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The king of convention
Like all Madhur Bhandarkar films, Heroine was projected as a scandalous exposê. After taking pots shots at the underbelly of wildly diverse worlds such as those of politicians, bar dancers, socialites, corporates and fashion divas, the self-styled realist turned his gaze inward, to the Hindi film industry.
Given his firsthand experience of being in the movies, it was assumed that with Heroine, starring Kareena Kapoor in what he had earlier hailed as a role of a lifetime, and which, as he unfailingly mentions, has notched Rs 32 crore in five days, he would press the right buttons. But in the end, it petered out as yet another stereotypical Bhandarkar fare, belabouring the obvious. It turned out to be as superficial and caricaturish as was expected of him. For the same reasons that they panned his earlier films, critics were singularly harsh - and objective - on this much-hyped dud.
A typical joke goes that Bhandarkar gets taken in by the newspaper headlines, without actually reading the full report. Having made the headline-inspired sensationalism his selling point, he claims to investigate and explore the dark themes lurking around in our society, and counts a "journalistic streak" in him as an inherent gift.
"I always tell people that if not a filmmaker I would have been a journalist. I am a good observer. Nothing escapes my eye, " he states, taking pains to remind you that his job as a filmmaker is as much to offer an insider's view to the subject as it is to entertain. While his attempts at sticking to realism are courageous in one way, much of the criticisms for his work concern his depiction of women. By portraying his female protagonists as hapless victims in film after film, Bhandakar's work regresses women to a position they have long struggled to liberate from - the bane of being the weaker sex.
It is only a horrific fallacy that he writes strong characters for women. Each of his films, from Chandni Bar and Page 3 to Fashion and Corporate over the years, have taken the line that women are victims, especially in the sexual context. In the Bhandarkar scheme of things, women are ready to sleep with men, not out of circumstances but out of choice. But there is something shameful about this choice;it is almost as if it is in abject subordination to men. So, while on the surface he places women at the centre of the story, the strings are strictly pulled by men who slink around in the background. That leaves the fate of the women to be decided by men. This is one important reason why Bhandarkar's brand of cinema is regressive and often distasteful. Unfazed by criticism, he says he is biased towards the female situation. "If you ask me where it comes from, I will say from the society, from the things around me. A lot of things in the society are best told from the female perspective. " He has been earlier trashed as a master of clichês. To cite an example, one character in Heroine says that in the film industry, either you manipulate or get manipulated. His films are full of such chestnuts and they are too strong and evident to be missed. More than anything, his style of storytelling lacks taste and depth. Aiming for a middle ground between realism and entertainment, Bhandarkar eats humble pie when he mentions that his films have traditionally received mixed reactions. "Critics have their own point of view but I am the kind of person who listens to anything that anyone has to say. There were people who said Fashion has nothing to offer and suggested watching FTV instead. When Corporate released they said it is better to attend the Nariman Point offices than see my film. But I proved everyone wrong when Corporate went to IIM Ahmedabad as a case study. I make films for my audience, not for critics. They cannot dictate what I should do. "
Certainly the subjects he picks are bold and provocative but is that all you need for a topical film with a woman at its centre? Writer-filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who made the film Arth against the backdrop of infidelity, feels most of the female-centric Hindi films today lack the throb of lived experience. "I don't think the bar has been raised beyond what Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil did in Arth, " he says.
In Arth, Bhatt fleshed out the two female characters, one of them an actress, as strong individuals who were financially independent. "At that point in life I had this illusion that financial independence could emacipate women. But the truth was that the women in my world were thought to be complete only if they had a life partner, " he says. He shares the formula that worked for Arth. "It had the heartbeat of life. I borrowed from not only my relationship with Parveen Babi but also from the narrative of the Maharashtrian maid who swept the floor of my house and had a husband back in her slums with another woman in his life. When you project the experience of lived life on screen, it has resonance and beat far superior than all these artificially constructed narratives. "
Juhi Chaturvedi, a young female writer who penned Vicky Donor, feels that most filmmakers fall into the trap of 'playing safe' while making a female-centric film. "If you look at a film like Kahaani, it worked because it did not conform to any conventions. Through the course of the film you only see a pregnant woman searching for her husband and the audience accepted it. Same goes for The Dirty Picture where you see the insecurities of an actress. The problem is that if tomorrow I decide to write an authorbacked film with Tabu in mind or any other actress for that matter, there is always that risk that it may not find buyers. " Having said that, she points out, "But somebody has to take that risk and in the end, the responsibility of change lies with filmmakers who have to lead from the front and take that risk. "
Bhatt has the last word: "We do not have flesh and blood female characters on Indian screens because we are catering to a demographic which perhaps wants a dumbed-down narrative and which is far too happy to settle for mannequins instead of real characters. "
Caricature, superficiality and sugar-coated narratives, he asserts, are the doctor's prescriptions. "Filmmakers want to fit their narratives into '... and they lived happily ever after'. Who wants to see reality?"
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