Monday, August 31, 2009

Open Magazine feature: The superstar problem

The modern filmmaker who strives to walk on a path of his own making asks for too much. He requires money, a commodity that is at once everywhere and nowhere in Bollywood. He discovers that the future of his tightly bound baby depends not on the firmness of the script nor on the probable cost of production. If his film is ever made while he stays true to himself, he will attribute it to hard work and luck. Mostly to luck. And to praying, with all his might, that no one asks who the star is.

The star is at the heart of everything. This we know now, again. In the middle of this decade a theory found favour in Mumbai. Like so many others, this too sprung from naivete. Cinema, it seemed, would finally be true to itself, and be free from the tyranny of stars. Finally good stories would be told, finally intelligence would be rewarded. Movies such as Black Friday, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Socha Na Tha, My Brother Nikhil, Manorama Six Feet Under and Johnny Gaddar revealed themselves at multiplexes. The last of these movies came two years ago but it seems an age. All were starless. We now know that stars are a necessity because stars are a condition; too many people can’t quite do without them. We know that with stars comes notice, and baggage too—more than a director needs.

And what happens, when that first starless movie by an idealistic filmmaker is done and dusted, and acclaim has come his way? Why, doors open. He telephones to say, “Hey, this is Navdeep Singh, the director of Manorama Six Feet Under”, and the big men invite him in. They know a finely directed movie when they see one, but pity about the box office. They tell him about their romantic comedy and ask him to direct it the way he did his own murder mystery. He emerges from meetings wondering what just happened. They tell Raj Kumar Gupta, the man behind Aamir, that they have a movie just like Aamir for him to direct (Who says man writes his own destiny?). It’s enough to make a director interrogate himself unreasonably. Is there something wrong in his approach, is he a misfit, or worse? He considers a life not in Indian cinema, but in Bollywood. He considers taking refuge in compromise.

Compromise. The word whose meaning every filmmaker wrestles with at least once. Two years after Manorama, Singh lights up one stick of Classic Mild after another outside a Juhu coffee shop and talks about how this consideration manifests itself. “There’s a strong temptation… I mean, that’s where the money lies, that’s where the success lies. I’ll admit I feel a little jealous of the people I know. They drive BMWs, have a 7 crore flat. It’s actually less work to make those kind of films. It’s a different kind of work, I suppose, but I think it’s less work because the costume person is handling costumes, not the director.” He chuckles in wonder of it all. “Same goes for the music. It works pretty independently. You’ve got to be able to enjoy that way of working. Unfortunately the kind of films I make would not necessarily attract the kind of money my children would appreciate.”

Some encounters leave small filmmakers wondering. When a popular mainstream actress heard how many songs a director’s new movie had, she called it an art film. “Not one more,” the director recalled her saying. “I’ve just done three.” One of the three—as mainstream as it gets—was arty to her because the lead had changed his facial appearance. “The definition of mainstream in India is still very narrow,” he says. “Anything outside it is not even considered hatke. It’s considered arty.”

“It’s not that we won’t work with stars,” says Raj Kumar Gupta, “In Hollywood, big stars care about the script. They don’t care if you’re a first-time filmmaker or a second timer. Over here not many stars will be interested, unless you have the backing of a big filmmaker/producer.” Gupta recalls producers being excited by a script he had written. “One producer said he would fund it if I had a star. But the story was about eight losers. The first thing a star would have asked me is, ‘Am I a loser? Why the fuck have you come to me if I’m a loser?’”

Stars are part of the overarching, all-consuming belief that every element in a movie has a value attached. And that the sum of those values must result in a profit. “A producer will say ‘Okay, I can get Abhay Deol’. He will get out a calculator. Thak-thak-thak. ‘Achcha, second lead mein Irfan dal sakte hain. Sab mila ke budget itna hai.’” For an idealist filmmaker, the ones with reputations for being difficult, the belief is understandable but alien. “For me it’s got to be about something more than money,” Singh says.
It should be, but rarely is in this city.

Mazhar Kamran, a director of photography for Satya and Kaun, is nervous about his first directional venture. Mohan Das, about an over achiever who slips into ruin after losing his identity, has no stars. It features Nakul Vaid and Sonali Kulkarni. Kamran found a financier willing to bear the low cost of production.

With that he imagined that his struggles were over. But Kamran found distribution a challenge instead. Distributors refused to buy the film—on the basis that there were no stars. “That’s what the whole thing comes down to. You will find people who back you, who fund you, but you will find it difficult to get into theatres. That’s the barrier. But the market works like this. How do you break that?” Kamran’s next movie will be produced by Venus. “They will want a star,” he says like a child who knows his summer vacation will soon be over.

The answer to this impasse, with the wannabe and the producer/exhibitor staring at each other across a table, is slight deception. “The only way you can sell something in this town,” says Singh, “is by giving your movie a genre. Call it an action thriller. You cheat a bit. You stress the more commercial aspects of it. You call it a rom-com and then sneak in the things you want.”

Producers can’t be blamed though, according to Singh. Not for their demanding stars, and not for their “lip service to better scripts”. They, and everybody else, are hostage to audience tastes. “ Viewers want new stories, but at the same time are looking for stars. Look at Chak De. You need a Shah Rukh Khan driving it. You could replicate it frame by frame, but can’t put in a Kay Kay Menon.”

In this, entertainment is a cog in life, with our expectations of local life translating to cinema. “I don’t see [the star system] changing soon. That’s how our politics is. Everything is about individuals and stars. That’s exactly how entertainment works. That’s how we expect everything to function. Look at the police. There’s one superstar cop. Everyone expects him to deliver. It’s like no other system exists.”

So the small filmmaker’s struggle isn’t against an industry but a culture, a way of being. Money isn’t the driving motivation, and it isn’t fame either. “That’s where the awards go, the money goes, the public adulation goes,” Singh says of the commercial cinema scene. “So the only person you’re doing different stuff for is yourself. My wife says I’m the most selfish bastard she knows.”


Varun said...

Nice feature. And Navdeep is one guy I like a lot!

Star-system has gained prominence with more and more corporates jumping in the production business, loaded with public money to spend. They care two hoots about the script or production values, all they know and want is to 'commit' their annual balance sheets to certain pre-fixed numbers.

Hence, Akshay Kumar signing 7 films for 30 Crore each and other such mindless stories! While 'Mohandas' didn't get a proper release even...just 4 cities and around 20 prints!

Lack of innovation mars the whole chain - small films should have a DVD market focus too, like many Indie films in US and UK do, multiplexes can have different ticketing systems for small films (lower ticket rates, annual vouchers, digital projections etc.), and corporates can market the films better (why are they ignoring online media is tough to guess. And esp. smaller films will get better mileage from online ads)

But yes, with Anurag, Dibakar, Navdeep, and Jaideep Varma around - hope still flickers.

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