Against a backdrop of social and economic change, Indian cinema has started to diversify. But it will take more time for India’s new wave of film-makers to compete at an international level
The selection of an Indian film, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Hindi-language Udaan in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, was a big boost for the Indian film industry, especially those film-makers working outside the Bollywood mainstream.
The last time an Indian film was in Cannes’ Official Selection was in 2003 when Murali Nair’s Malayalam-language Arimpara also screened in Un Certain Regard. The last Indian film to play in main competition was Shaji N Karun’s Malayalam-language Swaham in 1994.
Udaan is a likeable first effort from Motwane, and received positive reviews at Cannes, but it probably does not herald a wave of Indian movies appearing in competition at top festivals such as Berlin, Venice and Cannes. Advancements are taking place in the Indian film industry, but more time is needed before these changes produce films which can hold their own against the best in world cinema.
Motwane, his Udaan producer Anurag Kashyap - also a director with credits including Black Friday and Dev D - and their contemporaries such as Vishal Bhardwaj, Neeraj Pandey and Dibakar Banerjee, are subverting the conventions of Bollywood to produce films which speak to India’s multiplex generation. This sometimes means dispensing with song-and-dance sequences and tackling subjects which range from contemporary mating rituals, the ever-present threat of terrorism and the encroachment of technology into city dwellers’ lives.
This style of movie is nothing new but has been growing in volume over the past 10 years. A decade ago, most Indian films were made to play to the widest possible audience - and pretty much every type of genre would be contained within one film. But with the rise of multi-screen cinemas and massive social and economic change, India’s film output has started to fragment.
Even mainstream Bollywood is changing. The mass-appeal films routinely show women in bikinis, kissing couples and heroes flaunting six-packs, all of which would have been unthinkable 10-15 years ago. Ironically, the overseas Indian audience is markedly more conservative, preferring a nostalgic portrayal of an India which no longer exists.
But while the country’s output is diversifying to cater to different audience demographics, the urban movies have not yet managed to break out internationally. Often the themes they tackle, while new to Indian cinema, have already been explored by Hollywood and other world cinemas. And while these films are a breath of fresh air for India, they are usually not edgy or shocking enough for a festival circuit accustomed to Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé.
With a bit of careful positioning, some of these films may have a life overseas, as they portray an India that has rarely been seen on the big screen. India used to have a tradition of social realism in its so-called parallel cinema, but it ran out of steam in the 1980s. Since then, Western sales companies and distributors have only really been interested in films that portray the India of travel brochures, or the slum-kids genre that is condemned by its critics as poverty porn. While films such as Banerjee’s recent sleeper hit LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha might not be cinematic enough for global distribution, they do at least feature real Indian characters leading more or less real lives.
It is yet to be seen whether some of the Western companies that are now working with Indian partners will pick up any of these smaller movies and be able to sell them. It may be the case that these film-makers need to incubate a little longer, focus on their domestic audience and not be overly concerned about getting their films into Cannes.
India’s mainstream cinema is quite deliberately the least realistic in the world. It may take some time to build a strong local industry which can take a candid look at its own culture after decades of films that show only fantasy and fun.