Few years ago, a post on Facebook asking friends to name their 10 favourite films — not necessarily great ones — saw people responding enthusiastically. This was soon followed by requests asking for a list of 10 favourite books that have influenced respondents in some manner or the other, again, not necessarily classics. Of course, the lists varied widely from each other and spewed names that many had never even heard of. Without going into the merits of many of the films (or books) that made it to the lists— a futile exercise because it’s a purely subjective opinion and not a reflection on their artistic worth — when it came to cineastes and filmmakers, some usual suspects sprang up, amongst them Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay —two films that define the two extremes of Indian cinema.
What is worth noting here is the inclusion of these two films in the same lists, along with other titles, each varying widely from the other. Time was when people, depending on their upbringing and orientation preferred ‘certain kind of cinema’ as opposed to the ‘other kind of cinema’. Many of us grew up in an age when Hindi popular cinema never figured in our mental horizon and we derived our intellectual sustenance from the best of world cinema. It was sacrilegious to watch — and like — a film called Mr India if one doted on Bergman’s Wild Strawberries or Fellini’s Eight and a Half. Inversely, people from other parts of the country snubbed Ray as an esoteric ‘art filmmaker’ who sold Indian poverty abroad to get awards, preferring sentimentalised escapist fare churned out by the Hindi film industry. The two camps — very conveniently branded as art films and commercial cinema — were sharply divided, frequently at loggerheads, and beyond any kind of conciliation.
In recent times though — in the last two decades to be precise — a great churning has taken place in the tastes and choices of cineastes and ordinary viewers. One major reason for this is definitely globalisation which opened up the Indian markets since the early ’90s and let in world cinema pour into our living rooms through satellite television and DVDs, and more recently — through torrent and Netflix. Exposed to the wide variety of contemporary international cinema that’s pushing the boundaries of filmmaking like never before, people have begun to realise the futility of such puerile categorizations. A morbid South Korean thriller could be as artistic and relevant as a film from Iran and many of what we thought as Hollywood fare — and looked down upon condescendingly — are actually American independent cinema despite the presence of stellar casts — and are great films! The dividing line between so called art and commercial cinema has suddenly become blurred, to the point that the expression ‘art cinema’ no longer exists. (It has been replaced by ‘independent cinema’.)
Practitioners of mainstream cinema have started exploring myriad themes that were termed risqué even a decade ago, coupled with unusual treatments, while more regional filmmakers are similarly pushing the boundaries without being saddled by ‘socially relevant themes’ that branded them as ‘art filmmakers’ previously, but still making meaningful and entertaining films, mainly in the South.
This is not to say that things have become hunky-dory. It still needs a big banner to promote and release an atypical film like Ritesh Batra’s Lunchbox or Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, but the good thing is that the same people who go to watch an inane Race 3 are flocking to see these films and liking them too.
Is it the schizoid in us that makes us like widely different kinds of films in today’s time? Or is it that we are confused by the bombardment of choices and have lost our ability to discern the good from the bad? Or is it that good and bad are quotients which are culturally conditioned, loaded with prejudices and we just have to remove our preconceptions to appreciate both a Johann Sebastian Bach symphony and a silly Honey Singh song, depending on our mood? After all, depending on our mental and gastronomic disposition, we sometimes prefer masala dosa, sometimes a well-done steak — and there’s nothing wrong in either.
(The author is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)