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by Monojit Lahiri April 10 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 35 secs

Monojit Lahiri attempts a non-judgmental take on ‘Brand Bollywood’. He asks, “Professing undying allegiance to the Muse while secretly lusting for filthy lucre is not very arty, is it?”

Art. Realism. Truth. Vision. Commitment. Belief. For years, a section of a “niche” crowd (filmmakers, critics, audience) had been doggedly championing the cause of the other cinema. A cinema that was clean, honest, meaningful, artistic, life-enhancing, propagated by a band of people passionately devoted to the noble endeavour of providing the “hoi-polloi” (trapped in a pathetic cul-de-sac), a solid and substantial alternative.

A cinema of aesthetic worth and financial viability sans the tinsel thunder of stars, gaudy and elaborate sets, foreign locales or obscenely expensive budgets - a cinema that epitomized the philosophy of “Small is Big” and invested in their matrix that elusive magic of feeling and warmth that touched the soul, not merely dazzled the eyes. A cinema of the here and now that did not sell dreams, but portrayed the power, truth and beauty of the Indian reality, warts and all.

For around a decade (early 1970s to ‘80s) this cinema came, saw and even conquered the hearts of its select audience, winning admirable loyalty and patronage. Hugely supported by an enthusiastic press, it was projected as “New Cinema” with freshness inscribed on every frame. The filmmakers, hymned and celebrated, were the new messiahs on the block, fired by an inspired cause. 

So far, so good…  

The problems started when some of these films started drawing special attention, making a name and a modest kill at the box office, but most importantly, going on to win national and international awards. Overnight, these “strugglers” began to strike poses, mouth high-falutin’ platitudes, superciliously talk about how they were now a part of international cinema, and of course, trashing the mainstream product Bollywood.

But why this hostility and aggressiveness towards a cinema that continues to provide its unimaginably large fan-base across the globe, their much-needed manna from heaven? An industry that has an investment-base of crores of rupees with technology and infrastructure that is mind-boggling? A cinema that for sheer gloss, glitz and hype is probably second only to Hollywood? Most importantly, a cinema that frankly couldn’t give a damn about the existence of a movement that ever posed a threat?

Let’s face it. Over the years, Bollywood has shaped and fed the never-ending fantasies of the howling unwashed. They’ve done it without any pretensions, with the least fuss and frippery, focusing all their skills and resources towards fulfilling one single objective: uncomplicated entertainment. Win some, lose some, they’ve endeavoured to be honest in this one-point program, never pretending to evoke the spirit of the nouvelle vague, or spouting Bresson and Renais like they were brothers under the skin.

Their gods were made-in-India - Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Ramesh Sippy. They’ve never (consciously) considered themselves to be a part of world cinema. They’ve never had any illusions about winning awards at any of the hot-shot international film fests, although once Lagaan did seduce their appetite and only when severely provoked have they fired a broadside at the other (Bhookha-Nanga) Cinema. 

By and large, they have stuck to their basic idea of movies (not ci-ne-ma) as hardcore entertainment for the masses that are committed to rake in the loot or at least break-even on investment. They do not see it as an art form, propaganda vehicle or an artistic form of self-expression. They have no axes to grind and nothing to prove except how successful they are as dream-merchants and going by their uncontested domination over the public imagination and sensibilities (ever noticed how even the corniest film-oriented program on TV scores hugely over the ‘meaningful’ programs) they must be doing something right!

And that is precisely where it hurts the arty brigade! How can this crass, untutored and vulgar cinema, constantly catering to the lowest common denominator, cornering precious resource, spending obscene money on stuff that has an erratic strike-rate at the box-office, continue to thrive while these “geniuses” are overlooked, neglected and ignored? If only someone gave them that one (just-one) chance, they’d show these damn Bollywood bozos what “commercial cinema” should be with their superior knowledge in the art and craft of “ci-ne-ma.”

Ironically, whenever they have been provided this chance, their masterpieces have had to be peeled off the ceiling! This simple truth is their idea of “ci-ne-ma,” popular audience taste and the task of hard-core delivery of value is wildly un-made for each other - the reaction of the arrogant stunned maverick? “The film was much ahead of its time”, or the other howler, “What else can one expect from an audience continuously fed on Bollywood trash?” Any wonder that the Bollywood guys die laughing!

The last words must belong to an insider who’s been in the thick of this movement when it exploded in the mid-seventies. “Ideally, there should have been no conflicts between this art and commercial divide. They can happily co-exist. There is an audience for both. Problem starts when people believe they can change the world, but along the way, switch lanes. With a few exceptions, it’s amazing how fake and self-seeking most of these guys are! In the name of good cinema, they had no problem selling their souls to get into the Panorama section of the Indian Film Festival and move on to the International circuit. That was their Big Bang - Cannes, Venice, Berlin, London or any of the smaller versions! To them it signalled arrival and achievement. The producers and the local audience could go to hell, along with the technicians and artistes, all of who gave their life-blood for the film. Is it any wonder that Naseeruddin Shah (after years of being conned), finally gives it to these fakes whenever and wherever the occasion demands?”

In the final analysis, it is important to remember that beyond talent what is needed is a high level of integrity and commitment to traverse this lonely route of the small cinema. Its rewards have to do with accomplishment, prestige and honour rather than glitz, glamor and big bucks. One can’t have both. The Bollywood boys are clear in their funda of drooling over Mammon. Professing undying allegiance to the Muse while secretly lusting for filthy lucre is not very arty, is it?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.