May 26, 2010

Crossing over, but with hurdles

With the global market beckoning, Bollywood is on the cusp. Should it woo audiences with restrained productions or continue with melodrama? Sudish Kamath finds out.

How much of Bollywood drama can the world handle? And how much restraint will the local audience appreciate? Hindi cinema seems to be torn between the two worlds, its loyalties divided between two contrasting sensibilities.

Over the last few years, films such as “Rang De Basanti”, “Rock On” and “Wake Up Sid” have been winning over urban multiplex audiences with their restraint and, at the other end of the spectrum, the soppy melodramatic “Saawariya”s and “Kambakkht Ishq”s have bombed at the box office.

Catering for whom?

As Karan Johar recently discovered, the twain don't seem to meet. Though the melodrama in the first half of “My Name is Khan” was muted to appeal to the West, the contrasting soppy second half came under fire from critics all over the world. But when the film collects 17 out of its 39 million dollars from the West, who do you really make a film for?

“My Name is Khan” epitomises that conflict with its half-hearted change in sensibility.

When Karan Johar brainstormed for titles for his “Stepmom” remake on Twitter, he realised that any Hindi sounding title made his film sound like a soap opera about motherhood.

More recently, the Roshans and Anurag Basu met with extremely polarised reviews to “Kites”. While most Indian critics and audiences thought it was too slow, the foreign press remained in awe of the genre-bender, applauding it for changing gears from drama to comedy to action to tragedy with its song and dance narrative and compared it with the flamboyance of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

For long, melodrama has been the staple of Indian cinema but with urban centres getting more and more used to Hollywood and international fare, the tolerance levels for mush and corn has gone down significantly. Once celebrated for its sense of drama, Karan Johar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali today feel the heat from the new age brand of restraint from the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Farhan Akhtar and Nagesh Kukunoor.

While multiple-Oscar winning “Slumdog Millionaire” faced no such problem despite its in-your-face drama (apart from a segment of media calling it poverty porn), “Kites” has met with scathing reviews at home for being overly dramatic, cheesy and predictable. For the record, “Kites” collected Rs. 65 crore worldwide (with Rs. 30.5 crore at home) in its opening weekend. Now consider that the film was released in 2000 screens in India and 500 screens abroad. A more West-friendly shorter 90-minute-version of the 130-minute film presented by Brett Ratner, minus the song and dance, will release this week.

Though packaging the Indian form of drama with its song and dance glory may not always work (as “Kambakkht Ishq” demonstrated), it surely has altered the sense of morality depicted in Hindi cinema over the years.

While Karan Johar makes no big deal out of his hero marrying a divorced single mother of a teenager, Anurag Basu shows the bad guy going to bed with the heroine of the film without really making it seem like a big deal. Chastity that used to be a prerequisite for the heroine is not sacred anymore (maybe it does not apply to Barbara Mori because she's Mexican) as filmmakers attempt to keep it real for the West.

As Hindi cinema makes this jump from drama to restraint, where does that leave the rural Indian audience? Who is going to give them their monthly dose of a “Gadar” and “Wanted”, once filmmakers decide there's more money abroad?

And with the growing sensibility disconnect between city-based critics and the audience from the heartland of India, what really defines a good movie? Something that reaches out to a segment of audiences that bring in more money or something that entertains of a nation of hungry, cinema-crazy fans who have been born and brought up with melodrama.

With the global market opening up, Indian cinema is at the cusp of significant change — in form and content.