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Aug 01, 2012 at 08:41pm IST

Shanghai to Wasseypur: Bollywood's newfound love for small towns

New Delhi: Boy, times – they-sure-are-a-changing! Who could ever imagine (even a few years ago) that movies like Dabangg, Ishqiya, Gulaal, Paan Singh Tomar, Oye Lucky, Ishaqzaade, Shanghai and Wasseypur would not only see the light of day but earn impressive ROI’s along with appreciation from a large section of the snooty metro gentry? Also, who could ever imagine that small-town guys from unlikely places like Faizabad and Gorakhpur, Allahabad and Patna, Jamshedpur and Hazaribagh would wield the megaphone and direct projects that would resonate across the country?

So, wassup guys? Is commercial Hindi energetically powering yet another new wave … unleashing a plethora of alternative narratives, more real, stark and biting, a universe away from the chiffon-champagne, song-dance tamashas of the Chopra-Johar brand? More importantly, as these films make their presence felt in no uncertain terms and directors seal their stamp of excellence with their very own vision and style that combines knowledge, passion and purpose with a definite and courageous intent to push the envelope, will this new cinema attract finance that will walk-the-talk? Simply stated, will the Shanghais and Wasseypurs small-budget, non-formulaic, gritty, realism-based movies finally get funding to go the distance … or are these mere straws in the wind, exceptions [like the 2008-9 Aamir, A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan and Sajjanpur] that keep popping up to prove the rule?

Let’s get real. Movies on small towns and village life with rustic flavour have happened in Bollywood and don’t belong – as believed by some – to Ripleyland! Right from Mehboob Khan’s classic, Oscar-nominated Mother India, to Nitin Bose’s Ganga Jamuna to Raj Kapoor’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai to that exquisite gem, Teesri Kasam, they have been around. Mainstream too in its typical, convoluted way, did throw up the Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke,Ganwar Bandhan,Gora Aur Kala, Dushmans & Melas, with the likes of Gulzar pitching in with Namkeen, Angoor, Khushboo, Kinara and Mere Apne. However, the great difference between them, then and now is … perspective, focus and perception.

Bollywood's newfound love for small towns

A still from the movie 'Gangs of Wasseypur'

In the movies of yore, the small town exemplified a peaceful, uncomplicated and innocent way of life, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble, strife-ridden, corruption-driven and stress-led lives! Bhaichara ruled and the milk of human kindness manifested itself in full-flowing secular solidarity, across the board. These were – in short – branch offices of Jannat (the real thing, not the Mahesh Bhatt version!)

This new breed, unapologetically, beg to differ! Led by the daring, iconoclastic, trend-smashing Anurag Kashyap, this talented and courageous bunch remain committed to explode the myth in their own cathartic way. First, by staying away from Bollywood’s staple template (big stars, exotic foreign locales, sexy songs and glam, glitzy item numbers) next, by totally standing the earlier, much-loved-and-nurtured virginal image of the small town on its head! Placing them as focal centre-pieces of their movies, each and every one of these directors have attempted to smash the old idyllic version and bring a horrific, menacing, gritty update of the real goings-on in this space! Crime, lawlessness, caste-wars, mafia-wars, cross-generational conflicts, inequity, exploitation, rampant corruption … these spine-chilling narratives are a far cry from our idea of the cute, sweet, small towns we’ve known, seen and loved from earlier movies, dramatically turning Jannat to Jahannum!!

Media commentators and social scientists, however, invite the horrified, traumatized, shocked, bewildered and disillusioned sections of the audience to chill, pull back … and get real. The past is history. Rapid urbanization has led to a massive exodus from these small towns to cities, looking for opportunities to live the good life. Also, hardly any recent film – post ’91 – has seriously attempted to focus this story, sky-high as they were on the dizzying impact of the new consumerism that swept the land. Result? While the smug, tunnel-viewed metro-creature had little knowledge and even lesser interest of the other India, the small town guys – thanks to satellite TV and consumerism – were waking up to deliciously savour and sample all the ills of this boom, with aspirational values and greed heading the list!

Like a hand-grenade with its mouth open, all set to explode, this wild, smart and courageous bunch of directors entered the scene with all cylinders firing! Sharp and savvy, they set about identifying and targeting the Achilles’ heel of the audience before zooming in. This, they discovered, in … Mofussil India! Ready-made stories culled from blazing news headlines, observations, first-hand experience and imagination offering lusty, moving, stark, violent and dramatic narratives, raw and rooted, a zillion miles away from the synthetic NRI products, done-to-death, cosmetic underworld capers or multi-starrer toilet humour cornballs, observed Behavorial Scientist Ruby Joshi. To the metro/urban audience, this was cataclysmic, cathartic, a shocking (but voyeuristic) peep into a life of another India they knew little about. It was both horrific and fascinating, much like the fatal attraction that draws the city-slickers to religiously watch their weekly dose of Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate.” Superbly packaged, skillfully crafted, brilliantly executed and magnificently pitched to an eager-to-consume audience for whom this entire terrain/theme/world is unknown, it is little wonder that these products – fleshed out by actors (not stars) of hi-voltage talent – are grabbing eyeballs, big time. Point is – are these films really the new cinema, worthy of all the hype and celebration they continue to receive … and the new directors really the new stars and trail-blazers offering pulsating, exciting, no-holds-barred, creative chutzpah that separates the real from the fluff?

I am not so sure. While these hard-hitting, daring, fearless leaps of faith certainly need to be applauded, encouraged, the over-the-top response from mainstream critics and city-slickers seems wildly disproportionate to the orgasmic hoo-haa’s making the rounds. It is symptomatic of the times we live in. In a I-me-myself driven world, where the metro creature is totally bonded with props that he can immediately relate to, consume with ease, comfort and convenience and derive pleasure from, these dark thunderbolts from the edge – a total antithesis of their version of entertainment – provide a fascinatingly crude and terrifying version of reality that somewhere offers, both perverse thrills and insight into a never-before-experienced experience. This instantly provokes and prompts huge hype and hoopla and anoints this genre as ground-breaking, landmark, milestone among other breathless superlatives. Fact is, clever, smart, sharp, imaginative and creatively put together as they are, in actual fact they are high on hype – low on soul. Aping generously from the likes of Tarantino and Scorsese, these gaali-filled, brutal, unembellished, raw themes, focusing on hard close-ups of life-with-warts-and-all in the badlands of small town, rattle the genteel sensibilities of city-slickers who don’t know how to react; but somewhere – deep down – the exterior and superficialities of both form and content grab them, resulting in … WOW! For any perceptive viewer, however, there is less insight, more (audience-friendly) sound n’ fury. If that is so – you may well ask – how are these films capturing popular imagination and earning big bucks? ‘Simple’ declares respected Journo & Commentator Siddharth Bhatia “way beyond merely repackaging old clichés, it is about celebrating Mofussil India as the new cool and gamcha, as the new fashion statement!” So, while SRK and Salman can do their number in monster-budgeted blockbusters across exotic, foreign locales, like it or not, the newly-converted city-slicker has found a new, real, earthy, daring, violent and lusty lover that rocks …Bharat!