Shabana Azmi once said, “I think Shyam Benegal with Ankur (1974) really made it possible for what was called parallel cinema to happen [in Bollywood]... Ankur became a very successful film and paved the way for other filmmakers to be able to make such films.”
At the time that Ankur was released, Bollywood was dominated by violence-ridden films, most of which featured Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man; the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand was considered a thing of the past (and perhaps with it the Golden Age of Hindi cinema) and India’s first superstar Rajesh Khanna ‘an undisputed romantic icon’ had been forced to abdicate his throne to Amitabh Bachchan, ‘a one man army’.
Since then, Bollywood has continued to churn out one formulaic film after another and although their production values have improved drastically, as have their storytelling techniques, it would be fair to say that the key ingredients of the biggest hits of all time continue to remain romance, violence and music.
In contrast, one could argue that ‘art films’ have evolved (they are now referred to as ‘alternative cinema’) and if you were to compare the films released in the late 1970s and 1980s (such as Bhumika, Bazaar, Garam Hawa and Nishant) to those made since the early noughties, such as Zubeida, My Brother Nikhil and Dhobhi Ghaat, you are bound to notice that the cast of the former was, to a large extent, limited to stars such as Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Om Puri as well as the late Smita Patel and Farooque Sheikh.
Furthermore, while mainstream actors like Rekha and Dimple Kapadia did experiment with films such as Umrao Jaan (1980) and Rudaali (1992), they were but two among a handful of exceptions, as were filmmakers such as Hrikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar who tried to bridge the gap between art and commercial films.
In contrast, today’s ‘offbeat’ films have considerable star cachet; actors such as Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, many of whom are considered A-list actors in terms of their box office clout, have tried their hand at alternative cinema, and have worked with a growing base of filmmakers willing to explore subjects that are not run-of-the-mill. Many of their films have not only won awards, they have for the most part, been able to more than recover their production costs at the box office, mainly because audiences have now matured and do want to watch more experimental cinema.
Keeping this in mind, perhaps it is not surprising that two of the 10 Pakistani feature films released this year, Moor and Manto can also be termed non-mainstream fare; while they may not have done as well as the bawdy Jawani Phir Nahi Aani, the fact that they were critically acclaimed in Pakistan and overseas goes to show that audiences in Pakistan are also maturing, and perhaps that is the reason why filmmakers are also willing to explore non-mainstream subjects. The forthcoming Mah-e-Meer, which is believed to centre on the life of the poet Mir Taqi Mir, and features Fahad Mustafa, Sanam Saeed and Iman Ali also substantiates this. Keeping this in mind, perhaps it is then safe to say that there is commercial potential for Pakistani filmmakers to explore offbeat subjects and produce work that is as cerebral as it is engrossing. The question remains, will they take up the challenge or continue to go down the well-travelled road of commercial cinema?
Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development and Research, DAWN. firstname.lastname@example.org