The worst possible thing that has been said about Mani Ratnam’s Raavan is that the movie is his Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag.
Until Raavan, popular opinion held up Ratnam as one of the best mainstream directors in the country. Stars turned down other directors for a chance to work with him. Cinematographers and production designers salivated at the prospect of being in the credits of a Mani Ratnam production. The Raavan misadventure has brought the director down from the stratosphere to earth. Raavan and its superior Tamil version Raavanan don’t even begin to compare with Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag, but this is the age of instant criticism and super-fast dismissals. Most critics and viewers turned their backs on Raavan faster than Abhishek Bachchan can make faces.
Ratnam isn’t the only veteran film-maker to be summarily dismissed in recent months. Directors are now only as good as their last movie, and must reinvent themselves over and over again with each new project. Anurag Basu’s reputation, built up bit by bit with such films as Gangster and Life…in a Metro, is in tatters after Kites crashed and burned at the box office. Hindi cinema, like the sporting world, is brimming with impatience. Film-makers with history also carry baggage. It’s the age of the debutant directors, who represent freshness and the triumph of youthful achievement (some of them are well into their 30s, but never mind that). It’s the year of first-timers such as Ayan Mukherjee (Wake Up Sid), Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya), Parminder Sethi (Badmaash Company), Punit Malhotra (I Hate Luv Storys), Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan), Abhishek Sharma (Tere Bin Laden), Anusha Rizvi (Peepli Live, releasing on 16 August), and Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat (scheduled to release later this year).
The cult of the first-time director is especially seductive in a country where half the population is estimated to be under the age of 25. The national media often refers glowingly to “youth power”, which has the ability to influence everything from consumer behaviour to government policy. Bollywood is serious about young people who, it is assumed, have short attention spans, a lack of nostalgia, and purchasing power that seems resistant to the vagaries of inflation. The cocktail is not an easy one to swallow. How can you understand the psyche of a youth market that feeds on Roadies and Splitsvilla? Does anybody have the patience any more for a dreamscape of a movie such as Raavan?
Candyfloss: I Hate Luv Storys is Punit Malhotra’s debut film.
Infinitely more interesting than the age of the film-maker is the subject matter of the debutant movie. Bollywood’s Young Turks have scored well in this respect. Films such as Wake Up Sid and Ishqiya are not anonymous studio products, but retain the individual stamp of their directors. Tere Bin Laden, Udaan, Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat have offbeat subjects that reveal a desire to swim against the mainstream and test the ability of audiences to embrace new ideas.
The media loves newness, but does the paying public really care? First-time film-makers are celebrated as rebels who have managed to tear down walls and leap over obstacles to achieve the first expression of their creativity. Their only record is of having slogged as assistant directors or scraped their knuckles on the doors of producers’ offices. However, experience is needed to understand what today’s diverse audiences are willing to shell out money for. It takes youthful guts to break into Bollywood. It takes a few grey hairs to make a movie that works at the box office. The biggest hits in recent months have been by accomplished film-makers, such as Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots, which charmed almost everybody from preschoolers to grandmothers, and Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti, which tapped into a national obsession with, and cynicism about, Indian politics.
I Hate Luv Storys released on Friday. Udaan and Tere Bin Laden will release on 16 July.
Nandini Ramnath is a film critic with Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org