Sunday, April 30, 2017

Baahubali - A Song of Navel and Eyes

As the nation throngs cinema halls to finally unravel the deep mystery of Baahubali's murder, I'm curbing my enthusiasm and thinking about the cinematic marvel that was the first movie. Or the one it wanted to be. You can call it groundbreaking, genre bending, the film that finally unites North and South (Hello! Roja, anyone?) and many more things. Deep in our hearts we all know what we were looking for in this story of muscular heroes saving the day. We were hoping against hope for India's answer to Game of Thrones.

For the last seven years since the gigantic TV drama captured our imagination, we have all been whispering that age old lament over cups of tea and plates of sabudana wadas. It's the same lament we cried when we walked out misty eyed from a screening of Jurassic Park, or Independence Day, or The Matrix. Why can't India come up with something like this? Why can't we whip up a sensual feast with larger than life set pieces, nail biting action and mind boggling stories that the world can look up to?

Let me tell you it's not for lack of trying.

By trying I mean our films have tried to emulate some of those pretty fight scenes, those tricky visual effects, those interminable car chases, in the hopes of earning the same kind of applause. The result, obviously, has been at best Shivaay and at worst Jaani Dushman.

Because in our rush to recreate what Hollywood does passably well, we forget some of the important ingredients that go into the making of a worldwide box office phenomenon.


Hollywood's greatest contribution to cinema is not churning out movies with monstrous budgets at a regular pace. It is the screenplay.

French filmmaker and wizard, Georges Milies is believed to have written the first screenplay for his film A Trip To The Moon. The early American film The Great Train Robbery had a screenplay that pretty much sets the format that is followed till date, except for dialogue. TGTR was a silent film.

It is said that Ashok Kumar and his colleagues studied the Hollywood style of scriptwriting for Achhut Kanya. Some of his best known films, including Howrah Bridge and Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, if you observe, follow a good coherent script.

Movies written by Salim-Javed are a study in structured screenplay. In recent years, many Indian filmmakers are building on strong scripts to come up with some fine multiplex-friendly movies.

But when it comes to more spectacularly mounted fares, the integrity of the screenplay is tossed off the window. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is among the worst offenders in this crime. Why, dear me why, would a medieval Indian Maharaja let his daughter entertain guests with song and dance, even if she is played by the gorgeous Deepika Padukone and the song is such a feast to the eyes? Such creative choices of course come not organically from the story, but from our filmmakers' assumption of what the audience wants to see.

And they are usually right. Warrior or queen, we like our heroines dancing. If they want more, they can go work elsewhere.

I don't think it is a coincidence that both Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, who danced so sportingly to the strains of Pinga in Bajirao Mastani, have gone on to find work in Hollywood. Perhaps that's the only place where they'll be asked to act, even it means fighting in a sports bra. At least they're not dancing.

Shivaay has a long-drawn action sequence after the kidnapped kids at the centre of its story are rescued. Fan has three long chase scenes in the service of a movie star's bruised ego. In films of a certain scale, we lose all sense of perspective.


No matter how big the film, no matter how simplistic the narrative, Hollywood has a good grip on the values they espouse in their stories. They also keep improving on it. Even the biggest summer releases try to correct past sins of that industry by featuring a more diverse cast. Almost every big disaster movie has heroes who learn lessons in teamwork and being less of a douchebag. Even at the cost of belying some social realities and pissing off a few meninists, Hollywood movies keep portraying a rosier, fairer, less racist and gender balanced universe. Every once in a while, they address the social realities as well. There are films that portray historic and present day racism, critique American consumerism, and call out the still unequal treatment of women.

In India, misogyny is cool if the budget is right. Sultan can totally sideline his wife's aspirations, Baahubali can totally hijack a warrior lady's mission. And caste does not exist. The servants in Suraj Barjatya films just like being servants and marrying other servants.

This article talks about casteism in Baahubali. It also addresses the argument that the story is set in different times than ours. Right there is where the Game Of Thrones comparison stings most. The books and series are also set in an older, crueler world with different rules than ours. Yet through many different characters and subplots, the injustice and imperfections of that system are questioned, and the rules bent. Arya goes from a highborn girl to a nobody to a dangerous assassin. Brienne is mocked and harassed all her life, but she'll remain a warrior, thank you very much. The low-born Onion Knight is raised from pirate to King's Hand. The Brotherhood of the Wall treats all men as equal, and operates democratically. The Wildlings are humanized. I could go on and on.

Indian films are completely unable, unwilling, or entirely clumsy in questioning social hierarchies of any kind. Things are just the way they are. Hence our stories never rise above the banal plot and become about something bigger, because we don't want to touch the bigger issues.


Speaking of bigger issues, the most audacious quality of Hollywood blockbusters is their presumption of speaking for all of humanity. Aliens invade, America rescues. Virus erupts, America finds the cure. Americans solve hunger, AIDS, space and time travel, and it won't be long before they solve farmer suicides in Vidarbha, because India just cannot be bothered.

Our larger-than-life movies are about larger-than-life men (it's never a woman) and little else. Even a film with such noble intentions as Airlift has one Punjabi hero saving all the Indians in Kuwait with little help from anyone else. The real life incident that inspired the film was about the collaborative effort of a group of Malayalis.

Baahubali is about one man's struggle to win back his birth right. Shivaay is about one Indian man solving all of Bulgaria's problems. By contrast, Mad Max: Fury Road had an established hero assisting - not leading - a group of women on their quest to freedom.

In his book The Art Of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri states the case for building a dramatic story around a strong premise, a kind of central message or belief that lays the foundation of the narrative. Jurassic Park tells you not to fuck with nature. Mad Max celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

Take a look at most big budget Indian films, and the common premise you're likely to find is: the world bows to an awesome dude (again, never a woman).

PK: awesome alien dude
3 Idiots: awesome scientist dude
Rustom: awesome Navy dude
Sultan: awesome wrestler dude

See a trend?

Most of our big budget films are afraid to portray a flawed hero. Rancho cannot be wrong about anything. Sultan always wins. PK comes to Earth and solves all our problems. It wasn't always so. Sholay contained dollops of humour around Veeru's buffoonery. Deewar's Vijay was a deeply insecure man scared by a random incident from his childhood. Random, because he was attacked and tattooed by the villagers, not his brother. That set the two brothers on different paths for life.


It's not that our film directors, writers and producers are unaware of the integrity of the script, the importance of strong values, or the place for great vision that goes into making great cinema. For some reason, once big budgets get involved, all the awareness takes a backseat, and we panic into churning out yet another hyper masala monstrosity with dancing heroines and infallible heroes, and zero social awareness. On the last point, maybe the political realities of our country have a big role to play. Artistic freedom is worth zilch in our society and any asshole can tear down a cinema hall for any imagined offense. Still and all, a few efforts would be nice. Good films have been made in our country, and have done good business too.

Forget about making another Game Of Thrones or Jurassic Park. Let's make another Deewar.

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