Unashamedly escapist, with wafer-thin plots and cheesy dialogue, all punctuated by exuberant song and dance routines, Bollywood musicals are beloved by millions despite the critics’ reservations.
But India’s biggest star Amitabh Bachchan, in Cannes this week for a celebration of Indian cinema at the Riviera film fest, admitted he prefers not to use the word “Bollywood”.
“I just feel that the Indian film industry has its own identity… so I’d rather call it ‘the Indian film industry’, especially now we celebrate 100 years of the Indian film industry this year,” the actor known as the “Big B” said in Cannes.
In fact, Bachchan was articulating an increasingly common view among actors and directors — that there is a lot more to Indian film than Bollywood potboiler musicals.
They argue that just as India has changed rapidly over the past 15 years, so too have the sort of films being made and the people making them.
Four members of India’s new generation of filmmakers on Sunday appeared on the red carpet at Cannes for a gala screening of their film “Bombay Talkies”, an anthology to which each contributed one short film.
India is the guest country at Cannes this year and the event was timed to coincide with the nation of one billion’s celebration of a century of cinema.
“There are a lot of directors who started directing movies in the early 2000s… they kind of took mainstream Bollywood films, big sets, stars and narratives and gave them a very new tilt which reflects the urban India of today,” Dibakar Banerjee, one of the four, told AFP.
Banerjee, 43, said the transformations brought about by economic growth had “created a new generation of filmmakers and a new generation of actors and stars”.
They were working in a number of Indian states, not just in Bollywood, the name given to the film industry in the Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital.
His own short film tells the story of a theatre actor who has been out of work for years and suddenly lands a part.
“There were a lot of filmmakers who were not from the film fraternity, who came from outside — like me or Anurag Kashyap — who came in and started making films about non-traditional subjects with non-traditional narratives and structures.”
In southern states in particular there had been huge changes to the way films were made.
“In the south they have led the way in terms of how to make completely new narratives, new kinds of films and smash box office records. Bollywood has started taking narratives from them,” he said.
Fellow “Bombay Talkie” director Karan Johar’s short film about a gay relationship is an example of the risks some directors are now willing to take with the subject they choose.
Johar, 40, is one of India’s highest-profile directors and a darling of the masses for films starring some of the biggest names in Bollywood such as Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan.
His short film focuses not just on a gay relationship, an enormously taboo subject in India, but also on the theme of denial.
Johar had broken “away from his earlier narrative and structures and subjects”, Banerjee said.
“He has completely discarded his comfort zone and tried to say something absolutely new to the extent that his film has become the most controversial film in India,” he said.
Karan told AFP it had been important to him to grasp the opportunity offered to explore a difficult subject.
“I took it up as a challenge because I knew that if I didn’t do it in a concept like this then I wouldn’t be justifying my presence,” he said.
“I just felt it was very critical for me to take on a theme that I felt very passionate about, a story that I felt I needed to tell.
“It needed to be done and addressed. Normally everyone is pussyfooting around it… but this one is making no bones about it and it’s in your face and out there for everyone to see and judge or diss depending on how they look at it,” he said.
The director, also known as the host of a popular TV celebrity chat show, said Indian society was still “not very accepting of homosexuality” and that “levels of homophobia are quite high”.
The film would probably not “start a movement” but it was “definitely a first” in terms of tackling the subject on film, he said.
Kashyap’s film, meanwhile, tells the story of a boy sent to Mumbai to get Bachchan to taste the pickle his father sells in his shop.
The 40-year-old “Gangs Of Wasseypur” director’s kidnap thriller “Ugly”, exploring the subject of child abduction, got a warm reception when it was shown at Cannes in the Directors Fortnight last week.
The other “Bombay Talkies” film by Zoya Akhtar focuses on a young boy who dreams of becoming a dancer even though his father wants him to be a footballer.
Akhtar, 39, said Indian film was changing to accommodate new subjects.
But she said there would always be a place for the traditional Bollywood musical even if some features evolved.
“Indians like to sing. Indians like music. It’s every family on every occasion, at every picnic,” she said.
“It’s how our folk stories were, they all had music in them… it’s part of our narrative it’s part of our story telling and it’s not going to go,” she added.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]