Nepali Times
Critical Cinema
Outside the box


Amidst all the masala, item numbers, and commodity fetishism, it is sometimes difficult to think of Bollywood as having anything to do with art. Around here, 'art' always means something more serious, something that Smita Patel used to do, something that doesn't involve the conventional frolicking. Bollywood may be the biggest hub in South Asia for art and culture, but its perception is neither artful nor \'cultured\'.

In the last month, however, we saw a couple of Bollywood's biggest and scarcest stars come out with films that insist on art's power. First there was Madhuri Dixit, breaking her five-year hiatus for Aaja Nachle by cinematographer-turned-director Anil Mehta, a project that must have seemed very close to her heart. And then last week there was Aamir Khan making his directorial debut with Taare Zameen Par.

Nachle is a story of Dia (Madhuri Dixit), who, in youthful bohemianism, has lost her family and town for theatre, dance, music, love, pleasure and passion. She has returned to her hometown Shamli to stop an old amphitheatre from being converted into a shopping mall and to remind the locals of the value of art. Taare, on the other hand, depicts the world of a dyslexic but inventive moppet, Ishaan, played by Darsheel Safary, whose painterly talent is almost failed by the standardised education system and its nefarious corpus of teachers (that is, until Aamir Khan shows up with his lily-white virtues).

The two films actually have very little in common, but seen together a new kind of cultural theory springs up from them. Well, perhaps not so new because Nachle and Taare also speak, like those who deal with art and culture, the language of value instead of price, of whimsy instead of utility. But with massive socioeconomic shifts on the ground, that typically blind insistence of 'capitalism-eats-tradition' no longer suffices. In critiquing India's modern middle-class ideologies, these films have had to be more nuanced about asserting the unrecompensed pursuit of art and human cultivation in a society obsessed with measuring proceeds.

Unfortunately, these lessons on art do make serious artistic blunders. A film about inspiration, Nachle is itself utterly uninspired. With Madhuri around, you expect at least some matchless dancing; but choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant produces the most hackneyed moves. Taare has some brilliant moments but Khan's filmmaking lacks subtlety and his characters are mere caricatures.

But if allowed, both the films will have you thinking about the place of art in our over-commercialised societies. And thankfully, it's not the kind of art that you venerate demurely. Here, the world of art is the same as the world of fun; and the world of fun is the same as the world of subversion. So you have in Nachle the seditious love affair of Laila-Majnu performed flippantly by Konkona Sen Sharma and Kunal Kapoor. And in the most beautiful sequence of Taare, insubordinate Ishaan skips school to explore the streets of Mumbai, in order having the most visual and tactile experience of the city's enamoring textures.

When art classes are the first to be cut from schools and art columns the most dispensable to newspapers, it is nice to be reminded how great it is sometimes to linger outside the box, out of the boundaries.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)