It has been a week of miracles of sorts for Indian cinema. Under the guise of the celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema, strange things have occurred that leaves the most cynical ones among us coloured by the therapeutic turmeric of hope.
The most surprising of it is a short film in the 'allegedly' 100 year tribute film Bombay Talkies. As a film, one could have done much better than this to pay one's respect to a film industry that shapes and guides public life.
Yet, what would shock you out of your wits is the first section of the film. I never thought that I would get the chance to say these two laudatory phrases ever in my life to Karan Johar: 'Hats off' and 'Bravo'. But I eat humble pie. Because Karan Johar comes out of the closet as a filmmaker with a short film that is beautiful, poignant, evocative, nuanced, sensitive and miles ahead of anything he has ever created.
And to create the best portion while in competition with three other equally great filmmakers - Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap - is no mean achievement.
The other three do what they do best. Thus you have Dibakar manifest his metaphor of unfulfilled desires of every Mumbaikar in an emu even as he deliberately frames his shots with the only remnants of Mumbai's past 'mill' pride – the chimneys - in the background.
Anurag on the other hand makes a fragile glass jar of morabba into the unfulfilled cinematic desire of most Indians, while Zoya creates a sweet and humorous cinematic tribute to the identity crisis of Indian cinema via that of a child.
Yet it is Karan Johar who surpasses them all with his portion, not needing anything physical to construct his metaphor in his first foray into realism. There are deft and subtle touches that construct different similes. Rani Mukerji wakes up in her most unglamorous self you'd have ever seen in your life only to put on makeup and become the sex siren we know her to be. The putting on and putting off of the makeup builds the theme of us wearing different masks to survive not just the city, but also our loved ones.
A gay character in the film not only hides his sexuality but gets violent with another gay man in public, while kissing him in apology in private.
This portion becomes an expose of the many layers of lies that we live in our daily lives. Yes, at the face of it, it is about a few gay people coming out of the closet and being comfortable with their selves. But on a larger note, it is also about all of us coming out of our own closets, of the web of lies we construct around ourselves, the masks and the makeup we wear to hide ourselves from an allegedly cruel world.
This, of course, becomes the most obvious and visible allegory. However, since it is supposed to mark the 100 years of Indian cinema, we can also see this portion of the film as a metaphor for the Indian film industry as a whole which has been unable to break its own shackles to emerge into the new world of bold, gritty, realistic cinema.
If you look at it, no one is more representative of just the opposite type of cinema - the sugar-coated, unrealistic, lying, and un-rooted variety - than Karan Johar, whose films have often ended up giving even the word 'kitch' a bad name.
Thus when the same Karan Johar, comes up with just the opposite of what he has so far created, perhaps like a friend suggested, as a response to the undeniable competition from the young lot of filmmakers, this is simply a landmark moment.
You can look at this clip metaphorically, as the coming out of the closet of Indian cinema. It is as if Karan is giving out the signals to not just his audience, but the industry – the old world of cinema is passe and it is time to adopt and absorb the brave new world of cinema where talent would call the shots over kitch and kachra.
Yes, I am also aware that this may be nothing more than wishful thinking. If the tremendous verve and energy of the 70s parallel cinema movement in the country ended up only strengthening the brainless commercial cinema instead of uprooting it, what chance do we have in these modern times, one is bound to ask.
That is where the next miracle film playing in theatres along with this film (at least in Mumbai), Celluloid Man, comes in.
One of the truths about cinema is that it is the most 'fragile' of all art forms. Writing needs little – a clay tablet, rock inscriptions etc. - to survive thousands of years. Music too can be written down or memorised and recreated, and paintings have literally survived thousands of years. But cinema, cinema despite being the most elaborate of all the possible art forms and incorporating almost every other, needs a lot of care if we are to keep it alive for posterity.
Because nitrate films, on which most of the world's films were shot till a few decades back, are not only fragile, but are also inflammable.
Is it any surprise that besides a handful of films, almost everything made in India during the silent era is lost. Now if you cannot even see and follow your own films, where does the question of us appreciating our cinematic tradition as a nation arise?
If the only thing available in the market to see are films made by the Karan Johars of the world, what do you expect from a wannabe film director but to aspire to become the same? If that is all that you get to see, won't you think that that is all there is to cinema?
And that is the reason why Celluloid Man is such an important film.
The film is a tribute to the madness of one man, P K Nair, his illogical craving to preserve cinema and how he is perhaps the only, and seemingly unlikely, connecting link to the greatest cinema that has been made in India in the last 50 years.
With painstaking detail and tender love, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's documentary becomes a paean not only to the importance of preserving our cinematic heritage, but also to the art of spreading it, of patronising talent, of living passionate lives.
In the film P K Nair's limp, his slow, laboured strut on his crutch becomes a metaphor for the state of affairs of Indian cinema, of its history and preservation that are struggling to survive, strolling as it is on crutches thanks to governmental antipathy towards everything truly cinematic.
There is a minute in the film which shows the 'cleaning' of images from celluloid to extract the silver in it. Director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur deliberately extends the shot as he shows you the painstaking precision with which the images are wiped clean to leave a transparent plastic film. Something that takes years of hard labour of hundreds of people and often thousands of years of sensibility to create is wiped off in a matter of minutes.
Any film enthusiast would be left squirming in his seat watching this blasphemy, tears streaming down her face, as they did mine.
As some of the greatest and most famous directors of Indian cinema, both from the commercial and parallel or indie space like Shyam Benegal, Jahnu Barua, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Mahesh Bhatt, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Mrinal Sen, Rajkumar Hirani, etc. talk about what this man has done for them individually and for cinema of India, you realise how one man, lit from within by the fires of passion, can not just literally make an impossibly large difference despite our insignificant size in an impossibly large world, but also light up a thousand other fiery passions that will burn bright even when the original source passes away.
Celluloid Man thus not only ends up becoming a chronicler of our cinematic tradition and history, but also a love song to a great teacher, a chronicler of the passions of a socially aware man, a passionate clarion call to step up preservation before we lose more of our cinematic heritage, and an inspiring story of endless zeal and passion moving mountains.
Together, the two films give a strong and structured message: the hegemony of dumb commercial cinema can be challenged only when you preserve, restore and view your strong cinematic traditions and if you have the passion to do what it takes to make a difference.
The nation that allegedly produces the largest number of films in the world, should also have had preserved and restored the largest number of films in the world, and should have had a current cinematic consciousness where different streams, styles and sensibilities of cinema would have coexisted and nurtured each other.
Sadly as we celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema, reality stays aloof from idealism just as it does in most Karan Johar films. But if a Karan Johar can do what he did in Bombay Talkies - redeem and atone for himself - can Indian cinema and its big landlords be far behind?
Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.