Mumbai’s mainstream film industry is starting to mix serious subject matter with commercial elements for some interesting results, Liz Shackleton writes.

Last weekend was a diverse one at the Indian box office. Opening against Christopher Nolan’s Inception were three very different local films: Cannes competition title Udaan and two movies that broach the subject of terrorism - political drama Lamhaa and satirical comedy Tere Bin Laden.

Lamhaa, directed by Rahul Dholakia (Parzania), deals with the on-going conflict in the Indian state of Kashmir. The cast is headed by Sanjay Dutt, Bipasha Basu and Kunal Kapoor, who are regarded as stars, although not the kind of marquee names that can guarantee box office. Tere Bin Laden, directed by newcomer Abhishek Sharma and starring pop singer Ali Zafar, is about a Pakistani TV journalist who creates a fake Osama Bin Laden video to raise money to emigrate to America.

The two films opened just a few weeks after Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti, a political thriller, albeit one with a large dose of Bollywood gloss, and Aruna Raje’s Red Alert - The War Within, about India’s Maoist insurgency.

While this rash of issue-based films is probably more coincidence than trend, it does reveal a more serious side to the excessively commercial Hindi-language film industry. Films that deal with serious topics are rare in Bollywood — Indian audiences go to the cinema to escape from reality, not to be confronted by it — so anything with a bite is considered box office poison. Lamhaa and Tere Bin Laden both had average but not disastrous opening weekends, although Inception had a higher screen average and played better in the multiplexes.

Censorship is another factor that deters India’s politically-conscious filmmakers. Although they eventually passed muster with India’s Central Board of Film Certification, Lamhaa was banned in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Tere Bin Laden in Pakistan — both key overseas markets for Hindi-language movies. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a film featuring an Osama Bin Laden impersonator might get Pakistan’s film censors hot under the collar, but it’s difficult to see why the UAE would be concerned about a film that is broadly sympathetic to the plight of Kashmiri Muslims.

Then there’s the international market outside the Middle East which is even more difficult. Films like Lamhaa fall between two stools as they’re too edgy for the conservative Indian diaspora, but too commercial to be considered as a festival film. The film’s producers, Bunty and Juspreet Singh Walia, distributed it in the US themselves, but inevitably it made little impact. The producers of Tere Bin Laden are waiting to see the reaction to the film before even contemplating a release in North America.

So with such a wide range of obstacles to face, these filmmakers should be applauded for trying something different. Neither Lamhaa nor Tere Bin Laden are perfect films, but they buck the trend in light and frothy Bollywood. Lamhaa is a brave effort in that it uses mainstream stars to shed some light on a complex situation, while Tere Bin Laden uses satire to tackle the untouchable.

Hollywood has long known how to mix commercial elements with serious subject matter to produce films that can inform as well as entertain, but it’s still a relatively new concept in India. Hopefully as the country’s mainstream film industry evolves and matures, we’ll start to see more of this genre.