The annual Indian screenwriters’ conference was held last week in Mumbai. The fourth such gathering organised by the Film Writers’ Association based in the same city had, what I believe, was a flawed theme: do our stories reflect India’s reality? The keynote speaker was the journalist, Palagummi Sainath, whom Amartya Sen once called one of the “great experts on famine and hunger”, and who is somewhat conveniently placed to argue that Bollywood does not represent the real India.
My disagreement with this statement is twofold. Firstly, screenwriting is an art, and, like all art, its essence is openness in interpretation and it does not owe it to society to act as a mirror. Secondly, the crux of the conference, to be meaningful at all, should not have focused on whether stories in Bollywood reflect India’s reality, but rather whether they should reflect India’s reality at all.
The argument is somewhat like mirrors and windows: if people want a mirror, they should stop complaining about what they see when they look at a window. There are census bureaus, polling organisations, data collection and research centres, and, of course, National Geographic, to represent countries for what they are, to show people a non-fictional account of what India is and so on. Films, like stories of yore, have always been windows to let imagination escape, to heighten our senses, to present a larger-than-life portrayal that may or may not be grounded in reality. Ashok Vajpeyi spoke of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both stories rich in culture and moral but in all likelihood skewed when it comes to portraying reality — but then again, whose call is it to make? My point simply is that it is unfair to demand that film scripts be, above all else, subservient to reality.
I am not a fan of Bollywood. I cannot deny that, occasionally, a remarkable film is made whose worth nobody can deny. And more often (unfortunately) films get made whose worthlessness dumbfounds everyone. But to say that India is where story telling began and then expect that to last forever would be resting on our laurels. The first step is to recognise that several other countries make more meaningful films than India during any given year — and Hollywood is likely not at the top of this list either as far as my opinion goes. The next step is to realise that our stories not portraying “Indian reality” is the least of our troubles and is certainly not why we lag behind today.
The problem, with my limited understanding of the nuances of how a film “industry” works, lies in three directions: one, everyone wants to make a quick buck and the priority is often to make a film and release it rather than sit back and take time to think about making it better; two, far too many filmmakers underestimate the acumen of the Indian audience, thereby filling their work with a nauseating level of exposition and spoon-feeding, ensuring that nothing, especially not the film, comes in the way of our enjoying a tub of popcorn; three, we need actors, not film stars.
I do not think we have a shortage of good actors, we do, however, give immense attention to film stars. Entire productions sometimes run on the presence of film stars and end up ringing hollow when it comes to the story. Conversely, the handful of films that are made with interesting stories, carrying good explorations of emotion, go unnoticed and fuel the fire claiming that the presence of a film star is central to a film’s success. Measuring films by their commercial success rather than their critical weight (not unlike measuring the worth of scientists based on their number of publications) dismantles the meaning of a good film altogether. And then, of course, is the new question that seemingly came out of nowhere: do our stories represent India’s reality?
Should they, really? On the one hand are flat arguments like “Bollywood does not make documentaries on a commercial basis”. But I get that that is not what the Conference was about. It was not about pushing for documentary-style films but rather to write fictional stories that are more representative of reality in this country. I will be the first to admit that fiction mixed with facts is the most exciting type of fiction, but as far as screenwriting goes, our imaginations are the limits (or the budgets are, more often than not, but I digress). This harkens back to criticisms of white men playing black characters in films, which I frankly have no problems with. They are actors, and if a white actor cannot convince me that he is a black rugby quarterback, then he is a bad actor. Likewise, black people should, with some make-up, be allowed to play white people, Chinese people, Indians and penguins if they can pull it off. Why not?
On similar lines, the fallacy lies in assuming that Indians alone should make films about India, or that Indians should not make films about America or Sweden or Japan. And vice versa: if the Japanese made a film about India, I would enjoy watching it (or I would detest it) but — and this is the important bit — my like or dislike of the film will have nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that people of some culture or country made a film about another culture or country; instead it would be based solely on the merits of the film as an art.
When was the last time any member of the audience went home crying about a lack of realism? Criticisms would have most likely centred around bad acting, aimless directing, inappropriate dances, and fight scenes that choose to ignore physics altogether. Because when someone goes to watch a film, they want to escape reality, to be able to lose themselves in a world the director creates for them, real or unreal, positive or negative, it must be believable to someone who is sufficiently open-minded. The problem with films is neither that there are no good stories nor that there are no good artists, but rather that people are settling for whatever drives sales, and that nobody is trying hard enough while those who do usually remain pitifully unrecognised. ❖