The late Kathmandu winter has turned dreary, creativity is stifled and so it is time to visit the Jai Nepal theatre and take in Bollywood's latest offering. Though it is a gloomy tale of pain and loss and despite some loose ends which will certainly deprive it of an anticipated Oscar, the movie Black has the ingredients to uplift the spirit. Bollywood is finally waking up to the desire for good cinema and the senses that benefit reach out across Indian frontiers.
Hindi films have always been a Southasian phenomenon, since when Lahore was the centre of celluloid and the Pathan hunks had yet to migrate south to Bombay. But back then, the language was Hindustani of the folk boli rather than the stultifying labaj preferred by latter-day Bombay scriptwriters. That was also the time when the titles and even casting used to be in three scripts: English/Roman, Hindi/Nagari and Urdu/Arabic. Somewhere in the 1980s, the Urdu quietly slipped out with political realignments in the northern subcontinental plains. As maverick filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt told this writer a year ago, "What a good idea! Yes, let us bring back Urdu!"
In Black, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali provides superstar Amitabh Bachchan with the opportunity to observe penance for all the television commercials he inflicts upon satellite television audiences from Chittagong to Quetta. It is a well-crafted film based on the story of Helen Keller, with a fine performance by Bachchan as a tippling teacher past his prime who, towards the end, succumbs convincingly to Alzheimer's. He takes on the mission of rescuing the being of a hearing and sight impaired Anglo-Indian Shimla girl, played by Ayeesha Kapoor who grows up into Rani Mukherjee.
The film is targeted at the urban and non-resident Southasian (NRSA) upper-crust and packs a sophistication to match. A production such as this is made possible through diversification achieved by the Indian film market and the emergence of the stand-alone Anglophone upper middle class audience. Gone (perhaps) are the days of one-size-fits-all films with generic packaging including three-hour length, six to eight songs, stereotyped characters and melodrama that simultaneously incorporate extreme tragedy and comedy. Continuing segmentisation has made a film like Black viable, with nary a song, at under two hours, and a poignant plot that demands subtlety in performance and presentation.
When Bollywood brings out fine Hindi films, all Southasia joins in the pleasure. We cannot live the fiction that only (North) Indians watch these productions. But the incongruity remains: even though the larger audience knows no boundaries these films are made for an audience within India and the expat NRI. That is why unsettling chauvinistic productions like Gadar (2001) hit the big screen with regularity and we can only hope for the day when the international box office takings from the Southasian diaspora will reign in the producers. Damage done by the Pakistan-bashing jingoism of a single Gadar cannot be undone by 10 saccharine-sweet bhai-bhai films such as Veer Zaara (2004).
For the moment, the gentrification and enhanced quality of Hindi films has benefited the urban 'A' segment and Southasian diaspora: the lower stalls are pronouncedly empty. We await therefore a further evolution to provide the larger population of the Indus-Ganga basin with better fare. Otherwise, we will forever be stuck in a time warp with bizarre films like the Lahore-made Joh Dargaya Woh Margaya (1996).
As production technologies become cheaper and there is a diffusion of skills, some simultaneous trends must be encouraged. Firstly, there has to be devolution of Hindi filmmaking power from Bombay to other centres. It is incredible and unnatural that no more than a handful of megastars monopolise a market of nearly half a billion. Other centres of film production must evolve in Hindi and as the regional economies expand, they must take in Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi and so on.
The turn of the wheel will also hopefully and at long last bring back regional cinema to the north of the Subcontinent, emulating what has happened in the south. If celluloid is to bring quality entertainment to the thirsty masses, beyond Hindi and its dialects, cinema has to be (re)discovered by Bengali and Punjabi Oriya, Asamiya, Sindhi and Nepali.
While we await this utopian future, it is a good idea to go see Black, as a motion picture that provides some solace in troubled times and as a harbinger better things ahead.