Monday, June 14, 2010

It's the Formula, Stupid!

A friend and I discussed Rajneeti briefly yesterday. He said he hadn't particularly liked the movie. I said I enjoyed it, primarily because I had gone into the theater with 'no expectations.' It's a phrase that rolls easily off the tongue, especially when discussing things true and terrible such as the Times of India, Chetan Bhagat's books, and that unique species of person known as the Indian politician. It was a throwaway comment, and it came to mind hours later in the way throwaway comments sometimes do. And I began to wonder - what exactly does that phrase mean? And why do we use it so often in the context of Bollywood?

I sometimes think that in this land of a million movies; of cinema that is 'art-house' and 'commercial'; of films from Bombay (as opposed to Maharashtra), Bihar, Jharkhand (yes!), Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka; Bengal; of audiences who are 'multiplexers,' and 'front-benchers,' 'Bollywood' has exemplified a certain movie-making ethos that combines glamour, drama, and self-indulgent emotionality. Generations of Indian have dreamt Bollywood-tinged dreams, and have been faithful devotees at the altar of the movies. 'Bollywood' movies were always made by the Punjabi-dominated Bombay studios. They were considered different from movies made in other regions – Calcutta had its movie-making maestros, and the Southern states their own superstars with cult appeal.

Over the years, Bollywood propagated its own 'filmi' aesthetic - drama that was colorful and larger than life; characters that were instantly recognizable and regularly over-the-top; settings that were lavishly mounted; music that varied widely in quality; plots that were at best fun spins on a well-loved formula, and at worst a paint-by-numbers mish-mash of incongruent elements. The best of these movies had great performances, memorable punch-lines, hummable music and ‘heart’ – that intangible quality which brought in audiences for weeks on end.

Today, Bollywood is a bit schizophrenic. There is Indie Bollywood – the Bollywood that caters to an (apparently) more discerning audience, is plot driven and hard-pressed to survive. It is territory into which stars will occasionally venture to earn credibility and National Awards. Then there is Masala Bollywood – treading the path of popular movies of decades past, with a few attempts at branching out and staying ‘current’. Blockbuster Bollywood, the preserve of a handful of male superstars, is in a league of its own. Lastly, let us not forget ‘Brainless Bollywood,’ a sub-genre that proudly proclaims that it makes no intellectual or even emotional demands on viewers. It’s gag-a-minute, disposable cinema. Of course these sub-genres overlap, and blockbusters are of all sorts.

I use these genres as heuristics. I develop a rough idea of what genre a movie belongs to, what it promises to deliver – and judge it accordingly. So I suppose it’s inaccurate to say that I watch a movie without expectations. It’s just that I formulate my expectations in the theatre; the moment I feel I know which ‘type’ the movie will conform to. I build caveats into my own movie-viewing experience, and it’s difficult to be disappointed because my expectations are always conservative. I never make the assumption that my expectations will be exceeded – it is enough that a movie goes through the motions in the manner dictated by its particular sub-genre.  

Rajneeti, for instance, had a fairly contrived plot which hinged on about 6 murders, 1 alleged rape, and 2 pregnancies – all in the course of a single chief ministerial election. A bit much, one would agree, even if we are talking about the Bihari badlands. Given that the characters are borrowed from the Mahabharata, they conformed to much beloved prototypes – the wily uncle, the villain, the friend who dies in vain. This characterization coupled with some very good acting, made the movie worthwhile. Given that a few elements exceeded my expectations, I automatically felt I had gotten a good deal – this was decent stuff, relatively speaking.

So when another friend asked me if I had found the movie problematic in any way, my answer was an emphatic ‘no.’ I hadn’t even bothered to consider Rajneeti in light of the issues it addressed. This is because masala Bollywood is not about issues – all the film-makers and actors go hoarse saying ‘Don’t accuse us of doing anything with a message!’ Anyone looking for ‘issues’ is supposed to go in for indie Bollywood. And to go soon, because that isn’t expected to last in the theaters for more than a week, tops.

As audience members, we’ve been trained not to have expectations, or to have only a certain set of expectations. Who are we to expect anyone to push the envelope? We knew what we were in for the moment we saw so-and-so’s mug on the poster. Brainless Bollywood, in particular, has turned scraping the bottom of the expectation barrel into an art form. I mean, did you come here expecting something like a plot from an Akshay Kumar movie? Or you know, acting? Come on! How stupid is that?

So it’s too much to ask that a movie is just, well, good – not good for an action movie, or good for a rom-com, or exactly what you’d expect from Salman Khan – but just plain vanilla good. And that’s problematic – if Bollywood is a valid form of expression, even art (don’t ask me who said that, but I know someone did), then shouldn’t it be expected to be of a certain standard? While a few film-makers, producers and actors are attempting to do things differently with varying degrees of success, most of them prefer to stick to type. Not that it’s working, given the spate of flops or mega-flops (I love the way analysts use this word!) Bollywood has experienced over the past couple of years. But that’s clearly the audience’s fault – we just don’t know a conformation to minimum standards when we see it. 

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