It was back in 1957 that the Academy Awards first introduced the Best Foreign Language Film category. India has since submitted a film for consideration almost every year, sending a total of 49 contenders to date. Of these, only three have been nominated (Mother India, Salaam Bombay! and Lagaan) and none have managed to bag the award. One might wonder how such an enormous and influential film industry has received little to no recognition at the Oscars. There may be a simple explanation: Western film critics have long looked at Bollywood — replete with song, dance and melodrama — as kitsch.
Fortunately, it seems that many Indian filmmakers are done looking for critical acclaim in the West and apologising for their brand of cinema. This is one of the themes that emerges in Behind the Scenes: Contemporary Bollywood Directors and their Cinema, a book that provides a refreshing take on contemporary Bollywood by keeping 19 filmmakers and their cinema as the point of focus. In a chapter about Sanjay Leela Bhansali, academic Varsha Panjwani quotes the filmmaker declaring his love for “tamasha-style” films: “I feel like that’s our tradition. That’s what we should be very proud of.”
In another chapter, Manjunath Pendakur takes this sentiment a step forward by attempting to reclaim the term ‘masala’ — a description often used to denigrate popular but formulaic Bollywood films. Masala, he argues, is an appropriate metaphor to analyse India’s popular cinema. He believes that the term “draws attention to the variety of ingredients that make up the basic narrative structure of a popular film.”
Viewing modern Hindi cinema from the perspective of its filmmakers
Adding to this recurring discussion about masala and ingredients, Baradwaj Rangan writes that director Rajkumar Hirani owes a lot of his success to Indian cinema in part because his films employ Bollywood “ingredients” such as humour, pathos, drama and romance. He argues that today’s major filmmakers including Dibakar Banerjee, Farhan Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap have little use for these conventions.
An essay about Akhtar seems to respond to this critique. Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan lauds filmmakers such as Akhtar who “experimented with the idiom of cinema rather than telling the old stories in the old ways.” To the credit of Viswamohan and Vimal Mohan John, the editors of Behind the Scenes, while the book’s individual chapters work as wholes, they also seem to be in conversation with each other.
The book also notes how changes in technology have impacted the craft and resulted in a democratisation of cinema. In ‘Sounding Dystopia: Anurag Kashyap’s Films and Relocation of Popular Tropes’, Madhuja Mukherjee examines how the growth of multiplex cinemas has impacted filmmaking. Changing modes of consumption, Mukherjee argues, is one of the reasons Bollywood has moved beyond mainstream blockbusters, making way for “[...] a new type of cinema, with relatively smaller budgets, produced outside the networks of the large-scale production houses.”
While such discussions about mainstream versus parallel cinema are abundant — in this book and in scholarship and critique about contemporary Bollywood in general — certain chapters move beyond the age-old debate of commerce versus artistic integrity. Tutun Mukherjee, for example, acknowledges that Ashutosh Gowariker’s cinema aims for “[...] not art, parallel or alternate cinema, but commercially viable yet meaningful and inspiring cinema.”
Indeed, contemporary Bollywood filmmakers are finding ways to tell more meaningful stories that also manage to resonate with a large audience (and bring in considerable box office returns). Examples of this include the Aamir Khan-starrer PK and even offbeat, independent films such as Queen.
Behind the Scenes manages to touch upon various questions about contemporary Bollywood, representation, class, gender and sexuality. This is in large part because of the focus on the directors. By bringing to the forefront individuals who are typically left behind the camera, Viswamohan and John come up with some valuable insights. As Sudhir Mahadevan, in his chapter about Vidhu Vinod Chopra, observes: “Authorship in Bombay cinema is not a topic that has received considerable scholarly attention [...]”
‘Write what you know’ may be a tired piece of advice, but it holds true. You see reflections of all great artists in their art. In Behind the Scenes, certain critics make fascinating observations about how the filmmakers’ backgrounds have informed their cinema. Jyotsna Kapur and Soumik Pal posit that since Vishal Bhardwaj was born in the small town of Bijnor and grew up in Meerut, he “[...] brings to the screen a marked sensitivity to the textures of the small and provincial towns, especially the Hindi heartland.”
Of course, in talking Bollywood and backgrounds, filmi gharanas and clans also get multiple mentions. This has been a hotly debated topic since earlier this year actress Kangana Ranaut called filmmaker Karan Johar a “flag-bearer of nepotism” on his chat show Koffee with Karan. The book avoids the nepotism discussion (for the most part) by focusing instead on how a new generation of filmmakers injected energy and vigour into their families’ cinema conglomerates. For example, it is stated that Yash Chopra’s expertise paired with “[...] Aditya Chopra’s keen awareness of what the young audience finds pleasurable was a formidable combination for box office success.”
This view is perhaps a little too rosy; production houses such as Johar’s Dharma Productions and Chopra’s Yash Raj Films are routinely criticised for their limited worldview. These questions, however, are barely raised by most writers featured in the book.
An outlier is Nandana Bose’s chapter about Zoya Akhtar. Not only does Bose call out Zoya’s privilege as a star-family child, she calls out her film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara for being “a paean to consumerism.” In a collection of essays written in clear awe of various filmmakers, Bose’s stands out.
But this is perhaps by design. In Behind the Scenes not only do readers become familiar with the oeuvres of different directors, they also get a sense of differing approaches to film criticism. The book is undoubtedly a worthy addition to reading lists for film academics and students.
But Viswamohan and John’s targeted audience is much broader. The book’s acknowledgements page features a quote by Quentin Tarantino: “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” The editors further write, “This book is dedicated to all those who go to films.” With the approachable language and the book’s fairly modest price tag, they may also successfully engage avid Bollywood fans and general-interest readers alike.
The reviewer is a multimedia journalist and visual artist
Behind the Scenes: Contemporary
Bollywood Directors and their Cinema
Edited by Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan
and Vimal Mohan John
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 11th, 2017