FRONTIER LECTURE SERIES
 
The Changing Indian Mainstream Hindi Cinema and the Influence on Mainstream Regional Cinema
Suresh Kohli

With a lifetime interest in cinema, and a short, almost three decades of direct and indirect involvement with mainstream Hindi cinema, one has not known another occasion or time when it was on the verge of such a major breakthrough, or a state of complete metamorphosis. Everything that is happening today has never happened before. And that, perhaps, is a reflection of life in contemporary India . The emphasis here in totally on the new script that is being written in Hindi cinema and what happens in the mainstream there has a direct, voluntary or involuntary, repercussion on cinema production in the rest of the country. Let us for a moment forget the minority -what is also called the low-budget art or serious cinema. For that is a kind of self-indulgent activity -mostly at State expense- which too, in no uncertain way, is a byproduct of the bigger activity, and a mainstream by itself. In any case, there will be time again for that. For the moment let us take a closer look at what's happening centre stage in mainstream Hindi cinema. In a variety of ways, and the speed with which it is happening is baffling.

It is really difficult to discount what comes first, the chick or the flick, and who gets exhumed first, the movie or the heroine. The Hindi movie script is being totally rewritten, and the YL Ts are playing a major part in it, both on and off the reel. It is a whole new value system. A new outlook to life, and career. The changing ethics of the work place. A devil I care approach. A new method of luring the new-age goddess of fame and fortune rolled into one. A pursuit of success, however short lived. Some enter the industry through successful modeling stints, but more by strutting their stuff through the invading music videos. Some already have consenting lovers, equally or more ambitious, willing to approach the highway through the back lanes (unlike their peers who kept the affairs under pink bedspreads). Leave aside bedspreads, they don't mind making love on the street, whether off or on screen, provided the electronic media has unpacked the handycams. Unlike in the distant past when they came unlettered and from questionable environs, many of these young little things are well educated and come from a respectable middleclass background. But the motivating force now seems to be what earlier appeared to be a disadvantage. Upbringing, education, free independent spirit to pursue a profession, lure of quick buck, exposure, ambition, attitude, psychology, lack of inhibition, and the obsession to succeed at all costs. And all this through short cuts. First it was modeling, and now music video that have made the journey to filmdom the easy stepping-stone. A simple show reel of a remixed video has replaced the tedious screen test routine. Though not exactly in the same manner, but many of these routes had been available to the ambitious young ladies in what is generally called South Indian cinema...

Meghna Naidu's gyrations in remix number Kaliyon Ka Chaman led her to the role of an adulteress in Hawas, and even though the film did not do well, the beach romps in bikinis, torrid scenes she enacted instantly earned her the 'sex symbol' tag and she latched on to it. Naidu was "aware of the storyline, the kind of scenes I would have to do and what it meant. I had no problems with that. What was a little weird was the name of the movie. I had misgivings about that but I guess it was a straight title for a movie like this. ..It's something that most people do at the beginning. Public memory is short and you're as good as your last movie." She played a married woman involved in a lesbian affair in Shock, and an unhappy wife in Jackpot. The titles themselves explain the story and content of these films.

Another babe who quickly jumped into the heroine slot through the side doors, playing an item girl with the chartbuster Khallas in the film Company (which explored another dimension of the infamous Mumbai underworld); Isha Koppikar sailed through the role of a lesbian with Amrita Arora in Girlfriend. Yet another one with the now common beauty queen tag, Koppikar seemed sufficiently restless with the long wait, and since she suffered from no reservation pangs "about exposing when the director says its necessary" and "because everything here is short-lived and all that matters is bagging plum roles at the right time…. I am too classy to be labeled cheap because I come from a broad-minded family of doctors, and my parents have always stood by me."

 

"Boldness is not about doing sexy scenes or a sexy movie, it's about having at attitude. ..given my liberal background (big sisters Meghna and Sushma are models), I have a lot of independence with the kind of work I choose to do." Said Sameera Reddy, who essayed a man-eater in her debut film, Musafir. -Her next is, perhaps, Zehar, where the usp is 'when passion becomes poison'. A lot of clothes are shed to realize the difference between passion and poison. Therein lies the truth about today's girl wanting to make it big in show-world. Nothing is less, and no role not the ticket to stardom. Next in line for a place in the moviedom sun, Payal Rohatgi made a big breakthrough with a raunchy item number Ayee re mahi in the flop Police Force, a multi starrer. One, of the 10 finalists in the 2000 Femina Miss India Contest, a software engineer by profession, Rohatgi plays the love interest of a 15-year old in Tauba Tauba much in news during production not only for the theme but also for what she undid in the film. A girl with a great figure Rohatgi was next seen in Fun -Can be Dangerous Sometimes that dealt with husband swapping, and she was one of the three who made it look so casual.

