The wah-wah syndrome
There’s a kind of axiomatic truth running through such recent happenings as Mayawati’s triumph in UP, Team India’s cricketing exploits, the economy’s growth rate and Film India’s current fate: You win when you read reality correctly, then act decisively—which also means that you do not if you do not. Mayawati and the economy’s decision-makers have internalised the rules and are bouncing happily along. Our cricket and cinema have not and are paying the price.
The truth about cricket emerged at the World Cup in the Caribbean. There has been enough fact-gouging and finger-pointing on the subject. The truth about the other was revealed this May in the World Cup of cinema, the Festival de Cannes. Annually, this becomes the focus of the world’s best films, selected by a respected panel. You would expect some representation there from the world’s top producer of features, that is, us. There was none, not a single Indian feature in the official selection at this top show window. It’s the most recent symptom of something ailing our cinema.
There are the defenders of the faith, of course. Like Amit Khanna of the Indian Film and Television Producers Guild, who says, “Cannes is quite the wrong place to judge the quality of our cinema. Countries that appear to be doing well in forums like this one do not have a huge domestic market like we do. It’s logical that our directors and producers should concentrate on that market. Then you compare our work with what’s made for world screens.”
But then, one asks, what’s preventing us from producing good quality work for the home market? One thinks with a pang of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Bimal Roy, Shyam Benegal—they have spanned home and away games quite successfully. What’s gone wrong?
“Nothing,” says London-based journalist Amit Roy. “The measure of what constitutes a good film is different in India and abroad.” The Indian taste for song and dance, the predictable plotline, over-the-top acting, the happy ending—these are the stuff of hits at home but at most of kitsch interest to audiences abroad. Trying to sell the one to the other is like pushing Chinese opera at La Scala Milan. Both are valid but don’t mix. That’s why the Munnabhais will never wash in Cannes’ official sections—home of auteur cinema—though it may sneak into sidebars.
So, Indian cinema is cotton-wooled in the profitable home business/ ethnic market abroad and is, therefore besieged, by the Bollywood syndrome. This is an obstacle to our cinema making much of an impression on today’s world screens. But there are two other home-grown factors worth considering in this calculation.
The first is the triumphalism that afflicts our filmic creators. The Brazilians call it the ‘Ja ganhou’ symptom in football, “We’ve won!” uttered before the team even enters the field. Something like this envelops our cinema folk in a complacency that seals us off from world trends and focuses us only on the box-office.
The second factor, flowing from the first, is the ‘wah-wah’ syndrome which works wonders in classical music but is destructive in today’s intensely competitive world cinema. It’s a syndrome that stops us from trying harder, and doing so in foreign fields where the rules of the game are somewhat different.
What has emerged from Cannes—which, incidentally, is also the world’s hottest market for disributors and exhibitors—is that commerce has clearly overtaken art in Indian cinema. Nearly 100 companies turned up for Cannes 2007, and sales and networking were brisk. Japanese buyers were seen thumping the table for strictly Bollywood products, for the Japan market. It is still too early to put figures to the trend, but business was certainly up over Cannes 2006 and 25% up, according to some assessments, for Indian cinema.
Paris-based Indian painter Vishwanath had a neat term for it: Khan Market. So much for the cash registers. What of the Seventh Art?
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