Style versus substance

Is Indian cinema and its audience falling for craftsmanship at the expense of content?

Style versus substance
Two recent films released roughly around the same time — Dedh Ishqiya and Miss Lovely — garnered a lot of critical acclaim for their subject matters and style by critics across the line and aroused deserved curiosity. While Miss Lovely did not exactly set the box office on fire, which was expected given its content and style, Dedh Ishqiya managed to recover its cost of production and made a reasonable profit. The presence of Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi from the earlier version, along with an impressive performance by Huma Quereshi and inquisitiveness generated by Madhuri Dixit’s comeback did help matters.

Miss Lovely made a lot of sound and fury in the international circuit, especially at Cannes before it was released in India after more than two years. Touted as a major ‘indie’ production, the film recreates the sleazy world of B-movies of the 80s and explores the exploitative and ruthless world of its inhabitants, starting from the moneybags who invest in such skin flicks to the distributors, directors and of course, the girls. The film leaves no breathing space in its relentless pursuit of a hopeless dreamer’s journey to break away from this claustrophobic world, pla­yed by the immensely talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui in his first ever lead role, who delivers with his usual understated style.

Dedh Ishqiya is more viewer-friendly, given its canvas and the jest that it packs in. Set in a small town in UP, its unusual storyline, witty and Urdu-centric colloquial dialogues — aided thankfully by the English subtitles — pleasant background score and power-packed performances by its protagonists raise the film way beyond its implausible premise — that of an aging Muslim widow, played by Dixit, who holds a swayamvar of poets to select her husband from amongst the contestants at a time when iPhone 5 has already come into the market!

Despite the novelty of the subject matters of both the films, what is interesting to note is the style — though widely different — that marks both films. Miss Lovely is dominated by an extremely self-conscious mise-en-scene that constantly calls attention to itself at the expense of the narrative; even the carefully designed so­undtrack is obtrusive. There are gaping holes in the plot that seems purposely left unexplained, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. As a result, a well-intentioned work alienates its audience who never gets a chance to sink in its teeth.

Dedh Ishqiya has more clarity no doubt, given its commercial positioning, and its mise-en-scene is not obtrusive like the other film, but one can’t help but notice the ‘crafty’ nature of its plotting with its elegant passages of mushairas and courtships that alternate with clever reversals in the plot that gain momentum as the film hurtles towards a predictable climax. The dialogues that appeared witty begin to sound strained by the constant efforts to sustain wit and shock, and the whole experience begins to feel as if the people associated with its making have begun to play to the gallery.

Last year, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera received a lot of critical and commercial acclaim upon its release. The audience loved the period drama set in a Bengal village; but the psychologically complex love story of a young girl falling in love again, with a man who is responsible for the death of her father was sacrificed at the altar of ‘good photography and visuals’ which the audience came to appreciate.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, perhaps like no other Indian director, spends an inordinate amount of time creating larger than life canvas in which he sets his stories. But his attention to every detail of the mise-en-scene, from art direction, costumes, colour and blocking of actors overwhelms the content and begins to look like kitsch which is divorced from any kind of semblance of reality, existing in a timeless zone, devoid of soul.

This raises a very pertinent question in the context of Indian cinema today: Are we losing track of substance in our quest for technical virtuosity? Or is it that in order to hide our incapability to fully delve into the depths of an issue in all its complexities, we are deluding the audience with a posture that is actually dishonest?

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