At the outset, let us admit something. Cinema is art, craft and commerce, all rolled into one – it has always been so, all around the world. It may have begun as pure art, but had quickly taken on essences of craft (it had to), and gradually morphed into a form of business. Now, wait a minute, is there something wrong with that? I wouldn’t think so, nor would you, perhaps. So, why is it that every single Friday, the largest cinema industry in the world churns out, almost as if on a conveyor belt, one film after another, most of which have very little to write home about? How many good films do we make in a year? And how many great films do we make in a year?
One of the troubles with Bollywood is that the art of cinema has taken such a nasty beating from the commerce of cinema that the former has gone into virtual hiding. If you listen to some of the people – directors, stars, writers – talk about cinema, you’ll realize, much to your surprise that quite a few of them are, contrary to what you may have deduced about them from their works, quite intelligent and sensible people, much unlike the image of tomfoolery and immaturity that they so easily don onscreen. Yet, every single time they embark on a project, they are lead by the business of movie making. One film of a certain kind does well, let us all happily continue to make the same kind of film, week after week. And by the way, what do we mean by “does well”? Here comes the oh-so-familiar phrase – “box office”. Being a cinema enthusiast, I often find myself in a discussion on cinema in various countries that I have travelled to, and trust me when I tell you, people from no other country is more familiar with the term ‘box office’ than Indians are. Now, I wonder why? Even if an innovative script comes along, no star will decide to do it, simply because they have an ‘image’ to portray. Challenging work be damned. Even if a star decides to do it, the script will not find a producer, because who would risk it? As long as cinema continues to be less of art and more of commerce, it will continue to evade glory.
An important question arises – given the sheer size of cinema going population in our country, if we were to make good innovative cinema, would it please the masses, especially in single-screens? And if it doesn’t, why would producers back such loss-making projects? And amidst all this, is our audience mature enough to appreciate good films? Can it be more of a rule than of an exception? This question has been asked several times, very recently by Naseeruddin Shah, who launched my book a couple of months ago. Mr. Shah argued that although most of the stones pelted by critics and intellectuals fall on the actors, what is the poor actor supposed to do? Unless we have more mature audiences, this trend of mindless movie-making isn’t going to change.
Now, as much as I love him and his art, I must say that I only agree partially with Mr. Shah. Yes, audiences need to be more mature. But how mature do you expect a poor uneducated construction worker in the heartlands to become overnight, or over any given period of time? For him, watching a 100 minute movie is like giving vent to all the frustration that has accumulated within him all week. He doesn’t have the luxury of scrutinizing and criticizing plot loopholes! In the protagonist, he perhaps finds an image of himself – a man he could not become. And every time that protagonist beats 30 thugs up with his bare hands, there in the dark recesses of the theatre, our poor, uneducated construction worker from the heartlands find joy rushing back to his heart and popping out of his lips in the form of a shrill whistle. And there are literally millions of such people in the audiences every single Friday. You want to make them more mature? Be my guest!
No – in my humble opinion, that is NOT the solution. I personally think that in any industry (for that is what cinema is today), segmentation and targeting is inevitable. Why, it is of the most natural order, isn’t it? You cannot make only one kind of movies for everyone. You need to identify various segments within your audience and make specific movies targeting each of these segments. The trouble with Bollywood is that this segmentation is all bungled up. I think no one would have had problems if a substantial amount of movies were to be made for all segments of the cine-going audience. In our country, cinema is made only for the masses. Since it is the so-called more ‘enlightened’ section of the society who has the pen and the keyboard in their hands and the social media and review sites in their pockets, and very few good films to watch, they usually cross over to the other segment, watch their movies and are quick to criticize them severely. The truth is that those movies are NOT meant for them. As long as we respect each segment of the audience, and make movies targeting them alone, and do it with all honesty, our movies will always be branded sub-standard.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His books include “14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray”, “No Child’s Play” and “The House by the Lake”. Bhaskar is also the Founder of ArtSquare (www.artsquare.in) – India’s largest online art portal. Bhaskar lives in Bangalore with his wife Sweta and sons Ishaan and Emon.