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When real is unreal
Reality is a still a fantasy in Bollywood. Little wonder that Farhan Akhtar plays Milkha Singh, all gym-contoured abs and biceps.
The promotional ads for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag show a rather muscular and excessively gym-conscious Milkha Singh, racing across the track in slow motion, a figure of rippling biceps and contoured abs. Had this been the real Milkha, India would doubtless have secured a silver or bronze medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. But as far as I remember the real athlete was lean and skeletal, closer in physique to African runners rather than the brawn depicted in the film by Farhan Akhtar.
In Martin Scorsese's 1980 film, Raging Bull, Robert de Niro's depiction of the self-destructive life of boxer Jake Lomotta, required him to gain weight and fatten his body, while Ashton Kutcher thinned out suitably to become Steve Jobs in the yet to be released Jobs. Akhtar's physical regimen to suit the real character was equally commendable, but the muscular heroism of the Bollywood stereotype still prevailed. Had the director chosen to graft the body of the real Milkha Singh onto Akhtar, he would have got him to narrow down to a sinewy bird-like original - the Flying Sikh. Perhaps then Milkha Singh would have emerged as the real hero that he was. But then it would not be a Bollywood movie and a hero, like anyone in the film audience, would not make the grade.
Milkha Singh was - and still is - one of the India's legendary sporting inspirations, a man of great integrity and immense modesty. In times when heroes were not made by Pepsi endorsements, the flying Sikh's fourth place was truly commendable. Rakeysh Omprakesh Mehra, the director of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, has done the legendary Sikh a disservice by turning him into a hero of the present Pepsi generation - a lacklustre iron-pumping, fleshy, nameless poster boy, the kind that hangs around gyms, or makes deodorant ads.
The desperate bid to make reality better than it is has become the unfortunate trademark of a film industry that refuses to believe that ordinary life can be recorded without trumping up and fictionalising. After all, Bollywood too is part of the Indian need to shout louder than the rest, and rescue the message from noisy oblivion. Films must use exaggeration and extravagance as legitimate props to make a point. Is it a wonder then that no Indian director has made a biopic on Tagore or Nehru to the likes of Lincoln or Gandhi?
The excesses of movie making - its flamboyance, the special effects, stunt artists, and 3D effects, can all convert the most ordinary of human interest stories into fantasy. So enthralled are directors with the hype of technique that everyone becomes a James Cameron. In the 2005 movie Black, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the extraordinarily gifted director begins the story with delicate and unusual perspective, but then gets so carried away by his own sensitivity, that the film becomes an entangled mesh of beautiful shots, entirely redundant to the story. Both Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, blunder about from frame to frame, at the complete mercy of the unusual artwork. So tortured is the director by the burden of art, that the eventual outcome is sluggish and cumbersome, a disjointed collective of beautiful images that do nothing for the film.
The excesses of Bollywood which earlier merely relied on palatial marble backdrops and silver tinsel clothes to get across ideas of affluence, now work the same magic with extreme action: namely, violence. In the end bathroom scene in the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur, a gang leader is shot so many times while seated on the commode that he begins to drown in his own blood. Bullets rupture and enter his skin, blood spurts and splashes in cruelty so gruesome, unthinkable and senseless that the director again becomes mesmerised by the excess.
To convey the full force of the violent act, the scene is shot in slow motion, carrying on for so long, that the shock of the brutality quickly dissipates into silliness and eventually into farce. A lazy storyless story, without any developed empathy for character, place or relationship, it drifts mindlessly from assassination to bombing to murder, till exhaustion and fatigue again overtake the screen. Violence so grim and relentless loses all power to shock. By not allowing real characters with real lives to emerge and touch upon human dimensions like emotion, love, empathy, compassion or other forms of frailty, the director creates a virtue of incoherence and relentless action. The director in fact defended the film as a realistic depiction of the sadism of the coal mafia and the truthful rendition of the badlands of Jharkhand.
In the past decade, Bollywood's attempt to entertain with its new form of realism is a move away from earlier formula films. However, the effort is half-baked and unreal. Crime, medical trauma, or biography, the excessive need to deliberately arouse and stimulate reduces any real story to a mind numbing tedium. Violence is never diluted with human decency;technique is never compromised to fit the actual narrative. The artificial magnification is so heroic, it defeats the larger tale. Bollywood's boredom with itself leads to a narcissism where the ordinary story, hyped to screen proportions, reduces everything to the trivial. The rippling muscles of the fake Milkha, the unlikely violence of Wasseypur, or the ephemeral beauty of Black's camerawork, will keep us believing that the best depiction of reality is still fantasy. At least in Indian cinema.
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