When film-makers in India paint a honest but not a very flattering account of our cities, we choose to close our eyes, but we look at it if it gets international coverage

Along came a movie, Slumdog Millionaire that showed the filth-ridden streets, crippled hopes, and some disturbing vignettes of our city, Mumbai. Another film, Million Dollar Arm explored the Indian culture and idiosyncrasies through the eyes of its lead character. Various topics including the city’s corrupt ways, terrible traffic conditions, and the simplicity of the rural life was depicted in this movie.

While the former film ended up bagging 8 Oscar honors in its kitty, including that of the Best Film and Best Director, the latter met with a decent critical acclaim and also set the cash registers in India as well as abroad ringing.

slum dog millionwire Why Movies About India & Made in India, Doesn’t Cut It in India?

However, when Indian filmmakers turned the searchlight inwards and pulled their cameras to focus on the myriad montages of the same cities, most of them sadly didn’t receive similar critical or box-office success. Take the example of Delhi 6, where filmmaker, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s pot-pourri of the city’s colorful jalebi-sweet side and its dark-sinister alleys was not really appreciated by the masses.

Another movie, Delhi Belly was thrashed equally by critics and audiences. This movie for the most part focused on the city’s damp galiyan choc-a-bloc with jhuggi jhopris, roaches, muck, and rotting food! It also exposed the unhygienic cooking conditions of the city’s roadside kiosks.

Dhobi Ghat (aptly sub-titled as Mumbai Dairies) was another Bollywood movie carved out of the city’s countless stories of loss, success, disparity, grit, grime, and gore. Film-maker Kiran Rao glazed over the cityscapes with eager-beaver eyes, while exploring the rugged sides of an urban underbelly.  However, as expected this film also did not find much appreciation at the ticket windows.

So why are the films on India made by our own film-makers not considered to be on the same artistic or commercial wavelength as that of its foreign counterparts?

Part of the reason probably lies in some of these movie-makers’s inability to shock and titillate but instead wanting to focus on the city’s quirky ways in an honest and realistic manner. Picture one of the most memorable sequences in the movie where the lead character imagines a world that amalgamates the best of the twin cities – Delhi and New York. He knows he will never see a Statue of Liberty in the gallis of Chandni Chowk nor will he ever espy a colorful riot on the streets of New York.  The film thus unspools the chequered seams of the “good” and the “bad” lurking within each of the cities and this may be the film’s strongest point or its Achilles heels (for its failure to feed hype-hungry interests). 

Sample some of the scenes from the movie, Dhobi Ghaat where the film-maker tries to put forth the same point that the real world will always be a mélange of the good, bad, and the ugly.  This movie has an absorbing account of a dhobi who moonlights as a rodent killer by the night and dreams of making it big in the alluring tinsel town.  Through his eyes, you can view the countless contours of the city, whether it be the buzz of activity at the Dhobi ghaat, cramped life inside a tiny makeshift jhopdi , or deadly encounters with the drug peddlers. There are some more beautiful and honest interpretations of the city’s glorious and humdrum moments lying deep within its vortex that are brought onto the surface by the movie.  

dhobi ghat mumbai diaries Why Movies About India & Made in India, Doesn’t Cut It in India?

Compare the above with the scenes in Slumdog Millionaire where the main character jumps into a pile of shit in order to maneuver his way out and meet his favorite movie star, or where the street children steal the shoes lying outside the renowned Taj’s corridors. Both these scenes seem fairly unrealistic and seem to have been shoe-horned into film for the sole purpose of grabbing eyeballs.

This is not to say that the garnish of excessive sensationalism isn’t found in our Bollywood films. For instance, the Indian movie, Gangs of Wasseypur had sex, nudity, and sensationalism sewn into its strong storyline of that of coal mafia rampant in the early 70s. Maybe, that’s one of the reasons why it also met with a fair amount of success at the box office. 

On the other hand, the Hollywood movie, Million Dollar Arm cashed in on the popularity of two of the biggest sports – cricket and baseball, while spinning a tale around two young sportsmen trying to make it big in the international circuit. A lot of critics felt that the movie’s depiction of India was far-fetched and needed some more work.

Is it the case that when a foreign film-maker picks up a topic based on Indian sensibilities or sub-culture, it always meets with a swell of enthusiastic “ayes” back home though its interpretation of our country and its values may not be factually correct? But when our own film-makers paint a simple, honest but not a very flattering account of our cities, we choose to close our eyes because the reality disconcerts us.  It seems that we choose to look at a subject only when it is glorified on account of its international coverage or if has elements that titillate us.

Hope in the next few years, we mature as audiences and learn to accept good movies with strong messages about our own idiosyncrasies we love to ignore.   

By: Pooja Nair

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