In 1998, a film called Fire by Deepa Mehta dealing with issues of homosexuality invited such furore from its Indian audience that cinema halls screening the movie were set ablaze in protest.
Cut to 2012 and a new crop of Indian films are appearing on such risqué topics as live-in relationships, gay marriages and sperm donation.
The trend shows that audiences in India have become more open to a different kind of cinema and want to see more than the usual song and dance.
Topics such as these were earlier the domain of film festival screenings catering to niche markets, but are today earning box office success as a new generation of filmmakers practise “real cinema”.
A new age
“Hindi films are going through a big change. Hindi mainstream is being defined,” said director Anurag Kashyap in a recent interview. His latest two-part film Gangs of Wasseypur drew the attention of critics and also did reasonably well at the box office.
Like him, directors including Prakash Jha, Trigmanshu Dhulia, Onir and Sudhir Mishra have displayed courage and panache in tackling social issues through their stories. Success at the ticket booth may have eluded movies like Vasan Bala’s Peddlers – based on Mumbai’s drugs trade – but it created ripples at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Two other Indian films screened at the festival showcased Bollywood’s changing trend. Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur was an examination of the social issues behind gang wars of small-town coal mafias peppered with generous lashings of abusive language, sex and violence.
But the director believes the film’s success was not down to its adult content, but rather the reality it showcased. “You know, five films this year have been big hits which did not have a big star, which were not your general films – Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani, Vicky Donor, Shanghai, and Ishaqzaade. It’s going through great change. I am very happy about it. The audience is changing, everything is changing.”
Smaller towns are making newspaper headlines. Corruption, scams, murders, political intrigue, even stories of caste and love, are emerging from smaller places. And that’s why the shift, even in movies”
Shoojit Sircar had his audience in fits with Vicky Donor, a humorous take on the serious issue of infertility and sperm donation, a typically taboo topic in Indian society. It showcases a sea of change from the once trademark slapstick comedy of Hindi cinema prevalent in the 1990s.
Similarly, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely was a throwback to 1980s underground films which fused sex and horror.
India’s booming economy translated into a burgeoning middle class in smaller towns and cities, a fact filmmakers could hardly ignore. Audiences are demanding stories that are closer to reality, and the demure woman in traditional attire dancing around trees towards a happy ending is no longer what catches their eye.
Parul Khanna Tewari of the Hindustan Times (HT) argues, “The aspirations and imagery of small town India are being played out on celluloid like never before.”
And big production houses, which were mostly interested in big city-based formula films a few years ago, are now waking up to this new reality.
“Authenticity does appeal to people,” Rucha Pathak, Senior Creative Director at Disney UTV Studios, told the HT.
UTV produced Paan Singh Tomar did brisk business without splashing out on publicity. A true story, the movie showcased the life of the eponymous national-level athlete who became a bandit in frustration at the authorities. Its depiction endeared the story to people as there are many Tomars all over the country.
Much of this change can easily be attributed to a new breed of filmmakers from smaller towns who offer a new perspective from their own experiences growing up.
“Smaller towns are making newspaper headlines. Corruption, scams, murders, political intrigue, even stories of caste and love, are emerging from smaller places. And that’s why the shift, even in movies,” Dhulia, who has lived in the north Indian town of Allahabad, told the same paper.
Cinema goers have also matured over the years as they have happily accepted the integration of a former porn star into mainstream Bollywood.
Sunny Leonne was a contestant in the Indian version of Celebrity Big Brother and today has a Bollywood film to her credit.
People’s desire to see different movies seems to be driving this change. Watching movies in the glitzy malls of big cities is expensive and the audience wants to get the most value for their money.
They are more willing to skip the usual song and dance – which is still at the heart of India cinema – for a good movie based on real characters and real locations.
The trend may be changing, but India’s censor board still bans some movies and a few others do not get to see the light of many cinema halls. But in such cases the Internet plays its part.
Paanch (Five), a film by Anurag Kashyap continues to remain formally unreleased in India over censorship issues relating to violence, drugs and sex, but has gone viral on YouTube. Other filmmakers today Mohit Takalkar (The Bright Day) and Habib Faisal (Born to Hate … Destined to Love) may not get the kind of audience normally seen outside theatres screening mainstream cinema, but are all are making a point by dealing with real issues at the core of India’s social fabric.