Mired in mediocrity

Print edition : February 13, 2009

DEREK BOSE, a prolific writer on commercial Hindi cinema, has come up with a new book on its possibilities in the international market. He has gone to great lengths to predict a bright future for it by providing varied data backed by analysis. However, many a time his objectivity gives way to subjectivity of the most vulnerable kind even while passing on plain information.

For instance: Not many Indians know that the landmark film from Hong Kong, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) [which reportedly grossed U.S. $140 million worldwide] was actually produced by a Hollywood consortium (page 207). Just why it is a landmark film, he fails to elucidate. Is it because it was a runaway commercial hit the world over? Or did it have any artistic merit as well? As far as this writer is concerned, Ang Lees Crouching Tiger is an average movie from Hong Kong with very good special effects. In the olden days, such films were called stunt-pictures. If Bose had seen the poetic martial arts films of the late King Hu, he would have realised that Ang Lee was a mere hack who owed a huge debt to the master.

King Hus films did not depend on exaggerated wire-work for their stunts. His actors were trained acrobats, and his camera placement and cutting was precise. The end result was invariably spectacular. This apart, his films had thought and feeling in ample measure.

Bose is hung up on Ang Lees Crouching Tiger and other such products. He waxes eloquent in the section entitled Crossover Cinema: Bollywood may still be waiting for a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Life is Beautiful (1997) to emerge from within, but the real crossover will take place the day Shahrukh Khan shares the lead with a Brad Pitt or Nicole Kidman, or Aishwarya Rai (or any other mainline actress) becomes, say, Tom Cruises heroine. That day is not far. Although Boses artistic aspirations are questionable, his commercial intentions are not.

The volume takes on far too many themes at the same time to really make sense. His American-style statistic-mongering is interesting though often misleading. For example, in the chapter Rise of the Consumer Classes, the data provided are impressive. Here is a sample:

Rural India has around 42,000 haats (including weekend markets) where consumer durables are bought and sold.

In 2002-2003, 50 per cent of the policies sold by the state-owned Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) across India were in villages.

Small towns and villages accounted for 1.3 million cellular telephone users in 2006.

Of the 25 million households that purchased television sets between 2001 and 2004, 19 million (or 77 per cent) were from the rural hinterlands.

A scene from Sadiyan. Hindi films have improved a great deal but are still not on a par with films from Hollywood.-NISSAR AHMAD

Of the 20 million new subscriptions to a popular horizontal portal (providing e-commerce and free-mail service) in 2004, 60 per cent were from small towns and villages. And of the 1,00,000-odd persons who had transacted on the shopping site, over 52,000 were again from Indias small towns and villages. Anybody believing such claims without question would of course think that India was well on its way to becoming a global power. But the truth is to the contrary.

According to the economist Arjun Sengupta, 77 per cent of the Indian population lives on less than Rs.20 a day. In a country of over a billion people, more than 770 million people live in abject poverty. Of the remaining 230 million, a little more than 40 million can afford television sets, cellphones and insurance policies. The figure taken in isolation is impressive but quite ordinary when considered in relation to Indias population size. As far as economic development is concerned, it has been, to put it charitably, haphazard. Why should 160 districts out of 612 be under the sway of the ultra left-wing naxalites if everything is hunky-dory economically? Which States accounted for the LIC policies sold in 2002-2003 in rural India? How come farmers in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab have been committing suicide, unable to pay off their debts? Statistics on the printed page may look impressive, but sometimes they may give false impressions.

Bose is good about the actual methods of production in Bollywood. In the chapter Crime and Punishment he says: There is another way for film-makers to beat the law. Two versions of the same film are shot, using the same cast and crew, locations and even storyline. For one version, some sexually explicit scenes are shot without digressing too far from the plot, while for the other, these scenes are deleted or substituted with song and dance sequences, flashbacks and some such filler. It is this sanitised version that the film-maker submits to the Censor Board and obtains a clearance certificate. He fights shy of giving specific examples, perhaps because he does not want to offend or alienate industry insiders who are his sources.

He is spot on when he says it is the Indian diaspora population mainly in the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, Canada and the Middle-East [West Asia] that provides a large market for commercial Hindi films. He also offers a startling piece of information: the largest concentration of Indian settlers is in Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) and is double the size of the diaspora in the U.S. Apparently, this potential market cannot be tapped because of political and trade restrictions (Back to the Future, page 205).

