The Decline of Indian Cinema

in 9th International Film Festival of Kerala

by K.N.T. Sastry

Four Indian films in the competition, one of which has been touted by the Indian film industry as its Oscar entry this year, and another 15 films in Indian Cinema section as well as the local language of Kerala, Malayalam, raised hopes of a feast in Kerala. Unfortunately every film that we have seen have only presented disappointment writ large on our faces. This is evident in the fact that the main jury, the FIPRESCI Jury, and the NETPAC Jury have chosen only non-Indian films for the awards.

What indeed has gone wrong with our films? Take for example the competition section – all the four Indian films reflect an un-Indian like ambience. The reason is not far to seek. With the mainstream genre of films having captured the imagination of international audiences, the small budget parallel filmmakers, who have completely lost the support of the Government both in New Delhi and at the States level, are finding ways to impress international funds and investors, in the process churning out unimaginable fiction, or better still merely adapt the English plays. At a Distance (Malayalam, India; original name; Akale), is a mere adaptation of the English play The Glass Menagerie, with a complete absence of Indian ethos. The argument that it talks about a Christian household, hence English, does not hold water, as in India, in every region. Despite religious affiliations, Muslims, and Christians continue to speak in the regional languages, and if one tends to listen to the argument that the film portrays an elite family, it is time we refuse to be lured into these non-issues. While the theme thus stands ostracized, the form to couch this content is also very disappointing. A usual bouquet of songs, loud dialogues, and overacted performances pull this film into nothingness. The illusory atmosphere here does not help to create a representative picture of family life in an Indian context.

The Marathi film, The Sacred Grove (Devrai), is about a schizophrenia victim, getting back to the clichéd usage of memories coming out on the screen in a very jarring manner. Filmmakers like Wong Kor Wai, whose 2046 was the inaugural film at the Kerala festival this year, have experimented with this form in a very appealing manner, while the Marathi film merely cuts sequences in an amateurish way, and is very predictable. Most depressing is the fact that Atul Kulkarni’s acting (which incidentally received an award for “Technical excellence as an actor”), was most unimaginative, amateurish, and who is seen in some sequences looking into the camera as if asking what he should do next. The sick mentally challenged person is always clean shaven, donning unwrinkled clothes, with a very sterile, immobile facial expression. Surely mentally challenged are the ones subjected to a variety of convulsions, which were not visible in the actor’s expressions. Anyway, this was very disappointing fare from directors Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar. In the same genre as At a distance, Hindi film The Uninvited (Sau Jhooth Ek Sach) has adapted JB. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls, but is nothing if not celluloid theatre, sans cinematic language or cinematic flourishes. The only innovation, questionably attributed to the so-called liking of the Malayalam language audience, was the hero of their screen playing a Hindi role, mouthing the dialogue through somebody else’s voice. But here again, the director Bappaditya Roy has used so much of the English language, one wonders why call this an English film. Isn’t Hindi sufficient enough to convey these to the audience? Pampering the illusory international audience through such English presentations is a wasteful exercise, especially in view of the fact that we are losing our own native flavor and ethnicity.

The fourth film in Indian competition section, A Breath (Shwaas), is the most disappointing Indian fare in the competition. With cinematography, editing and acting taking a backseat, the film tries to tell the story, about a cancer affected boy who is going to be blind, despite a life-saving surgery, and subsequently jerk the tears of the audience. The film deals with an unimaginative handling of the subject. Surely Indian doctors haven’t become the Great Samaritans overnight, and neither have the hospitals become swanky. Maybe this may be true of the elite class (there we go – again, elite!), but the story is talking about a villager, who has no place even to stay in the urban environs. The tears may fall, the audience may be empathic towards the characters, but where is cinema…..? The craft is missing. The hype that is being created by language media, to somehow “Sell” this film to an international audience so that it gets into the Oscars, is mind-boggling, as even a cricket star’s (sic) bat has been roped in to be auctioned to find money to woo the Oscars. A good film needs no excessive budget to receive accolades.

In the Malayalam front – the local Kerala language – which is known to be a vibrant filmmakers’ paradise, this year’s crop has been disappointing. The Section opened in the Festival with Kazhcha (no English name available), which had all the ‘ingredients’ of mainstream genre, and the local press had kicked up a row as to why this film was not included in the Competition Section, though in the first twenty minutes of the film, save for the histrionics of a popular actor and two songs, the story failed to move the audience. Another bad entry was A Snowy Girl (Manjupoloru Pennkutty), about a step-father’s attempts to molest his daughter, and young boys and girls of 15 years mouthing some of the most unreasonable dialogues. The film is again replete with lots of English thrown into the dialogues, and hopes unimaginatively to make it big on international circuit. Salvation (Moksham) directed by Rajeev Nath, and photographed by Alagappan, has its story based in Kazakhstan . A woman, whose corpse is being flown to India , has to stop for undefined days in Kazakhstan , enrooted, and is forced to get the death rituals performed on alien soil. Though at times cliché-ridden, I felt that this film, along with beautiful camera work by Sunny Joseph in Boat Water , (Yanam), were the only face savers of the Malayalam section in the festival this year.

Indian Cinema today has many disappointments in store and Gujarat-bashing continues to be a favorite subject here. Amu (English, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi; dir: Shonali Bose), is the most pretentious film that one can imagine. An Americanized Indian girl returns to India , of all the things, to explore why her dear ones were killed in the 1984 riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The film fails to establish anything new, either cinematically and thematically. Cliché-ridden to the core, the film fails to hold the audience interest, despite the songs. Hari Om (English title), meanwhile, is an elitist (called as cross-over) film by a slick ad-film maker. The director Bharatbala seems to be promoting the Rajasthan region in this film in the guise of telling a story. Finally, Truly Yours (Iti Srikanta), is among a bunch of other films that failed to rake up interest.

This critique begs the question: ‘whither our Indian Cinema?’ Does it mean the absence of a handful of directors from Kannada, Bengali, and the Malayalam Language has meant a virtual decline of meaningful cinema, and how long should the Indian cinema depend upon its masters? The young talent is missing simply because there is no one to nurture. With the Government sponsored International Film Festival of India having been given to Bollywood – the genre film – on a platter, which witnessed carnivals, premiers of genre films of mainstream during the festival, the Kerala Film Festival has tried to focus on the available serious cinema. But then, if there is nothing to buy off the shelves, who is to blame?

K.N.T. Sastry