Not that the Indian film heroine, particularly the Hindi film heroine, did not show more than the cleavage, the mid-riff, or a leg or not wear a miniskirt, the bikini, or a one-piece swimwear, or for that matter did not shed more than mere inhibitions in front of the camera. She did all that. There can be many instances -in the cinema of Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar and Feroze Khan in particular, where the heroine showed more of the skin than histrionics. Or even appeared in the proverbial birthday suit (Simi in Mera Naam Joker, Dimple in Saagar, and Sarika in Nirvaan. Sharmila Tagore created a stir appearing in a swimsuit; Nafisa Ali became a sensation for donning sexy costumes and was nicknamed water baby. Zeenat Aman threw all caution to wind in several films, not to forget the eminently forgettable Satyam Shivam Sundaram. The Vyjantimalas, Rekhas, Sridevis, Jayapradhas also did their share of the undressing bit. Even Hema Malini over-stepped the self -defined limits of exposure. But there was a difference, a big difference.

It was attitudinal. There was also the convenient cover, "the script demanded it." Though no such excuses were forwarded for such overt performance in a Raj Kapoor film. Not even a burqa-clad in the rigor-mortised censor board raised a finger. But today's heroine needs no such excuse. Take Bipasha Basu, for instance, who made skin show a capital gain to catapult her to starry heights. Already an almost ten-film old, and here to last for a long while for histrionic capabilities as well. She said at one point, fairly early in her career: "I played a bold character in Jism. ..It was the demand of the script as it was an adult love story I am comfortable wearing short skirts and I always do even in my normal life. So, I don't find anything wrong, if I do the same on the screen... The exposure should blend with the demands of the script. The story of Jism had depth in it and I and John have worked really very hard on it. But the intention got sidelined as everyone talked about the hot scenes."

Basu's debut film was Ajnabee (a crime-thriller with wife-swapping bit for special effect), and the second one Raaz that contained even more body baring. Her performances in the subsequent films have been spontaneous. Cool and vibrant, this Kolkatta-bom-and-educated sensuous girl opted for the insecure modeling career rather than the relative security of a future in architecture or commerce. Overcoming initial rejection in a somewhat conventional weather-beaten Hindi film industry , she dared to break taboos, and risked taking on Jism, soon after Ajnabee, where she had to vie for honours with the rising Kapoor-girl, Kareena, and a film that seemed as bold as the crowd-pulling title. But it seems Basu; having capitalized sufficiently on the skin show is now consolidating her position with histrionic as well. She has also displayed the composure and confidence required to make it big. And big and bigger she will, perhaps, will be in the days to come. And in the process achieve glory as the new age heroine, the story before sex crown rather than the other way round. An indulgence some of the less talented amongst the other in the reckoning, and more subjecting themselves to the entrance test aspirants will have to cope up with. They will do all while Bipasha Basu will get more and more selective like many others using the same route in the past.

Compare this with a still newer sex siren, Mallika Sherawat. Her debut film, Murder was a modest hit from Mahesh Bhatt cottage industry ."Sex and money are the two forces that drive our lives. Today people are coming to watch. Murder because of Mallika Sherawat. When I see my cutouts and hoardings, I feel a sense of triumph. I want to do even hotter movies, with more love scenes and more titillation. I want the audience to throw coins on the screen every time I appear. I want them to fall in front ofmy car, blow flying kisses and go berserk. At the end of the day, I have worked like Viagra on a sluggish box office. My movies have killed the star system." Mallika Sherawat, who came into limelight with her 17-kiss debut in Khwahish, and grabbed headlines for a movie, The Myth, with action-star Jackie Chan, and whose subsequent solo heroine sex-comedy Kis Kiski Kismat sank even without a thud actually made a beginning with a cameo in the Kareena Kapoor starrer Jeena Sirf Mere Liye as Reena Lamba. But learnt the game quickly. She not only acquired a new passport but cooked up a respectable family background as well.

