Can Indian cinema go global?

Bollywood film poster
Image caption India has a strong domestic market that will ensure cinema thrives

Art does not go global because its creator is consciously working towards a worldwide impact.

Certainly, there are a number of factors that go into making the cinema of a particular country global.

Take, for example, Iranian filmmakers like Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf or Abbas Kiarostami, who have a fine tradition of making cinema that finds a resonance all over the world.

You have to put their work in context. They are filmmakers who tell limpid tales of human relationships about the people of Iran and are often critical or the political and social oppression in their country.

Their cinema resonates with the West; they are the toast of international festivals. But Abbas Kiarostami told me that it would be interesting to find out how much of an audience he has in Iran.

And the Coen Brothers may be the first to admit that not many people may have seen their film Fargo in the city of Fargo!

Reflecting realities

Before we begin figuring out why Indian - or Bollywood - cinema hasn't gone global, we need to ask a few questions.

Do we have a cinema that truly reflects Indian realities?

Image caption Films like Dibakar Banerjee's "Love, Sex and Dhoka" are redefining Bollywood

There are many Indias - there is an India of rich, gated communities, and there is an India of poor villages, and there is an India where the state has withered away and Maoist rebels rule.

Let us first begin making films on these many Indias, dwelling on our many identities. It won't happen with one film.

These films will affect each other, and there will be a domino effect. When this happens, we will automatically have a rich tradition of Indian films that depict Indian realities and also entertain audiences at home and abroad.

So has Indian cinema failed itself - and the country?

To a certain extent, it has, the same way many of our things have failed us. It has failed India the way indigenous literature has failed India.

We need a more questioning tradition of cinema that calls a spade a spade. We need a cinema that will stay in the audience's mind for more than four weeks at the box office, which is the commercial yardstick for the cinema of instant gratification.

Bollywood is not to blame alone; Hollywood is going through a similar crisis.

Typical consumer

Is it fair to blame Bollywood for its perceived lack of imagination?

Maybe not entirely.

When the English-spoken media in India clamour for a better quality of cinema, what they desire is a cinema that is forged in the Western tradition of storytelling and narrative.

Image caption Bollywood offers a respite from a hard life

What this ignores is the fact that, today, urban and small-town India are the main consumers of Bollywood because that is the only entertainment they are offered.

A New Yorker can choose from cinema, a Broadway play, a vaudeville show, a musical, an art show or a jazz and blues concert. People living in London, Paris and Barcelona have similar choices. Cinema is only one of them.

Now look at a typical Indian consumer of Bollywood.

She's a 40-year-old housewife, who gets up at the crack of dawn, makes breakfast for her kids, takes a three-hour-long ride on a crowded suburban train from a Mumbai suburb to the city.

She works hard, and in the evening takes another crowded train for the three-hour journey home, during which she even chops vegetables to prepare dinner for the family on her return.

During the weekend, all she wants to watch is a movie that lulls her, the kind of cinema Bollywood is adept at producing. She has no energy or mind space left for anything else.

I am not defending Bollywood here.

Cinema is improving, different kinds of movies are being made, studios have begun backing independent cinema, and cineplexes are ensuring an audience for smaller films.

But some severe problems persist.

Image caption Bollywood has a massive following among the Indian diaspora

Over the past two decades, many directors who have come to Bollywood cannot read in Hindi, the language of the film. They only read English. Sometimes their only recourse to material is writings by Arvind Adiga or Chetan Bhagat.

The scriptwriters come from elite, urban backgrounds and write Hindi films in English. Then a dialogue writer comes and writes the dialogue in Hindi. There are actors who can't read Hindi fluently.

The other problem is that over the past two or three decades we have corrupted our film language in many ways by indulging in over-emphasis, sentimentality, repetition, over-simplification, triteness and being utterly conformist.

When you speak in this language for such a long time your tongue deadens, it doesn't move very well. Now some of us are taking baby steps in trying to make a cinema that is questioning, that is not repetitive.

Give people like us a few years to develop that style and technique, because we are still simply not good enough. It will all depend on how we take care of ourselves not to get totally suborned by big industry.

Out of all this, some cinema which finds a resonance with international cinephile audiences will emerge naturally.

For the rest, India has a strong domestic market which will ensure that cinema will thrive and remain viable without needing to be successful overseas.

Dibakar Banerjee is a leading Indian filmmaker, whose next film, Shanghai, adapted from the political thriller Z, releases in January. He spoke to Soutik Biswas.

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