Bollywood's Coming Of Age

January 17, 2009
Aditi Nadkarni

It all started with my having given up on contemporary Hindi films. I was hopeful after Taare Zameen Par and after watching Race one depressing Sunday afternoon I didn't see the cinematic revolution I had expected. I had also figured out after a Netflixcapade that Chak De India, the last Hindi film I watched with much enthusiasm seemed a lot like the English film called Miracle, except of course Miracle was based on a true story. Having absorbed this, I went into mourning, restricting my Hindi film doses to watching for the second, third or fourth time, classics like Masoom, Katha, Ijazzat and Mandi on YouTube.

And then one day a new name, Nishikanth Kamath, stirred my faith alive with Mumbai Meri Jaan. I laughed and cried and celebrated the filmmaker who finally found Paresh Rawal a role he was worthy of. The very next day, in A Wednesday, Naseeruddhin Shah and Anupam Kher held my attention until the very last scene. I didn't yawn or fast-forward through songs. I sat, eyes glued to the screen, silently applauding two of my favorite actors who thankfully did not settle by spending their greying film years as strict fathers, the perennial villains in desi love stories. The pace was electrifying, the story original and the characters real.

In Welcome To Sajjanpur, Shyam Benegal delighted me further with a simple yet delectable rural comedy that addressed relevant social issues. A modest cast, generous dashes of humor and Shreyas Talpade's acting genius made this film a wholesome and fun watch. Madhur Bhandarkar's style of juxtaposing the real with the glamorous worked in Fashion and I was surprised to find out that the very pretty Priyanka Chopra can, if she tried, act well. More recently, in Dasvidaniya, Vinay Pathak brought a common man character to life. I soaked in this bittersweet and touchingly crafted film, directed by debutante Shashant Shah that has the potential to change how Bombay's middle class views life and relationships. I fell in love with the awkward, bespectacled and podgy protagonist.

Rock On! had me pondering about several things; about what might have happened to Indus Creed, the rock group of the 80s, about what had happened to my dreams of learning to play the guitar some day and most importantly about why I hadn't noticed earlier how very good-looking Farhan Akhtar was! It is always more of a success when one sees new faces in a Hindi film these days and realizes that it is talent being showcased and not merely a family business being passed on cause some star-kid didn't do too well at school.

In EMI, a lighthearted comic plot captured the complicated love-hate relationship between the new and altered Indian middle class and the banks that strive with relentless schemes to catch up with them. Sanjay Dutt is a natural at playing the quintessential bhai and has practically raised the standards for anyone else wanting to play a GGG (gentle-goofy-goonda) character. It was refreshing to see among other things, a more composed and consequently more sexier Urmila Matondkar in a character very different from the over-the-top hysterical damsel that Ram Gopa Verma has had her play in the past.

I saw more. I saw Johnny Gaddar, Manorama Six Feet Under and am browsing sites to see if the seemingly funny Loins Of Punjab is out yet. I am waiting for the likes of Nana Patekar, Atul Kulkarni, Manoj Bajpai to make good while these crazy times of unique plots and talented performances roll.

In the past few weeks I have watched film after film and am wide-eyed at the maverick years of cinema that the Hindi film industry is witnessing. In short, every film was unique and I imagined what the big banners might be doing. Were they scratching their heads wondering what happened to the time when the proclaimed stars and starlets would come out and claim the box office for themselves as the small budget filmmakers took home the consolation prize and maybe a Filmfare Critics' Award? Or maybe they are coming up with a formula to match the present times and create a package that has what today's film buffs need. Maybe they will learn to tap into the free advertising offered by the blogosphere where the new, the creative and the original are spoken about and exalted. Ek Vivaah Aisa Bhi tells us that the Barjatyas stubbornly choose to remain in the past and manufacture wedding videos in place of cinema. Aditya Chopra's Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi did not have a gripping story in with the times and Shahrukh's charm could not make up for the lack of chemistry between the two leading stars. None of the bigger stars have yet ventured into the emerging genre of films which may be a blessing for upcoming actors. Maybe this is their channel into tinseltown.

Finally, there are stories in Bollywood! The Indian film director is acknowledging the growing intellect of the masses and catering to it instead of recycling the girl-meets-boy plots. The mother in Dasvidaniya, the child in Taare Zameen Par and the friend in Rock On! all remind us that the "pyaar" they sing about so much in Bollywood has more faces than the two that will sing, dance, hold hands, kiss and eventually marry.

