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The good, bad & the cult
Hindi cinema has many films vying for the cult tag but they need to be hoisted into that category by academia and cinephiles.
Very few Indians films make it to the cult category. Filmmaker Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY) is without doubt top-of-the line cult. Says Shah, the maker of one our most iconic cult films, "Cult has no logic. The process takes years but attention eventually follows. " A quick look beyond JBDY, which was re-released in theatres this fortnight, and you'll have trouble identifying very many others in the league. This is not to say that India is lacking in cult films, it is just that we don't have any significant scholarship around it. No concerted efforts have been made to put Indian cult cinema into perspective.
Om-Dar-Ba-Dar, filmmaker Kamal Swaroop's 1988 classic, is not unknown but it never made it to the top of the cult pops either. In 2009, things suddenly swung in favour of this surreal and absurd drama set in a mythical Indian town. A bunch of mentions from Anurag Kashyap stating that scenes from Swaroop's film had inspired sequences in Dev D (2009), and overnight YouTube clips, laudatory texts and the like turned up.
Filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia laments the lack of documentation. While working on Miss Lovely (2012), his film set in Mumbai's C-grade film industry of the mid-1980 s, Ahluwalia encountered virtually no telling sign posts about this genre that has produced cult films like Mohan Bhakri's Kabrastan (1988).
Although the broad definition of cult may vary, some qualities hold water across this loosely defined genre. The films are necessarily inclusive of the outre and, more often than not, they have a sense of ridiculous. The absurd could be part of the larger design or could be just a case of 'so bad that it is good'. The audiences that collect around cult films are not necessarily scholarly but they have an eccentric and abiding interest in the films that hold their fascination.
Of the absence of sign posts for Indian cult films, Jai Arjun Singh, film writer and blogger, states, "Publishers are still surprisingly reticent when it comes to books on cinema. The general perception seems to be that the masses are not interested in reading about films. A cult film with a strong but dedicated audience doesn't stand a chance when publishers run shy of taking up popular films".
Singh, who has written Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983, a monologue about the legendary Kundan Shah comedy, cites Sholay: The Making of a Classic, and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, both books have been written by the popular author and film critic Anupama Chopra, as the only bona fide bestsellers on Indian cinema.
Writer and stand-up comedian Pal, whose film writing credits include the fairly cult-ish Loins of Punjab Presents (2007) and The President is Coming (2009), concurs with Singh's thoughts on the sceptical publishers. "From films by the likes of the Ramsay brothers, which are unintentionally funny, to films like JBDY, we have a long catalogue of seminal cult films and these are just waiting to be (re)discovered. "
Pal agreed to write about B Subhash's Disco Dancer (1982), because it "is one of the funniest films" he's come across. "A villain who only kills disco dancers and a hero who's picked up a guitar phobia because his mother is shocked to death by an electric guitar. There's little doubt in my mind that Disco Dancer falls in the unintentionally funny category. Unlike a lot of cult films that don't get around as much, Disco Dancer was a huge hit and not every one's happy with my ironic suggestions, " he laughs.
Pal points out to Qaushiq Mukherjee's Gandu (2010) as an example of a contemporary Indian cult film. He laughs, "It has all the right cult stuff going for it. No commercial release, explicit depiction of sex, censor trouble, great music;ready for the underground".
Anupama Chopra on the other hand believes that it's a gradual process that we need to give Indian film writing more time. Over a decade ago when Chopra visited bookstores - at the time she was researching for her Sholay monograph, which eventually won the National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema - she found a grand total of two books on Indian films. "Now most book stores dedicate entire shelves to Indian writing about Indian cinema, " she says.
"The publishing business is hard and book writing is a labour of love. In Singh's book on JBDY and Jerry Pinto's Helen: The Life and Times of An H-Bomb, we already have involved and analytical writing. You begin by picking on the most obvious things to write about, such as Sholay and Shah Rukh Khan, and take it from there, " she adds.
Chopra believes that it's only a matter of time before books are written about Kanti Shah - the legendary B-grade Hindi film director and producer - and films like Manoj Kumar's Clerk (1989). She adds enthusiastically, "I'm waiting for that book on Indian cinema where we identify the so-bad-they're-good cult films."
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