. Had it not been for Aamir, Delhi Belly would not have been made. Dibakar, I’m sure, with every film you made, you struggled to get finance.
DB: Oh, you have no idea how good a hustler I am…
SS: What do you promise the producer?
DB: Well, the first thing I promise is a low budget and that critics will give 3-4 stars…
SS: Unlike others who say: Forget the critics?
DB: You see, the people we are calling ‘the suits’ are people like you and me. They come from advertising agencies, event management companies, media and now from FMCG companies. They also want to be associated with films like Delhi Belly or LSD or Dev D. They want to go to cocktail parties and talk in elite circles about high-class movies. So that helps us. Frankly, I’m not complaining.
SS: But sometimes, it’s fun to be low-class and get those thousands of crores.
DB: I would love that. See, the reason why I wouldn’t make Bodyguard is because I’ll get bored making it, that’s all. On the other hand, if we say that ‘suits are killing cinema’, it’s a bit like saying that India is a hot country. The suit is a nine-to-seven jobber. His mandate is to get private equity and make lots of films, raise his company’s share value and sell out for a golden handshake.
IK: That’s the fundamental problem: You enter it as an investment. DB: A corporate has to answer to a board. They will take five Bodyguards, one Delhi Belly, one LSD and monetise it. IK: Let me take you back a couple of years. When Dabangg was being pitched as a concept, it wasn’t a very hot film. But when the promos came out, that’s when it started gathering attention.
SS: Our next guest this afternoon is Kiran Rao. Kiran is sure she doesn’t need any suits. What would you like to say on nurturing creativity?
Kiran Rao: We’ve seen a change in the past few years and that, I think, has been due to a few people taking those chances. What’s important for us to learn is that there is an audience for all kinds of cinema. Creativity isn’t accidental. If Aamir hadn’t agreed to produce Dhobi Ghat, I would have made it on video. Ultimately films are there to provoke, to engage, to do more than just entertain. Nobody wanted to make Lagaan.
SS: Is that why you almost need a Prithvi Theatre-like model for cinema?
KR: Certainly, it would be amazing and I, for one, will definitely work towards that. But I don’t think that the Hindi film industry is entirely without any creativity. It is fulfilling a very deep need and has done so for 100 years — and successfully. Like Dibakar says, it has certainly given a lot of people a lot of joy. There is a need that Salman Khan fills and these films are needed as well.
SS: On Dibakar’s point about films that India is afraid to see: Do you find that is an issue as well? Creative filmmakers do look at urban issues, issues of space, issues of isolation, hard-hitting political issues, the Balraj Sahni kind of films that were made once upon a time. There seems to be no market for, or focus on, those kind of films anymore.
KR: I wonder why. The last five years have shown that we can do that as well. The fact is, at the end of the day, there are certain systems in place that encourage things to be a certain way. Multiplexes came in but didn’t do what art house cinema can do in a city like Bombay or Delhi. There is space for both to exist. DB: See, there is a fundamental dichotomy here. You’ve called three guys and one girl from Bollywood and are asking: What’s wrong with Bollywood? Why is the system killing creativity? All four of us are creative in our own ways. There is no Bollywood system. Bollywood is what we are. We have become a bubble society. We are just obsessed with what we are doing within the confines of these walls and there is no connect (with the masses). That’s why multiplex movies make more money.
SS: The fact is that a cinema ticket now costs about 150 and more on weekends.
IK: In Bombay this past weekend, it was Rs 400 a ticket.
DB: But the profits are rising, returns are rising every year.
SS: Are different prices an issue?
AD: There is an issue in that certain films which are low-budget films should not cost that much. It’s not an area I’m an expert on, but I agree that ticketing should be variable. There should not be a standard price for everything.
SS: Kiran, when you have films where Bombay is called Mumbai, you see the political parties picketing. We saw what happened when Aamir supported a certain cause.
KR: Bollywood becomes an easy scapegoat. It’s very easy to pick up a stone and hit a film because it’s the best way to rake up some issue. Taking off from what Dibakar said, what we greatly lack is a sort of community where we can all hang out, discuss, where people who watch films can spend time together. We need more theatres, more museums. There is very little interaction among creative people — you’re doing your own thing. Like Dibakar said, I’m in a bubble. I think these spaces are really essential. We need support.
AD: That’s the feeling of being alone, like no one is going to come out and support you, no one really cares. If you are worth the money, they will come to you, if not, there is no community. DB: The day villages have purchasing power, you will have films that will vary in their subject and telling, and you will have stories told by the people who live in those villages. And if the media stops obsessing with Bollywood, you will immediately see a great leveller of quality.
SS: I agree with you. Which channel has the highest ratings? TRPs are as much a bane for us every Friday as your box office ratings.
AD: You can actually buy critics, you can actually pay for stars, you can buy stars for the ratings of your movie…
SS: How do you know Abhay?
AD: Because I am in the industry. My films barely get someone to make them.
DB: What he’s saying is, there are ways of influencing positive news about something, which essentially survives on people’s appreciation of it. So, what you are doing is spin-doctoring.
KR: I disagree a little because I feel reducing the country’s interest in Bollywood is impossible. People are interested in Bollywood but we have to create an alternative and we don’t need to compete constantly with the commercial way of filmmaking. Why can’t both exist and why can’t we actually create spaces for different kinds of arts?
AD: Because a few powers-that-be are way too comfortable with the way things are and they don’t want to change.
KR: The thing is, you have to remember that the Hindi film industry has never been given any encouragement by any government, ever. It was declared an industry only recently.
SS: But you should be happy the government is staying out.
KR: I will tell you what one of the drawbacks is. It’s one of the singularly most taxed entity in the country, with both sales tax and service tax. The government still hasn’t decided whether we are a product or a service, so entertainment tax. I mean, why should we have to pay tax to entertain people?
SS: Imran, we have seen your public interest litigation (PIL) against the drinking age. In a way, we are becoming more conservative in the kind of things we accept in society, but sex is okay somehow.
IK: It’s not exactly okay.
KR: Sex was always okay.
IK: But it’s a dirty dirty blazer.
DB: The point is it gives us the illusion that we are all okay and it again takes the attention away from the real issues.
SS: Do you think that’s the contradiction you are seeing?
IK: It‘s terrifying out there, it really is. If you start to take a look at the levels of moral policing in films, you are right. We do get away with a lot of stuff. We get away with something that perhaps we shouldn’t get away with.
SS: DK Bose?
IK: It’s just a name.
SS: Sorry. It’s in my dirty mind, right?
IK: It’s all about how you look at it. These things happen. But Dibakar is right, it does actually distract from what is happening in real life. It’s weird.
SS: I think this is one debate that has so many fascinating aspects. But now we leave you with the ideas that have come up from Kiran Rao, Imran Khan, Abhay Deol and Dibakar Banerjee.