Hackneyed themes, new nuances
Is Bollywood set for change with a new generation of directors who insist on going beyond imitating Hollywood?
Customised Ideas: Love Aaj Kal.
Something interesting has started to happen in Bollywood. It may be a little premature to call it sweeping, but it is change nonetheless. Even the crassly commercial films have a moment or two that are completely at odds with the rest of the hackneyed narrative.
The original idea or script may still be very hard to come by, but what is clearly visible is that the new lot of film makers are an erudite lot. They appear to read the right stuff and get inspired by the right kind of movies. The earlier practice of borrowing the DVD of the latest Hollywood blockbuster and making it “Indian” seems to have outgrown its use. Thanks to channels that showcase the best of the world cinema on television and the emergence of neighbourhood multiplexes in metros that need to look beyond Indian films to protect their bottom-line, the average film buff knows and understands much more when it comes to cinema today.
It was always difficult to understand the pulse of the Indian audience. Otherwise the ratio of flops to hits would not have been so skewed towards the former. But one pattern seems to be clearly emerging in the last year or two. The new patron of Bollywood is tuning in much more intelligently to the mindless entertainment churned out week after week at the turnstiles. She may chuckle at recognising the source of the inspiration, but she is likely to overlook the subterfuge if she discovers that even in the copy there is a shred of originality. To keep pace with her, the new age directors are learning to keep themselves open to a more eclectic set of influences.
Take Imtiaz Ali. He specialises in taking the same old hackneyed theme of candyfloss romance and turning it on its head by adding deft touches and nuances. His latest “Love Aaj Kal” starts delightfully with the lead couple breaking up instead of meeting and falling in love as it happens in the usual Bollywood escapist fare. And yet there is a sense of déjÀ vu as the film negotiates its way through the past and the present until we realise it is not the characters in the film we have known before, but their responses and reactions to each other and the situations they encounter.
When the young couple start telling each other things that they had hidden all along because the break up gives them a sense of liberation, we grasp Ali has read the evocative short story “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Even the manner in which the lovers keep on meeting and parting through out the film is reminiscent of the Hema and Kaushik novella in Lahiri’s latest collection “Unaccustomed Earth”. We don’t mind because Ali has impeccable taste when it comes to the source of his inspiration. Lahiri and her agent might disagree but we are not talking legalities here.
Then there is our very own auteur Vishal Bharadwaj. Not only has he adapted two of the bard’s tragedies with remarkable finesse in “Maqbool” and “Omkara”, but just when we thought it would be the turn of King Lear or Hamlet to be customised to Indian sensibilities to complete his Shakespearean trilogy, Bharadwaj decided to surprise us all with a film that screamed Tarantino from every blood splattered frame. We love “Kaminey” because everything from the title to the script has the Bharadwaj stamp on it even though his inspiration is as transparent as can be. There is merit in the ancient Urdu adage- “Naqal ke liye bhi akal ki zaroorat hoti hai.” You need brains even to copy.
Karan Johar may have left out this important piece of wisdom when he tried to mix and match the Robert De Nero- Meryl Streep romance “Falling in Love” with a tale of misplaced morality in “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna”. We watched in disbelief as he lifted an entire sequence, camera angles et al, of the wife slapping her philandering husband after he confesses to his infidelity.
The difference was while we watched the Hollywood actors in rapt attention we sniggered when it came to Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta. We were not just reacting to the plagiarising but also the hamming. Johar would do well to remember the lesson his last misadventure taught him. He may believe the Indian audience reacted badly to the theme of adultery but it could have been another kind of cheating we found unpalatable.
Not that he is the only one to have got the source as well as the inspiration wrong. Nagesh Kukunoor made “Teen Deewarein” and wanted us to believe a film called “The Shawshank Redemption” was never made in Hollywood. The Malayalam original “Perumazhakkalam” was not as easy to nail. So due credit was given to the writer in almost invisible font as the end credits rolled for “Dor”. After the film’s release, Kukunoor used a lot of sound bytes to convince us that — despite the original having come just a few years before his “masterpiece” — everything about “Dor” was novel and unexplored.
When we remained sceptical, he unleashed his originality in “Bombay to Bangkok” and “Tasveer”. Not only were the two films thrashed mercilessly by the critics, the audience too resolutely stayed away. A third “Aaashaiyen” lies in the cans more than a year after it was ready despite the star presence of John Abraham. Kukunoor should just recognise his talent lies in directing and not in writing. He should hire a talented script writer on a permanent basis for all his films. He needn’t look far. Vipul K. Rawal who wrote the memorable “Iqbal” should do.
Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna.
Onir went and landed himself in a bigger soup. When he debuted with “My Brother Nikhil”, he had his heart at the right place. However the sensitivity was soon replaced by reckless ambition. He decided to recreate Spanish maestro Pedro Almadover’s “Live Flesh” as “Bas Ek Pal”. Not only did he borrow the plot based on a Ruth Rendell crime fiction, he also flicked the lush palette of set design that is an Almadover hallmark. The result was an unmitigated disaster. From an embarrassingly loud Urmila Matondkar to a sensibility that seemed completely at odds with its Indian characters, everything about the film was designed to elicit cat calls and it did.
He next tried to blend the Sandra Bullock vehicle “While You were Sleeping” with a grand matriarch in the centre of the action (another of Almodover fetishes) in his next outing “Sorry Bhai”. This one also sank without a trace.
He is currently attempting a film on child sexual abuse. Hopefully this one wouldn’t be a bad copy of Almadover’s “Bad Education” on the same theme. Otherwise we would be tempted to inform the fiery Spanish genius how his brilliant works are being mutilated in another land.
After all even the B-graders are waking up to copyright. The recently released “Daddy Cool” was made after buying the rights of the British comedy “Death at a Funeral”. Not that this single act of integrity could save the film from a premature demise at the box office.
Nobody seems to have a clear perspective on whether Indian film makers should be content with just being inspired by great foreign works or should they shamelessly plagiarise? Should they respect copyright of ideas and pay for them if they want to adapt it to their setting or should they just ignore such niceties?
All we know is the box office rules and so long as any of the options pay off, the director is happy. When an “inspired” film sinks at the turnstiles, it is always the fault of the audience for not respecting either the source or the inspiration. And never the filmmaker for not having brought in a style and perspective in the interpretation that is new and unique even though the idea may be jaded.
The writer is a filmmaker based in Bangalore.
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