When two commercial filmmakers make a film on the same subaltern subject, you are forced to sit up and take notice of both. Satyen K Bordoloi looks at the subject and the rebels inside Bollywood.
What are you supposed to feel when two of India's most celebrated filmmakers make their latest films on the same issue? Do you think that creative winds of change are finally sweeping Bollywood and grounding it (even as it continues its elaborate fights of absolute fantasy elsewhere) or that the issue being talked about has reached such a crescendo that even Bollywood cannot but take notice?
In a village square in rural Haryana, villagers are huddled morosely. Along stumbles a bearded drunk who asks them what the problem is. They inform him of a man trying to grab their farming land to build factories and malls. The drunkard curses that ruthless brute and asks who it is. Meekly they tell him that it is none other than him.
Shaken but not stirred, the drunk cheers up the villagers and not only inspires them to take out a procession against him but also leads it, a flaming torch in hand. When it reaches his house, the drunk decides to sneak into his own house from the back door, emerge from the front and listen to the farmers. Sadly, on the way, he falls into his own swimming pool and becomes sober.
He emerges with a loaded gun threatening to shoot the villagers if they persist. The villagers scatter in a huff.
Cinematically, this scene from Vishal Bharadwaj's Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola becomes a bizarre, surreal and poignant opening. At a political level though, this 'Jekyll and Hyde' act played with stunning conviction and 'cuteness' by Pankaj Kapur becomes a metaphor not only of the government of this country, but also its corporate class.
Because if you look deeper 'Jekyll and Hyde Policy' is a perfect name to describe their tacit ideology. Consider this. On one side the government doles out billions under policies like 'NREGA', 'Food Security Bill', etc. On the other side, they grab people's lands forcefully - be it in the slums of 'Shining India' or tribal and rural belts of the other, 'heart of darkness' of India.
And abetting the government is the corporate class, which does exactly what the Pankaj Kapur's character says: we'll compensate them for their lands and build big, blinding shopping malls there and thus take our money back. Corporate India provides jobs and livelihood to millions while at the same time threatening the very lives and livelihoods of millions of other Indians.
While Vishal Bharadwaj's film tackles land grab in rural India, Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai is about the land grab in urban India, which sold the idea of 'Shining India' (an idea that may have thrown the political party which coined it out of power, but has managed to survive nonetheless) wanting to raze everything that is not beautiful and shiny to the ground to make luxurious or second homes for the upwardly mobile and spacious, glass facade offices for itself.
It does not matter to the have-alls that the have-nots often have nothing but a 10x12 feet kholi or 'room' for a family of often 10-15 people. The have-nots have always been expendable and will remain so till every little thing they have is taken from them by the have-alls or till they collectively gather together and assert their democratic right.
That both these films made for a commercial cinema space starring commercial actors are on the same land-grab problem, obviously says something about the problem that has reached proportions where, if the nation and its government does not address things quickly, it could lead to major civil strife later.
At another level, both the films and the two filmmakers become metaphors for an emerging, post-modern commercial Indian cinema sensibility. It smacks of rebellion within the high fortress of Bollywood that so far had nothing to do with 'land-grab' because they needed no land to conjure up their fantastical castles in the air.
Yes, it is true that senseless, rootless fantasies still call the shots in popular Indian cinema, yet the number of films that question issues and tackle different subjects is growing.
It was surprising to see Akshay Kumar, a highly religious man himself, donning the mantle of producing a film that questions senseless religious practices in Oh My God (even though the film had to be sugar coated with a literal god figure that protects our protagonist despite the fact that it could have worked perfectly well without it).
John Abraham is said to have jumped at the opportunity to produce a film about a sperm donor, Vicky Donor, and Aamir Khan, instead of dancing on TV or compering a quiz show, gladly took up Satyamev Jayate while also producing Dhobi Ghat, Peepli Live and Delhi Belly, all three of which would have been called 'parallel' or 'indie' cinema in the past.
Bollywood is changing and filmmakers who have been bombarding its impregnable fortress with one truly 'different' film after another, have finally managed to gain entry. And once inside, they are paving the way for other filmmakers to make films on subjects and issues that were thought taboo so far.
Vishal Bharadwaj helps Abhishek Chaubey make Ishqiya, while some in the legion of Anurag Kashyap protegees, as many critics have pointed out, have often made films that are better than any Kashyap has made himself.
Another Anurag, this one being Bollywood's adopted child, Anurag Basu, despite allegations of plagiarism (a few scenes were absolute lifts but the idea and the concept of the film was original), made Barfi one of the most sensitive films ever to be made on disability anywhere in the world.
Perhaps only those who have worked with disability and persons with disabilities, would know the deft touches with which he paints his masterpiece. The best thing about the film was that two of Bollywood's most glamorous stars played unglamorous roles, thus going against conventional wisdom.
Then there's Prakash Jha, who has built a brand for himself making films like Aarakshan and Chakravyuh on burning issues with the hottest stars in Bollywood. You may or may not agree with his politics or sensibilities, but you cannot deny him the sincerity of purpose and his earnest desire to contribute to the national debate on important contemporary issues. One thus wonders if he would also add his take on 'land-grab' to finish a troika of films on the subject.
And the most surprising news of all came last week, when the most unlikely of marriages happened between two absolutely opposite entities. Dibakar Banerjee and Yash Raj films signed a three-film deal and the first film to go on the floor as a part of this won't be directed by Dibakar, but will be helmed by his comrade in many of his films, co-writer of Love, Sex aur Dhoka and assistant director in Oye Lucky..., Kanu Behl.
Sources who have read Kanu's script, say if the vision is maintained, it will prove to be one of the most brilliant films in India's cinemascape.
This does not mean that these rebels of Bollywood will wipe out the old-world, stale, rootless and fantasy-prone Bollywoodland. What this means is that films, filmmakers and subjects that were considered untouchable by the commercial space till a decade back, are finding a place beyond their subaltern obscurity of the past, right next to the high priests of commercial Indian cinema.
Shyam Benegal, the original god of small films in Indian cinema, who has survived with his low budget tales for four decades now, while delivering his keynote address at '100 Years of Indian Cinema' in Kolkata last week, concluded his speech by saying, "There is... an emerging group of young filmmakers who do not wish to be part of this cultural hegemony. They are making films that are neither imitative, nor are they unconcerned with reality. They are contextual, rooted, identifiable, often using language and expression that belongs to the region where the film is located, choosing material often not seen as possible in film entertainment. They have become far more inclusive, both in content and form. In many ways, their postmodernism has made them uninhibited and willing to deal with subjects unthinkable earlier."
Both Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola and Shanghai satirised the post-globalization idea of 'pragati' (growth/development) harboured by the shining part of India. In the former, Shabana Azmi as a politician in a scene playing tribute to Sidney Lumet's 'there are no countries, only corporations' scene in Network talks about how everything is neither about money, nor about power. It is all about 'pragati'.
Shanghai has a politician whose salutation is 'Jai Pragati' and talks perennially about the development of 'India' (just like an Indian CM, who in a desperate bid to change his perception, has taken over the same 'Pragati' paradigm). The message is that India must walk on the path of Pragati even if millions of Indians are trampled under the bulldozers of this march.
Yet, those who know, know that true pragati lies in the development of inclusive ideals, humanism and compassion. And in that sense, the only ones that seem to be on the path of 'pragati' is Bollywood, led by a motley troop of Bollywood rebels with many causes up their rolled up sleeves.
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.