Recently, in speaking of Slumdog Millionaire, Mr.Bachchan on his blog acknowledged the age-long tryst between the commercial and art film industries in India. Films have always been viewed on those lines. What is artful and realistic was assumed not to be of commercial value since commercialism feeds on escapism. But the movies I have been watching lately have the triumphs and fantasy that escapism offers and the realistic depiction of earthy stories that art films showcase. One could call them crossover films; a genre that brings together the popularity of commercial cinema and the delicate craftsmanship of art films. What was parallel cinema, not too long ago, is now intersecting and becoming one with popular cinema. A new day has dawned in Bollywood!

Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer researcher, a film reviewer and a poet; her many occupations are an odd yet fun miscellany of creative pursuits. Visit her blog for more of her articles and artistic as well as photographic exploits.
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January 17, 2009
12:47 AM

What's wrong with fantasy and escapism? There is enough misery in the average Indian's life that he/she doesn't want to see more of that on screen. Unlike Western audiences (who lead far more comfortable lives in general), who never mind seeing all third world ills on the screen to make them feel good about themselves from time to time.

To club both kinds of audiences together and judge movies solely from the perspective of Western audiences is not right.

We Indians love to watch masala films and there is no need to look down on them. It has become fashionable for the rich Indian socialites and intellectuals to sing praises to movies which show poverty and misery in India and look down upon movies that actually lift up the spirits of the average middle class Indian by indulging him for 3 hours of escapism and fantasy which is what he wants in the first place.

To AB, I have to say this - Take it easy pal, 10 years down the road, SM will be forgotten, while Sholay and Deewar will live on in the hearts and minds of more Indians. Never mind the white guys awards, you are way beyond them.

January 17, 2009
02:50 AM

Aditi, I think Indian cinema is on an exceptional high these days. There is such a wide variety available. From the escapist fare, to middle of the road films to films for the hard-core cinema buff.

Led, I agree escapism is required. Remember it is the people who are comfortable in a particular sphere like to watch realism in that sphere. For instance when I am low, I like to watch a comedy. I cannot take a depressing film. Similarly a person fighting to make their ends meet want glamour. Manmohan Desai had his audience and his was also a genre of cinema. You cannot write it off.

The parallel cinema or the so called art cinema movement of the 70s was extremely pretentious. There was more fraud than genuine art there. To me good cinema is the cinema of great film-makers of the 50s and 60s like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand, V Shantaram, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and in today's times Gulzar. They could make a film with substance that appealed to the common man. Ofcourse those were simpler times and our times require more complex treatment. But as a genre, that brand of cinema had almost disappeared. With films like TZP that brand of cinema is making a resurgence. More power to these film-makers!!

Aditi N
January 17, 2009
10:01 AM

Ledzius: Who said anything was wrong with fantasy and escapism? I love fantasy and escapism too. I just don't like my fantasy without a good story. I don't want the same fantasy tale pushed down my throat. I don't want the same typecast characters playing the same fantasy tale over and over again. So when I see new and interesting fantasy tales I'm happy and write about it. For me fantasy and escapism is more than the run-of-the-mill love story or wedding videos. Real escapism would require that even a fantasy tale be identifiable at some level in order to be truly engaging. I merely take issue with lack of originality which includes copying and recycling Hollywood stories and recycling and repackaging the same old Bollywood films.

Ritu: I agree! I hope this trend continues. You said it. There were "art films" that were made with the sole intention of catering to the film critics and had no entertainment value. That is precisely why the films I have listed in my article make me so happy. They have original stories and entertaining plots. These films just go to prove that in order to be entertaining a film does not have to be "girl meets boy" or at least don't have to revolve around that singular plot.

January 17, 2009
11:35 AM

Love it or hate it, but nothing has rivaled the mass appeal and raw power of Masala Bolywood that held India in its spell for decades. Only Cricket would come close second. Its power did not rest in its cookie cutter formulas or worn out cliches, but its ability to appeal to Aam Adami on a massive scale, across the length and breadth of age-gender-socio-economic-cultural-political-religious divide, and its ability to maintain absolute hegemony over the pop cultural domain. It didn't win the hearts and minds by the handful, it won them by the wholesale, over and over again, year after year, decade after decade. It was the true unifiers and equalizers of India that held the public square as its exclusive province, not yielding an inch to elitists, artsy, parallel or foreign. The foreignwood went thru its golden age in 60s and 70s than but so did India's own and India remained oblivious, unyielding, self-contained and unfazed by it. That is raw power and reach of Bolywood. It created mass experience, unity in diversity and occupied the public domain and public consciousness unchallenged and unrivaled. The parallel cinema could only brag about awards and recognition among the elites, but it could not penentrate or dent the absolute hegemony held by Bolywood. Therein lies the bitter rivalry and acrimony between Bolywood and parallel cinema, the latter got all the kudos from elites while former, notwithstanding its astounding success, got only sneers and boos.

