THIRTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD Vikramaditya Motwane’s directorial debut Udaan, which opened to uniformly positive reviews in mid-2010, was chosen for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, the first Indian entry in seven years to be selected for any competitive category at Cannes. It won the Star Screen Awards’ Best Picture and Best Director trophies earlier this year. Udaan is a coming-of-age film about a teenager who aspires to be a writer, but finds his ambition in conflict with the wishes of his domineering father. There’s a puzzling incongruity throughout the movie about the era in which it is set. It begins with four boys sneaking out of their elite boarding school in Shimla to watch a soft-porn film in a theatre in town. This feels like a scene from the 1990s or earlier. Caught in the auditorium, the four students, including the protagonist Rohan, are expelled. Rohan returns to Jamshedpur, dragging an old metal trunk of the kind the affluent stopped using decades ago. The narrative keeps evoking a time frame in the past: Rohan’s father Bhairav drives a Contessa (which was discontinued in 2002); factories and offices are bereft of computers; home interiors and furniture look dated; Rohan’s Jamshedpur friends meet at a pool parlour; landlines are used frequently; and Bhairav pressures the teenager to study engineering. It is true that none of these markers is definitive: there must still be factories lacking electronic devices, people driving Contessas, and even students jumping walls to catch late-night adult films in auditoriums. The accretion of such elements, however, creates the impression of a film set vaguely in the past, but not located rigorously enough to become revelatory of a specific milieu. Contrarily, there are hints of a more contemporary period: a subtitle refers to ‘Jharkhand’; Calcutta is pronounced ‘Kolkata’; relatively new mobile phone and car models appear in several frames.
All this might not have mattered much had Udaan been in any way cinematically engaging. Unfortunately, it is resolutely utilitarian in its framing, lighting and pace, and is hampered by the inconsistent development of Bhairav’s character. This man is brutish and self-centred enough to leave Rohan stranded in Shimla for eight years without seeing him even once. Yet, in a crucial scene, he breaks up an important business meeting to pick up his younger son who’s been ordered to leave school on flimsy grounds. Surely, a man of this nature would tell the teacher on the phone, “I’m busy right now, my son can sit on a bench or wait at the gate for an hour or two.” But that would deprive Udaan of its peripeteia.
A little over 50 years ago, another coming-of-age film by a 34-year-old debutant director was screened at Cannes, and won the Best Human Document award. Satyajit Ray faced greater budgetary constraints than did the creators of Udaan, but he took great care to set Pather Panchali in the 1920s. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the siblings Durga and Apu walk through a field of tall kans grass to a rail track as a train thunders past. The awe with which they respond to the sight of power lines and the railway would not have rung true had the film been set in the 1950s, although there were probably children in rural Bengal at that time who had never seen power lines or train tracks.
It might seem unfair to compare Vikramaditya Motwane with Satyajit Ray, particularly since Motwane has made no immodest claims for his own work. But the overarching comparison that is implicit in discussing these films is between two ages of Indian filmmaking. In the decade after Pather Panchali was completed, Ritwik Ghatak crafted at least two indisputable masterpieces, while a series of mainstream classics was produced by the likes of Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and K Asif. Looking back on the noughties, I cannot think of a single film that approaches the quality of a Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, let alone a Subarnarekha or Charulata. Less than a dozen excellent Hindi features were released in these ten years, among them Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Omkara, Dev D, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, plus a couple of mainstream successes involving Aamir Khan or Rajkumar Hirani. This is a paltry figure considering how many movies open each week, and is made worse by the knowledge that not one of the films I’ve classed as excellent deserved international renown.
THE DISTANCE WE HAVE SLID from the peak represented by Ghatak, Ray, Roy and Dutt has been obscured in recent years by a number of factors, not all pernicious in themselves. To begin with, there’s a greater cultural self-confidence engendered by the nation’s beefed up economic muscle. Second, and not unrelated to the first, is the faddish popularity that Bollywood has enjoyed in the West for much of the past decade. Add to this the rise of popular culture studies in academia. Indian intellectuals who jumped happily onto the pop culture bandwagon often dropped the distinction between analysing Bollywood and celebrating it. Now that the fog of their jargon is somewhat thinning, we view a dismal valley where mediocrity rules like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind.
The fact of our decline having been established, it becomes necessary to consider the reasons behind it. Having given the issue some thought, I’ve isolated six major causes of the present low quality of Indian films: cliques, censorship, copyright, complexity, conflict and colour. The most well-recognised is the first. The industry is controlled by a few families whose scions are, for the most part, self-absorbed and complacent. Those creating the most interesting cinema—Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj and Dibakar Banerjee lead this pack—originated outside the feudal hierarchy. They depend on a nascent and niche multiplex market which does not yet provide the kind of alternative space that funding from the National Film Development Corporation did until the 1990s. The continuing clout of Abhishek Bachchan is possibly the most egregious example of the power of the oligarchy; it’s the equivalent of Rohan Gavaskar being picked for 100 test matches despite maintaining an abysmal average.
