As I write, I have just returned, battered but still breathing, from the Cannes film festival, the most important but most exhausting annual film jamboree in the world. And this year, despite the fact that there was only one properly Indian film on the entire official programme, the Indian presence was honourably upheld.
The Indian pavilion, run for the first time by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) under the energetic Nina Lath Gupta, was light years better than usual, and a welcome and useful place of refuge not only for Indians but for foreign delegates.
I was there most days. A sepulchral home for DVDs of rotten Bollywood movies and dotty tourist posters had been turned into a lively meeting place.
Added to that, the Indian party on the beachside of the Croisette was a big success, neither running out of food or drink which, compared with the pallid British effort, perched atop the nearby Marriott hotel, was a considerable blessing. It was hardly disturbed by a worse-for-wear Reliance man who smashed a glass on the forehead of a waiter before attempting to urinate against the bar.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in an Elie Saab gown at this year’s Cannes film festival as the brand ambassador of L’Oreal.
For once, India, which doesn’t have the best record at Cannes, with far too many hangers-on generally outnumbering its more useful delegates and hardly any films, Bollywood or otherwise, looked as if it knew what it was doing.
It was, however, a pity that Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, produced by Shekhar Kapur but put together by others, didn’t do what was expected of it. Here surely was a chance to show that Bollywood (and I know the very name jars with some) has a unique history of fine films from master directors such as Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, V. Shantaram and Mehboob Khan, who were not simply concerned with clichéd stories and ever sillier song and dance numbers, but often made films of social and cultural significance.
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What we got instead looked like an over-extended trailer for song and dance extravaganzas, entertaining for about 20 minutes but feeble at feature length. Some thought it an insult to Bollywood. I wouldn’t go as far as that. But it did confirm prejudices about Indian cinema as a whole. Would that Kapur had directed it himself. We might then have got coherent clips of some of the great films of the past.
It must have proved to Bollywood’s denigrators, which have often included myself, that Indian popular film-making is even less sophisticated than that of Hollywood, and even less able to deal with important or controversial subjects with audacity and without sentimentality.
It is, of course, a fairly common view in some Indian circles that the country has become a shining beacon to the world at large and that an ever more glamorous Bollywood has led the way in attracting attention not only to Indian films but to India itself. I’m not at all sure that the second half of the argument is really true.
Ask most people in the UK what they know about India and they tend to have three pat answers. The first is that India is indeed a coming superpower, if often both bureaucratic and corrupt, but highly unlikely to beat China and the US in the world pecking order anytime soon.
Behind the camera: (clockwise from above) Directors Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, and more recently, Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj represent Indian cinema which is outside the Bollywood bracket of formulaic blockbusters.
The second is that Indian cinema is indeed Bollywood, and nothing much else. And that means song, dance and star personas emitting romantic clichés. They’ve heard about the movies but they don’t actually go to see them.
The third is that there are an awful lot of Indians in the UK who keep the newspaper shops open, drive much more carefully than they do in India for fear of the law and have provided the Brits with chicken tikka masala and other staples you can now buy in the supermarkets if you don’t want to visit the many restaurants (often actually run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) after a beery night out.
I’m not saying these views are true. I’m saying that’s what the average Briton thinks. India equals emerging economic power, Bollywood and curry.
Our view of Bollywood, however, is not one bought from experience. We don’t actually go to the Bollywood movies that often make so healthy a profit in our multiplexes. It’s the Indian immigrants who do, particularly the older generation, largely to be reminded of home. Their sons and daughters tend increasingly to prefer Hollywood, which provides better car chases and more luxurious special effects.
Magazines and newspapers, and sometimes television, occasionally take photographs of visiting Indian stars, publicize Indian fashion and write articles about the fusion of Indian and British rock music. We read all this, but we don’t actually partake. I once brought a sari back for a girlfriend a few years ago and all I got was: “For God’s sake! Where on earth do I wear that?”
The real influence of Bollywood on anyone other than the diaspora is practically nil. It’s thought to be a bit of a joke—a huge engine that spews out dozens upon dozens of films a year, some of which make large profits but most of which sink without a trace. A couple of years ago, the main companies distributing Bollywood in the UK organized press shows for British critics. They duly went along to the first two or three. But the reviews were short and often negative, and soon the idea of adding to the 10 or 12 new films opening in London each week with a slice of Bollywood was quietly dropped.
