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Punjabi movies

Jatt like that

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HIT JODI: Jimmy Shergill (right) and Neeru Bajwa are two of Punjabi cinema's most bankable stars

Punjabi films have dropped hackneyed, feudal themes for more hard-hitting stories of displacement and farmer suicides.

As a jury member for the first ever Punjabi International Film Festival Awards, Amrik Gill is on a Punjabi-movies-only diet these days. The man who has to his credit big Bollywood productions like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Yaadein is today one of the most soughtafter writers for Punjabi films. His jury colleague is Manmohan Singh, who has shot some of Yash Chopra's most popular films but is now a much acclaimed Punjabi film director.

Singh and Gill, both of whom found fame and work in Bollywood but later moved to Punjabi films, are central to reviving the flagging fortunes and image of the Punjabi movie industry. If 2011 saw the release of just nine films, 2012 has already had nine releases with at least 16 more expected. In fact, May 25 saw the release of two movies on the same day, perhaps for the first time in the history of Punjabi cinema.

The Punjabi film industry was born in Kolkata where the first Punjabi movie Shiela - based on Leo Tolstoy's novella Resurrection - was shot in 1935 and released in 1936. Even though the film was a big hit, director KD Mehra struggled to find financiers for his other projects because Punjabi wasn't considered an artsy language. That image - of being loud and crude - has plagued Punjabi films through the decades, and more specifically, productions in the 80s and 90s.

"Till about 20 years ago, Punjabi movies used to be about what we call 'Jattvaad' - centred around the lives of Jatts, essentially farmers in the state, " says Jaspreet Willy, editor of Punjabi film portal CinemaPunjabi. com. "The movies were heavily influenced by Punjabi films made in Pakistan, and had rural themes, lots of violence, jingoism and stories of warring clans. "

But in the past decade, things have changed. Cinematographer-turned-director Singh has brought to Punjab the look and feel of polished Bollywood productions. His second Punjabi movie, Jee Aayan Nu (Welcome, 2003) - his first way back in 1993, Naseebo, was a flop - was shot in foreign locales on a bigger budget and, more importantly, it dealt with the problems that NRI Punjabis face, giving Punjabi movies a new audience.

Expectedly, the film was a runaway hit. He followed that up with movies like Asa Nu Maan Watna Da (2004), Yaaran Naal Baharan (2005), Dil Apna Punjabi (2006), Mitti Wajaan Maardi (2007), Mera Pind (2008), Munde UK De (2009) that dealt with concerns of migrants such as dilution of values and adapting to life abroad.

This resulted in increased viewership and participation from overseas markets like Canada, the UK and New Zealand which have a sizeable Sikh population. "Bollywood actors like Jimmy Shergill agreed to act in Punjabi movies because of Manmohan. Technically, he has made Punjabi films look so much better, " says Gill.

Shergill's first Punjabi movie was Singh's 2005 release Yaaran Naal Baharan, a love story that focussed on family ties. All of Shergill's Punjabi efforts like Mannat, Tera Mera Ki Rishta, Munde UK De, Mel Karade Rabba and Dharti have been blockbusters.

So lucrative is the proposition for production houses that Tips Industries and Eros International are now both actively producing Punjabi films. Tipsproduced Jinhe Mera Dil Luteya is the highest grosser in Punjabi film history. "It is the 3 Idiots of the Punjabi film industry, " says Kumar Taurani, chairman and managing director, Tips Industries. Eros International and Jimmy Shergill Productions' joint venture to produce four Punjabi films saw the first one, Taur Mitran Di, release on May 11.

In Bollywood, singers turning to acting have rarely been successful but in Punjab it is singers who stare out of posters and hoardings. Harbhajan Mann, Diljit Dosanjh, Amrinder Gill and Gippy Grewal have all found fame as film actors.

But along with commercial success come the problems. There's a large amount of money floating around but not all of it is put to productive use. "People with no background in movies are producing films, leading to flops, " complains Taurani.

The most important development is the break with formula. A clutch of filmmakers is focusing on "real" issues - class divide, drug menace, farmer suicides and corruption. Gurinder Singh's Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms Of The Blind Horse), which is about the socially exploited and repressed, was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2011 and he bagged the national award for best director for his work. California-based filmmaker Ish Amitoj Kaur's Chhevan Dariya (The Sixth River), released in 2010, focuses on the problem of drug addiction, drug mafia and female foeticide in the state.

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