If India’s feudal culture leads to a family-dominated industry, its conservatism also supports some of the strongest barriers to free expression in any democracy. These barriers were always present, of course, but were less intrusive during the golden age of Indian cinema because films everywhere in that period were relatively staid. The situation changed dramatically worldwide after the sexual revolution and political upheavals of the 1960s. Subjects that had been alluded to only obliquely, now began to be fully explored.
India was saddled with ambivalent laws; a judicial process so lethargic it invited misuse; communities ready to take offence at the least perceived slight, and to make their displeasure known through threats and violence; a political establishment that mirrored society’s community-based configuration and, therefore, encouraged identity politics; and a population that was, in general, less liberal than the nation’s judiciary and legal framework. In such an atmosphere, India’s best young filmmakers have learned that taking on mature or edgy subject matter can be foolhardy. Anurag Kashyap has perhaps borne the brunt more than anyone else. His first film, Paanch, was refused a censor certificate because it did not offer “wholesome and healthy entertainment.” The release of Black Friday, based on the 1993 serial explosions in Bombay, was blocked in court at the last minute, and then held up for years, on the ground that the blasts trial was still in progress. Considering how long trials take in India, the Black Friday ruling effectively prevents contemporary political scandals from being adapted for the screen. And don’t expect an Indian equivalent of The Social Network or Borat. Biopics of living personalities and anything that can be construed as insulting the nation are also out of bounds. Although censorship norms, which grew stifling during the National Democratic Alliance rule, have been eased a little in the current dispensation, the scope for pushing the envelope remains severely constrained.
WHILE THE POLITICAL RIGHT accounts for curtailing free expression predominantly, the left has done its bit to hamper creativity in cinema through its influential critique of intellectual property rights and copyright. The words of Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum are typical of the left’s approach: “…[T]he increased restrictions imposed on the still and moving image reveal the intense anti-image politics of copyright… In a sense the commodification of image-making through copyright threatens to render it a commercial activity, one with no soul.” Creativity and money are irreconcilably opposed in this view, which fails to comprehend that art can be both vocation and profession, or that fields like cinema and architecture are by their very nature negotiations between art and commerce.
Those most affected by the lack of strong copyright enforcement in the creative realm are writers. Fashion designers would much rather suffer the losses caused by knockoffs than deal with the flood of copyright-based lawsuits, since most often follow the same trend and produce similar-looking lines. Musicians can gain from live performances what they lose through the free dissemination of their tunes, so they, too, have a business model that can work without strong protection. Visual artists depend on selling a very small number of easily traceable, high-value items; young artists have almost nothing to fear from piracy, since forgers largely restrict themselves to faking works by the aged and the dead. No surprise, then, that the most vocal opponents of copyright within the creative community are left-wing visual artists. The likes of Ashok Sukumaran and Shilpa Gupta make limited edition items sold at extortionate rates, or accept lucrative one-off commissions, while maintaining their leftist cred by advocating piracy. Left-wing writers, on the other hand, even the most radical and outspoken, have remained notably silent on the issue. Arundhati Roy, who has signed copyright-protected deals with the conglomerate Pearson plc, saves her anti-capitalist rhetoric for multinationals outside the publishing industry.
With all its flaws, copyright is the best vehicle for guaranteeing creative individuals the fruits of their labour. Absent such a guarantee, producers find it more efficient to rip off successful films than to commission original material. Not only has our film industry become an oligarchy, but it’s also become an oligarchy of pirates. No wonder the most common complaint against Indian films is the weakness of their scripts.
I MENTIONED EARLIER the cultural rupture of the 1960s and the changes in content that followed in world cinema. Not only did films begin to explore edgy subject matter, they adopted radically different styles to represent extreme experiences. The Oscar for Best Picture went to My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music in 1964 and 1965, respectively, but just a few years later the trophy was awarded to Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The French Connection (1971). Cinema in this period grew increasingly overdetermined, which is to say a complex web of cause and effect played out in stories and images that were difficult to absorb fully in one viewing. India’s narrative tradition, dependent on repetition, symbolism and melodrama, was unsuited to new complex modes of storytelling, and resulted in our films looking increasingly dated. There are, of course, ways to imbue movies with complexity without employing formal and narrative overdetermination. A still frame in a Yasujiro Ozu film can reward repeated viewing, and continue to generate new meanings in the viewer’s mind. Commercial Hindi cinema appropriated some of Hollywood’s stylistic mannerisms without taking on board the increased complexity of narrative that led to their invention. Our movies continue to reach for the symbolic at the expense of the real and specific. Chefs don’t enlighten us about cooking, guitarists can barely strum an instrument, doctors are defined by a white coat and purposeful walk. Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal illustrates the point strikingly well. The film cuts between two love stories separated by a generation. In the contemporary one, Deepika Padukone and Saif Ali Khan play urban, liberated lovers who work in related fields of architectural design and architectural conservation. Khan’s character dreams of a project related to the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s unclear what this project might be since the bridge has, after all, already been built. Though voluble, the lovers have nothing interesting to say about their vocations. Or, for that matter, about anything else. The couple in the flashback don’t exchange a word; what matters is the bond between them which impels a rebellion against authority. Since the bond and the conflict are well worked out, the kal of the story works far more successfully than the aaj.
