Perhaps it is time to give a desi twist to typically English idioms. The three swallows at summer’s fag end make you hopeful for a shower of good films, underlining a self-evident truth: looking at reality with fresh eyes not only rejuvenates but provokes us to ask new questions. Three films, each outstanding in its own way, validate the vision of producers who back unusual stories that may be box-office risks but need to be told. They are the Canadian documentary The World Before Her, Filmistaan and City Lights – the last two are welcome additions to our recent spurt of brave cinema.
Celebrating Bollywood’s power to bring Indians and Pakistanis together is more acceptable to niche audiences (expected to be more discerning) than the bleak reality of yet another hopeful immigrant defeated by the maximum city’s implacable cruelty. It is interesting how both Hansal Mehta’s City Lights and Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan trace the Bombay-Rajasthan journey. In the first, the lead couple comes from small town Rajasthan to eke out a livelihood in Mumbai while the latter takes its ebullient, irritatingly bouncy would-be actor to Rajasthan’s desert, close to the Pakistan border. City Lights inevitably ends in tragedy while Filmistaan positively beams with the Bollywood-enabled feel good factor. Mumbai, physically and as an idea that nourishes and destroys dreams with seeming impartiality, is an integral part of the narrative. Our cinema has not yet built up a library of outstanding films that describe and dissect, celebrate, damn and mourn Mumbai in all its moods and colours as Hollywood has created and recreated New York.
City Lights is an acknowledged adaptation – it is so good to see credit given where it is due – of the BAFTA nominee British-Filipino Metro Manila. Hansal Mehta has now become a masterful raconteur of Bombay stories. If Shahid, which won him and his lead actor Rajkummar Rao National Awards for Best Director and Actor, was exceptional for its economy of narration that said everything that needed to be said with eloquent brevity, City Lights has a more leisurely pace that quickens into thriller mode with the ease of a race track driver. Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao, brilliantly understated as ever), his wife Rakhi (newcomer Patralekha is a camera natural) and little daughter come to the city with nothing more concrete than an acquaintance’s phone number (it’s not answered) and poignant optimism. It is heartrending to see how easily they are cheated of their savings by a conman and end up sleeping on the street. Good Samaritans do exist in the midst of heartlessness. Rakhi wills herself to move her reluctant limbs as a bar dancer while Deepak finally lands a job in a security agency that is a minefield of opportunity, danger and deceit.
Hansal Mehta is on sure ground when it comes to the changing equations between Deepak and Rakhi: insecurity, anxiety, a sense of imminent danger fray the relationship that was so strong when we see them first. Mehta and his actors don’t play coy when it comes to sex between the young couple. It is portrayed with warm spontaneity. City Lights is not so assured when action takes over and the thriller comes with an expected twist. The director uses beautifully composed songs to anchor the narrative into the emotional bedrock, a given fact considering that Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt are associated with the film. Music is their forte. The melancholic ballads really don’t jell with the hard-driving (literally and figuratively) thriller that doesn’t quite make it to noir grade.
There is a narrative disconnect here, unlike Shahid where the personal story blends so effectively with the political, ideology sharp shoots its precise points against the cut and thrust of courtroom arguments. This is how courts really work, without the claptrap of highfalutin rhetoric we have been bombarded with through decades. The only other film that exposed this aspect of our judiciary was Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! and Jolly LLB to an extent. Shahid is in rare good company. Despite the caveats, City Lights is searingly honest at its core.
I have a few problems with Filmistaan, though I did enjoy most of it and applaud its laudable intention to foster Indo-Pakistani friendship with a heart-warming story minus excess sentimentality. We have had enough xenophobia and jingoistic ranting to sustain zealots for generations.
The simple story of the Indian AD of an American documentary crew being mistakenly kidnapped by Islamic fundamentals across the border and his bonding with a Pakistani who pirates Bollywood movies is a sure-fire winner. After all, how can we dislike people who love our movies right from sappy Maine Pyar Kiya to Sunny Deol’s dhai kilo haath? (a dialogue from the action flick Ghayal) In Sharim Hashmi, who plays goofy Sunny Arora (a walking dialogue audio of the Salman Khan hit), and Inaamulhaq breathing life into the enterprising Aftaab, director Nitin Kakkar has found the right actors for a cross-border bromance.
