Filmmakers who rather made mirrors than just movies
Ever since the technology of Cinema was born and handed over to filmmakers as its foster parent, the medium was often manipulated, sometimes humiliated and rarely treated with responsibility.
Our country’s film industry is a living epitome of it where the ‘aam janta’ supposedly prefers Star over Story and showers hundreds of crores on the Hero’s face, yet there are still a few directors fighting for the freedom of expression who, every once in a blue moon, bring a film that creates controversy for being brutally honest, inspires us, leaves us asking questions we never wondered or simply dares to show the mirror to the society.
Such are cinematic gems like Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, Shekar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen, Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Amol Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba, Hansal Mehta’s Shahid and so on.
The one thing common in all the films mentioned above is that they showed the actual state of our country, exposed the cracks in our system, violence on the streets, child labor, poverty, rebelling against the suppressors. It’s something we have either experienced in life or read about in the newspaper. Thus, when such issues are transcended to the silver screen, it immediately strikes a chord with those who don’t leave their brains at home to watch a movie.
One of the most powerful, realistic films of the 80’s is Mirch Masala, set in the colonial India in the early 1940’s, is an inspiring tale about women empowerment. Somewhere in Rajputana / Northern Madhya Pradesh between the two World Wars, the British deployed Tax collectors enjoy a total monopoly over the villagers, looting and snatching from the villagers whatever they desire. The film ends with a motivating and captivating climax where a group of 20 odd women are able to achieve what an entire village could not. That is, rise against the handful oppressors and teach them a lesson.
Director Ketan Mehta went all out to capture the culture and authenticity of that era. Besides the beautifully dominating red color as the tone of the film, Mirch Masala was shot on real locations and it’s a proven fact, that no matter how fine a movie set Art Director constructs, it can never be real enough. But locations and costume alone don’t make a real film, it takes superbly talented actors first and foremost. Led by the stellar cast including Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, and the late Smita Patil, each character feels like an actual living person. At no point, do they come across as fictional.
Also, Forbes included Smita Patil’s performance in the film on its list of “25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema”.
Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen is another milestone in being so real, it feels like a documentary. Right from the hand held camera work to the hair-raising performance of Seema Biswas. Yet again, the film was entirely shot on real locations. The director himself admitted that Bandit Queen is guerrilla film-making at its very height. Perhaps the first Hindi language film to have so many curse words. However, it wasn’t the main reason why the film was banned by the censor board in India, even the acute and frank depiction of the humiliation of a woman and brutality of rape was not the issue here but mostly it was the politics. Where a society and a government controlled by the higher caste saw this film as a potentially subversive film that could lead to political disruption, they simply refused to let it stay in the theaters.
Just like a ‘cause and effect’ theory, it did create awareness towards the on-going court case of Phoolan Devi whose life the main character in this film depicts. Eventually, she was freed from prison, came out and formed her own political party representing the lower castes, galvanized oppressed women to vote for her, and won a seat in India’s parliament. All of this after the film was released.
Take Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti for instance, much like its tagline ‘A Generation Awakes’, the film genuinely awakened and united the youth for a cause. The film closely followed the MIG-21 aircraft controversy and used that issue as a catalyst to bring more purpose to the story. As a result, four weeks after the release of RDB, a Delhi trial court acquitted Manu Sharma and his friends on the grounds of insufficient evidence. This appalling verdict unleashed an unusually vehement public outcry where people placed candles on India Gate and protested like it was a scene straight from the film itself.
Perhaps Anurag Kashyap’s entire filmography is bind to realism. From the hard hitting ‘Black Friday’ to the bone chilling ‘Ugly’, he captures everything that takes places in the open or behind closed doors. His biggest hit, Dev D became such a rage with youths not just for Amit Trivedi’s rocking soundtrack but because it no longer existed in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s time, it was set in the modern, dog-eat-dog world.
In film studies, ‘realism’ refers not only to one of its central concepts, but also to a number of styles, sensibilities, and genres. It’s that grounded approach towards a story which makes the film and its characters convincing and relatable. Thankfully, these filmmakers know that once the gap of illusion is filled, no other film could be as immersive, honest and meaningful experience. Specially, when it depicts who we really are, the society we really live in and the country it really is, in its ruthless manner.