A world beyond Bollywood

As a programmer of Indian and South Asian cinema working with Western festivals, it has always seemed bizarre to me that Bollywood and mainstream Indian films – those with stars, songs and dancing – have so often been programmed alongside arthouse cinema from other countries. At the Berlinale, for instance, where I have worked since 1998, films such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Straight from the Heart, 1999) and Mani Ratnam’s Dil se.. (From the Heart, 1998) played in the International Forum of New Cinema, the festival’s most experimental section, much to the bemusement of many in India.

And yet for all its success, Bollywood has been granted at best a hesitant respectability in the West. Western audiences have typically approached Bollywood with a sense of wary curiosity, of discovering the exotic: what is this enormous and vibrant Indian cinema, one that effortlessly subdues Hollywood? Not that it troubles most in the Indian film industry: Hollywood, which has swamped virtually every other national cinema globally, accounts for less than 10 per cent of the Indian market, and that has happened with none of the protective controls, quotas or subsidies that you find in, say, France, Korea, China or Iran.

The mistake is to believe that there is just one Indian national cinema, rather than a multifaceted output from an extraordinarily rich and diverse subcontinent. In India, films are made in 42 languages and dialects. The great range of this cinema is explored this year at BFI Southbank, London, over a series of seasons, events and programmes of which I am guest curator, all programmed to mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017.

Alia Bhatt and Sidharth Malhotra in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (2016), an emblematic portrait of a modern dysfunctional Indian family

Bollywood – mainstream cinema from Bombay, in Hindi – is traditionally escapist, with a romantic triangle, songs and extravagant fights, all topped off with a happy ending. But in a population of 1.2 billion, with millions of well-read, well-heeled people, often living in modern cities – not to mention second-generation Indians living in the diaspora – there are huge audiences who are impatient for a more intelligent, engaging cinema than Bollywood is able to offer. It’s these audiences for whom what we can call the ‘New Bollywood’ cinema caters. This is usually independently made, engages with real issues, may or may not have stars, and – blasphemously – may not even have songs and dances.

Indian independent cinema has been a presence at international film festivals since Debaki Kumar Bose’s Seeta screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1934. The so-called parallel cinema movement in India, which ran from the late 1940s to the 1970s, was an antidote to the ‘masala cinema’ of Bollywood. Films of the parallel cinema typically addressed sociopolitical issues such as feudalism and patriarchy; its key directors in its first decades included Satyajit RayMrinal SenRitwik GhatakGuru Dutt and V. Shantaram, and in later years Shyam BenegalGovind NihalaniAdoor GopalakrishnanG. AravindanShaji KarunBuddhadeb DasguptaGirish Kasaravalli and Jabbar Patel.

Not that these artists rejected music and songs altogether. Even Ghatak’s classic The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, Bengali, 1960), features the haunting Rabindra Sangeet, a song composed by Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize-winning writer, musician, painter and thinker. Ghatak’s film will screen at BFI Southbank in August, as part of a season of films exploring Partition.

The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960)

One of the ironies of India’s parallel cinema was that its stories and settings remained largely about rural, exploited peoples, rather than the urban, well-read audiences who consumed it. Today, the post-liberalised Indian economy has brought multiplexes and malls to smaller towns, somewhat flattening the old rural-urban aspirational divide. Independent filmmakers working in India today understand this, and increasingly make films in what I call the ‘mindie’ (mainstream and indie) space. The consequence of this has been that mainstream cinema is becoming more realistic, and indie cinema is weaving in song and dance. Mindie films often tackle sociopolitical issues such as caste and honour killings, are about the urban bourgeoisie – yet still often use songs and dancing with the panache of mainstream Bollywood productions.

Bollywood 2.0

This new Indian cinema is surveyed in Bollywood 2.0, a season that runs at BFI Southbank in April. Among the works included is Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons, a film that encapsulates the hybrid form of the new Indian cinema. Kapoor & Sons explores issues of homosexuality and infidelity in a poignant portrait of a modern dysfunctional Indian family – a far cry from the traditionally treacly onscreen Indian family. Yet at the same time, it features Bollywood’s coolest young stars: Alia BhattSidharth Malhotra and Pakistani hottie Fawad Khan, and has a number of songs, including a party floor-burner.

The same hybridity is found in Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014), a delightful feminist film in which a young woman, jilted by her fiancé on the eve of her wedding, honeymoons alone in Europe, and later thanks him for liberating her both from him and from herself. Starring Kangana Ranaut, it features a number of memorable songs and dances, with beautiful lyrics.

Another film in the season, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (Fly Away Solo, 2015), tackles the caste system and small-town India breaking the shackles of tradition, and has three stories that converge in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. It is elevated by Varun Grover’s philosophical lyrics, and deeply resonant songs by the band Indian Ocean. This debut feature won two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

There are few or no songs in three other films that play in the programme: Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), Shahid (2012) and Court (2014). Based on the true case of a serial killer who lived in Mumbai in the 1960s, Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 is a violent thriller in which the lives of a cop and criminal mirror each other. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid dramatises the real-life tale of Muslim lawyer Shahid Azmi, who secured the release of many poor remanded prisoners, mainly Muslims imprisoned without evidence, and who was shot dead by right-wingers. Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is a powerful debut feature focusing on the caste system and a Kafkaesque judiciary. It follows a shahir, a poet-activist-singer, who is arrested for inciting the suicide of a sewage cleaner through his song. Featuring mainly non-actors, it won two prizes at Venice, including best first feature.

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