Filmmakers like Rajkumar Hirani, Vishal Bhardwaj and Dibakar Banerjee have debunked
Conventional Bollywood wisdom holds that commercial success and critical acclaim cannot go hand in hand. Barring a few notable exceptions like V. Shantaram, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy in the past, by and large, this has held true. A majority of our filmmakers have had to compromise merit for moneymaking in order to stay afloat and somehow swim with the tide.
All of a sudden the tide has turned and we are witnessing a surfeit of talent everywhere. A film on three college friends making crucial life choices goes on to become runaway hit. A sexagenarian superstar reinvents himself as a 12-year-old kid afflicted by a debilitating disease. Another superstar raises the issue of racial profiling in the US, post 9/11. Yet another film, on the misadventures of two petty crooks in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, runs to packed houses on the strength of profanities traded between the three protagonists.
To a student of cinema, these are no doubt, exciting times for Bollywood. Five years back, it is unlikely that any of these films would have found a producer or distributor. Today, they are not only breaking box-office records, they are challenging all known conventions of storytelling — the clich`E9s marked by larger-than-life heroes, convenient coincidences, the mandatory car chase, bedroom scenes, lost-and-found siblings and predictable endings. Why, they are even doing away with songs and dances and have rendered heroines redundant.
Not all these attempts at demolishing the "formula" are turning out to be successful though. For every My Name Is Khan or 3 Idiots, there are several groundbreaking and equally provocative films like Dibakar Banerji’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha, Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba and Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife that fail to get noticed. A run-of-the-mill potboiler like Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani strikes it big, whereas another film, Wake Up Side in the same genre (with Ranbir Kapur again as hero) meets with lukewarm response. And then there are directors like Ashwin Dhir (Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?), Kabir Sadanand (Tum Milo Toh Sahi) and Milind Ukey (Paathshaala) who count for nothing.
In fact, there have been so many inconsequential titles tossed by such directionless directors in the recent past that let alone keep track of them, it is impossible to remember their names.
Rising above this clutter, three names stand out: Rajkumar Hirani, Vishal Bhardwaj and Dibakar Banerjee. They have been around for a while and have achieved varying degrees of success, both creatively and commercially. Stylistically, they could be not be more different from one another; but it is their understanding of filmmaking that has enabled them to steer clear of the tried and tested routine of the Karan Johars and Farah Khans and at the same time, not succumb to the attention-grabbing self-indulgence of personal cinema that Anurag Kashyap (Dev D) is known for. Most crucially, it is their vision for cinema that sets them apart. And it is this vision that would take Indian cinema forward if our films are to eventually go "global".
When Hirani burst into the scene with Munnabhai MBBS in 2003, many saw it a flash in the pan, almost impossible to repeat. The rip-roaring comedy on the misadventures of a goofy goon in a medical college was indeed a tough act to follow. But Hirani bettered himself with another rib-tickler, Lagey Raho Munnabhai — this time with ‘Gandhigiri’ as its central theme and employing the same duo, Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi in the leads. The fact that remakes of these films in other languages (by different filmmakers) turned out to be damp squibs speaks a lot about the Hirani magic. This was proved, even more emphatically with 3 Idiots — another runaway hit with an unconventional theme.
Bhardwaj has been around longer (though mainly as a music composer), but made his mark about the same time as Hirani in 2003 with Maqbool. Inspired by Macbeth, the film was followed by another Shakespearean adaptation (Othello, this time) Omkara. The two films brought to the fore not only a refreshing sense of dramaturgy, but more importantly, Bhardwaj’s anxiety to establish a new idiom of self-expression while expanding on the film form. His clever orchestration of colour schemes, coarse dialogues and lyrics associated with the Hindi-speaking heartland, experiments with the soundtrack and the pacing of his narrative were some of the innovations that came as eye-openers for Indian audiences. And just when they imagined that he was incapable of seeing beyond the rustic milieu of Uttar Pradesh, he shifted focus to Mumbai with a comic thriller on the antics of two twin brothers in Kaminey. Now, his Saat Khoon Maaf — a murder mystery based on Ruskin Bond’s book about a woman who kills her seven husbands — is being eagerly awaited.
Finally, there is Dibakar Banerjee, the youngest and most promising of the trio. A self-taught filmmaker from Delhi, he has made three films so far, starting with Khosla Ka Ghosla in 2006. This small-budget venture on the travails of a pensioner trying to recover his tiny plot of land from a real estate shark was followed by the hugely popular satire on a loveable thief, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, again set in his hometown, Delhi. And then came the ground-breaking Love Sex Aur Dhokha which ingeniously brought together the lives of three disparate couples sectionalised as sub-plots. Banerjee is now working on a political thriller adapted from a European novel.
Considering the variety
of subjects and themes handled, it would be pointless to compare one
film with another or for that matter, the work of one filmmaker with
the other. If anything, they have debunked the bogey of Bollywood
facing a bankruptcy of ideas and needing to borrow from Hollywood for
inspiration. What has obviously worked for these three filmmakers is
their courage of conviction — a belief in their abilities and the
determination to succeed without sticking to the beaten path.
Together, they represent the brave new face of Indian cinema.