What is hailed as new era in Bolywood is merely disintegration of mass appeal into niche market segments. Like giant theaters that once used to rule the roost are being chopped into multiplexes of tiny video booths. Mass experience too is being chopped into customized movie experiences - a scene hitherto all too familiar and confined to parallel cinema. That means Bolywood is about to vacate its crown as an undisputed hegemon and king of mass appeal. What once used to fare so well in Bolywood has descended on serials on idiot box where they still command somewhat mass appeal. But overall trend is disintegration and fragmentation in every media where nobody is able to command overreaching powers. As old behemoth Bolywood has died, the medium has become inclusive and diverse, making room for niche products and foreign players to flood the cinematic landscape. As they vie to grab audience attention and make their presence felt, they will look back at the old Bolywood in owe and wonder how it did that so magically and so effortlessly for years. Can Multiplex cinema reproduce star-studded galaxi of Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra, Jitendra, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachhan, Kishor Kumar, Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Rishikesh Mukharji, Barjatyas? Most of the multiplex talent would not qualify to be even extra in the Bolywood cinema. Miltiplex cinema is a triumph and celebration of elites and elitism. And the demise of Bolywood and its elite stars is really the defeat of Aam Adami - one more guilty pleasure and avenue taken away from him. Aam Adami do not count anymore. He has become a slumdog, needing to be rescued by foreigners and elites.

January 17, 2009
06:52 PM

"I had also figured out after a Netflixcapade that Chak De India, the last Hindi film I watched with much enthusiasm seemed a lot like the English film called Miracle, except of course Miracle was based on a true story."

Aditi, you need to do some research on one Mir Ranjan Negi and his accomplishments, as well as read about what inspired Jaideep Sahani to make this movie, instead of jumping to conclusions based on your own prejudices. One thing is sure: it wasn't the Kurt Russell starrer "Miracle" (if you're referring to that one) that inspired "CDI".

[blathering deleted]

January 17, 2009
06:58 PM

Also Maharaj Krishan Kaushik's life as a national coach was an inspiration for CDI.

Aditi N
January 17, 2009
07:31 PM

kaffir: In criticizing my prejudice you somehow revealed your own...about my "coconuttiness" :) Your unwarranted personal attacks and prejudice aside, pls check my article again: I did not say that Chak De was based on or was inspired by Miracle. I didn't even say that the film was a copy. But if you watch Miracle you will see that a lot of the scenes, dialogues, sequences and the script are very similar to the ones in Miracle. This particular technical aspect of a film is called screenplay and is very important. It sets the tone and the pace of the film and essentially decides whether it will be an engaging film or not. The very inspiring scene in Chak De where Shahrukh asks every player which team she represents and makes them work out until they say Team India is sadly the same exact scene from Miracle. So it is an original plot that has been let down by a plagiarized script and screenplay. Whether I am a "coconut" or not that still is lack of originality.

I could make a film about say the life of an Indian freedom fighter but instead of writing my own original screenplay just use one from an existing inspiring film about an American civil rights' leader then I am still plagiarizing. It wouldn't matter that a different real life character inspired my film.

This is not about the West. Really. It isn't. Think about it. You and people who think on these lines are forcibly making it about the West. The fact is that Indians need to raise their own standards and shed these complexes that make them whine about the West every time their own flaws or deficiencies are pointed out. We, as the viewers need to put this pressure on our filmmakers instead of defecting any criticism pointed towards them with our own insecurities about this "West".

I am not sure what Amitabh Bachchan's being popular in Africa and Europe have anything to do with the point of my article and so I am at a loss for response as far as that comment of yours is concerned.

One more thing, kaffir: not just as the author or the editor here but as a fellow commentator I feel it may lead to more fruitful discussions if we all argue with and criticize the logic and not the person. In all fairness, you and I don't know each other. So its pointless for you to call me names and pin labels. You could call me a coconut, I could call you some other kind of fruit and we could do this all day. But to what end and why? This isn't personal. Its just two conflicting opinions. People who have the ability to communicate should be able to debate respectfully, right?

I hope all commentators, not just you, realize this.

January 17, 2009
08:18 PM

wow, kaffir, someone disagrees with you and you call them names and insult them? how is that reasonable? you try to pass yourself off as intellectually superior to others, but you're apparently just a shit-stirrer, too.

not nice. grow up.

aditi has made her points and backed them up. you've been just anecdotal and nasty.

