In 2010 the big screen finally found the space for the other India, of ordinary people from small towns, poor rural and urban hinterlands…
As this decade turns, Hindi cinema ends a long exile of ordinary people from popular films. Real women and men from small towns and the alleyways of big cities, and from the poor rural hinterlands are back on the big screen, and spectators are lining up to watch and applaud them, weep and laugh with them. This is a major departure from the loyal patronage of Indian audiences of glossy and asocial pictures which dominated popular Hindi cinema for 20 years. From the 1990s, coinciding closely with the ascendency of globalised market economics, films became preoccupied with wealthy and well-groomed young men and women, usually resident overseas, living in designer clothes and homes. Looking at the cinema of these two decades, one could believe that there were no poor people left in India. The truth was that for a long time they did not matter.
A new vision
But if trends which dominated the past year sustain, this has at last begun to change. The best films of 2010, as also significantly those which made the most money, were set in an India which many had forgotten exists. Most glossy films about beautiful rich people were rejected roundly at the box office. Instead, inventive new directors with intelligent writers and modest budgets brought us movies populated once again by people of village, slum and small town India, by men and women who dressed and spoke the language of those excluded from the country's growth story. This newly emergent India has begun to assert its right, in popular culture, to be seen and heard.
I found endearing the authentic journey into the inner by-lanes of west Delhi, by debutant Habib Faizal in “Do Dooni Char”. It could have been the story of any lower middle class Punjabi urban family. The overweight, uncharismatic school teacher, a loser in the eyes of his children, drives a rickety two-wheeler. His wife, in unfashionable salwaar suits, frayed cardigans and nylon socks, tries hard to cheerfully balance the family's budget each month. But the children long for a small car, spurred by competition with neighbours, college mates and wealthier relatives. The film affectionately tracks the moral crisis into which this modest ambition plunges the family, and how it pulls back from the brink, realising that there are some things more valuable than keeping pace with the neighbours.
Another debut film “Band, Baaja, Baraat”, by Maneesh Sharma, is boisterous and over-the top, but enlivened by a similar winning insight into the foibles and ambitions of ordinary people. Raised in the same narrow lanes of west Delhi that “Do Dooni Char” recreated so effectively, an ambitious young woman finds an unlikely business partner in a rich sugarcane farmer's son from Saharanpur. He is terrified that after he completes his college studies, his father will force him to spend his life harvesting sugarcane fields. They can barely speak English (the boy pronounces business as ‘biyiness'), are garish and unsophisticated in their tastes, but unapologetic and cocky. Together they start a small enterprise, as wedding planners, determined to succeed — but without cutting corners or short-changing their customers. They do so with audacity, imagination, energy and gusto. Their cheeky success is as credible as it is enjoyable. There is also a charming reversal of gender roles, with the girl taking the lead both in work and their relationship. In recent years, the new achievers, especially in sports, but also in other vocations, come from small town India, with few opportunities, but a fire in their bellies that propels them to strive for and accomplish what their parents could not even dream of. This film, with all its flaws, rejoices in the success of this other India.
The brilliantly written and accomplished “Peepli Live”, another first film, directed by Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, chooses a more sombre theme: the despair of farmers which drives them to suicide in large tracts of the Indian countryside. It abandons a conventional neo-realist narrative format for the unfamiliar idiom of black comedy, avoiding sentimentality, the melancholy and maudlin. The bemused central protagonist, brilliantly underplayed by Omkar Das Manikpuri, is most loveably unheroic. A desperately impoverished farmer, he is compelled by his kin to declare his resolve to commit suicide, to claim the compensation money which alone could rescue his hopelessly indebted family and their small piece of land. The film shifts then into a scathing satire of the visual media in the contemporary era of competitive ‘breaking news' and ‘reality television'. But I did leave the theatre wishing that the film makers had lingered longer with the farmer's family, and cared to probe below its crabby surliness and glazed lack of emotion. It would have discovered a humanity, resilience and spirit that are lost somewhere in the film's preoccupation with cynical contemporary media and politics.
It is the gentleness of the satire which drew me to another comic expose of runaway official corruption in the countryside, “Well Done Abba”, directed by that veteran master of celluloid social commentary, Shyam Benegal. His films today are arguably less intellectually nuanced and technically polished than his early works. But in the evening years of his life, I am drawn to a mellowed and compassionate Benegal, his social anger tempered with both playful mischief and hope. The film recounts the hilarious travails of a driver when on leave to his village from the city where he is employed. He tries to access a government programme to finance a well for his fields. This requires his inclusion as ‘BPL' (officially deemed below the ‘poverty line'). This in turn entails the payment of so many bribes that there is no money left to actually even begin to dig the well when all the bribes are given. In his frustration, he files a complaint in the police station, that his well has been stolen! This creates a piquant dilemma for officials: that the well exists is incontrovertible in official records, because the grant was released and the progress of the well carefully recorded, but it cannot be found anywhere.
The one big-budget film I was deeply affected by was Karan Johar's morally significant and politically brave “My Name is Khan”, the apocryphal tale of a man who walks across the American continent to declare to the President that his name is Khan, but he is not a terrorist. I found it an impassioned, acutely felt, even if larger-than-life response to global profiling and prejudice against Muslims. The ineffable wisdom of the advice of the mother to her mildly autistic son in the film is one to take to heart: “There are only two kinds of persons in the world”, she tells him, “good people and bad people. Remember this. There is no other difference between people.”
In a year crowded with remarkable cinema, probably the finest was another first film, by Vikramaditya Motwane, “Udaan” — humane and tender, but never sentimental. There are many ‘coming of age' stories in every language, in every country. But this one is unusual for its sensitive and empathetic tracking of a young man entering adulthood, learning to emotionally wrestle with and ultimately overcome a parent who cannot love him. It traces the teenage boy's hurt, anger and eventual ‘flight' of escape, coming to terms with his abusive dominating father.
This year the stars of popular cinema were the first-time directors, and writers, with scripts which were audacious and original, humane and often funny. Together they find again real people, and the authentic drama in the grit and grime of their struggles, collapse and triumphs. In these films, we rediscovered ourselves. These films mark the coming of age of Hindi cinema.