In the same chapter, Bose observes: The very fact that Bollywood film-makers, actors, music composers and, of late, choreographers are increasingly finding work abroad proves that cinema knows no geographical boundaries. However, the fact that Shekhar Kapur has made four films with overseas funding Bandit Queen, Elizabeth, The Golden Age (as Elizabeth Part II is known) and Four Feathers does not really prove anything substantial. Victor Banerjee, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Aishwarya Rai have appeared in British and American films. But only Om Puri has really made a mark with two British productions, My Son the Fanatic and East is East. Naseeruddin Shah did appear opposite Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a major Hollywood production. A.R. Rehman scored the music for Slumdog Millionaire and has become the first Indian to win the Golden Globe award.

But this contribution from the largest producer of films to the English-language cinema of the U.S. or Britain is not anything to write home about. Just why Indians have to prove themselves in England or the U.S. is a question that is never asked. Is it because some Indian film-makers are reasonably at ease with the English language? How is it that there are no collaborations with other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where films of a high technical standard are made? Is it because of a Hollywood fixation from the silent cinema days in British India?

Bose is right about the multiple malfunctioning that all but destroyed the state-owned National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), which was supposed to promote good cinema that was also commercially viable. After a 1980 collaboration with the British director Richard Attenborough on Gandhi guaranteeing a 12 per cent share in the profits, the organisation sat back. Gandhi was a global hit. The money that filled the NFDC coffers was squandered on ill-judged projects, including the proposed building of film theatres. Neither the NFDC nor other independent film-makers were able to come up with films of artistic merit that would also appeal to a reasonably large cross section of film-goers. Barring a few exceptions, NFDC-backed films were technically mediocre and dull in content and execution.

In the same chapter, Rise of the Consuming Classes, Bose says: Sooner than later, the dynamics of free trade will come into play, whereby small content providers will find it impossible to sustain themselves and shall be weeded out one way or the other. After this marked shake-out, the larger players will inevitably consolidate their positions and the industry will reach a state of maturity. Here, in a stable environment, it will not be quantity but the quality of content with an accent on innovation and creativity that shall drive the Indian mass media.

Why does he make such observations? He is well nigh certain that the nation is not very far from reaching that stage of stability. The indicators are already there. Today India ranks among the top five economies of the world in terms of purchasing power parity and according to the estimates of leading global investors it is only a matter of time before India overtakes China as the fastest growing entertainment industry.

With a massive global economic recession already happening, what would Bose and the investment pundits have to say now? He cannot, alas, stop playing the oracle. Where will fresh finances come from to change the face of the Indian (read Bollywood) entertainment industry? As far as the big players driving out the small players is concerned, he is right. It has already happened on television. The content has, strangely enough, remained puerile. Reasonable technical quality, these days, is easy enough to achieve. Artistic quality is more difficult; for that to happen, a large number of people have to be educated.

In India, the numbers of the educated have, contrary to claims made by the census, dwindled. They have been replaced by waves of barely literate, technology-savvy people. What else is a degree in Information Technology but glorified vocational training? What does Bose mean when he says that once the larger players consolidate their positions, maturity will descend on the industry? It is an interesting statement in itself but a mere illusion when weighed against objective facts.

Bose does not consider a primary fact that a film, above all, has to run. He thinks if a film is completed within its budget and stipulated time, the face of Bollywood will change. Theoretically, yes. True, it is difficult for a standard, cliched film to lose money. Indeed, it would require a special talent to do so. But for a film to make an impact artistically and commercially would still be a tall order.

The average Hindi film producer is a chaotic creature and functions best in a state of disarray. He does not like to be pinned down by time schedules and bank procedures even though interest rates would be much lower than what he would pay to his usurer. Like a vast majority of Indians, he finds the idea of professional discipline and ethics revolting. Is it because both his personal and professional lives are made of a myriad shades of murky greys that he recoils at the very idea of organisation? Bose recognises this fact quite easily but he is inclined to hope that this capricious creature will be brought to heel once corporate players take over the entire Indian entertainment industry.

Bose hopes that Bollywood will soon compete on equal terms with Hollywood and, in the foreseeable future, overtake it. Whether this is at all possible is worth contemplating. Hollywood relies on the spectacle to make its money, thanks to the enormous talent available in special effects, art direction and props. It is also true that even now it does produce a number of fine, serious films every year. The same cannot be said of Bollywood. Content-wise, Hindi films are banal, barring an exception or two; technically, things have improved a great deal but are still not on a par with Hollywood. Despite what many patriotic Indians at home and abroad might think, there is not very much that Hindi cinema has to offer. The content is stereotypical and the music on which it continues to depend is usually cacophonous. Surely, that cannot be a formula for continuous international success.

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