New Wave Once Again

But this new cinema is strikingly separate, born out of starkly different circumstances, still unfolding, still struggling…

Aakshi Magazine Delhi 

In Saeed Mirza’s 1978 film Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan, the alienated protagonist discovers that his Marxist revolutionary friend is not any more sorted than he is. He is as lost. This happens when the friend, played by a young Om Puri, tells him, Ek aise duniya jahaan mere sochna aur karne mein bahut farak hai (I live in a world where there is a dichotomy between what I think and how I live).”

The ‘New Wave’ films made in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly funded by the government, were preoccupied with questions of change and social responsibility. Today, what some call another New Wave in the Hindi film industry is around us, with its differing questions and concerns.

Between the time when Arvind Desai was made and now, the language of protest which was available to the middle class has changed. Left ideas are no longer dominant among the elite. The idea of protest itself has made way for other things. “Hum hai naye…andaz kyun ho purana (We are of the new world/ we will move beyond the ways of the old)” sang the three young, urban, very upper-middle class men in Dil Chahta Hai, celebrating everything that a socialist middle class had been uncomfortable with. Film scholar Ravikant feels that, in today’s films, “we do not know who the enemy is  — it could be the politician, the corporation or the media. The earlier naiveté or conviction of idealism no longer exists.”

The opening up of the economy had meant mobility and comfort for those who were on the right side of the qualifying line, dictated by their upwardly mobile location society. Mainstream Hindi cinema responded with a set of diaspora-related, NRI films in the 1990s. Today’s New Wave, says Mihir Pandya, a PhD scholar at the University of Delhi working on cities and cinema, “is a reaction to those NRI films”.

“Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali and me  — we are all outsiders,” says Dibakar Banerjee, “as opposed to those who come from film-entrenched families.” This outsider-ness from Mumbai is reflected in the stories that they tell. Today, Pandya finds a shift from “the national to the regional”. Linking it to the growth in identity politics, he feels that in cinema, too, the grand narrative has given way to stories of specific places.

Each of these ‘outsider’ filmmakers, who have now established a space within the Bombay film industry, has a unique voice and world view. Thus, while Ali has a non-moralistic and, simultaneously, an everyday take on love, one of the concerns for Kashyap seems to be pushing the boundaries of morality in a repressive society. Vishal Bhardwaj narrated non-city stories in his first two brilliant films  — Maqbool and Omkara  — both of which were adaptations of Shakespeare, bringing with each a different spoken language. Tigmanshu Dhulia has explored similar territory in his films but his understanding of feudalism, power and politics seems to go deeper. And Banerjee mixes his sharp observation with a critique of the times we live in, stories revolving around aspirations and class.

Ravikant calls these films a reflection of “cultural confidence” while Pandya says, “They can tell their own stories.” Thus, Dhulia’s acclaimed Haasil builds on an intimate knowledge of the confining world of small-town Allahabad, with its preoccupation with honour, set at the same time within the world of campus politics. Banerjee’s Khosla ka Ghosla, revolves around the anxieties, struggles, aspirations and insecurities of the middle class Khoslas living in Delhi. The father’s tussle with his son, who is embarrassed by him for he has grown up to be more ‘sophisticated’, hit a chord with those who had experienced upward mobility in the post-liberalisation years and given their children what they could not have while growing up. 

One strand of the 1970-80s New Wave was preoccupied with a concern for the remnants of feudalism, inequality and injustice, coupled with what seems like ‘guilt’ at not being able to bridge the gap. They were critical of the modernity of the generation they were a part of. In Ankur, not only does the zamindar’s son repeat history by sexually ‘using’ the Dalit woman who works in his house, just like his father, he also treats the woman and her poor husband with abject cruelty.

The peasant or the worker, as imagined in those films, today does not exist in the same way in the imagination of these new films. Of course, he is more obviously present in films like Peepli Live, Barah Aana and the recently released Shanghai, films that remain rare. But, he is also present in other, different ways. The subjects of these films are more assertive. Hence, in a film like Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, the ‘gangster’, Babloo, understands his position in society which keeps him down but at the same time, wants to change this. In a scene in the film, when a marriage invitation for his ‘Saheb’ is not extended to him, he gets angry and beats up the person who has come with the invite. In Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, what Lucky really wants to ‘steal’ is respect and acceptance, something which has always been elusive and beyond his grasp.