Udaan, too, works because of the strong conflict at its centre, though it lacks complexity. The most significant Bollywood writers of the 1970s, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, always placed dramatic conflicts at the centre of their plots, providing their films with an emotional fulcrum. Strangely, Bollywood has, in recent years, junked the formula it knew so well, and replaced it with bland products offering isolated moments of entertainment without any compelling central premise. In the era of conflict avoidance, rebellion has largely disappeared from the screens, as have the larger social concerns of earlier periods. We are offered, instead, mind-numbingly petty coming-of-age films like Wake Up Sid. ‘Coming of age’ has become a Bollywood buzzword, and one of two dominant plot categories in contemporary commercial cinema—the other being the story of a boy and girl who don’t synchronously acknowledge their love for one another until the finale, though the audience sees the conclusion a mile away. Wake Up Sid, in fact, enterprisingly combines Narrative A and Narrative B. The Sid of the title, played by Ranbir Kapoor, is a spoilt kid who eventually learns to cook eggs, signifying his newfound maturity, his ‘coming of age.’ In the final sequence of the film, he discovers and declares his love for Konkona Sen Sharma, the woman who taught him to cook those eggs.
The audience and critics’ favourite film of 2009 was the coming-of-age movie 3 Idiots, in which Aamir Khan plays a college boy persecuted by an authoritarian educational establishment. Twenty-five years ago, in Ketan Mehta’s Holi, Khan played his first major role, as a college boy persecuted by an authoritarian educational establishment. 3 Idiots is a fine commercial product and one that I have no grouse against. I juxtapose it with Holi through the Aamir-as-hostel-boy connection in order to draw attention to the diametrically opposed ways in which conflict is resolved in the two films. In Mehta’s 1984 movie, students of the college riot and end up in jail, whereas in Rajkumar Hirani’s 2009 hit, the protagonists come to amicable resolutions with authority and move on to flourishing careers. The shift in mood between Holi and 3 Idiots obviously relates to the improved prospects for graduates in liberalised India. This is the target audience of most producers today, the young urban professionals who fill multiplexes. Disinclined to disturb the newfound optimism of this class, film-makers offer up anodyne material, avoiding any searching inquiries into society and relationships.
If commercial films today lack the powerful emotional core based on conflict that their counterparts in the past possessed, they make up somewhat with technical finesse. The best films of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra, hugely entertaining though they might have been, were embarrassingly primitive in the camerawork, sound design and editing departments. The gains, however, are constrained by a factor rarely discussed in considering the history of Indian cinema: that of representing Indian light and colour. Our best cinematographers have created lyrical images underlining India’s justified reputation as a land of vibrant colour. But in their desire to prettify everything, they are reluctant to tackle the harsh light and cluttered landscape that are equally part of our visual reality. I find it sad that films such as The Bourne Supremacy and Slumdog Millionaire manage to interpret Indian light, colour, architecture and objects much more fruitfully than do indigenous productions.
Black-and-white photography departs intrinsically from our natural vision, thus permitting a cutting away of detail without creating an impression of falsity. Colour, on the other hand, ties the camera down to reality to a greater degree. I find it instructive that many of the best Indian photographers working with still images, such as Ram Rahman, Dayanita Singh and Ketaki Sheth, have retained an affinity for black and white. To my mind, Raghubir Singh is the only great colour photographer India has produced. He created images that often appear stereotypical at first sight, but invariably transcend cliché and reward deeper engagement. It is also worth noting that few of the best Indian filmmakers who began with black and white made colour films that matched the quality of their early output. V Shantaram’s garish Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955)contrasts shockingly with Do Aankhen Barah Haath made a year later, not to mention his masterpieces from the 1930s, Kunku and Manoos. Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari might be the lone exception to the rule. No similar difficulty in switching to colour is apparent elsewhere in the world. Godard moved easily from Breathless to Pierrot le fou; Antonioni from L’Avventura to Red Desert; Ozu from Tokyo Monogatari to An Autumn Afternoon. In each case, these masters immediately demonstrated an accomplished virtuosity in handling colour.
It is not entirely a coincidence that we more or less stopped making great films around the time that we stopped making movies in black and white.
A short version of this article previously appeared in Time Out, Mumbai.