Between Reviews: Art in the Mart

Posted on August 21, 2010

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ART IN THE MART

Is creativity in mainstream Indian cinema a contradiction of sorts? And are we, the audience, responsible in some way?

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AUG 22, 2010 – IN RESPONSE TO ONE OF MY WEEKLY Part of the Picture posts, where I discuss foreign-language art cinema, a reader wrote, “When I read your musings on parts (and sometimes the whole) of some of these films, one thought (apart from the sense of appreciation of the ‘art’ of foreign cinema) that keeps recurring is: When did Indian cinema go down to the depths of Hades it (mostly) resides in? From what I seem to understand, our cinema did not start off terribly; after all, we have had a rich history of theatre for a long time, one which was not merely vaudeville but had serious art in it. Are the 80s the real culprit? Indian cinema had been hijacked by a bunch of tasteless businessmen, who removed even the pretences of art from it, and that is why most of our movies, even the ones from the better filmmakers, suffer from some affliction or the other.”

I empathise with his anguish. But at least with regard to commercial cinema, consider this: Any mainstream film industry in any corner of the world is the darkened-hall equivalent of a Fellini whorehouse. The intent, indeed the raison d’être, is to parade an array of tarted-up beauties so that enthusiastic customers will loosen their purse strings. And most of these customers are interested in big breasts and acrobatic adeptness, rather than the ability to carry out candlelit conversations about Kafka. (It’s the critics, primarily, who care about brains, and that’s why they are invariably impotent when it comes to box office results.) The comfort of the familiar, that’s what most mainstream audiences want, and the trick is to make each prostitute look different – with a new wig perhaps, or even a whip – and yet the same. The skill of the entertainer lies in convincing the customer that he’s enjoying this experience for the very first time.

It is for this reason that mainstream-cinema creativity is a slightly different beast than what is seen (or possible) in independent film or alternative cinema (the kind covered in the Part of the Picture posts) – especially in a country like ours, where films are financed by individual producers. In Hollywood, for instance, the studio system is still operational, and these studios regularly churn out lowest-common-denominator spectacles that routinely amass millions of dollars around the world. Critics, there, frequently bemoan the lack of creativity in these blockbusters, but audiences don’t care because they have their something-same-yet-different. The important thing is that at least a portion of the profits from these tarted-up prostitutes goes towards grooming a Kafka-spouting courtesan, who will set about seducing the Oscar voters. There are, therefore, both the financial means as well as the honorific incentives to court the kind of creativity that Bollywood simply cannot afford to. (I restrict the discussion to Bollywood because it’s our biggest mainstream industry and therefore amply symptomatic of the “problems” in Kollywood and Tollywood and so forth.)

That, however, is a reflection of reality and – as the reader points out – it cannot be the excuse for the largely unremarkable state of creativity in our mainstream cinema. If creativity is seen as the ability to transcend traditional paradigms and wind up with something new, what we have to show is mostly remakes – from our own films (Parineeta, Karz, Umrao Jaan, Sholay, Don), from Hollywood (Memento, Hitch, Disclosure, Man on Fire), or distressingly, even from Iran (Children of Heaven). But this lack of “originality” isn’t the point. If creativity is viewed simplistically as the origination of the never-before, the equivalent of the invention of fire and the wheel, then Brahms wouldn’t be so celebrated for Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It’s the old distinction between being inspired versus plagiarising. Brahms not only credits his source, but, more importantly, he reworks it and reclaims it. He takes something from someone else and makes it his own. That is creativity.

The problem of crediting the source material, with respect to mainstream Bollywood, is something that we won’t get into here. It’s shameful that – with exceptions like the forthcoming Karan Johar-produced remake of Stepmom – our producers and directors turn a blind eye to the fact that they have chosen to profit from the sweat dripping off another person’s brow. But the aspect of being “inspired” is certainly within the scope of this discussion, and it is exemplified by films like Chak De India (from numerous Hollywood underdog-victory sports sagas) and Omkara (from Othello) and even Slumdog Millionaire, which, though technically not a Bollywood film, is easily mistaken for one, what with its impoverished brothers growing up to be on either side of the law, with the girl (instead of, say, the mother in the case of Deewar) caught in the middle. But these overfamiliar tropes were rendered fresh and new through the cast and the darting cinematography and the docu-verité treatment of melodrama.

It’s no secret that we’re slowly becoming one world now, with one mind and one voice and one taste. The television programmes we metro-Indians watch have all been tried and tested in other countries (Who Wants to be a Millionare?, Big Brother, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, American Idol), and the India that we used to be in the pre-liberalisation era (which now appears to be a thousand years ago) has been relegated to regional cinema. (The Hindi-heartland-based Bhojpuri film or the Madurai-set Tamil film, today, is more “Indian” than the cinema made in the national language, which, ever since its Farhan Akhtarisation with Dil Chahta Hai, looks towards multiplexes in the metros for its returns.) It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that creative fires are increasingly going to be struck with sparks from elsewhere. The question, however, is whether we hear the voice of the creator – not the “original” creator but his “inspired” namesake.

This voice we consistently hear only in the individual components of our films. Bollywood’s promotional departments, for instance, are truly cutting-edge in terms of ideas and design. The quality of graphic art in some of our posters is comparable to the best from anywhere in the world. So too the cinematography, the production design, and most importantly, the music, with the metro-friendly AR Rahman and Amit Trivedi and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, among others, having cornered signature status. Our antennae may perk up at the sounds of Taare Zameen Par or Rock On, with their unembarrassed deployment of classic-rock templates, but these sources remain, at most, an inspiration. These albums are entirely original (and creative) variations on those themes. The tones and textures of the cinematography of Dev.D may hark back to European cinema, but those influences have been subsumed organically – again, as variations on themes.

Why, then, don’t the films themselves, in their entirety, reflect this creativity? If the building blocks are creative enough, why does the completed edifice reek of second-handedness? One reason is surely that the writing, when not illuminated by a voice, can never come across as original. But could there be another? Could it be that, as a scenario in L.A. Confidential posited, we, the paying public, are content with look-alikes of originals? In that film, which is as good a metaphor as any for mainstream moviemaking, the prostitution racket flourished because it was impossible to spend a night with the original stars, and only the make-believe replicas were available. The customers slept with cosmetically engineered fakes and convinced themselves that they were sleeping with Lana Turner or Veronica Lake. Maybe we’ve become those customers, with respect to demanding creativity from mainstream Bollywood. Maybe we have little hope for truly transcendental originality and routinely settle for second-best, and because we keep the cash counter ringing, there isn’t an incentive to class up the joint. After all, we still have the power to choose the ways in which we want to be pleasured.

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