The politics of filmmaking

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The politics  of filmmaking

Recent releases Udta Punjab and Shorgul prove that mixing Bollywood and politics may not be such a good idea after all

By Khalid Mohamed

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Published: Fri 15 Jul 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sun 7 Aug 2016, 1:33 PM

Recently, two films, loaded with political content, faced dire opposition from the Central Board of Film Certification. Udta Punjab, an exposé of drug trafficking in the northern state, amassed globs of publicity in the process. The other one, Shorgul, which was also passed after much brouhaha, was a low-key premiere, perhaps because it couldn't boast of a frontline star cast.
Director Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab, produced by the endemically controversial Anurag Kashyap, has turned out to be a decent cash-earner, according to the trade vigilantes. By and large, the critics raved about it because of its audacious theme and cutting-edge direction.
The episodic drama bristled with elements borrowed from Hollywood, while also incorporating shades of the late rock star Jim Morrison and Yo Yo Honey Singh's struggle with bipolar disorder.
The campus crowd, especially, thumbed up the movie, whose box office collections could have been infinitely higher if its print hadn't been leaked on the Internet. Kashyap immediately alleged that the leak was done by the censor board. On the other hand, the much-praised censor chief, Pahlaj Nihalani, dismissed the accusation. An official investigation was initiated. No point though. The damage had already been done.
For sure, Udta Punjab had its volatile and impactful moments, enhanced by the appealing performances of Alia Bhatt as an oppressed farm girl and Punjabi superstar Diljit Dosanjh as a conscience-stricken police officer. On the downside, the film had its flaccid passages and did go overboard in its use of cuss words. But then such language - as contrasted to the literary-inflected dialogue of cinema of the 1950s and '60s - is believed to be in sync with the colloquial argot used all over the world. So why bleep out or object to realism?
Coming to Shorgul, co-directed by the unheard-of P Singh and Jitendra Tiwari, here was an exercise in slipshod filmmaking, exacerbated by a none-too-subtle agenda. Based on the 2013 communal riots of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, the screenplay sought to absolve the UP Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, of any form of blame. In the film, the Chief Minister's name was simply altered to Mithilesh Yadav. Clever? Not quite.
Despite kowtowing to powers-that-are, Shorgul wasn't released in the cities of Meerut and Muzaffarnagar to prevent violent protests. This did make front-page news. However, the audiences kept a distance from the film, which was rejected commercially as well as critically. The concept of politics blended with an inter-caste love story was narrated with a style that was unbearably hysterical.
Some relief in Shorgul by way of plausible performances was provided by Ashutosh Rana, Jimmy Shergill and TV actors Hiten Tejwani and Eijaz Khan. To put it politely, the Bollywood debut of the Turkish model, Suha Gezen, enacting an imperilled Muslim girl, turned out to be a vast disappointment, indeed.
Indeed, the lesson learnt from the hullaballoo surrounding Udta Punjab and Shorgul is that it just isn't feasible to make political cinema - whatever its eventual quality may be - within the Bollywood super-structure yet. Overridingly, there are the mounting 'no-nos' ordained by the central government's censors. Any critique of the political machinery has raised the hackles of every ruling party without any exception.
Plus, there is the issue of incorporating populist conventions like song and dance item numbers, a mushy sub-plot (Udta Punjab couldn't avoid a section devoted to a budding romance between Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt), besides, of course, the presence of marketable star names to gain footfalls at the multiplexes. Needless rhetoric, bombastic dialogue and unchecked violence have also been mandatory since decades immemorial.
In the event, do the film archives of India store any cinema of the purely political kind? Fortuitously, they do - thanks to the output of unconventional filmmakers.
Over time, uncompromised critiques have been advanced by Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray (towards the autumn of his life), Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, MS Sathyu, Goutam Ghose, Ketan Mehta and Shaji Karun. The Delhi-based Ramesh Sharma who has made only one feature film ever with New Delhi Times - investigating the nexus between politicians and media barons - has chosen to take a backseat rather than resort to formulaic fantasy ingredients.
No doubt, gutsy writers and directors could reach out to a worldwide audience with political films of spleen and substance. Given the hazards though, political cinema of the insightful kind just doesn't seem to be possible, in the near or, for that matter, distant future.

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