Call it reference, allusion or inspiration, more and more filmmakers are drawing from memorable films to make a point in their works.
In the midst of a shootout in “Bullett Raja” when Chunky Pandey, as a slimy Lallan Tiwari, comments yeh filmy bandook thode hi hai jo chalti hi jayegi, director Tigmanshu Dhulia does two things. He doffs his hat at the cinema of the ’70s and at the same time makes fun of an era when nobody cared to count the number of bullets a hero’s revolver could have. Last year, when Tigmanshu, the actor, declared in “Gangs of Wasseypur” that in India, so long as cinema exists people will continue to be made fools of, he was breaking the metaphorical fourth wall. It was a candid admission by the writer-director Anurag Kashyap that his screenplay is fuelled as much by life as cinema. His protagonist Faizal Khan, who is inspired by Amitabh Bachchan in the film, calls his father Sanjeev Kumar and expects the audience to correlate the similarity between Sanjeev Kumar’s character in “Trishul” and what he is going through in the film.
To balance out the Amitabh dominance in the screenplay, set in the ’80s, Anurag slips in a scene where Sardar Khan is threatening his opposition through a publicity vehicle of Mithun Chakraborty’s little known “Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki”. The ‘a’ was removed Kasam, perhaps to avoid any copyright issue. He could have used any other Mithun film but the title suited the revenge drama he was mounting. But when the second half opens with the title song of Jackie Shroff’s “Teri Meharbaniyan”, the irony is hard to miss because here it was sung at the funeral of the gang lord who is brutally murdered while in the original the song is picturised on a dog loyal to his dead master.
In the last few years there is an increasing trend of using references and allusions of popular and even not-so-popular filmy sequences by filmmakers. Sometimes, it is a device to honour their inspiration. It is another matter that sometimes it borders on plagiarism like in the case of “Barfi!” At times, it is used as a means to establish the period in which the film is set and at others to make the audience understand the genre the director is commenting or making fun of.
So in the same “Bullett Raja” when in an action sequence we see a cyclist going round and round in a competition, connoisseurs go back to the times when it was a common device in mainstream films like Manoj Kumar’s “Shor” and even later like in Saeed Mirza’s “Nukkad”. Now, Raja’s story has nothing to do with either of the two, but the sequence gives the film a visual layering. Of course, if you haven’t watched many Hindi films, chances are that you will miss the point altogether.
“The earlier generation of writers and filmmakers used to draw from Ramayan and Mahabharat. Today’s generation’s source is cinema. Many of them have seen life through the prism of cinema. That’s why we also see a number of remakes and sequels,” says seasoned film critic Ajay Brahmatmaj.
Reverence, though, is not entirely a new phenomenon. When Prayagraj and Kader Khan wrote the popular Amitabh Bachchan sequence in Manmohan Desai’s “Amar Akbar Anthony” where he is talking to his mirror image in a drunken stupor they were in a way paying homage to a similar sequence between Dilip Kumar and Jeevan in “Kohinoor”, which in turn was inspired by a similar scene from the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup”. But when Desai repeated it in “Mard” (the sequence between Prem Chopra and Bachchan), he was killing the golden goose.
The good thing, Brahmatmaj adds, is through them the commercial cinema of the ’80s, which is considered forgettable by film critics, has found a window. Otherwise, who would have remembered the films of B. Subhash and K.C. Bokadia? “At least we get to know that everything was not bad about the decade.”
It is not that only the purveyors of pulp fiction are dealing in this footnote culture in cinema. Recently, Ritesh Batra used the clippings of “Ye Jo Hai Zindagi” in “The Lunchbox”. “I wanted to show a man who is stuck in the past. His idea of happiness was when his wife used to watch this series. So it was blending with the storyline.”
Brahmatmaj feels sometimes it inadvertently creeps into the style as well. “Many of the young generation filmmakers like Sriram Raghvan and Anurag Kashyap are cinephiles. Sriram knows more about Vijay Anand’s films than many film historians and Anurag’s fascination for European cinema is unparalleled. So the influences creep into their style without them even noticing it.”
In fact, after an obvious attempt by Farah Khan in “Om Shanti Om”, it was Sriram’s ode to Vijay Anand in “Johnny Gaddar”, that the discerning took note. The masterstroke was the use of a clip of Jyoti Swarup’s Amitabh Bachchan’s-starrer “Parwana” (1971). The way Bachchan changes various transports in the film to avoid suspicion becomes the inspiration for Johnny’s character in Sriram’s film. Sriram admits that he has learnt a lot about films by watching films and many times the references creep in without him even noticing it.
“In fact, when a journalist counted the number of references used in ‘Johnny Gaddar’ I was myself surprised. The ‘Parwana’ clip was initially not part of the screenplay but then we felt it will make an impact. We had to pay to buy the rights but the effort was worth it.” His next film “Agent Vinod” was replete with references from Hindi, Tamil and Hollywood films so much so that the basic storyline got affected.
“I can’t comment on it as it is for somebody else to judge but yes, the references should not come in the way of storytelling. The audience should not feel that the director is trying to be over smart.” Sriram, who is also one of the mentors for the Asia Society India Centre’s fellowship for screenwriters, cites an example about how to do it. “In ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, Kundan Shah paid his homage to Michelangelo Antonioni, whose film ‘Blow Up’ was an inspiration for him, by naming the park where the crucial murder takes place as Antonioni Park. If you know the legend you will get the hint, but even if you don’t it won’t disturb the flow.”