Thursday, October 27, 2011

Celluloid City

Bollywood films typically exist in some sort of never-land. This has been true from way back when. Even when Raj Kapoor’s films wanted to portray the struggles of the Everyman struggling to retain his soul in the Big, Bad City, the city itself was amorphous. A Bombay look-alike, but not quite the real thing. Clichéd stock shots of V.T. and the city’s Fort area were meant to depict the Metropolis in all its glory.
And so it went. A lot of films from the 60s and 70s all the way through the 80s tend to repeat this theme. The reasons may have been varied – catering to an India-wide audience or maybe just the hassle of shooting on location. Stock shots, sound stages and compromises. It’s a time where it’s hard to remember mainstream films with a great sense of place. Unlike, say, New York in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or the gritty city seen through new eyes in Scorsese’s and Woody Allen’s 70s masterworks, we did not have our own filmi City of Dreams, as it were.
The first memory I have of a film with a more unique city view than most, is for some vague reason, Chashme Baddoor. Being shot in New Delhi gives the film a visual style that quite varies it from the smaller Amol Palekar films that are its genre and period brethren. Those films too were shot on location in Bombay – waiting at bus stops along Worli seemed a favorite past-time, but still, it all seems very generic.
However, what really brought the power of stage-setting home for me personally was Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya. I somehow associate it with the city very strongly – location, sensibility, plotting (there’s a whole bit explaining the geographical distribution of territories between Bhau’s lieutenants). The ending in a very Mumbai milieu – the Ganapati visarjan at Chowpatty just drives the whole thing home: this is a Bombay (was it Mumbai already then?) gangster film.
What has changed in the intervening 15 years? The multiplex boom does mean that there are diverse settings that film-makers can now explore. Be it the soul-sucking environs of an industrial town (Jamshedpur, Udaan) or interior Rajasthan (Manorama: Six Feet Under), it’s all game, if only the filmmaker is brave enough to reach for it. Even the quintessential Mumbai film has moved from a state of mind like in Dil Chahta Hai to films where there’s some level of effort to include non-cliched parts of the city(Bluffmaster, Jaane Tu…)
However, the most remarkable trend I’ve noticed in the past few years has been the rise of the “Delhi film”. AG observed in a conversation just four or so years back that Rang De Basanti was the only real Delhi film we’d seen in years. But the past 3-4 years has seen the explosion of a variety of Delhi films, the likes of which Bombay/Mumbai never really saw. Dev D, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Delhi-6, Do Dooni Chaar, Band Baaja Baaraat, Delhi Belly all show the country’s capital from different eyes. The seedy underbelly of Paharganj contrasts with the tony wedding soirees of Sainik Farms in various ways, with detours through middle class neighborhoods along the way.
Fittingly, over 50 years after Yeh hai Bambai Meri Jaan, Delhi got its own Bollywood anthem this year. Gai kaat kalejaa indeed.


Ramanand said...

Nice post. I think there are couple of reasons for this highlighting of Delhi: a major one being the likes of Dibakar Banerjee (just to add Khosla ka Ghosla) and Jaideep Varma writing about their own experiences in life and choosing to keep it rooted in Delhi itself, rather than uproot it to Bombay. It helps to show a variety of less-cliched characters like the venal but maataa-loving builder in K ka G, or the devotional-song-performer role of Paresh Rawal in Oye Lucky.

The likes of Anurag K and Vishal B got their influences from UP in. But still a long way to go before we get movies set in the North East or even get a new Hyd. Blue.

Ajay said...

Thanks. K ka G, how did I forget! I'd add Habib Faisal (2x2=4, BBB) to the list.

A related note on Mumbai: a lot of film-makers from Mumbai are from Juhu or South Bombay and there's a very particular, SoBo PoV that they bring (Wake up Sid, Rock On! being prime examples.)

However, I'm quite interested in seeing someone rooted in a middle-class milieu like, say, Nishikant Kamat or Mahesh Manjrekar do a Mumbai film based on an original script.

More varied settings in general would definitely be great.