From the reactions on social media to Naseeruddin Shah’s quote about #RajeshKhanna, one point of view that emerges again is that many perceive #NaseeruddinShah’s films, also known as ‘art’ films, to be more ‘intelligent’. Anything targeted at a mainstream audience, especially something that makes money at the box office is considered ‘trash’ and synonymous with ‘running around trees’. This has always seemed a rather biased point of view.
To begin with, what are ‘art’ films? #Filmmaking is an art, the seventh art. Architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance are the first six. Does making money for yourself and your producers make you less of an artist? Films are a business as much as an art and creative pursuit. Filmmakers don’t make films purely as an indulgence but for them to reach an audience. Having a larger number of people patronizing one’s work is always more satisfying to any actor or filmmaker. I have run into a lot of people who assume you can either make a good film or you can make a successful film. They assume that if a film is successful, it has to be bottom of the barrel in terms of sensibilities. To further make this point, they cite the most mind numbing and crass film they can think of. Ever so often, an ‘art’ film releases to a few hundred screens and interviews appear where people say ‘such cinema has to be encouraged’ and must be watched. This is usually said in a very sombre tone, like urging people to save tigers or an endangered species which is at grave risk of going extinct. Sometimes it is said like a doctor would, recommending that a patient take a dose of vitamin D pills everyday if he or she doesn’t want their bones going brittle. I’m aware that some films targeted at a larger audience are complete garbage. However many of these ‘art’ films make your eyes water with boredom and are absurdly pretentious. It would be an understatement to call them insufferable. We have had many entertaining films from great filmmakers over the years, which haven’t played to the gallery but are yet timeless in their appeal. Films have to make you laugh or make you cry or make you angry. They must affect you. They don’t need to lose money or be boring to be considered great art and filmmakers don’t have to be defensive about making entertaining films. Far from it.
There has been mutual disdain between the two sides. I recall Manmohan Desai, director of many blockbusters cocking a snook at ‘art’ films telling my father, “Kaise filmein hain yeh? Ek kutta rakh do frame mein, camera chalu kar do. Kutta so raha hai, so raha hai. Aur kuch nahin ho raha hai. Art film ho gayee!” translated as, “What sort of films are these? Keep a dog in the frame and roll the camera. The dog sleeps, continues to sleep. Nothing else is happening. You have an art film!” Manmohan Desai saw these films as a waste of his time and never attempted to make one. #ShashiKapoor produced many of these films. However, when he faced a financial crunch in the mid eighties he got good friend #AmitabhBachchan to feature in his out-and-out commercial film ‘Ajooba’, which eventually bombed at the box office.
The reality is that films cost money and must appeal to a sizeable audience for the filmmaker to get another opportunity to make a film. Anyone who puts in money does so with the idea of recouping his investment plus more. If there is anything that saves a film from degenerating, it is usually a bunch of artists who care what they make and who want to continue doing what they love.
To those who brush away commercial cinema, I would say, read about the era gone by and watch enough films before you sit in judgement. The requirements of every era are different. In the late seventies, it was the anti-establishment sentiment because of the emergency that set the stage for Amitabh Bachchan’s thrillers replacing the mushy sentimental romantic fare and melodrama of the sixties. The degeneration of films in the eighties is oft-repeated. This is only partly right because not all films during the eighties were bad. Amitabh Bachchan dominated the eighties and featured in ‘Naseeb’, ‘Silsila’, ‘Shakti’ etc in the early eighties. Gulzar’s ‘Angoor’ came in 1982. None of these films can be clubbed with the lousy films of the eighties. The second half of the decade saw the proliferation of video cassette players and recorders all over the country. This is when the family audience stopped patronizing cinemas altogether. It was expensive and more of an effort to go to a cinema when you could pay between seven and ten rupees to rent a video cassette. In the late eighties, new films were sometimes shown on cable TV. So they didn’t cost a dime. This meant that filmmakers had to cater to the lowest common denominator, which was the cinema going audience. This is what led to all the vendetta dramas that every major star in the eighties featured in. This is also how ‘Lamhe’ that came in 1991 bombed badly at the box office, despite it being #YashChopra’s best work and a wonderful film. Had it been released today, ‘Lamhe’ would have worked in a big way with multiplex audiences. All of this changed in 1994 when Rajshri Productions decided to put their foot down and refused to release ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ on video. It went on to become one of the biggest grossers of all time. Salman Khan was going through a rocky phase in his career but bounced back with this blockbuster and never looked back. This film brought back the family audience to the theaters. Yash Chopra followed it up with ‘Darr’ and ‘DDLJ’ directed by #AdityaChopra who made his debut, the year after and the tide had turned. Today there is a strong sentiment that women in India are unsafe. This has led to this theme being pushed in every form of fiction, from mainstream films to ad films, webisodes and short films. Riding on this wave, many films have gone on to become money spinners. Society undergoes changes and films change with them. A lot of films that get favorable reviews in the media today will be mocked and laughed at, twenty years down the line.
Before we evaluate harshly a style of filmmaking or an entire era we must acknowledge that each period also has its limitations. Artists have had to grapple with technological changes apart from social changes. The transition from silent films to talkies made the actors with weak voices redundant. Those who didn’t move with the times became irrelevant. The introduction of color changed tastes and many lost interest in black and white films and some films couldn’t be released. I spent my entire childhood watching films. My father introduced me to the cinema of the decades before I was born. Apart from watching Hollywood and European cinema, I watched almost all the Hindi films I could, even the ones made long before I was born. It amazed me that a man like K Asif who could neither read nor write, made a film like ‘Mughal-E-Azam’, which had a budget that (adjusting for inflation) could be put at Rs.300 crores and it took over a decade to make. ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ has brilliant performances by the cast including Dilip Kumar, the stunningly beautiful Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor. When bookings opened, people slept overnight outside cinemas to queue for the tickets the next morning and it remains one of the biggest grossers of all time. More than 50 years before ‘Queen’ was made, ‘Mother India’ captured the imagination of the nation and it was a woman-centric film that dealt with societal issues at that point of time. Mehboob Khan again wasn’t formally educated but made a powerful timeless film that is sadly, as relevant today because debt-ridden farmers continue to kill themselves, as it was then. #RajKapoor was a school drop out, yet a genius filmmaker. The man directed ten films in all, all of which had powerful stories, great music and a lot of symbolism. None of them were pretentious. ‘Mera Naam Joker’, arguably his best work almost ruined him but he bounced back with ‘Bobby’, which played to the gallery unhesitatingly. It went on to be one of the biggest grossers of all time and became a landmark film. These people never went to film school. They probably didn’t have access to a tenth of the books an aspiring filmmaker has access to today and many begun at a time when the medium itself was still relatively new. Directors were exploring the medium. If we must sit in judgement on them, it is only fair that we consider the limitations of the artists at that point, the changes in society, technology and the flow of information that time has brought about.