But Mallika Sherawat is already stale meat. A new girl a day seems to be the battle cry of the new age heroine and the Hindi film industry. Came Julie. And a scribe notes: "Dumb is getting dumber, words are making way for body, nudity is priming towards the superlative degree. 'Today only two things sell, one is Shah Rukh and the other is sex.' That's Neha Dhupia who played a high society prostitute in Julie (the original with Vikram and Lakshmi released in 1975 had, technically, the first lip-to-lip kissing sequence in independent India apart from what is now in common jargon called 'hot' scenes). Neha's first unnoticed stop was Qayamat, and next station Hot, which did not set the box office on fire in any way. Dhupia claimed family support in all her endeavours, and displayed a matter-of-fact approach: "I am like any other girl so I won't pretend to be anything else. I was a little wary about playing a call girl at first but when I read the script, I was floored. This is just the beginning and I have no hassles about exposing or doing bold scenes if the film has a good script. Sex without the story does not sell." Sex sells today, story or no story .And more and more flicks are getting rolled like mahurats in the earlier times. Neha's shedding some more besides clothes in multistarrers like Rakht and Kya Kool Hain Hum failed to take her very far in her career.

But Neha seems to know her chickens and how to hatch them. And she is no ordinary desperado like Preeti Jain who accused filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar (whose bold recent release about headline grabbers, Page 3 has been a big all-India hit) of raping her for three years with the promise ofa heroic break. How dumb. But that's a generally a blackmailing gambit that almost never works The fact is, such girls seldom made it to another place beyond the bed for blowing the top in the unforgiving Bollywood. It is now literally a new girl a day more than willing to go down for a skin show. Whether as a quickie heroine, or as an item girl -a trend made fashionable by showman Subhash Ghai some years ago, though one understands it was a common crowd-puller device in mainstream South Indian films in Tamil and Malayalam in particular. But not many of these girls are seen for long, with or without clothes. Most of them launched in or with medium budget film languish with the flick itself. Most others stay a bit longer if the film succeeds. Exceptions alone make the grade. And they become over-dressed dolls the moment they succeed. Bipasba Basu is the skin leader, unless one goes back to the one who started it all- Manisha Koirala. And made headlines for the films' success (using a body double in some 'indecent exposure' scenes without her consent as they left nothing to imagination.

The question hotly being debated it, has Bollywood finally got the formula right -is it making movies that today's generation wants?

In the sex scandal raven Bollywood; reel life seems to be taking over real life. Skeletons are being dug out from unearthed graves. Not that it is ever capable of keeping pace with what's happening in the streets of small towns; forget those making headlines in big cities. That never gets redeemed through cinema in India . What gets replicated is fantasy. Mallika Sherawat's past stands exposed, forgotten overnight but it can never be the subject matter of a film. This is because an exposure of another kind has already eclipsed her daring. And what Neha Dhupia did in Julie is again stale history , if it can be called that. It is Bollywood' s new mantra with the arrival of small theatres, and multiplexes which had been the crying need of the mainstream and art house movie- makers here for centuries. Almost all the films with new girls by some of the suppressed talents are either about sex workers, or extramarital liaisons, or not surprisingly about premarital sex.

Show world is like time. It waits for none. Fashions and trends come and go. But change seldom rocked mainstream Indian cinema. Films made especially in the four southern languages, where many intended Hindi blockbusters are also manufactured, have seemingly followed the same pattern. Mush has been the mainstay. Tearjerkers, family dramas have dominated. More flops than hits have been the case down the hundred-year history .The guiding principle has been, as Shakespeare said, the show must go on. The camera runs with a film roll. And that's an expensive item. Even though a change was inevitable at some stage, it is still far from becoming a norm. So the million-rupee question remains. Where is Indian mainstream cinema heading. And for that one has to move a while to probe into the psyche of the young film makers because as many as 60 of them succeeded in breaking taboos. Many with path-breaking, though not necessarily box-office successes, daring efforts.

The problem with the mainstream South Indian cinema is that while has and continues to produce movie icons of unprecedented variety, compared to the Hindi film hero, it has continued to lose itsbetter-endowed talented women to Hindi cinema. It has invariably been a South India import heroine who has been the number one leading lady. Where the heroes and superheroes have failed to get acceptance, the heroines have grabbed the common cinegoer's fantasies. It is not only a matter of economics. A successful film with any popular hero in the South perhaps end up raking in more money for the star or the producer, but its appeal remains local, it remains regional. This is unfortunately so because no conscientious effort has ever been made to break the regional barriers, and making Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Kannada cinema more pan-Indian. At best or worst, producers in the Southern centres have, from time to time, unsuccessfully tried to stop the hegemony of the popular Hindi film with its ail-India appeal. Rather than taking the films made in these languages centre-stage in the country .The more ambitious have only attempted to remake the hits into Hindi. Even vice-versa. But that's as far as breaking new grounds is concerned. If the European cinema could break the language barriers by experiment and innovation, one wonders why no visionary from the Southern cinema has sought to do so. With the honourable exception of Kamalahasan. But then his approach has also been misdirected. The stars in India , north or south, seldom seek to risk their popular image. No lessons have even been learnt from the success of the dubbed, what is also called, B-grade and C-grade Malayalam movies that rake in the moolah in the Hindi heartland.

