Experimentation still the buzzword in Bollywood

Never mind the flops. Bollywood is persisting with shrugging off time-tested formulas.

A majority of this year's films such as Sridhar Raghavan's "Ek Hasina Thi", Vishal Bhardwaj's "Maqbool", Srinivas Bhashyam's "Paisa Vasool", Sudhir Mishra's "Chameli" and Puneet Sira's "I: Proud To Be An Indian" have shunned shallow formulas to make deeper thrusts into the politics of popular entertainment.

And though these films haven't been spectacular successes, the directors are determined to push on in the same direction.

Sudhir Mishra, who's ready with his political thriller "Hazaaron Khawaishen Aisi", will now be directing a film for Manisha Koirala's production house based on a script written by Vishal Bhardwaj.

Manisha's first production, "Paisa Vasool", has subjected her to severe losses. "But please, no stale formula films for me," she vows. That seems to be the mood of most moviemakers in Mumbai.

Pritish Nandy, whose production "Chameli" bathed itself in glory, has signed on several new filmmakers, including Leena Bajaj who's so far directed only on TV.

Bajaj's debut film "Shabd" will feature Aishwarya Rai, who is currently in Kolkata shooting Rituparno Ghosh's experimental Hindi film "Raincoat" with Ajay Devgan.

"Shabd" will be photographed by the debutante's husband Aseem Bajaj, whose work in "Chameli" has won him rave reviews.

"The scenario has never been more conducive to new talent. The formula is definitely dead and buried," says maverick producer Pritish Nandy happily.

Mani Shankar, currently shooting a very unusual military movie, "Tango Charlie", is undeterred by the cold response to the just-released "Rudraksh". The film pushed the envelope by taking the sci-fi genre into Hindi mainstream cinema.

"But I still can't figure out why the critics took swiping pot shots at the film... I admit I must have made some mistakes in the film. But I won't stop making the kind of films I believe in."

The guarded critical support in Mumbai for films that bend the rules is certainly a problem. Very often unconventional films are derided for being pretentious, over-ambitious or both.

"It's like a no-win situation for us," says producer Nitin Manmohan, who invested unconditionally in making "Rudraksh" India's first upmarket hi-tech film.

"If we continue to make the usual films, we're condemned for being cowards. If we try something different, we're told we're being foolish. What do we do?"

The makers of "Rudraksh" have been criticised for miscasting.

According to some trade experts in Mumbai, the film didn't jell with audiences because Sanjay Dutt (typecast as a gangster) was cast as a spiritual healer while Bipasha Basu with her bombshell image was cast as a scientist.

Laughs Akshay Kumar: "When we play super-heroes we're told we're playing it safe. When we play something different we're warned we're miscast. It's very confusing."

Bollywood's mainstream cinema is going through a period of tremendous turmoil. While the formula is undoubtedly dead, no one knows where to take mainstream cinema next.

Experimental films are being appreciated only at the multiplex theatres. But the majority of the audience still lives in the smaller cities with large single theatres that need to be filled.