Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan gets going when an affable Indian named Sunny (the fantastic Sharib Hashmi, who looks like Satish Kaushik in his college days) is captured by militants and held hostage in Pakistan. We get a glimpse of Sunny’s plight through an early scene where a local cop drives up to the film unit he’s a part of – he’s an actor, but he becomes an assistant director to pay the bills – and commands them to stop shooting. The reasons? They’re in Rajasthan. It’s the border area. They haven’t obtained the requisite permissions. But Sunny knows that the real reason is the man’s ego. The crew has clearance from the Government of India, but they haven’t approached this satrap – and so Sunny begins to work on him, addressing him as hukum and mai-baap, and asking him to stand in front of the camera and say something. Sunny, we see, is a charmer. More importantly, he’s doing what comes naturally – he’s an actor, and he’s putting on a show. That the cop ends up granting the crew permission to continue shooting is only part of the story. The rest is about Sunny getting to appease his inner ham. Imagine, then, how he must feel, locked up in another country in a room with no audience – at least for a while.
Filmistaan is ostensibly about a capital-P Plot. It’s about India and Pakistan. It’s about the spirit of one-upmanship that causes Sunny to declare that Australia may have won the World Cup the most number of times, but India still has two while Pakistan has only one. It’s about the sameness of our food, our faces, our emotions. It’s about the sameness of our songs, whether sung by Reshma or Lata Mangeshkar. It’s about how we really want to be one, if only for the super cricket team that would emerge. It’s about hapless children who turn into militants because they want a change from the kind of life where they pray five times a day but eat only once. But these undercurrents are subsumed into some sort of meta movie about how cinema courses through our subcontinental veins. This makes Filmistaan sound profound and serious and important – but it’s none of things. It’s simply about loving cinema. Had the film been released last year, it may have given serious competition to Bombay Talkies in celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. Where that film went about the celebration in a formal, auteurist manner, this one is shaggier, looser – it’s all heart.
It’s about how cinema gives words to the wordless events in our lives – Chakke pe chakka plays when Sunny is driving his car, and when the next number comes on, Ey phasaa from Bobby, he’s ambushed. It’s about how cinema gives us lines to make mundane events more colourful – when a colleague says she’s leaving, Sunny says, “Tu chal, main aayee.” (And even the film’s original lines have the ring of Old Bollywood-style writing, like the one that goes something like “Bandook se mulk jeet sakte hain, dil nahin.”) It’s about how cinema leaves us with echoes, with everything being bound to this film or that one – when Sunny finds a new best friend in Aftab (the superb Inaamulhaq), the relationship is classic Hindu-Muslim-bhai–bhai, and as emotional as the ones in the movies. They embrace, they weep, they re-enact the climactic action scene from Sholay (with, maybe, a touch of that other bhai-bhai movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Sunny’s being sealed in his prison, brick by brick, reminds us of Bina Rai in Anarkali, and there are also echoes from the early days of cinema, when men played women. You could even read the near-absence of women in this film as some sort of comment on the utter disposability of the heroine in a certain kind of cinema. And if you want to be really charitable, what are the wayward and somewhat disappointing latter portions if not a reflection of how our films tend to lose the plot in the second half?
Filmistaan is about making cinema, discussing cinema, viewing cinema. In an outrageously funny moment, Sunny decides to become the director of his own hostage video – you haven’t lived till you hear the militants utter “rolling” and “action” – and eventually, Aftab decides it’s time he made a movie. Aftab is to Pakistan what Sunny is to India, the average bloke who’s besotted with Bollywood. He sells pirated DVDs (of Bollywood movies, naturally), and he mourns the fact that Pakistan has so much cinematic talent but so few avenues for fame and fortune, and he knows that Farhan Akhtar was an assistant director on Himalayputra, and he yearns for the day Bollywood will end up watching pirated DVDs of Lollywood movies. In a scene that brings to mind Swades, he also arranges for screenings for the village. First, he screens Maine Pyar Kiya. Towards the end, the sound goes off. Sunny steps in and recites the lines he knows by heart. It’s a magical moment – there’s just the night, a bunch of impoverished villagers, an old television set, a hostage, and yet things couldn’t be happier. This is the scene to show people how mad we can be sometimes about our movies. And then, when Aftab screens Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Sunny catches one of his captors smiling. This man is actually having a good time. Later, a militant declares that he doesn’t watch films. “Yeh fizool cheezein hamare liye mana hai,” he says, that these silly things are forbidden for them. And we see why he’s so joyless. Filmistaan doesn’t go as far as to suggest that this man might not have ended up like this had he been weaned on the Dev Anand or Shah Rukh Khan oeuvre, but it does say that the reason the villagers grow to love Sunny is because he brought them something that isn’t usually found in these parts, something that our cinema brings them. He brought them joy (and he’s a fizool cheez himself, in the grand scheme of things).
Filmistaan isn’t always heart-warming. It has a bit of an edge. Sunny sees a militant getting emotional over cricket commentary. (It’s an India-Pakistan match, naturally.) And we think it’s another moment that humanises this man, like the one that humanised the earlier militant, who smiled during Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. But this time, it’s not cute. The man is still dangerous. And he sets out to destroy… cinema, by breaking Sunny’s camera. It says a lot about the dreamy quality of the filmmaking when something so light on the surface allows so many readings. Sunny even jokes about the fact that he’s not all that different from the militants, because they both end up “shooting.”
Not all bits are worked out well. There’s a stretch about porn-loving border patrol cops that looks shoehorned in, and the scene where Sunny “steals” an automatic and entertains kids by doing impressions of gun-toting stars is tonally off. But this is followed by a gem of a scene between Sunny and a healer. They talk about Amritsar and little lanes that no one remembers any longer, and then they talk about cinema. We sometimes dismiss our films as stupid, but it’s impossible not to be moved when this healer reveals what Indian cinema means to him. That’s where the title comes from, I suppose. There’s Hindustan and there’s Pakistan – but it’s all really only Filmistaan.
* hukum and mai-baap = terms of respect, especially from someone in the lower rungs of society to a powerful person
* Reshma = see here
* Bombay Talkies = see here
* Chakke pe chakka = see here
* Ey phasaa = see here
* “Tu chal, main aayee” = You go, I’ll follow…
* “Bandook se mulk jeet sakte hain, dil nahin” = You can win countries with guns, but you cannot win hearts…
* Sholay = see here
* Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid = see here
* Anarkali = see here
* Himalayputra = see here
* Swades = see here
* Maine Pyar Kiya = see here
* Kuch Kuch Hota Hai = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.