by Gautam Bhaskaran
When the late actress and onetime lover of Raj Kapoor, Nargis, famously quipped in Parliament that directors like Satyajit Ray were merely interested in selling India’s poverty outside its shores, she was not exactly stating a fact as she was making a prediction.
Admittedly Ray did win his first ever recognition abroad – at Cannes in 1956 with his Pather Panchali, the Song of the Little Road which catapulted India to a great cinematic height. But the film was by no stretch of imagination a glorification or celebration of poverty. It was indeed poetry on people. Poor people, yes, but men and women who did not toss about their dignity or self-respect.
But sadly and tragically, Ray’s brilliant cinema somehow got synonymous with India’s poverty. The celebration of his great work meant a celebration of the country’s penury and deprivation. Worse, the West in particular began to look at any Indian movie on the poor as some kind of yardstick to measure cinematic excellence.
A case in point is Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won several Oscars some years ago. If it had made its lead stars Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto extremely happy (even launching her career), there were many who were dismayed by this “success”. And these were not just Indians. The Greek master, Theo Angelopoulos, who died in a tragic road accident last January, once told me that he had walked out of Slumdog Millionaire just 15 minutes after the film begun. “I could not stand the way it was celebrating poverty," he quipped.
Unfortunately, it is this kind of bleak and depressing fare from or about India that gets picked by movie festivals the world over. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival, whose sixth edition just closed, screened two India movies which were not exactly bright or cheery.
Manjeet Singh’s debut feature, Mumbai Cha Raja, has teenage Rahul as its hero. His drunken father and long suffering step-mother could hardly be expected to make a happy home for the boy. He drops out of school, befriends a younger boy who sells balloons, and together they set out to a lead a life of pranks, deriving from these what can be seen as harmless fun. Often battered by his father, though loved and cared by his stepmother, Rahul roams the streets of Mumbai’s slums, where money is the mantra and crime a way of life. Rahul and balloon-seller Arbaz help Singh explore this black underbelly during one rain-soaked Ganesh festival. Though Singh does infuse into his movie moments of joy, Mumbai Cha Raja is overwhelmingly bleak with the camera straining itself to catch the grime and dirt.
Kamal’s I.D. is yet another work which peeps into an India that appears joyless. His protagonist, a young woman, does not live in a slum like Rahul, but is drawn into one in Mumbai when a man who comes to her upper middle-class home one afternoon to paint one of her walls collapses and later dies. The rest of the film’s narrative talks about how the hapless woman finds herself trapped in some of the trickiest situations. Having forced by circumstances to take responsibility for the man, she sets on a frustrating journey into the city’s slums, hoping to find some clue about his identity. Which eludes her till the end.
If the movie often borders on the unbelievable, Kamal seems besotted by the slums, whose ugliness is captured in its most distasteful form. Almost microscopically. The camera wanders into some of the dirtiest lanes and bylanes of Mumbai’s slums, pausing and pondering over mountains of garbage, and stopping by gut-wrenching gutters. And our smart heroine marches merrily along these paths peppered with slush and slime, an iPhone in hand and grit on her face.
I think it has become increasingly fashionable for young Indian helmers to create a cinema that captures the seedier side of the country. And, lately, the inspiration has been Boyle and his slumming. What is more, there is growing belief that the West and the innumerable festivals are only interested in seeing an India that is wallowing in waste, and India where crime rules…
Do Indian directors seriously believe that it is only the country’s grime that has the power to appeal to an international audience? Do they think that movies like Slumdog Millionaire – and now Mumbai Cha Raja and ID – alone can get noticed in the world arena? And, well, fetch prizes. I have my doubts.
If Ray’s Pather Panchali made a mark, so did his Charulata and many of his other works. And poverty was not their theme.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades and may be contacted at email@example.com)