Forget whether the new multiplex movies are “Indian” or not - let's just celebrate that there are all kinds of films, now, for all kinds of viewers

The release of Delhi Belly and Aaranya Kaandam has prompted one half of the audience to release into the air helium balloons of happiness and self-congratulation, while the other half has responded by queuing up with a pin at the end of an outstretched arm. The former are overjoyed that Indian cinema has gone “international” – whatever that means – while the latter bemoan the disappearance of “Indianness” in the Indian movie.

Is there such a thing as an “Indian movie?” For an answer, we have to reach back to our two great epics, which have shaped our cinema into something very different from the Hollywood film, which was hatched from the novel and the theatre. There are, naturally, exceptions everywhere, but this is the major difference between our films and their films – their films are populated with psychologically delineated characters while our films are based on mythical archetypes.

Till the multiplex movie came and muddied the waters, there was, in our films, an electrified fence at the boundary of good and evil, man and woman, the sacred and the profane. The heroes were good, the villains were evil, and if the hero associated himself with evil, as in Deewar or Nayakan, he was a victim of circumstances and not really evil. He still respected the sacred (mother, children, family values) and rejected the profane (licentiousness, alcoholism, bad language, bodily functions), and he still ended up paying for his choices with his life, purifying himself finally in the pyre of penance.

There was a moral in our movies, that good always prevailed over evil – and this finger-wagging can be traced right back to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which told us that good sons were those who did what their fathers demanded of them and good brothers were those who did not ascend thrones that rightfully belonged to others and good wives were those who trailed their husbands in thought and word and deed.

The men who wrote these epics knew where they wanted their women, and you don't have to be a fiery feminist to see that the “good” female characters in the epics are servile like Shabari or blind followers of their husbands like Gandhari, and the “evil” ones, like Kaikeyi and Manthara, are imbued with petulant malevolence. From here, we get the heroine and the vamp, distinct creatures on either side of the electrified fence, and that is why a film like Double Indemnity, where the heroine is the vamp, was inconceivable in our cinema. Even heroines like Sita (abducted by a villain) and Draupadi (about to be disrobed by a villain) had to wait for men – heroes – to be rescued.

So when Sita, in Aaranya Kaandam, devises her own deliverance, offering her body as bait, it upends our sense of Indianness – the woman has become the man, the sacred has crossed over into the profane. These films do not concern themselves with a conveniently dichotomous universe, and by casually interweaving good and evil, by erasing the boundaries between men and women, by allowing the sacred to coexist with the profane, directors like Abhinay Deo and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are dragging our myths, kicking and screaming, into the modern day.

This merits both celebration and caution. A film isn't automatically great because it veers away from values we have traditionally cherished as Indian or because it adopts Hollywood (or foreign) models of storytelling. It becomes great only if it does well what it sets out to do – in other words, the breaking of boundaries cannot become an excuse to ignore the classical components of cinema like writing and editing and cinematography and performance. For the first time, there is something for those who want Indianness in Indian cinema as well as those who feel that Indian cinema needs to become international. That's surely worth a few helium balloons.The release of Delhi Belly and Aaranya Kaandam has prompted one half of the audience to release into the air helium balloons of happiness and self-congratulation, while the other half has responded by queuing up with a pin at the end of an outstretched arm. The former are overjoyed that Indian cinema has gone “international” – whatever that means – while the latter bemoan the disappearance of “Indianness” in the Indian movie.

Is there such a thing as an “Indian movie?” For an answer, we have to reach back to our two great epics, which have shaped our cinema into something very different from the Hollywood film, which was hatched from the novel and the theatre. There are, naturally, exceptions everywhere, but this is the major difference between our films and their films – their films are populated with psychologically delineated characters while our films are based on mythical archetypes.

Till the multiplex movie came and muddied the waters, there was, in our films, an electrified fence at the boundary of good and evil, man and woman, the sacred and the profane. The heroes were good, the villains were evil, and if the hero associated himself with evil, as in Deewar or Nayakan, he was a victim of circumstances and not really evil. He still respected the sacred (mother, children, family values) and rejected the profane (licentiousness, alcoholism, bad language, bodily functions), and he still ended up paying for his choices with his life, purifying himself finally in the pyre of penance.

There was a moral in our movies, that good always prevailed over evil – and this finger-wagging can be traced right back to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which told us that good sons were those who did what their fathers demanded of them and good brothers were those who did not ascend thrones that rightfully belonged to others and good wives were those who trailed their husbands in thought and word and deed.

The men who wrote these epics knew where they wanted their women, and you don't have to be a fiery feminist to see that the “good” female characters in the epics are servile like Shabari or blind followers of their husbands like Gandhari, and the “evil” ones, like Kaikeyi and Manthara, are imbued with petulant malevolence. From here, we get the heroine and the vamp, distinct creatures on either side of the electrified fence, and that is why a film like Double Indemnity, where the heroine is the vamp, was inconceivable in our cinema. Even heroines like Sita (abducted by a villain) and Draupadi (about to be disrobed by a villain) had to wait for men – heroes – to be rescued.

So when Sita, in Aaranya Kaandam, devises her own deliverance, offering her body as bait, it upends our sense of Indianness – the woman has become the man, the sacred has crossed over into the profane. These films do not concern themselves with a conveniently dichotomous universe, and by casually interweaving good and evil, by erasing the boundaries between men and women, by allowing the sacred to coexist with the profane, directors like Abhinay Deo and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are dragging our myths, kicking and screaming, into the modern day.

This merits both celebration and caution. A film isn't automatically great because it veers away from values we have traditionally cherished as Indian or because it adopts Hollywood (or foreign) models of storytelling. It becomes great only if it does well what it sets out to do – in other words, the breaking of boundaries cannot become an excuse to ignore the classical components of cinema like writing and editing and cinematography and performance. For the first time, there is something for those who want Indianness in Indian cinema as well as those who feel that Indian cinema needs to become international. That's surely worth a few helium balloons.