Has meaningful cinema become meaningless?
What happened to the small productions of a genre known as meaningful cinema, which used to be the domain of art house movie makers like Shyam Benegal and his chief disciple Govind Nihalani?
By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Ever since art house movie makers turned towards an epic style of filmmaking, small-budgeted reality-based films with committed actors - mostly taken from the stage - have become redundant...or nearly so.
Shyam Benegal, who earlier made well budgeted, socially relevant films with Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri - the reigning quartet of art house cinema in the 1970s and 1980s - moved to Karisma Kapoor in his last film "Zubeida".
Govind Nihalani earlier worked with Puri and Patil. His much-anticipated new work "Dev" features an all-star cast of Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Fardeen Khan and Puri.
Nihalani, however, claims that the film is a vehicle for his social conscience and not a celebration of star power.
Avers Nihalani, "It's a fact that Bachchan and company ensure a wider reach for my film. So why not? Why shouldn't I use stars as actors, if they are right for the characters that they play? Why should we hold their stardom against them?"
Ketan Mehta, who made memorable films with unconventional actors like Shah and Patil ("Mirch Masala") and with the director's wife Deepa Sahi ("Maya Memsaab"), is busy filming the multi-million budget bilingual "The Rising" with Aamir Khan in the lead.
However, there has been a definite decline in the clout and influence of art house actors in Bollywood. While Patil is no more, Azmi is doing limited work. Shah is struggling to find the right notes between the international "Monsoon Wedding" and the out-and-out masala product "Asambhav" while Puri has almost surrendered to commercialism.
As for less important art house actors like Pankaj Kapur, Neena Gupta, Pallavi Joshi, Raghuvir Yadav, Deepti Naval and Nandita Das, they've gone to television, or are struggling to keep their head above water in cinema, or have faded away.
Is it the end of offbeat art house cinema as we knew it in the 1970s and 80s? Not so. Because a staunch core group of filmmakers is still struggling to make the kind of cinema that doesn't require established stars to get an audience.
One such filmmaker is that affable actor Rajat Kapur. His first directorial venture "Raghu Romeo" comes to us in the unadorned, unassuming and quiet manner that characterized art house films in earlier times. "Raghu Romeo" features a completely non-glamorous cast helmed by Vijay Raaz who plays the title role.
"There's no attempt to project my film as anything except what it is...a quirky, offbeat work," says Kapur.
The fact that "Raghu Romeo" is a true blue art house product with no frills attached could prove to be its USP. Feted at the Locarno film festival last year, "Raghu Romeo" revives memories of an era when serious-minded films found their metier and a market without having to oversell themselves to the public, as Sudhir Mishra's "Chameli" erroneously did earlier this year.
That the art house film isn't dead is further proven by debutant director Manish Jha's highly acclaimed "Matrubhoomi", a scathing futuristic depiction of patricide in Bihar, with little-known actress Tulip Joshi in the lead. Preview audiences claim the film is as hard-hitting as Shekhar Kapur's sensational "Bandit Queen".
Other directors too have woken up to the potential of the genre. Television director Vinta Nanda is shooting her first feature film "White Noise" with Rahul Bose and Koel Puri in Hardwar.
These glimmers of realism in the glamour-ridden Hindi cinema could spark off a neo-realistic movement of the kind that Prakash Jha, Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta initiated before they moved towards the star system.