Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004

 

INDIAN CINEMA

Cinema In General

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Pans & Tilts…Star power, Rajni’s Sivaji, Cannes, Esha Deol…

One of my most vivid off-screen images of Indian cinema has been the anointing with milk of Tamil film star Kamal Hassan’s larger-than-life wood cutout by his fans outside a Chennai cinema. The scene which appeared like a straight lift from a movie merely confirmed the enormous appeal and importance actors and actresses enjoyed in Bollywood, Kollywood (Chennai), Tollywood (Kolkata) and all the other Woods in India. The star system is here to stay, and it’s almost hurricane growth appears to be demolishing just about everything on its path. The once great studios and film banners, such as Prabhat, New Theatres, RK, Gemini, AVM, Navketan and Guru Dutt among a host of others, may not have exactly perished, but their glory has faded, sometimes beyond recognition. Once, audiences thronged theatres because of a studio or banner: they knew what to expect from an RK or a Gemini. Today, it is not longer so.

In India, the studio/banner system gave way to what I would call the Director’s Chair. The helmer became larger than the studio or the banner. Guru Dutt or Raj Kapoor or Vasan began to dwarf the system they had created in the first place. However, things changed. Dutt’s “Kaagaz Ke Phool” traced the decline of not only the studio system in India, but also the director. We saw how Dutt’s (who plays a helmer in the movie) fans got besotted by his heroine, essayed by Waheeda Rehman. “Kaagaz Ke Phool” clearly signalled the demise of the director as it did the beginning of star value.

Dev Anand became mightier than Navketan, Raj Kapoor eclipsed RK and institutions like Gemini, Vijaya and AVM fell by the wayside, forced to play second fiddle to colossus like Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran. In Mumbai, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan rose to tower over the men who directed them. In Kolkata, Ritwick Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen seemed to come under the shadow of matinee idols like Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.

Today, people walk into a hall to watch an Aishwarya Rai or a Kamal or a Rajnikanth. They bother little about who could have directed them. How many, for instance, would have bought a ticket to watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s work in “Black”. I am certain they spent the money to look at Amitabh Bachchan in it, and maybe Rani Mukherjee.

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It is in this context I would like to mention Rajnikanth’s “Sivaji”, to open mid-May 2007. Budgeted at Rs 50 crores, coming from the house of AVM in Chennai
Rajnikanth in "Sivaji"
and helmed by S. Shankar, the film also called “Boss”, is a tale of revenge and retribution sugarcoated with humanity, charity and the sweet suffering of the protagonist, who is cheated and jailed by his business associates. The movie was titled “Sivaji” for an ostensible reason. Rajnikanth’s real name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. Son of a police constable, he began his life as a bus conductor in Bangalore before joining the Madras Film Institute and debuting in “Katha Sangama” (1975) and rising to be a star months later in “Apoorva Raagangal”. His screen mannerisms, such as playing with cigarette, and his dark skin have endeared him to the street-level masses. His immense popularity has made him a demi-god, and when he explodes like a tiger in his dramas, few viewers care to analyse his performances or think about the men with megaphones who may have cried hoarse calling “lights, sound, camera, action and cut”. When Rajni strides in to play a “Sivaji”, he is truly the boss, and Shankar, AVM and the rest are pushed out of the field.

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The Cannes Film Festival will celebrate its 60th edition on May 16, and coinciding with this will be India’s six decades of independence. A special India section of seven films will be screened over two days in the early part of the Festival that runs till May 27. Unfortunately, no Indian movie has made it to either the top Competition slot or the sidebar, A Certain Regard. These are termed the Festival’s official sections, the rest – like the Market, India Focus (which is part of the Cinema of the World), The Directors’ Fortnight and The Critics’ Week -- being outside the main arena. It is strange that though India is the largest film producing country in the world (churning out 1000 to 1100 pictures a year, which is twice as many as Hollywood’s), it has been several years since an entry from the country was selected. Do we make such bad cinema? Or, is the right kind of cinema not being promoted at or sent up for possible inclusion at Cannes? I remember the Festval’s Artistic Director, Thierry Fremaux, once telling me that he was never kept in the know of what was happening in the Indian movie world. Can we then blame Fremaux and his team for not choosing an Indian entry?

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There is something common between Sridevi and Esha Deol. Both transform the moment they step in front of the camera. The normally shy and tongue-tied Sridevi and Esha light up the minute the camera begins to roll. Like the senior actress, the younger one is also called a “switch-on and switch-off star”. The unit members of Ramgopal Varma’s “Darling” say as the camera begins to whir, Esha effortlessly and spontaneously begins blending with her character, and everyone around is transported to a different world.

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Tailpiece: 'Bheja Fry' actress Bhairavi Goswami was asked where she sees herself five years from now. Her answer was absolutely original. She replied that she would love to "own a huge zoo with lots of rare animals and live in the middle of it." Here, I presume, is a true animal lover, who is already sick of the two-legged world.

(Webposted April 20 2007)