By Sharmi Adhikary: Do I see myself going to the theatres for Prashanth Varma’s HanuMan? Of course, I do. With my excited ten-year-old in tow, the VFX, the larger-than-life canvas, the flying kicks and punches should make the popcorn worth the non-sensically steep price I’ll pay for it. Maybe, I’ll share some observations with friends, too, convincing them to go for the Telugu superhero film. This means an Indian superhero tailored on the lines of Lord Hanuman should any day be better than the synthetic Captain America, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man, no? This one is derived from our own culture and civilization.
The popular narrative being that after being starved of cinema inspired by Hindu religious and historical texts, this is the moment for the audience to welcome and absorb the Sanatani resurgence. And why not? Secularism can be celebrated in its own place, but there isn’t a need to shy away from our Hindu identity anymore.
But then, I’ll also pause to reflect on what has been gnawing at my mind as an urban denizen who doesn’t exactly believe that ‘cinema is just entertainment. As a soft power, movies have been used to set narratives, influence societal dialogue, channel opinions and ambience subtly yet potently. Films also became a platform for aspirations that directly and indirectly affected behaviour of the educated middle class. Hence, while we celebrate the thumping return of Hindu (centric) films (maybe the last ones adapted from Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata were made by Dadasaaheb Phalke after his Raja Harishchandra) that show ancient Bharatiya kings as valorous (Magadheera, Baahubali), freedom fighters and Indian Army personnel as die-hard nationalists (RRR, Major), debunk myths behind our Hindu religious history (Karthikeya 1, 2) shouldn’t we also worry about the overkill?
Grandiose cinema, patriotism, spirituality, Sanatan Dharma are all laudable, but what about intellectual and creative stimulation for urban aesthetes who require intellectual fodder that will provoke them to ask questions, and ponder on contemporary issues thereby triggering the growth of an intelligent, progressive society. Can a Karan Razdan’s Hindutva achieve that end? Is the writing smart enough, and the execution subtle yet strong and stylish?
Being unapologetic is fabulous, because it breathes soul into a belief. Like we saw in Rishabh Shetty’s Kantara where flaws are not camouflaged, thereby negating the alienation the audience might feel. Rather, in dealing with them there is a sense of completion in the evolution of the plot and characters. It is called sensible and clever writing, something that becomes a tricky business when it comes to commercial cinema. But it was the marvelous balance, coupled with solid performances, a relatable cast, awesome cinematography and a story faithful to indigenous traditions,that hooked watchers from the word go. Can the magic be repeated? I hope so!
Right now, the options aren’t plenty though, especially in the Hindi film industry, which has been churning out substandard fare pretty regularly. Except for occasional promises (Adivi Sesh’s HIT 2 directed by Sailesh Kolanu is readying for release in December), I sense a kind of ennui in the urban populace at the lack of exciting and enriching content in the realm of Indian cinema.
There is a strange detachment for want of a better word. It reminds me of the time when the onslaught of Manmohan Desai potboilers and strangely loud commercial inanities set the stage for the parallel cinema movement to gradually firm ground where urbanites couldn’t even gauge how subtle yet sinister communist propaganda through artfully presented intellectual movies detached literate but disillusioned (by the system) city breds from their roots, country, and culture even more!
Any kind of extreme isn’t desirable. That is where balance and restraint works like magic. After all, keeping pace with the brilliance of Panchayat, Gullak, Ghar Waapsi, Avrodh and such thoughtfully written series' is no mean feat. But if it has happened once, what’s stopping from such works that showcase finesse, combine culture with inventiveness and imagination as well as tick aesthetics boxes, being made more often!
This is where I ask, are filmmakers not probing into India’s talent pool of writers or content generators deep enough? Are they being resistive towards intelligent scripts that can probably meld the traditional with the contemporary immaculately to make even our Puranic stories fit into the current context (recall the musical interlude in Ruchir Arun’s Ghar Waapsi featuring a rendition of santoor and saxophone)! Why can’t we have smart movies with characters on the lines of Shakuntala, Dushyanta, Kunti or Radha in their truest essence that will suit urban tastes and grip their discerning mind?
Films like HanuMan (would have been better in animation, may be) will ensure instant thrills, but do such high-strung films have the sublime finesse of Gulzar’s Mausam or Ijaazat, Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam or Padmarajan’s Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal (another Mohanlal treatise worth remembering is the mature Thoovanathumbikal)?
The point also is whether I, as a tier-one city movie lover, can keep going back to it like I would with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Choti si Baat and Khoobsurat, Senna Hedge’s Katheyondu Shuruvagide or say, Paresh Mokashi’s Elizabeth Ekadashi . After all, wit, emotions, music, story, poetic fervour, performances, nuance, as well as the stinging social commentary, enhanced the retentive value of such works. Can all HanuMans, Hindutvas, RRRs, KGFs, Pushpas, Adipurushs and achieve this say even after ten years?
Young urban India, proud of its nation and its heritage of intricate arts, is receptive of commendable work I’d like to believe (or their reception to exemplary craftsmanship can be honed with fine cinema). Well-read, exposed to international content creators, musicians and performers, they deserve to be demanding, too, and given better options.
Why is the urban intelligentsia being taken for granted with offerings of a confused Neha Kakkar, a substandard Mika Singh or for that matter an in-the-face Hanu Man (repetitively towing the Telugu hero worship format no matter how dharmic the subject is) in the name of ‘yehi chalta hain’ when he can be given something more gratifying? Any aesthete, no matter which country he/she belongs to, who has witnessed the orgasmic reaction of the audience to Pakistani singer Ali Sethi’s Coke Studio version of Gulon Mein Rang Bhare would probably have a legit answer to that conundrum.