Many of us consider ‘serious cinema’ or ‘reality cinema’ as good and the commercial mainstream productions that Bollywood churns out to be inferior, in some way, and by the looks of it detrimental to the civic health. I have come across countless articles that rant on about how there is an absolute lack of serious cinema in India, and how ‘good’ and ‘educated’ film -makers are forced to make shallow, star-studded films, with no serious storyline or deployment of artistic techniques, just because the audience will not take it. And, more importantly, how this needs to change.
Here is what I think.
Indian cinema, as it is today, is one of the most complex narrative devices, found in any medium of artistic expression. Let me lay down the basic tenets on which I will further build and shape my argument. Firstly, one cannot judge any medium of art, for whatever reasons. Since the educated director is only producing what the audience wants, it not his fault that he happens to be working in a system of democracy, where the people decide the fate of everything. Also, it takes a tremendous amount of skill to make a film the audience will like; no matter how ‘shallow’ the lovers of serious cinema might consider it. Because if it wasn’t so, then there would be no flop-shows. Every film that was trashy, would be a super hit, wouldn’t it?
There is much more to what we see in a cinema hall than meets the eye. All metaphors intended there.
The phrase “voluntary suspension of disbelief”, or “poetic faith” coined by Coleridge, is of utmost importance to all narrative art forms, be it poetry, drama, or cinema. It describes the voluntary non-disbelief we exercise in the enjoyment of poetry and drama and cinema. Here the word “voluntary” necessitates the active intent on the spectator’s part to provide some sort of assent to the text (in this case cinema). It is not a belief, but an assent that the spectator gives to the text, to allow the narration to absorb him into the world that the text contains. There is always the temptation, of course, to get immediately down to criticism; and some arguments, given our background, will inevitably come across as so bizarre that the temptation to begin with the scoffing is almost irresistible. However, one has to consider the suspension of disbelief, if one wants to delve into any art medium that involves fiction or creativity in any form.
Much of the appeal for serious cinema is lost in the developing world. The answer is quite simple, in fact. While social documentaries regarding prostitution rackets in India win awards at various international film festivals, Indians themselves cannot even name one, let alone having watched a few. It is not a lack, therefore of serious cinema in the country, which these self-styled puritans seem so glued to the concept of: the simple fact is that the audience, whether urban or rural, is just not prepared to lap it up. Quite often the idea of films being an ‘escape medium’ is brought up at such discussions as they involve ‘Reel vs. Real’ subjects. For a poor man (and a majority of the Indian filmgoers fall into this category), spending Rs. 100 to watch a film, is purely a rare luxury, which he gives himself to take a moment away from his otherwise mundane and quite harsh life. If even in these 3 hours or so, he is subjected to even more of the gory realities that he faces anyway, in his everyday life, then the purpose for him, coming to a theatre, is entirely defeated. Who wants to see on screen, what we already see everyday on the streets? Give me magic!
This magic is a device used voluntarily, or unknowingly, that touches the civic fibre, in a way that realism in cinema has always been unable to. It is hard to define. So I will explain, through an example. The basic idea of the use of realism is to make the audience aware of a certain issue, or sometimes just a real-life depiction of something commonplace. But the idea of cinema revolves around mass appeal.
And speaking of this mass appeal, let us come to youth films of today. Few will argue that in 2008, if there is a market in India, it is for these so-called “youth films”. Rang De Basanti, Yuva, and the more recent Jab We Met, and Jaane Tu Ya Janne Na and Rock On! all had their charms. But what was it in these films that made them so iconic?
Let us take Jaane Tu… I will first argue that although all the characters depicted in the film were young men and women, but Jaane Tu… was not a youth film. Its appeal lay, not in the depiction (which in any case was highly inaccurate) of the urban youth, but the use of this “magic” to create a film that appealed to every single age group. This ‘magic’ is not exactly the J.K. Rowling type (although the magical portrait of Naseeruddin Shah is an example to the contrary); it is ingrained far deeper into the fibre of the society, and it’s the deepest fears that these films nudge.
For example, when Aditi’s (Genelia D’Souza) dad, exclaims about the fact that some random guy got invited to see his son’s (Aditi’s brother) room, while they had never: “Bloody hell! I paid for the room; but even I have not seen it till date!”- the appeal of this ‘magic’ starts working. At once the youth identifies with the brother on the lines of ‘personal space’ and ‘personal freedom’ and ‘parents being parents’ etc.; at the same time, however, the parents also start identifying with a feeling of being left out of the current generation’s most intimate stories. The “room” then becomes symbolic of the relationship between the most personal and private, intimate spaces (not just physical, but also emotional) of the youth, that no matter what, the previous generation is not allowed to venture into. It is this ‘magic’ that becomes at once a case of defence for the youth, and a case of fear for the elders. It is this “magic” tickling at the core of the social relationships, which works wonders for the audience.
As opposed to Jaane Tu…, Yuva had previously tried the exact opposite method. Involuntarily, and I am sure, with all the good intentions, the audience was fed too much of realty and preaching. It did not work in the film’s favour.
What works best for the masses is the “It’s magic, it’s magic” phenomenon, as exemplified in the success of Koi Mil Gaya. Few will argue against the fact that the film appealed to adults and children alike. The underdog coming out victorious -in this case, a mentally challenged Hrithik Roshan being aided by an alien to defeat the bad guys- is a tried and tested formula for all audiences alike. Little surprise then, that the catalyst for this change was called “Jaadoo” (“Magic”). It is this Jaadoo that forms much of the appeal for cinema. It is this magic that audiences here crave for. It is this magic that makes us go to the cinema halls, week after week, month after month; to watch films we know the beginnings, middles, and ends of, only too well.
Give me magic!!
–Vipul Ralph Shah