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Where is reality?

Unlike the West, Indian cinema has never been noted for realistic themes. We do make films on history and political issues but the treatment is poor, Gulzar, however, is different, says V. GANGADHAR.

KEVIN COSTNER's recent film, ``Thirteen Days'' should be quite remarkable. It deals with a period when the world was on the brink of a nuclear disaster, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union, confronted each other for 13 days in October 1962, on the issue of the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The world watched with tension.

Fortunately, both sides drew back from the brink. This is not fiction but reality. I find it remarkable that a film was made on the subject and watched by millions, including those who were involved in the crisis. The film ``Thirteen Days'' was premiered at Moscow, Los Angeles and Havana and among those who watched it were some of the `actors' in that fateful drama - Cuban President, Fidel Castro, Ted Sorensen, trusted aide of President John Kennedy who was then in power, and military chiefs from the U.S., Russia and Cuba. They praised the film for its authenticity.

Political films were not uncommon in Hollywood. But most of them were based on fictitious accounts of real events or happenings from the distant past. Over the years, Hollywood came out with its own versions of Biblical themes where the good Christians and the evil Pagans were clearly identified. Films were also made on the conquests of Attila the Hun, Chengiz Khan, where not much sympathy was wasted on the protagonists.

Somehow, it was difficult to be objective on films dealing with history and actual happenings from the past. Thus in the Westerns, the Red Indians had to be eliminated by the brave U.S. Marshals and cowboys. Wars fought all over the world brought out the feeling of jingoism. The films on the First and Second World Wars portrayed the Germans and the Japanese as villains while the West was always the saviour of democracy and decency. In the post-war, the Chinese and Soviets were always the villains, often trapped by the dynamic CIA and British superman agents like James Bond.

Of course, there were exceptions. David Lean's ``Bridge on the River Kwai'' dwelt on the futility of war. While pro- establishment heroes like John Wayne, starred in movies which showed that the U.S. could do no wrong, the more sensitive film- makers refused to toe the same line. Some of the films on Vietnam like ``The Deer Hunter'' and ``Platoon'' clearly questioned the motives behind the American involvement in Vietnam. The European film-makers were more sensitive and dared to expose the French brutalities in the Algerian liberation struggle.

The film-makers who dared to handle such anti-government themes were, however, in the minority. But Hollywood, a bastion of democracy, dared to make a film on the possibility of a military coup in the U.S. This was the Burt Lancaster film, ``Seven Days in May'' which dealt with the explosive theme of the take-over of the government by a group of hard core right-wing generals. Based on a work of fiction, the film had the blessings of President John Kennedy who was always suspicious of the military-industrial establishment.

Slowly, the line between reality and fiction got thinner. Hollywood could not ignore Watergate which led to the ouster of a President. ``All the President's Men'' set a new trend in the field of realistic, topical political cinema. It did not cover the entire Watergate episode, but the message was clear. The President was a crook!

Yet many Hollywood producers found it difficult to separate reality from fiction. The recent blockbuster ``Pearl Harbour'' had been lambasted by critics for focussing too much on an inane romance at the expense of the harsh realism of the Japanese treachery. But reality these days can hardly be hidden. Today's average U.S. film-maker finds himself surrounded by controversial but highly topical social issues - drug abuse, drug trafficking, gun control, the tragedy of teenagers shooting their schoolmates to death, serial killers, death penalty and what not.

Yet ``Thirteen Days'' strikes a new path, because it was viewed by the personalities who were involved in making vital decisions during the spine-chilling days of October 1962. Who knows, ten years from now George Bush and Al Gore may sit together and watch a Hollywood movie, ``Counting Fiasco'' dealing with the counting of votes in the 2000 Presidential elections in the State of Florida. That could be the ultimate in topical, political cinema.

The Indian Scene

Unlike the West, Indian cinema has never been noted for realistic themes. We do make films on history, our great heroes and occasional topical issues, but the focus is always on the success formula (song, dance, fiery dialogue and star power). Often our treatment of history is slip shod and our research poor.

Writer-producer-director Gulzar, is however, different. He blazed a trail with films like ``Aandhi'', ``Maachis'', ``Hu Tu Tu'', all dealing with contemporary themes and personalities. On a rain swept Mumbai afternoon, we sat in his book-laden den and discussed topical political cinema, Indian style:

Why does Indian cinema tend to romanticise historical themes?

History has to reflect the time it actually happened. I faced problems while making ``Meera'' though the theme was only 400 years old. Her story related both to Rajputs and Mughuls and was more important than singing bhajans. Should we treat her as a legend, a myth or part of history? My film was historical and not based on any myth. Similarly, my TV serial on poet `Ghalib' was based on history, though the earlier movie version treated him as a myth.

I guess we have problems in dealing with history...

Yes, mind you, our history is only 200 years old. Before that, it is only the British versions. Even today, I get more from Todd's History of India than any Indian book. Our audiences do not mind historical distortions because most of them are ignorant of historical facts. I think as a people we have no feel for history, we write stories about kings and queens, that is not history. Our films don't do justice to our history. There is not one authentic film on our National Movement. Those like ``Anandmath'' were based on fictitious accounts.

Naturally, our patriotic films are more jingoistic.

True, that is because no one does proper research. The dialogue of Bhagat Singh are attributed to Subhas Bose and vice versa! It was an Englishman, Richard Attenborough, who made a good film on Gandhi. Our attempts to make films on Sardar Patel and Dr. Ambedkar resulted in flattering documentaries.

Let us now turn to topical political cinema...

My own earlier film, ``Mere Apne'' had political overtones, the frustration of the youth in West Bengal, the political turmoil in the State. We also made two outstanding films, ``Garam Hawa'' and ``Tamas''. Both dealt with the sensitive theme of partition and both were superb. But these are not enough. We should make films on episodes like Jallianwallabhagh, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the Chauri Chaura agitation which Gandhiji gave up because of violence resulting in the death of English policemen. Our national movement is full of such episodes.

Tell me something about your own political films which had a sense of topicality.

``Aandhi'' was supposed to be based on the life of Indira Gandhi but that was not true. I looked at it as the first film on a modern Indian politician. We wanted a model, and Indira Gandhi and to a lesser extent, Tarkeshwari Sinha, fitted the bill. Indira Gandhi was only a model for the lead role, I repeat, ``Aandhi'' had nothing to do with her personal life. ``Maachis'' was a more topical political film. Some years ago I would not have been able to make such a film.

And ``Hu Tu Tu''?

It showed how an ordinary, decent person got corrupted by a political system which we had been following for 50 years. Another point I wanted to make was how the youth of the country got corrupted watching their elders. They have to accept corrupt practices. It is no use blaming them. The young persons in the movie were exceptions. They were so frustrated at the system that they became suicide bombers in an effort to put an end to corruption and break the system.

Is Kargil a suitable topic for a topical political film?

Our patriotic and war films are seldom true to life and are dominated by pink-cheeked heroes and heroines singing and dancing. Most films reflect this world of make-believe. I am familiar with conditions in the snow covered borders - no power, no proper food and transport. But our jawans survive. Is this what we are going to show in our films? How much of such realism can our audiences stomach? Also don't forget that reality is not in Kargil but in New Delhi and Rawalpindi.

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