Back to Hindi films, though the new directors ought to be given credit, especially those who have dared to follow the dictates of their convictions with rank newcomers (the hero in particular), part of it should also go to established heroes like Shahrukh Khan to begin with, and Ajay Devgan, Sanjay Dutt, Akshay Kumar, Akshaye Khanna, and now Abhishek Bachchan who have consciously, and, perhaps, calculatedly, shunned the stereotype. And in the process made the gray as compared only to the megalomaniac hero acceptable. It is again a different matter that this diatribe too at some stage -led by Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, and Sunil Dutt -essayed the negative-hero roles to perfection. Unfortunately, insecurity with success made the stereotype rather than the unconventional more durable. This stereotype-defying courage of the young hero has made the task of the new and the not-so-new film-makers that much smoother in seeking the needed change. But not many established heroines were willing to risk box office wrath. Thus paving the way of nothing-to-loose-but-everything-to-gain new aspirants who are pushing the established in the out-of-job syndrome.

It cannot be said to be happening in the South Indian film industry .Not despite the presence of a phenomena called fan clubs, an unheard commodity for the heroes of the Hindi movie industry. Would Vijaykant with 35,000-plus; Ajith and Vijay with approximately 15,000, and others like Prashant, Shyam and Vikram with a huge fan-following dare to experiment with their image? Why even the seemingly invincible Rajnikant with over 20,000 fall clubs will think many times over before experimenting again with his image after the debacle of his last release, Baba. Audiences in the south love what director Dharani describes as 'Mother's cooking'. Let me quote a conversation between author Roopa Swaminathan, and director Dharani, from the former's recently published book, Star Dust:

"You should approach making cinema the way you approach a meal. Basically, what I run is a biryani stall. I mean when my customers come to my stall expecting biryani, and are served curd rice, they will turn around and throw it back at me. That's what cinema is really all about. Tamilians want their sambhar, rasam, curd, one vegetable, pickles. That's how they like their movies as well. Give them their love, pathos, fights, songs and anger and space it out the way their food is spaced out and you have a hit. ...Look at most Keralites. Give them their staple 'puttu ' and peanuts with a cup of tea and they are happy. And their cinema is very reminiscent of that. They like everything simple, plain and stark. No dramatics. No hysterics. On the other hand look at Telegu cinema. ..look at their food habits. Everything in their food has to be a little over the top. It shouldn't just be a little spicy. It has to be hotter than hell. They want their food a little bit saltier, a little bit more of everything. And that's how it translates to cinema too."

That then is the basic problem with Indian cinema, more particularly South Indian cinema. Forget audiences for a moment. And look only at the stars and film makers. How many of them are willing to alternate even one meal in a day with that of another. And despite exposure. It is not that the same does not apply to Hindi cinema. It does equally, badly. The only difference the Hindi audience does not mind licking the lolly is because it is more spread out, and does not mind replacing a meal of daal-roti with sambhar vada. The 'mother's cooking' syndrome has to be occasionally dispensed with if you want a wider reach. If idli sambhar and masala dosa can be a stable meal for the roti-eating north Indian, why can't his counterpart in the south experiment with aloo-parathas? And therein lies the catch. If Gilli has been the biggest ever Tamil hit, why can't it be the greatest chartbuster allover India if made somewhat more innovatively? The north-south language divide has to break.

From time to time leading stars of the southern cinema have got breaks in Hindi films failed to make to desired breakthrough- Shivaji Ganaseshan, Nagarjuna, Kamal Hasan Rajani Kant, Prabhu Deva, Mamooty and Mohanlal. Mohanlal was cast in the recent Company as Mumbai Police Commissioner for his resemblance to a fewer cop. But no such instance of a Mumbai star having been cast in a Tamil, Telegu or Malayalam film. Occasionally a leading star has been cast like Aishwarya Rai in Indian otherwise it has been some regrets like Ktaboo who have make fortune in the southern belt. When Bollywood almost always succeeded in imparting the good looking, talented and contentious heroines and making them permanent residents of Mumbai.