If the sheer gigantomania in India’s film factories has indeed attracted bemused attention in recent years, it is largely because of the omission of Indian cinema from most global histories. Dozens of books have been devoted to the history of Hollywood in the West. Very few have even tried to tackle Bollywood, which, until it realized that as much money could be made abroad as in India itself, frequently seemed to come from a vast, enclosed world nobody but Indians knew a great deal about.
The hip shake: Stills from the films Dabangg, Bunty aur Babli and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, which had wide appeal among non-resident Indian (NRI) audiences; Subhash Ghai’s Yuvvraaj was a box-office failure.
The idea that Indian commercial cinema, whether from Mumbai or not, is made for the illiterate masses and seen by no one even slightly sophisticated, dies hard in the UK. It was always a view verging on sheer ignorance and, even today, when it could be claimed that India’s cinema has been technically strengthened but culturally weakened by Western influences, it’s not entirely true.
It certainly wasn’t so in the post-war decades that produced a whole series of film-makers, stars, musicians and playback singers worthy of anyone’s attention. I have soundtracks from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that combine Indian classical, folk and traditional music with memorable skill. Would there were good-quality DVDs of some of the lost films.
But India has always been careless of its cinematic heritage. Witness the fact that some of the best films of the New Indian cinema of the 1970s and 1980s no longer seem to exist, or at least cannot be found. A few years ago I tried to mount a season of the New Indian cinema at the National Film Theatre in London. I suggested a dozen of the best. We could only find four, so gave up.
When I first came to India in the early 1970s, there was a festival retrospective of the films of Ritwik Ghatak made up of prints of appalling quality. Asked by the film magazine Sight & Sound to write the first British survey of Ghatak’s work, I did the best I could from a point of some ignorance and was rather late with the copy. “Where is your article about Gatwick Airport?” asked the editor. Ignorance sometimes makes for blissful jokes.
A red-carpet promotion of ‘Bollywood: The Greatest Story Ever Told’, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (right) which was screened at the Cannes film festival, 2011. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP
After this, I tried my best to follow the brave independents, who rejected Bollywood and tried to relate to a “real” India. Often financed by the NFDC and encouraged by the thought of a profitable outing on state television, they ultimately found themselves with no place to go in cinemas that only showed Bollywood or its regional equivalents. In the end, the movement petered out, with many of the talented directors either giving up, moving into television or trying to get a Bollywood film under way without too much compromise. It very seldom worked, though brave men such as Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee are now trying very hard and with some success.
It was an extraordinary time and sometimes an amusing one. I once opened the door of my Kolkata hotel very early one morning to a director who pleaded with me to see his first film. “Is it on the festival programme?” I asked. “No,” he said. “Has it got subtitles?” I enquired. The answer came after only a little hesitation: “Maybe.” Of course, it hadn’t.
At this moment in time, many festival directors have virtually given up on Indian films, though Cannes thinks it might be fun to find a Bollywood film to show in competition one year soon. Unfortunately the rumour is that they can’t find one good enough to put before the critics of the world. It’s not so much a form of Western snobbery as the inability of most Bollywood directors to produce truly innovative cinema.
I’m constantly told that there are now a number of young film-makers determined to alter this situation, and I met some of them at Cannes. I was shocked to find that a couple of the youngest had only seen a few Satyajit Ray films and had never heard of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, generally considered the best director of non-Bollywood films in India just now. I was also surprised that few of these possible saviours of Indian cinema had not gone to see many of the films at Cannes which would have given them a few ideas as to how to change things.
I wish them luck. If you don’t want to make an overtly commercial film, it is a very hard row to hoe in India just now. But let’s have a little judicious doubt about the claims made for Bollywood itself. Despite the huge success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in the West if not in India (which was a better directed Bollywood film in all but ownership), Bollywood is not the flavour of the times. It may like to think it is, but that’s largely a hopeful myth.
I’ve been going to India now for some 40 years and things don’t change all that much in the film world. But it’s been a wonderful experience nonetheless, if not without its weird and wonderful moments. I once was in the lift at the Ashok Hotel in Delhi, which is not exactly the best resting place in the world for the many foreign guests who are put there by the government. A robed man was in the lift with me and I thought I recognized his face. Probably a delegate from the festival, I thought. “Isn’t this an awful hotel?” I said to him. He gave me a beatific smile and replied: “We were put on this earth to suffer, you know.”
It was the Dalai Lama.
Derek Malcolm has been coming to India for around 40 years, first as a cricketer and then as a film critic. He was film critic for The Guardian for 30 years and now occupies the same post at the London Evening Standard. He is former director of the London Film Festival, and honorary president of the International Film Critics Association.
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