Sairat - The cinematic event of Indian cinema of 2016

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Last Updated: Fri, Dec 23rd, 2016, 17:22:54hrs
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Sairat - The cinematic event of Indian cinema of 2016
It was in February this year when discussing cinema with a group of friends, I was the butt of jokes. Discussing the stupendous success of Marathi film Natsamrat, I had claimed that before the decade got over, a Marathi film would make 100 crores at the box office.

The logic against it, my friends argued, were many. Maharashtra did not have enough Marathi people interested in cinema to go watch it in theatres. The state did not have as good a theatre density as say Andhra Pradesh (now Andhra Pradesh and Telengana) to reach these numbers.

And the most important point: Marathi people did not have the culture of massy entertaining cinema because it is believed that only a mass entertainer can reach stupendous box office numbers.

As you well know by now, that a month later, a demure, tiny film called Sairat blew these logic to smithereens by making 100 crores in 2 months.

Because of that one film, the film market suddenly looks open to all kinds of possibilities. If you tell today that a Marathi film could make 150, or even 200 crores (which barely a couple of Bollyoood films make every year) no one would disagree.

That is the magic of numbers. One makes two possible, the two together makes three possible and they grow exponentially like the Fibonacci sequence in the imaginations of people. And as Dale Carnegie said, what the imagination of humanity can perceive, it can achieve.

What does this tell us? That filmmaking is not entirely a business of logic. It is a ‘business’ of emotions and we all know how erratic, illogical that can be.

Cinema is like religion, an act of faith. And as filmmakers it is our job to think of what is possible. Films and filmmakers exist not because we are busy with the ‘what is’ but because we have the imagination to see the ‘what if’ and try to push harder to bring new life into the world.

And the little film with a big heart Sairat is the perfect proof of that magic that is possible in cinema, of the ‘what if’ becoming ‘what is’. And tomorrow, a Marathi film might make even 400 crores at the box office.

The argument given against this could be that a ‘regional film’ – Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam - can never make 400 crore? The bone of contention being that only films made in the ‘National Language’, Hindi could reach that magic number.

The problem with this argument is that while you consider Marathi a regional language, you think of Hindi to be a pan-India language spoken in every nook and corner of the country. This homogenisation of a very diverse country is wrong, dangerous.

The truth is this: Hindi is the largest regional language of India with only 25% Indians considering it their mother tongue. Marathi comes at number four with 7%. Of course, if you consider the number of people who understand and speak the language, Hindi is way ahead of any at 41% (2001 census).

That Hindi is the national language of the country is another misconception. Hindi is the official language of the country, not the national language. Our founding fathers and mothers who created the constitution had the foresight to understand the diversity of this nation by not naming one language as ‘national’.

Despite this, it is also a fact that because of the cultural imperialism of the Hindi speaking northern belt of India, who are closer to the centre of power Delhi, Hindi has become a language that others ‘attempt’ to learn. And do you know why? It is not because of the beauty of the language (every language has its beauty). This has happened because of one word: Bollywood.

I have seen in nooks and corners of Northeastern part of India, people learning Hindi from the films that come on television. Even those who do not know, they do desire to learn it so they can better understand the films that they see.

For many historic reasons and accidents, a beaten, broken, battered Hindi, more a Bambaiya Hindustani rather than ‘Hindi’, has become the dominant cinema language of this nation when it should perhaps have been Marathi.

The first demonstration of ‘cinema’ took place on July 7, 1896 when the Lumiere Brothers showcased six films at the Watson Hotel in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Hence, the first people to take up filmmaking in India, were mostly Maharashtrians including the man we call the father of Indian cinema – Dadasaheb Phalke.

If in 1913-14 when Phalke was experimenting with making something called a ‘feature length film’ with Raja Harishchandra sound had already been invented, that film might have been in Marathi.

Indeed, the history of most of Indian cinema till the advent of sound in 1931 with Alam Ara, is also the history of Marathi cinema. However since Urdu/Hindustani was the language and culture of the elite back then and thus the aspiration of the masses, it became the mass language of cinema.

Today that beautiful Urdu / Hindustani of cinema has given birth to a polluted form which no scholar of language would call Hindi. It is a slang, perhaps even a language, in its own category.

Thus the cinema of this nation is dominated by a language that is not really a language but a free floating, free flowing kitch, a pastiche of different languages and slang with most common influences being Hindi, Urdu and Marathi.

It is like screenwriter Shama Zaidi keeps telling me that besides the film of purists like Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahani, we have rarely had ‘Hindi cinema’ in India and the closest films in Hindi language and culture that you can find in cinema, is actually Bhoujpuri cinema.

The point I am trying to make here is that there is no such thing really as a ‘Hindi cinema’ and when people say that a ‘Marathi cinema’ can never reach the levels of ‘Hindi cinema’, they are throwing a gas balloon at you which can be flattened with the pin prick of a simple truth.

What you thus see, rather are allowed to see, is a form of cultural hegemony where the big guns of Bollywood decide what works and what does not and because they decide the distribution, gems like a Sairat and others in regional languages, including those in ‘Hindi’, never get a fair chance to make it big.

