Hollywood vs Bollywood: Director's dissonance

Vinayak Chakravorty

Apr 26, 2019 13:53:34 IST

Cinema, Hollywood maestro Martin Scorsese once said, is just “a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”. At 76, the man who reimagined the gangster flick, is set to return with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a new crime saga, The Irishman. In his 52-year-old career, Scorsese is yet to make an irrelevant film despite adhering to a primarily entertainment idiom. He should know what needs to be in the frame.

Around the time Scorsese made his feature directorial debut with the intense drama, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, in 1967, back home actor Manoj Kumar was launching his career as a director with Upkar.

Beyond the fact that they started out as filmmakers in the same year, the cinematic graphs of Scorsese and Manoj Kumar don’t compare — except perhaps that these filmmakers define a specific popular genre. If Scorsese’s cult oeuvre is a template for crime drama, Manoj Kumar set the ground rules for played-to-gallery pop patriotism in Hindi mainstream. Any other comparison would be illogical, considering the vastly different socio-cultural mass base they catered to and their sheer difference in quality.

Varying audience demographic can, however, only explain quality disparity. Looking at the fact that Scorsese is going strong even after half a century in business, while most Bollywood filmmakers of his generation who are still alive have long faded away, you can’t help mulling over a significant question: What is it about most iconic mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood that they manage adapting to changing tastes and survive time, while our top filmmakers start seeming dated and run out of ideas after courting success for a while?

The notion is not limited to Scorsese and his parallel filmmakers in Bollywood. Take any random example. Quentin Tarantino is about to complete his third decade in Hollywood and James Cameron has completed 37 years. Both are still at the top. Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood releases in July, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. Cameron has four Avatar sequels lined up till 2025.

Steven Spielberg’s career will soon enter its 50th year, and is only getting stronger. He has directorial projects lined up till 2021 besides nearly 20 production and co-production assignments, and half-a-dozen TV projects.

Compare that to Bollywood filmmakers who managed to scale the peak in corresponding decades. Think Ramesh Sippy, Subhash Ghai, N. Chandra or JP Dutta — commercial titans who have all but disappeared.

Of course, there could be the odd health issue to explain a slow-down. Plus, burn-outs happen in Hollywood, too. Brian De Palma, maker of such pathbreaking fare as Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables, has been struggling for long to make a film worth remembering. He will hope to score with his upcoming thriller, Domino. The late Jonathan Demme, billed the Next Big Thing after Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, never lived up to the tag. George Lucas couldn’t survive pressures of expectations after the first Star Wars film of 1977.

Conversely, Bollywood could name a Raj Kapoor or a Yash Chopra as showmen who stayed relevant till the end.

These, though, are exceptions. Overall, big filmmakers in Bollywood simply buckle under generational shift. Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee died after bitter last days following glorious stints. Aditya Chopra, Sooraj Barjatya and Mahesh Bhatt shifted focus to producing films after a point. Pathbreaking minds as Raj Khosla, Kundan Shah, Shekhar Kapur, Ram Gopal Varma and Rajkumar Santoshi became dulled creatively as well as commercially over time, even as out-and-out commercial biggies such as KC Bokadia, Abbas-Mustan and Umesh Mehra could not get their script right beyond a point.

The problem is obvious: Bollywood, a world ruled by star system but with no creative infrastructure in place, cannot be an ideal platform for directors.

The Hindi filmmaking process still does not want to accept the fact that stars age and, with them, the fads that create their stardom fade. In Bollywood’s camp-dominated milieu, a director normally hitches his fate with the image of a specific star or stars. Hence, a Ramesh Sippy or Prakash Mehra, whose glory days were defined by Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic angry young man, cannot adjust to the image of Shah Rukh Khan (Zamana Deewana in 1995) or Anil Kapoor (Zindagi Ek Juaa in 1992) respectively.

Sippy, maker of the classic blockbuster Sholay, in fact tried going with the realism fad recently, with a crossover effort titled Shimla Mirchi. The film starring Hema Malini and Rajkummar Rao was meant to mark a departure from his trademark larger-than-life style. It is struggling to find a release for four years now.

The pattern follows every movie mogul. Subhash Ghai, who virtually crafted the eighties blockbuster, never had a hit after Pardes in 1997 and shifted focus to his film school. N. Chandra, the man who redefined Bollywood violence with dark realism in the eighties with Ankush, Pratighaat and Tezaab, is out of work for 10 years now. JP Dutta tried repeating his trademark over-the-top war drama formula with Paltan recently. It worked spectacularly for Sunny Deol in Border two decades ago, but looked dated in Paltan, which flopped despite the ongoing patriotism wave.

It’s all about hits and flops at the end of the day, in Hollywood as well as Bollywood. The difference is in Hollywood a filmmaker is gest to mint money using an organised set-up that the studio culture effectively puts in place. A professional system ensures due importance to script and direction, and not just glamour.

Most of Bollywood, in contrast, still follows a mom-and-pop shop model, although the scene is changing. The success of production houses like Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions, and the entry of Hollywood banners has lately ensured filmmaking is not just a scriptless celebration of star power anymore.

In the Hollywood vs Bollywood tussle, Bollywood’s next generation of directors would raise a toast to that, hoping to inherit a platform that lets them survive time.

Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 16:38:47 IST

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