Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cow-belt In Hindi Films-North by Northwest

Of late many talented directors have emerged in Hindi Cinema whose sensibilities were honed in North Indian Cities. UP Delhi and Bihar have been crucible of many intense emotions which have a deeply local texture and need to portrayed in a very localized idiom. It needs to be said that Hindi Cinema is perhaps only major cinema of the world whose headquarter is not in the region where its language is mother tongue for the majority. Bombay (or to be more correct, Mumbai) is a natural home for Marathi cinema but for Hindi cinema it is just a cultural-historical accident. Though, It has served Hindi Cinema very well as it could utilize talent from all over the subcontinent. Dilip Kumar, Kapoors, Devanand, Sunil Dutt, Rekha, Hema, Gulzaar, Sahir, Bangali Directors etc were not exactly product of Ganga Jamuna irrigated cow-belt. This bounty enriched Hindi Cinema and made it truly cosmopolitan. However, there was a cost too.

Cow-belt sensibilities were not adequately represented. Many will say that portrayal of a village in early movies, films like Garam Hawa, muslim cultural pieces based in Aligarh or Lucknow were true to the spirit of the region. May be so or may be not. This may well be an idealized version of exotica that this region was taken to be. More so urban sensibility was stubborn in being ‘Bombiya’. A Bareilly or a Lucknow was relegated to songs. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan were sorely under-represented in the industry. Many, again, may take names of Kamal Amrohi, Shakeel Badayuni or even Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha. Important and great these names are but they are too few and far between. Hindi Cinema depended on this region for market but due to cultural and, more importantly, due to geographic reasons genuine representation of little traditions or sub regional differentiations from this region were   smothered by  an imagined great tradition that represented all without expressing anything in depth of truly localized milieu. Things remain the same as universalizing tendencies are beating everything in to one big reality. However, good thing about history is that it always nurtures countervailing forces too. When we feared that everything will go Hollywood, we see flourishing new sensibilities which give vent to unexplored vistas, some of them very authentic. While we don’t see shifting of Bombay film industry to Lucknow or Bhopal, we see many home-grown hindi wallas giving strong output.
Anurag Kashyap has given very realistic Bihar in Gangs of Wasseypur and Delhi and Punjab in DevD. Tigmashu Dhulia is true to the local cultural connotations in Haasil and Paan Singh Tomar. He displayed his grasp over the atmospherics in the Sahib Bibi and Gangster series too. Dibakar Bannerjee talked of very authentic Delhi in Khosla Ka Ghosla and Lucky oye Lucky. Jolly LLB by Subhash Kapoor is possible only by someone who has seen lower judiciary from very close quarters
All these directors have local background in North India and have resorted to their memory bank. For example Tigmanshu Dhulia clearly revisited his Allahabad University days when he was portraying student politics in a tier two town. Dibakar Bannerjee in an interaction at Goa Film festival explained how sounds and whispers of Delhi creep in his stories. These directors are good at using the characters they have seen for the context of their screenplay. For example, Shanghai is not a Delhi Movie but DU educated Dibakar has enough IAS friends to base the character of Abhay Deol. Srivatsa Krishna the IAS topper of his batch even sang Vishnu Sahastranaam in the movie.

Their success lies in getting the tone right while still avoiding the documentary trap. Paan Singh Tomar is as realistic as Dholpur Murena can get. Language, local bravado of petty people, rules of hierarchy among relatives and local musclemen and above all ways of dealing with fear in general and authority in particular give the flavour of local culture. The journalist in Paan Singh Tomar is quintessential struggling stringer with all his insecurities and ambitions. These directors find characters and spend time on them. Once established, reactions and mannerisms of these characters take the story forward. Wassypur has many memorable characters both main and peripheral whose prototype (not necessarily the brutal violent streak) have been experienced by the director or his team. They are able to cull out the interesting aspects of these characters, cultural specificities and particularities of local flavour and deploy them for creating a gripping experience on celluloid. Here beauty is created by unflinching attitude towards the mundane and often ugly side of reality. Here ‘art of sweet excesses’ is not smelling sweet still it is entertaining. However this is not the only way of deploying reality. Creating beautiful frames can also serves the purpose provided beauty is not used to create distance from the rawness of the experience.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra does that when he creates mesmerizing Delhi in beautiful frames of Rang De Basanti and a different set of Delhiwallas in Delhi-6. Heightening the beauty in a particular context may be even needed to convey the peculiarities of that context. A creative person is carrying out a valid aesthetic task when he framing beauty by harnessing the technical possibilities of his medium. Rows of tube lights lining Dhabas in outer Delhi in   Rang De Basanti may be play of cinematography but fully convey the gaiety that informs such a place. It is not much a question of beautiful of murky portrayal. If you choose to convey the beautiful subject it will be good looking without becoming plastic. Similarly violent, loud and dirty depictions need not look good. Either will work if primacy of story is kept intact. DevD’s Paharganj may look more enticing than Times Square but it never forgets its task of conveying the intended mood- cravings and confusions of an alcoholic.

In the end, I am not saying that there never was genuine representation of North Indian milieu in Hindi Movies. However, I think with growing number of directors from the region the portrayal is finding its dramatic possibilities in a more natural way. 

-Dhiraj Singh

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