Thus this perceived ‘language barrier’ when it comes to the popularity of a film is just that – perception. Sairat has been watched by an equal number of non-Marathi speaking people.

Look at Hollywood films that have begun to do 100 crores at the Indian box office? Why? Do they have big stars? Is the language ‘universal’?

Jungle Book did not have stars and without its special effects it is not even a particularly good, engaging film. Yet, it has become the highest grossing English film in India. Why?

Because the studio put all its might into it, dubbing it into multiple languages, ensuring sufficient screen, ensuring great promotion. The truth is, these are the things that sell films today.

If these things sell films, what do the stars do? The answer’s simple: they ensure that a film gets this special treatment instead of running like an orphaned kid on the streets, in the theatres like many good indie films do.

The problem with cinema is that despite it being mass entertainment, the evaluation of it is very personal. Like the visitor who dropped his spectacles at an art show only to find it later being looked at as a piece of art as well, it is very difficult to determine what is a ‘good’ film or even a ‘good commercial’ film. It is tough to make a value judgement on whether a film will do well at the box office. No one truly knows what the audience wants. So what do people who want to produce or distribute films to make money for themselves do, they trust the ‘stars’.

There is no denying that we love stars that have a certain charisma, a chutzpah, a razmataaz all of their own idiosyncratic making. There’s ‘something’ about them though no one can say what that ‘something’ is. The star maybe a bad guy in real life, beating his girlfriends, helped terrorists, killed people, but we do not mind any of those because of the ‘Halo effect’ – those we love or hate, we love or hate completely allowing no shades of grey.

Thus if a popular star has agreed to give a go ahead for the film, the ‘halo effect’ takes hold in the entire assembly line of cinema. No one wants to know if the story is good or bad, if the director has a track record of directing well, if the cinematographer is good enough for the story. All they know is that there is a big star who is putting his reputation at stake.

It also has a converse effect. People associated with the film work that much better. They know that these films with stars get promoted and thus seen more and this can become their big ticket to a bright future so they put that much more effort.

Even the viewer thinks in the same lines, that if a star has greenlighted the project, it must have some power.

Though, in truth, as we have seen countless times, that is not necessarily the case. A star is often as clueless as anyone else about what works and what does not. Aamir Khan says that he trusts his instincts. But here’s the thing: he does not leave it at that. He also works terribly hard to make every project he works in a success unlike many others who have a very superficial association with their own films. So what makes the film successful: Aamir’s gut feeling or the 200% he gives to every film?

Thus, this entire edifice of stardom on which rests most commercial film industries in India, is a house of cards, a game of illusions exposed by one simple fact – even these great stars began fresh somewhere: Aamir Khan in Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, Salman Khan in Maine Pyaar Kiya, Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai. All these were stupendous hits because the producers and distributors backed the filmmakers because they were launching ‘star kids’, children of people from the film industry.

Yet, throughout the history of cinema, we have had love stories without stars or star kids that have been huge successes, be it Kamal Hasan’s Ek Duje Ke LIye or Jackie Shroff’s Hero among many others. So, does a star make a film or does a film launch new stars like Sairat clearly did.

Audiences love good cinema, more than they love stars or stardom. That is the most important thing to remember. And audiences love stars because they entertain them, not through dance and drama though that also forms a part, but through the films they act it, which touch and move them.

Why does a good film touch or move someone. Because it’s written well, because it’s directed well because the music, or costume, or cinematography is good. It is these things that attach to the stars, not just their charisma or alleged ‘stardom’. Every star has had its flops. Were they less charismatic in those films? Or was their acting worse in those? Those films flopped despite the stardom of stars because they were written and directed badly.

Stardom is a hot air balloon that floats up in the sky because a lot of people back these stars; fill it with gas constantly till it becomes visible to others. It is the hardwork and goodwill of a lot of people who work behind the scenes in a film that get attached to the stars.

At the end of the film Deadpool – the breakthrough hit of Hollywood - as with many Hollywood films these days, this message runs: “the film supported 13,000 jobs’. How many people do you remember from that film? Five, at best ten and most of them would be actors. But 13,000 people - than the population of thousands of villages in this country – worked on it. It takes a town to make films and the ‘stars’ are but the representatives, the ‘face’ of the entire operation.

The film Sairat, despite its small budget, supported at least a 1000 people in different departments.

It is these things that make a film work. Most importantly the director because he is the captain of that ship and the writers because they conceive the film out of thin air. They are the real heroes of any film.

The success of no other film in recent history of Indian cinema has proven all these points than that of Sairat. The film was about a taboo topic – caste. Its director Nagraj Manjule who was just one film old, didn’t have a track record of success. Its stars are freshers. Many in the crew are new. Yet, every single one of them put their heart and soul into it.

The result is the cinematic event of Indian cinema of 2016. A film that not only gives hope to Marathi cinema, but to all kinds of small and big films in the country. And today, when I talk about cinema in many circles, one common positive refrain is: if ‘Sairat’ can do it, why not my film.

Indeed, why not.

(Satyen K Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)

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