Aaj Ka Roadshow
Back in the 20th century, when India had villages, there were several popular films that showed villages in a contemporary light. Well, somewhat. While Indian cinema was urban from its very beginning, there were several films of immense popularity that were, in many ways, a statement of the presence of the Indian village. In these films, the protagonist was often a villager or a city-bred male who headed out to the village. For the city folk, these films were reminders. Villainising moneylenders that cheated farmers, calling for land reforms and reminding us that agriculture was at the monsoon's mercy, these films told us that there was an India that lived in the villages. There was the image of a Dilip Kumar racing his horse cart with a motorbus to save his livelihood. Of a Nargis personifying the notion of the mother and the motherland. Of a Manoj Kumar, plough on his shoulder, wearing his patriotism on his sleeve. Of a Sunil Dutt galloping on horseback to avenge himself, defiant in the ravines of Chambal. Of a Raj Kapoor driving a bullock cart, singing songs that one associated intrinsically with cart drivers without ever having met one.
Then, sometime close to the turn of the century, the village disappeared from major popular films. Just like that. It now appears in the mandatory dance number in which the youthful lead couple gyrate in rippling fields along with a dance troupe suitably accessorised for an ethnic romp. The pastoral retreat ends with the dance number, and they return to their courtship in college corridors. The last big banner village-set film to achieve commercial success was Lagaan, and it relied heavily on the drama of a very urban device -- a cricket match. The village does appear sometimes as the birthing ground of the protagonist, but even this is not too common now. And then there are the exotic villages -- remember Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or Raja Babu -- which enact the farmhouse fantasies of the neo-rich. This kind of depiction of villages is nothing new. But now, this is the dominant representation. The village is definitely the Other.
This real Other India also watches films. Films that people in the cities don't see, don't even know about. Pejoratively called B grade films -- on account of subjects addressed, the lack of glamorous stars, low budgets and a small-but-assured recovery of money -- these films are considered too raw. Jagged edges intact, they head straight for the rural market. These include Hindu mythological dramas and soft porn. Ramesh Sippy, director of the 1975 Sholay, perhaps India's the most celebrated film, points out that the rural market has now gone to regional language cinema. Why? Sippy says the big filmmakers, like people in any other business, are gunning for the high-end customer who has the money to pay upwards of Rs 100 at a multiplex cinema hall. "It is easier to recover money from a film if it runs at a multiplex for a few weeks. The ticket rates in small towns and villages are much lower." There are no quality films for the B and C grade market, another director points out.
So you now have a new genre -- the multiplex film. What is it? Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide that keeps a tab on the film industry, gives the examples of Kal Ho Na Ho or Munna Bhaiyya mbbs. "The rural has slowly but surely been weeded out of Bollywood films," says Anupama Chopra, journalist and author who knows the film industry from the inside. "The current generation of young filmmakers are mostly second-generation film guys who have grown up in big cities. For them, the rural is a foreign land and they can only make films about what they know or what they are interested in." One of the darlings of the multiplex box office, Karan Johar, says he has never thought about making a film set in a village. "I started out young as a film maker. I grew up in the city and my favourite filmmakers were Raj Kapoor (his later films like Bobby) and Yash Chopra. I haven't travelled in villages and I don't experiment with what I don't know," says Johar, 30, whose Kuch Kuch Hota Hai became a sensation in 1996. So what is the audience that the new lot has in mind? "People all over, right from the small towns to Manhattan, USA. I can make an entertaining film for all of them," says Shaan Ali, 28, a filmmaker in Mumbai who has just begun his second film. The overseas market has become more important that ever before. Traditionally, Indian films did well in the Soviet Union and the Central Asian states. But now, this has expanded to Northern and Eastern Africa, West Asia, Southeast Asia, Mauritius and even the US and UK markets are very important for the filmmaker. The social profile of the NRI film viewer is the same as that of the multiplex regular in an Indian city.
Sippy says the multiplex has had a positive impact on small budget filmmakers who make films for an urban audience. Ashis Nandy, eminent sociologist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says that for the first time he is seeing films made primarily for the urban audience: "Look at the films like Kaante and Jhankar Beats. You wouldn't have seen them earlier."
David Dhawan, director, says the subjects depicted in today's films are too shallow. "Village-based subjects had a lot of emotion attached to them. That's where the roots of our identity lie," he says. But he acknowledges that filmmakers are not attempting village settings because they are scared. Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide which keeps a tab on the film industry, says it is much cheaper to make a film in the Mumbai studios than on location. Most Mumbai directors say creating a visual spectacle is very important to succeed commercially. To create a visual spectacle in a village is much more difficult and expensive. But very few directors want to take the risk and deviate from the formula. Legendary actor Naseeruddin Shah is deeply cynical: "To the best of my knowledge, [popular cinema] serves two functions, namely, to keep the audience opiated and to garner vast sums of money for those involved in it. End of discussion. Issues? What the hell are they?"