Mainstream Hindi cinema is trying hard to be serious, but doesn’t seem to be able to break the shackles of the box office just yet.
So what IS 3 Idiots, really?” asks a friend, “Is it mainly a ‘fun film’ or an ‘issue film’?” Now, there doesn’t have to be a cut-and-dried answer to this question. But the intriguing thing is that you might easily get two different replies from a single fan, depending on the context of the discussion. There are those who endorse the film because of its social consciousness (about the flawed educational system and the unfair expectations many parents have of their children) but who do a quick 180-degree turn when you try to move beyond a very basic level of engagement. Why is teacher’s pet Chatura repeatedly mocked (not just by the three leads but by the film itself) when he’s as much a victim of the system as anyone else? Why does the film set up a pat climax showing that the Aamir Khan character has become more successful than Chatura (who is pretty darn successful in his own right anyway), when the supposed “message” all along was that you should do what you love doing?
“It’s just a fun film,” say the fans when you raise these questions, “Don’t analyse it so much!”
None of this is to say that 3 Idiots is a deeply flawed movie. In fact, the reason why we can have impassioned discussions about its shortcomings is because it gets many things right in the first place. But the way in which it goes somewhat awry post-intermission tells us something about the conflicting forces currently at work in mainstream Hindi cinema. It tells us about an industry that has to tread carefully while making “issue” films, because one eye must always be on the needs of the mass audience.
The fact is, commercial Hindi cinema is in an important transition phase. In the last few years we’ve seen improvements at many levels: movies are much more technically polished than before, scripts and characterisations are generally more nuanced, and there are young directors with serious talent as well as exposure to the best of international cinema. In Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Sanjay Leela Bhansali among others, we are arguably seeing the emergence of mainstream “auteurs” — the term used by French critics of the 1950s for directors who managed to stamp their personalities on their films, even amidst the hurly-burly of the commercial filmmaking process. The best of Bollywood today can be compared with the Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks did great individualistic work despite the constraints of the studio system. The back-stories surrounding these movies include accounts of a director being forced at the last minute to incorporate a happy ending or to desist from turning the film’s leading man into a criminal.
So it is with our cinema. On the one hand, there is a felt need to make movies about serious issues — issues that, in the real world, can’t be easily resolved or simply made to vanish (whether it’s a terminal disease corroding a human body or a malaise eating away at society). But on the other hand there’s the kowtowing to the viewer who goes to films expecting not internal consistency but a few enjoyable scenes strung together, ending with a heartwarming sense of affirmation, usually provided by the star who assures us that “aal izz well”.
And we all know how important the cult of the Star Personality is in India. An Aamir starrer (or a Shah Rukh or Salman starrer) will always carry a certain set of expectations. When the leading man makes his first appearance, we’ll see him in silhouette, walking in slow-motion towards the camera (as we do in 3 Idiots), a halo effect supplied by a background light. He will be the God figure, eavesdropping from behind a pillar and shaking his head sympathetically as a martinet professor berates a student for thinking outside the box. His will be the cathartic voice that will spell out what is wrong with the teaching process and how it needs to be amended.
The integrity of 3 Idiots suffers slightly from these in-your-face moments, but in fairness it’s still many rungs higher than our more tedious “social awareness” movies. Like Madhur Bhandarkar’s work, which deals with social ills by setting up polarities and placing an innocent Red Riding Hood figure (the Konkona Sen Sharma character in Page 3, Bipasha Basu in Corporate, Priyanka Chopra in Fashion) in a big bad world where she is in danger of losing her soul at every corner. In these films, nearly every person and situation is presented in black and white terms.
At an even lower level are movies like Ajay Devgan’s astonishingly confused directorial debut U, Me aur Hum, which started as a screwball comedy and then changed tack midway to become a shrill drama about Alzheimer’s, before staggering towards an unconvincing feel-good ending. In comparison, R Balki’s Paa — centred on a progeria-afflicted child — was a much more engaging film, but that’s because the medical condition was just a pretext to cast the 67-year-old Amitabh Bachchan as the 13-year-old Auro; the real focus was a Parent Trap-like story about a child getting his estranged parents together. (When the film did deal with progeria head-on, it changed tone completely, trading in its breeziness for forced solemnity.)
But there have also been some very promising signs in the past couple of years. Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, an excellent portrait of class aspiration, made sharp observations about middle-class Indian life without once getting pedantic or preachy. And Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, though enjoyable and with many classic “inside Bollywood” moments, didn’t gloss over the heartbreak faced by millions of people who fail to make it in the film industry — or give us the comfort of an ending where the most likable and sympathetic character triumphs. These were deeply satisfying movies that knew how to integrate lightness of tone with seriousness of purpose, without falling apart in the process. When mainstream Hindi cinema produces more such works, we’ll know that all really is well.