Kakkar brings home to us the startling similarity of landscape, food and basic lifestyle of people divided by the Partition. He spouts the oft-repeated pious hope of how a combined India-Pakistan team could beat the rest of the cricket world – despite Pakistani fans claiming Shahid Afridi to be better than Sachin. Next in the wish list roll call are Pakistani musicians to let bhaichara bloom, even if Shiv Sena would bar all singers across the border from performing here. But the heart of all this untapped goodwill is an enduring love of Hindi films. On this slender thread, Kakkar spins an engaging tale of reverse Stockholm syndrome: the captors, except for the Islamic heavy (a threateningly impressive Kumud Mishra), take the hostage to their hearts so that they all help him escape in whatever way they can. A true bromance where there are no women (except a female colleague at the beginning) is an exception in our films.
We feel vindicated when even second rate Bollywood gives India its soft power punch, at least over the sub continent. It is salutary to remember that this is not all one way. Exceptional Pakistani films like Khamosh Pani, Khuda Ke Liye and Bol have been shown to appreciative, if limited, audiences here. More than films, Pakistan’s forte has been television drama. I remember the days when video libraries had a run on cassettes of Tanhaiyan and Dhoop Kinara. Now, Zindagi, a Zee channel, is doing its best to lure us (at the time of writing) with snippets of contemporary Pakistani serials where women are not decked up for weddings all the time and wake up with lipstick and mascara intact. Good writing and talented actors have been the strength of Pakistan’s television – something our churners of never-ending sagas need to learn.
By the time this appears in print, The World Before Her would have finished its limited run at multiplexes Mumbai and Chennai multiplexes – I don’t know if it was released in other metros. Here is a documentary that is essential viewing. It ought to be available on the documentary network. Nisha Pahuja takes two sets of young women – one, contestants of Miss India pageant and the second, recruits at the boot camp run by Durga Vahini to make female clones of RSS workers – and shows how both sets of vulnerable young girls are brainwashed to fit a certain ideology. Even those among us who are not feminist fundamentalists, or puritanical zealots, are aware of how the myth and formidable machinery of the beauty business operates, stretching ambitious young women on the rack, dictating everything from body size to skin colour to the platitudes that a contestant has to mouth. What is most scary is how a well-known cosmetic surgeon injects Botox into a young woman’s chin so that her face can conform to a preconceived ideal of harmonious features. We also see another girl enduring stinging masks to make her fairer. Diction, posture, the ramp strut, a walk on the beach with their faces and torsos covered so that only the legs can be judged – they are fillies being put through their paces.
In this flesh trade where the pay off is pretty high for winners, what happens to those who don’t make it? Pahuja takes us to a middleclass family in Jaipur who invest everything in their daughter’s win. Familiar stories told with a non-judgmental tone and even empathy, specially the gutsy mother of 2009 winner who walked out of her marriage rather than get rid of a female child. Without endorsing beauty pageants that have come to stay, it does offer some of the girls a chance to make something of themselves.
Pahuja intercuts behind the scenes of the pageant with the equally rigorous regimen at the DurgaVahini camp in Aurangabad. Here, the focus is on 24-year-old Prachi, a bullying sergeant who whips the others into shape while voicing her own dilemmas. We also meet her parents. The father is a dyed-in Hindutva dictator while the meek mother melts into the background. Sadhvi Pragnya — an accused in the Malegaon bombing case — is Prachi’s role model. Prachi declares she abhors non-violence and hates Mahatma Gandhi, feels Hindus must learn to kill if it comes to saving their culture.
Visceral hatred of Muslims and Christiansis taught alongside pride in Hindu culture. Visiting mentors exhort the girls to eschew westernisation, careers and equality with men. Good Hindu girls must breed good Hindus – the unsaid being, nurture violent impulses along with mother’s milk. It is so scary that it gets surreal.
Prachi doesn’t want to conform – marriage is not for her. She is wedded to the Parishad. She is astute enough to see that there is a dichotomy between what she wants and what the organization demands of her. She accepts her father hitting her as his paternal right but will she accept what the Parishad decrees for her? It is this very openness that makes The World Before Her provocative. It is the first time that a camera has been allowed into the camp. Does that mean the Hindutva honchos want to advertise their ideology to susceptible young girls now that they are in power? Pahuja fails to tell more personal stories from this boot camp, except for a couple of very young teenagers talking haltingly about their commitment to this fascist ideology.
There is one final irony that Prachi seems unaware of. Inspite of the collective railing against western mores, she is most often dressed in jeans and a T shirt. Pahuja had earlier shown the moral police at work, attacking couples in gardens and mauling young women in pubs, courtesy ravages of the Ram Sena.
A word about the organization that backs filmmakers like Nisha Pahuja. Women Make Movies is a multi-cultural, multi-racial non-profit body that helps in the production and distribution of independent films by and about women. More power to them. The World Before Her won the best documentary feature at Tribeca in 2012, among a clutch of Canadian honours.