The ease with which language and specific places find a place in today’s films is very different, feels filmmaker Shyam Benegal, from the time when he and others were making films. He observes that, back in the 1980s, it was not easy for them to make films in local dialects because the pressure to tell a ‘universal’ story was immense. Today’s filmmakers do not have to face that struggle anymore, he
points out.

It is a change in the broadcasting concept which, Benegal feels, has made the diversity of films possible. Today, films are downloadable, can be released on the internet and there is a huge media which is ready to showcase them. With the multiplex, different kinds of films find a space to be screened. This is unlike the 1980s when, Benegal says, many films found it difficult to even get released. “Bhumika was given an ‘Adult’ certificate when it was released and this meant that women, who would be its primary audience, would not watch the film. It was only by word of mouth, in the third release, that it picked up and people got to watch it.”

This leads us to a significant distinction in the space that the two New Waves occupy  — funding. “The same corporates who are funding big films, also fund us,” says Banerjee. This means that a Shanghai will compete with a Rowdy Rathore, unlike the earlier New Wave films which were forced to be on the fringes.

The competition with more commercial, big-budget films makes it “a more level playing field but also harder,” according to Banerjee. Does this affect the film that one wants to make as opposed to the film one may be pressurised into making under commercial and market constraints? “Independence is, at its best, a negotiated price. You decide what you are willing to give up to get what you want,” he says. On being asked if his script has ever been tampered with, his reply is “never”. 

Having made a film like Peepli Live which goes against the logic of the times we live in, director Anusha Rizvi’s perceptions come as a surprise. “It is not easier today to make an unconventional film even though the audiences want to see them... Forget not being released, many films don’t even get made!” she says. “We have not matched the original New Wave; they were making films in harder times.”

Rizvi is among those who are more sceptical about the multiplex and corporate funding. She calls the multiplex a “double-edged sword”: “While, initially, it did help in smaller films being shown, in the last few years, the trend has been towards a gentrification of the movie-going audience based on questions of who is allowed and not allowed inside the cinema hall. The multiplex allows a certain class to entertain itself.”

Theatre person Salim Arif calls it an “SEZ of entertainment” while Pandya feels that the “mass medium” nature of Hindi cinema is changing.

At a recent held seminar in Delhi on Hindi cinema, it became clear that finding funds for films remains a struggle. Sanjay Chauhan, the scriptwriter of Saheb Biwi aur Gangster and Pan Singh Tomar, explained that after Pan Singh Tomar was made, the film remained stuck for four years because it was not considered commercially viable. “Irfan Khan would get drunk, call me and cry on the phone, asking what happened to the film? He had given his life to the role,” he said. The film was released finally after Dhulia’s Saheb Biwi aur Gangster became a hit and went on to do very well at the box office.

Even Gangs of Wasseypur, said Kashyap, found itself without a studio’s support just two days before the shooting was to begin, simply because there were no ‘stars’ in the film. Kashyap’s Gulal too was released only after his Dev D became a hit. And Swara Bhaskar, an actor in Mumbai’s film industry, said that out of the seven films she has done, more than half have not been released.

This is the reason, Pandya feels, that filmmakers like Kashyap turn producers and fund other films. It is the contradictions within the system that has made their existence possible in the first place which today's film-makers have to grapple with. Arvind Desai’s professor friend had told him that “Insaan shayad yehi kar sakta hai, sahi sawal pooch sakta hai (Maybe all that a human being can do is ask the right questions).” But in Banerjee’s Shanghai, even when IAS officer Krishnan might have cracked the correct question, it does not help. He only negotiates with the system, finding a ‘lesser evil’ way out though that too eventually does not help change the situation for those who are worst affected by the proposed SEZ. Perhaps one couldn’t find a better representation of the predicaments of today’s New Wave.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2012