Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A certain tendency of Indian cinema

You know that feeling when you’ve been waiting a long time for a storm to come? How every time the wind picks up, you think it’s arrived, but then the clouds clear up and it’s hot again. And then, one day, you know it’s arrived. Its not even there, yet you know for sure. This is that time for Indian cinema.

It’s been getting clearer, at first with every passing year, now with even more regularity. It is all falling into place; visions are getting surer, scripts are getting tighter. A few years ago, it might have been impossible to pace a film like Karthik Calling Karthik the way it was done, with the potential twist done away with in the middle, and the lucrative prospect of a thriller sacrificed for a meditative, rewarding second half. Filmmakers are learning to relax, make films in a minor key. If you were disappointed by the absence of a climax in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance or Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, its likely you were looking to play by a rulebook that hasn’t quite been thrown out, but has begun to be wilfully misplaced.

In the midst of these gathering winds comes Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, its very title a provocation to take flight. And make no mistake, the stakes are high now. Every blow which Ronit Roy strikes in this film, he strikes for orthodoxy, for respect demanded without being earned, for sons following their fathers. And every time Rajat Barmecha picks himself up, he does it because something within is telling him it’s important that he do his own thing. It is this instinct that led Anurag Kashyap on the uneven path from Paanch to No Smoking to Dev D. It’s this instinct that must have led him to see the same drive in Motwane, and clear the way for the young director the way Vishal Bharadwaj has done for him earlier. One must also note that Kashyap producing Udaan or Bharadwaj producing No Smoking is hardly something that smacks of a sound business decision. If motives must be implied, let it be put down to a burgeoning sense of collective responsibility to not let this precious momentum flag.

The first generation of Indian filmmakers who grew up in the post-cable TV era borrowed the gloss and bombast of movies made outside this country, but ended up attaching them to the same old stories. In a way, these were the necessary practice years: the industry sharpened its technical skills, while audiences waited for original stories and people who could see things through without making the whole experience seem compromised. When the stories finally started to arrive, and screenwriters with a ear for everyday dialogue like Jaideep Sahni found the correct key to pitch them in, things began to fall into place. They found their champions in an increasingly demanding and discerning multiplex audience, and on the internet, where a new breed of critics were emerging, cine-literate, candid, equally at home with Resnais and Ratnam.

Udaan was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes film festival, one of the few Indian films to have done so. That this honour came to fall on a debutante director is even more exciting - one wonders what might happen if directors such as Vishal Bharadwaj or Dibakar Banerjee take this as a gauntlet thrown down. Udaan is also reminiscent of another very well-known film, with similar subject matter and protagonist, shot in a similar grainy style. That film, of course, was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a lyrical meditation which marked the beginning of the most influential of film movements, the French New Wave. Is it a coincidence that the key scene in both movies is a long triumphant run? Or that Motwane choose to end his film the same way Truffaut did: with a freeze-frame of the young protagonist? One way or the other, it really doesn’t matter. What’s important is to acknowledge this: something is up. It’s been a long time coming, but the air is full of it now. It could start raining anytime.

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