As Cannes celebrates a centenary of Indian cinema, many Indian filmmakers believe a move away from the traditional Bollywood style is needed, as Tom Brook discovers.

A fusion of classical Indian music and composer Talvin Singh’s drum and bass filled a big party organised by film officials from Mumbai at the Cannes Film Festival a few days ago. The celebrations were especially buoyant because this month marked 100 years of Indian cinema.

Unsurprisingly there’s been a lot of marvelling over the wonders of Indian film. The man many regard as India’s top star, the venerated actor Amitabh Bachchan, believes Indian cinema has made great strides forward.“We’ve progressed tremendously in these last hundred years,” he says. “To be accepted not just within India but overseas as well is a fantastic feeling.”

Indian cinema has genuine reasons to be proud: with an output of more than 1000 features per year it’s the world’s most prolific film industry. It has its own megastars and landmark directors. It's created memorable song and dance extravaganzas and brought forth a wave of new innovative directors. But now, as all the partying over 100 years of cinema begins to wind down, there are sober challenges to be faced if Indian cinema is truly to flourish in the future. Many in the industry think what really needs to happen is for Bollywood to get real and lessen its emphasis on fantasy.

Keeping it real

Akshat Verma, who’s based in Los Angeles and Mumbai, took the step of bringing authenticity to his country’s cinema when he wrote the screenplay for a more ‘real’ Indian film called Delhi Belly, which became a major hit two years ago. It’s an irreverent crime caper – replete with lavatory humour – and Verma wrote it because he wanted to see more relatable characters on screen. In some ways his screenplay was a reaction against the artificiality of Bollywood.

Verma says: “My biggest problem growing up watching a lot of Indian films was I saw characters in situations I did not relate to.” So with Delhi Belly he put together a story which really resonated for him personally. “My desire was to try and write characters which were some of the people I’d known, friends I’d had who spoke a certain way, who had a rudeness or irreverence to the way they approached the world, a certain dark humour. I believe we tend to be polite in a lot of ways in the stories we tell,” he says.

Proponents of change don’t just want more relatable real characters in Indian movies. They also want cinema to take on contentious topical issues - and they would like to see intimacy presented more freely on screen. The new movie Bombay Talkies, an anthology of four short films designed to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, features a gay kiss – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But even with change afoot, Bollywood remains quite conservative – it wasn’t so long ago that kissing between a man and woman was banned from the screen.

Respected film and theatre director Feroz Abbas Khan says: “The mainstream cinema does a very fine job of sharing its fantasies, but there’s a cinema that needs to share its concerns of what’s happening in the society. There seems to be some very important issues that the country actually is grappling with, and those issues are not being discussed, or that conversation is not taking place in the film.”

It’s true that many pressing issues in India – from religious intolerance to sexual violence against women – are routinely overlooked by mainstream Hindi cinema.

Some filmmakers see censorship as the problem. The content of every film is vetted by officials. Akshat Verma thinks that has a stifling effect. “We’re such a sensitive country,” he says. “You wonder what the government is afraid of.... You want films out there that provoke and raise questions and say things that are uncomfortable.”

True grit

Some in the film industry are optimistic that gritty realty is being taken up by filmmakers. Top Indian director Deepa Mehta reveres the Indian cinema greats of the 20th century: filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Bimal Roy, who all peddled reality. Mehta sees their sensibility re-emerging. “The good news is that serious Indian cinema is now starting to thrive,” she says. “Thank God. We come from a country of Satyajit Ray, who really took cinema to another height. Lately there have been some young interesting directors and I’m very hopeful.”

But is there a market to support more realistic new cinema? There are reasons for hope. In recent years a newly prosperous middle class has emerged who patronise multiplex cinemas. It’s an affluent audience eager to embrace and spend money on films with an independent aesthetic.

Even if mainstream audiences are somewhat tentative towards less fantasy-oriented storytelling, director Devashish Makhija says: “If we start manufacturing more interesting cinema the tastes will change.”

But funding productions remains a challenge. This is certainly true for non-fiction films addressing urgent social and economic problems. Deepti Kakkar spent two and a half years co-directing, with Fahad Mustafa, a new documentary called Powerless highlighting the shortage of electricity in the Indian city of Kanpur. She found it hard to get backers. She says, “This film that we’ve worked on has been funded by eight grants from across the world, none of them from India. It would be a proud moment to say that the films we want to tell are being told really by us, by Indians.”

Indians are keen to retain ‘Indianness’ in their movies - and that applies particularly to feature films, where there is anxiety over the impact - and intentions of Hollywood. So far the Indian film industry has remained relatively resistant to US efforts to make inroads because the market for home grown movies is so strong. But there’s concern that as screenwriters try to make their narratives more modern, they’ll start emulating American styles. Some directors believe that’s already happening. 

Feroz Abbas Khan says: “We seem to have picked up all the stuff from Hollywood films - plot lines copied from them, some of the characters, some of the situation - the easy availability of these storylines and of these plots has curbed the instinct of storytelling.”

But there are innovative Indian filmmakers who are making headway while resisting pressures to conform to Hollywood and traditional Bollywood templates.

 “I see different stuff coming forward,” says Akshat Verma: “As long as there’s room for different kinds of narratives to exist, that would be fantastic – to not have a Bollywood machine that just bulldozes through everything.”

A good example of India’s new cinema is The Lunchbox, which was on view at Cannes this year. It stars Irrfan Khan in a thoughtful, sophisticated story of unrequited love between two isolated souls in modern Mumbai. There’s no song and dance, no sentimentality. It represents a move forward – and has box office potential in India and in art house cinemas around the world.

Clearly, it’s going to be a struggle for Indian filmmakers as they try to forge ahead and move away from Bollywood’s fantasy fare in the next few years, but the end result could be an on-screen richness that’s better than anything India has produced before. 

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