Indian cinema wants to be up there, but, sadly, has done precious little to achieve that.
Some weeks ago, I got a letter from a reader who lambasted me for being not just unfair but cruel to Bollywood cinema. He said I favoured Hollywood, comparing Hindi films with American movies. This was absolutely unjust given the difference in culture and language, and the kind of diversity India had to take into account when making a film.
In my long years as a movie critic, I have often got brickbats, rarely bouquets. Sometimes, nasty and personal comments have been flung at me. I have even been accused of playing favourites, of needlessly running down Indian cinema.
I have been anguished, heart-broken, but have learnt to cope with this.
Let me begin my defence by stating that comparisons are not always odious. On the contrary, they can be useful.
And it is not that I have been comparing just Bollywood with Hollywood. My comparisons have extended beyond this. I have compared European cinema with Indian. I have compared Malayalam cinema with Tamil, Bengali with Hindi and so on and so forth. I have no favourites. I cannot, as a critic. No, never.
Furthermore, my retort to my “He Loves Hollywood” detractors has been: How are we going to improve if we do not compete with someone better than us, and it is not that every Hollywood film is a study in excellence.
I have been harsh in my lampooning of American cinema as well. I described Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge as a movie without a soul. I called Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire a “celebration of poverty”, a view shared by the Greek master, Theo Angelopoulos, and Indian greats like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli.
But, but, if mainstream Indian cinema has to reach the skies, in fact the kind of heights it once enjoyed, it must now turn the mirror on itself.
Will anybody be kind enough to tell me whether men like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and even early Raj Kapoor made art films? No, they did not. At least they were not labelled so.
They made movies which were acknowledged as part of mainstream fare, complete with songs and dances that catered to the masses’ tastes and culture, so to say. Yet, their works were hailed, even critically, because what these directors created was arrestingly authentic and they were in-depth studies of society and human behaviour, studies made in a riveting style.
And, let us not forget that we do not live in a unipolar world. Indian films have to travel and most Indians want that.
Is this not why that year after year Indian cinema wants to be part of the Cannes Film Festival? Why is it that for decades, Indian cinema has been striving so hard to be at least nominated for the Academy Awards? Because, Indian cinema wants to be up there, but, sadly, has done precious little to achieve that – by way of gripping and realistic scripts – and by way of excellence in helming and performance.
Finally, to all those who deride me, here is my footnote. I can either be a journalist or a public relations guy. I cannot wear two hats at the same time.
For years, I have seen critics in Chennai happily accept an envelope each from the producer and that too right after a press screening. We all know what that cover contains.
I have fought against such temptation, and now I am never invited for a press screening of a Tamil movie!
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]