January 17, 2009
11:08 PM

Aditi, your words:
"I had also figured out after a Netflixcapade that Chak De India, the last Hindi film I watched with much enthusiasm seemed a lot like the English film called Miracle, except of course Miracle was based on a true story."

clearly implying that CDI wasn't. That's what I commented on. If you want to discuss other aspects, I'll be happy to do so.

Rest of my comment ties in with your other post about SM and Amitabh.

This is not about the West. Really. It isn't. Think about it. You and people who think on these lines are forcibly making it about the West.

Um, nice of you to turn it around when it is you who is obsessed with the West's approval and Indian movies that need to please a Western audience.

One more thing, I commented on your attitude, which is not the same as calling names. As they say, criticize the sin, not the sinner. ;)

ss, when two folks are talking, please don't butt in. Go find some nuts. And, yes, learn to read properly and distinguish between "criticism of an attitude" and "name-calling".

Now scamper away. :)

January 17, 2009
11:17 PM

We, as the viewers need to put this pressure on our filmmakers instead of defecting any criticism pointed towards them with our own insecurities about this "West".

Hey, looks like someone's plagiarizing a dialog from "Swades"! ;) :)

Oh, I'm all for India doing well and raising its standards, but what makes it difficult is a self-loathing attitude by some folks who are obsessed with negativity.

Aditi N
January 17, 2009
11:53 PM


My implication that Chak De was not developed from a true story stands. Pls read the example I gave above of the freedom fighter story. In my comment above I clarified that simply having a real life character or one event as an inspiration does not qualify as a "true story" in a film. The context and the screenplay were unoriginal and copied from Miracle and hence NOT a true story. Let me simplify the example further: A film about Mahatma Gandhi would not be a true story if I wrote a screenplay copying dialogs and scenes from a film about Martin Luther King. It in fact would be even worse than a work of fiction.

and just for the record, I don't loathe myself at all. In fact I absolutely love my "self". I just don't identify this "self" solely with being Indian alone like some people do while basking in some sort of a false nationalistic pride. Being Indian is just one of my identities. I have other identities such as being a person with integrity and principles which would explain why plagiarism bothers me.

Just being "for India doing well" doesn't do a thing. Being able to take tough criticism without immediately whining about "negativity!" or "West!" would likely help.

Looks like you had to dig deep to find some comment of mine to establish a "plagiarism" accusation. :) I mean, Swades! Really? Shahrukh had a line in there telling us how we need to be tough on our filmmakers! Wow. He's asking for trouble. :)

January 18, 2009
08:25 AM

uh, in case you had not noticed kaffir... this is not a personal phone call between you and aditi. people are welcome to join in any time they want. this is a DISCUSSION board and you don't stand in the center.

your attempt to diminutivize me is both old and childish. just be an adult and play nice and then others won't have to "interrupt"

January 18, 2009
08:26 AM

Battling for Bollywood again kaffir?
@ aditi: You could call him chirkut. Way more appropriate.

January 19, 2009
02:08 PM

There are lots of great Indian movies out there; you just have to sort the wheat from the chaff, same as Hollywood. It is just so unfortunate that Chandni Chowk to China was chosen to be Warner Bros big crossover effort. People will get the wrong idea...that all Indian popular cinema is that bad. But I'll never stop trying to expose people to quality Indian cinema!

January 21, 2009
08:42 AM

i find it hilarious how art/parallel/intellectual cinema is meant to be someway inferior to mass popular cinima just because something is popular. Fact remains that anything of any real quality and content is only accessible to those who can enjoy it ie understand it. The mass cinema is fine - ultimately OSO or any other big masala films can be fun with a tight story line and un cringe worthy humour but somehow portraying this as the greatest of cinematic achievement is beyond me!
It is the same comparison between classical music/popular music... science understood by the many and nobel prize winning type - it is about education. Both should be appreciated but lets not kid ourselves as to what one should try and endevour to! ultimately everyone strives for thier kids to be more clever than them- a push forward in times and discovery. The same goes for cinema. In the end with more access to media from all over the world and primarily with more education - tastes are bound to change... there is no denying that.

I find it very strange that anyone can celebrate a time when today's quality newcomers/actors would not have made it to "extras" because of the over powering star system and single screeen cinemas...

Aditi N
January 21, 2009
10:57 AM

suma: most of your comment was an enigma to me. i could not understand it. but my interpretation is that you are essentially calling Indian masses stupid. nonetheless i did not know that it took great genius to love a good story. even 3 year olds like a good story, even if it's not a fairy tale but is interesting. if you tell a kid the same story, he/ she will get bored and ask for a new one.

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