Something new, something old
How different were the films that claimed to be different from the usual "Bollywood" mould?
A MIXED BAG OF FILM: "Black"
AS this nation of filmgoers waits for "The Rising" to repeat the "Lagaan" magic, it is time to look at what the year has brought by way of films commercially released in theatres, claiming to be "different" from the Bollywood mould, while also spurning the art film tag.
The "Devdas" man bravely spurned song-n-dance for his astronomically budgeted Helen Keller story, inspired by "The Miracle Worker". The English film had its share of emotionalism in the teacher's personal guilt and grief, the volcanic tantrums of the deaf-blind child, the patriarchal father, the over-wrought mother, and a sumptuous life style.
Out of context
A MIXED BAG OF FILM: "Paheli".
Bhansali's "Black" takes the opulence in the English film out of context and museumises it. In the former, the teacher's power to tame the termagant comes from her lack of self-indulgence. She knows that "civilised" societies turn deaf and mute when faced with injustice, and blind to the disadvantaged.
"Black", however, creates such an aura around its stars that even their remarkable performances cannot make Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherji consistently real. The breathtaking chiaroscuro of velvety shades makes fantasy out of frustrations. The script wavers unsteadily between whisper and roar. Technique spins arabesques, not the straightforward content. The camera and lighting design choreograph a song-n-dance that is too complex for the simple story. Remember the father entering against the backdrop of murals, just in time to see the wife screaming as she holds the infant over a bathtub? The dazzling white of the finale squeezes Bachchan's face into snowy wig and snowier beard, and emotion flows into bathos.
A MIXED BAG OF FILM: "Matrubhoomi".
"Black" garnered enough critical and commercial success to suggest that trying to be different may be a better option than sticking to the mould.
Jealous lover, faithful sweetheart, gorgeous siren, crafty plutocrat, impoverished aristocrat, loving sisters, back-slapping pals "Parineeta" rattles the Bollywood kaleidoscope to come up with nothing more than visual variations. What a plethora of misunderstandings, mistaken purposes and misread actions, dredged out with such loving care for costume and sets!
The hero trusts evildoers, plays the piano, sulks in the recording studio, sings on the train, slaps the good girl, almost marries the bad girl. He finally breaks down the wall real and metaphoric with bare hands and makeshift implements, to recover his true love before she scuttles off into another continent.
The foreign-returned Girish with a heart of gold sacrifices his love for Lolita and marries her sister, so that Lolita may remain untarnished in the hero's eyes. The novel on which the film is based shows the girl considering herself wed with a mere exchange of garlands, sealed with a brushing of lips. In converting delicate romance into sexual encounter, the film loses its metaphoric power. The heroine loses her strength, and becomes a vulnerable victim. Nor does there seem to be any justification for shifting the original time frame from 1914 to 1962.
A MIXED BAG OF FILMS: "Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi"
But the film did show good taste in every frame, and convincing performances, Saif Ali Khan adding nuances with superb timing. Rekha's cameo as the nightclub dancer triggered a rush of Bollywood memories. "Parineeta" saluted a range of films from "Charulata" to "Aradhana". The music paid tuneful tribute to Tagore. Poised on the brink of something beyond the feel good, "Parineeta" pulled itself back, satisfied with having deviated from the run-of-the-mill on mainly cosmetic grounds.
A galaxy of stars, desert panoramas, spectacular costumes, fabulous folklore, traditional puppetry, flamboyant dancing Amol Palekar has them all to convert niche tale into mainstream movie. Heady lyrics, set to folkish classical lilt, sung vibrantly by Kalapini Komkali, Shruti Sadolikar, Bela Shende or Hariharan cast spells. There are singular scenes as when words and strains take off into a painterly ragamala experience, foregrounding Juhi Chawla's yearning for her absent partner. Rani Mukherji radiates sensuous innocence and tremulous poignancy.
And yet, the explosive magnificence of sounds and visuals shrinks archetype into stereotype; blunts the feminist theme. The riot of colours cannot prevent the legend of the woman forced to choose between the eternal love of a ghost and the money-mindedness of the human partner from fading into mere fantasy.
From a superficial point of view all three films may appear to have taken steps towards a different kind of cinema. They would have done so, if the directors had relied less on frills and more on hardcore substance. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Pradeep Sarkar and Amol Palekar had this in common: they tried to evoke feelings and thoughts through camera, lighting and visual design. Everything became technology-driven; even the good performances of star actors became part of the razzmatazz.
Breaking new ground
Two small budget, little-publicised films did break new ground. "Hazaron Khwaishen Aisi" (Sudhir Mishra) explored the 1960s with a passion for probing, even groping, below the surface, and arrived at uncomfortable truths about the Nehruvian legacy. No high-tech manoeuvres, the sophistication came from exciting newcomers (Chitrangada, Shiney), and a cutting pattern that infused a noir-ish, East European feel. Mishra refused to underrate viewer intelligence.
Debutant Manish Jha animates a grotesque world in "Matrubhumi", where women have been almost exterminated, and men have turned bestial. He filters his fable through bibhatsa (disgust), the least attempted rasa. The treatment is raw, unabashedly crude. But it is gutsy. The raffish humour punctures hypocrisies.
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