Realism that's long past
A movie's recall value depends not on its technical finesse but on how the audience relates to it.
Capturing emotions: Stills from "Pather Panchali"
IN an interview Ray once remarked: "Somehow I feel that an ordinary person the man in the street if you like is a more challenging subject for exploration than people in the heroic mould. It is the half shades, the hardly audible notes that I want to capture and explore... In any case, I am another kind of person, one who finds muted emotions more interesting and challenging."
Ray`s filmography over a span of almost four decades (1955-1991) with 40 feature films, documentaries, and short subjects explored these "half shades", "hardly audible notes" and "muted emotions".
"Do Bigha Zameen".
His contemporaries like Rwitik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen and the later band of filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Arvindan, Govind Nihalani enthralled movie-going audiences across the world. Back home, their films were often branded "cerebral" and were seen not by the teeming millions but only by a handful of cine-goers. The trajectory of their cinema would never match the rest of the contemporary filmmakers.
When rest of the Indian cinema was making films with a painted backdrop in the studio, with garish costumes, prosaic plots, and innumerable song-and-dance sequences, the other side led by Bimal Roy had begun an exploration into the "muted emotions" of the common man. Roy's "Do Bigha Zameen", released in 1953, led the way for "realism" in cinema. Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and later Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattachariya, Rajen Tarafder, Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumder made films that carried moments of reality in myriad forms. Their filmmaking process was different as was the audience that watched their films.
Bimal Roy raised several social issues through his films. In "Sujata" (1959), Roy questioned the caste and in "Bandini" (1963) the rehabilitation of prisoners. Roy's understanding of reality shows the protagonist only reacting to the situation he/she undergoes. On the other hand, the reality of Ray, Ghatak or Benegal had fine layers of complexity resulting in a revolt against the system. In "Apur Sansar" (1959), Apu's angst over the death of his wife manages to deny the family structure, ignoring the parenting responsibility of newborn Kajol.
In "Kanchanjungha" (1962), Manisha denies her fiancée, only to deny other bigger issues of patriarchy and family. Much later in "Mahanagar" (1963), the heroine's denial of the existing norm has to be seen against the plethora of complexities that work within the smallest of power structures in the society.
So what was going on in the hearts and minds of the discerning moviegoer? Did he relate more to the splurge of emotion in films like "Jab Jab Phul Khile", "Rajkumar", "Love In Tokyo" or did the solitary moments of emotion in "Pyasa", "Anupama", "Parakh", "Mili", "Anand" and "Namak Haram" strike a closer chord? The characters in these films obviously could have been the man or woman next door, and the narrative was grounded in the mentalities and values of that class. Hrishikesh Mukherjee never hurt class sensibilities. He would constantly reaffirm the sense of right and wrong, reconstructing ordinary dreams and utopias. Who does not remember the famous line "Zindagi bari honi chahiye lambi nahi" from "Anand" or the intense visuals of the angst-ridden protagonist of "Mili" trying to come to terms with his existential crisis?
On a different level, Dutt, Roy and Mukherjee were at ease dealing with not only individual moments of emotional crisis but also with the multiplicity of class as in "Aar Par" (1954), "Pyasa" (1957), "Do Bigha Zameen" and "Namak Haram"(1973).
To the audiences at international film festivals, the early cinematic images from India would mean the black and white magic of Ray and Subrata Mitra fulfilling the ultimate vision of imagination. In 1956, "Pather Panchali" won four international awards. In the next 10 years, it went on to become immortal, a film that formed a genre by itself.
"Lage Raho Munnabhai"
With Nehruvian socialism not working, the common man's protagonist in "Pyasa" slowly changed till it reached the converted industrialist in "Namak Haram" or the four urban middle class men looking for a "catharsis" in "Aranyer Din Ratri" (1969) or Bhuvan Shome in Sen's "Bhuvan Shome" (1969). Thus the changing socio-political ethos changed the "realism" depicted earlier.
In the 1970s, parts of India were torn apart by the Naxalite movement prompting Mrinal Sen to capture the agitator's political stance in two memorable films "Padatik" and "Kolkata 71". Mrinal Sen, in a short piece in The Times of India, recalled the days when he, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chaudhuri, Tapas Sen and Hrishikesh Mukherjee met regularly at Paradise Café on Kolkata's Hazra Road. The proximity is apparent in their films too; only the magnitude of realism varied.
Sen was hard-hitting and direct; Ray was subtle while freshers like Benegal and Arvindan had a distinctive style considerably influenced by realism at its complex best.
Man of the masses
Among these filmmakers, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was more acceptable to the masses. They could even relate to the protagonist and the Hamletian situation he was pushed into. Rajesh Khanna's dialogues refer to a time when people chatted at street corners and laughed at each other. Living was not all violence. Ironically, those were also the times of big time unrest, as Benegal and Nihalani turned out films that focused on the class struggle.
Cinematic images are magical but recall value is what makes a movie immortal. People's choice is determined not by technical finesse but how close it is to "their reality", though the reality may be unravelled through comedy as in "Lago Raho Munnabhai". The element of fun as spoof runs deep in audience memory. That "Lago Raho... " is a smashing hit is not only because of Hirani`s capacity to handle the script's loaded politics but also because the realities projected in the film are familiar. The common man can relate Munnabhai as he could to Anand in "Anand", or to Ram in "Golmaal" (1979) or to Amol Palekar's middle class protagonist in "Choti Si Baat" (1975).
Bollywood today is neither about Munnabhai, Anand, or Mili, nor about Apu, Durga or Tungrus. It is about the Rahul and Neha. The self-proclaimed internationalism is about the aspirations of people who live in and out of airports, shop in Vth Avenue, New York, have exotic holidays in Morocco. Somebody is bound to say, "Why not? Cinema is after all a medium of dreams." Yes, it is, but the Indian Diaspora largely influences the dream being projected; it is of a select few. Though a "DDLJ" or a "K3G" have been able to make it to the film studies curriculum, there is still a long way to go.
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