This paradigm-defying trend, spearheaded by the new breed of actors and directors in the north, has come to be labeled as multiplex cinema, a cinema that's pretentious, vacuous and realistic. Apart from stylistically and thematically different these films also dare to project well-etched characters often through a fractured and inventive narrative pattern. And by consciously playing unsafe, often terming it a sort of metamorphosis or 'boiling process' the advocates of , convergent cinema' are also seeking to redefine the stereotype before this also degenerates into a stereotype as had been the case with the erstwhile art house movies some of which continue to get made for the lucrative film festival circuit alone. So the question that is not necessarily rightly being asked is if cinema business has evolved can investors be far behind. For the moment they certainly seem to be round the next dirty street. Corporate houses are fast replacing the underworld. Banks replacing the conventional interest-sucking black-money hoarder. And with this is also happening the Frankenstein of spiraling star prices that will eventually bulldoze any pragmatic pilgrimage.

To an extent this surface or temporary change had to come in. These new made-to-order kind of films had been necessitated by the unchecked menace of video piracy. A new film can still be watched within 24 hours of its theatrical release in the comfort of the drawing room through the cable channel. But since these flicks are being made in quick time, with newcomers on modest budgets with an ample dose of sex, and controlled violence they do manage to recover the investment. The much-needed smaller auditoriums, as against the big halls that show films on a weekly rental basis regardless of the star-cast, production costs and the overall size of the project, have made this possible. Anything less than 90 to 100 percent collections in the very first week of release resulted in losses first to the distributors, and then the producers. The theatre-owners remained unaffected by the box office response.

Looked at from another angle, there is really nothing new about these themes also. They have all been tried and tested. The only difference is that the packaging is different. The method of telling the story is different, more direct and focused instead of indirect, diffused and mushy - whether it is the story of a prostitute, or an adolescent attracted towards an older woman. Wasn't Choti Si Love Story actually a part of the bigger Mera Naam Joker -the latter would have contained all those elements had it just been restricted to that line of thought. Guide dealt with the infidelity angle much more maturely than any of its modern-day versions. Show world is like time. It waits for none. At the same time it follows a circular path of emotional disintegration. And as Shakespeare said, the show must go on. The camera runs with the roll of a film, and the characters in front of it emote in exactly the manner Shakespeare tried to define in various plays. The themes are age-old, and so are emotions. So how could films be any different?

Casting couch does exist. It is inevitable. Especially with big names. And, of course, every endorsement or recommendation by the reigning male stars of the day. Besides, morality is now being redefined. Sex, or talk about it is no longer taboo in the day-to-day working life. The problem is, it looks more pronounced in cinema because of the glamour attached to it. And it is this glamour coupled with the prospect of big money that is sending these young little things to the marquee. After all which other profession can sky-rocket an eighteen-year old's earnings in a space of just a few months, with just one hit at the box office? It is also a kind of defining moment for the popular cinema. Two separate streams are at work, simultaneously. Newcomcers are vying for a place in the sun with some of the established icons. The star system with spiraling personal remunerations is calling the tunes at one end, and almost breaking the backs of the traditional producers. But at the same time what's heartening is the revival of the spirit of the golden sixties in many ways, using the new technology available, recasting the stereotype in a new mould. Experimenting with the form and content within and outside the established parameters. The astounding success of the remade Devdas with its posh, sprawling huge sets paved the way for Sanjay Leela Bansali's much raved about brave, bold experiment, Black. The re-release of the rage of the sixties black-and-white in colour Mughal-e-Azam with Dolby digital sound became the precursor of Akbar Khan's about to be released 50-crore plus magnum opus Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story .Its success might revoke an interest in big- budget historicals. Bansali's reported next is again a period film based on the legend of Bajirao Mastani.

So, perhaps, the ends are as important as the means. The availability of multiple image- producing computer graphics, and image-mixing machines has already revolutionized the very edifice of how movies used to be made in the good old Hollywood . What is then stopping the new-age Indian film maker from taking that technology-jump? Why are the Mani Ratnams, Bharatirajas, Priyadarshans, Sangeetam Srinivas Raos, and Shahji Karun, amongst others, coming forward to not only essay a new language for Indian mainstream cinema but also dictate its content with their invasive vision?