Saturday, August 05, 2006

kaThor prudery

Despite good notes, Vishal's Omkara only managed what trade pundits seem happy to call a decent opening. The film had a big budget, and the opening in India wasn't as great as predictions would have had it to be; yet we're not in Mangal zone yet. Everyone's so eager to blame the "failure" of the film on the dialogue: the dialect and the cussing.

Family audiences can't go and watch this because of the cussing; oh yes, it has an A certificate, by the way. I don't really recall a time in my movie-viewing past where the implications of a certificate issued by the atavistic censor board were enforced by cinema hall owners. I remember hearing about group of friends being asked to leave a screening of Cliffhanger, but I also remember finding out that Parinda had an A certificate only after I had taken a good seat in the cinema hall.

It was a welcome wonder that RGV's Satya made it to the screens with the cuss words intact; The censor board then seemed to go through a phase of mental regression with the outrageous judgement it passed (no pun intended) on Anurag Kashyap's Paanch. And now in 2006, except for the small matter of the petticoat, Omkara hit the screens sounding as real as it could get (arguably) as far as the dialogue was concerned.

Everywhere else, though, it would seem that a Bollywood film needs to be accessible to a family audience in order to click. No Entry, last year's biggest hit, was the perfect family entertainer laced with irritating songs, risqué dances, and a not-so-funny remedy for the n-year itch. See also: Garam Masala, Kya Kool Hain Hum, Maine Pyar Kyon Kiya, Shaadi No. 1.

Mayank Shekhar does a nice job[1] discussing this prudish behaviour exhibited by the audience; he also notes how contextual some of these cuss words have actually become. Unfortunately, this is all we really have: a short article, and films like Bandit Queen and Omkara.

Saibal Chatterjee explores similar concerns in an article in today's Hindustan Times:

So what if families are staying away from Omkara. By no means should that be an indication of how good or bad the film is. The quality of a film lies within it, not in external factors like mass appeal and commercial performance.

Even on the latter score, Bhardwaj's wonderfully well-crafted film is an achievement that is way out of the ordinary, especially when compared to the welter of mediocrity that Bollywood usually wallows in.

I try not to use the "better than the rest of Bollywood" argument, because I think it limits my ability to appreciate or denounce a film. The first argument, however, rings true but also seems destined to become a truism, because you will often find people, who, thanks to the media machinery and Bollywood, have equated quality and box office success.

Why do we suddenly have issues with the language? Haven't we been strengthened by a slew of hit films covering all sorts of "family-friendly" items like rape, murder, vigilante violence, seduction, polygamy, jingoism, revenge, lechery and the like. And if you're still so sensitive about the kind of films we watch, why can't you do a bit of research before venturing out to watch a damn flick? Sure, you'll miss the strange first day first show thrill, but at least you won't be wasting your time and ours by blaming the film for your ignorance. Of course, some people won't even take good advice. I've seen people who've insisted on watching Zinda even after I had told them about Old Boy and that Sanjay Gupta's rip-off was not exactly the regular comfortable candy-floss entertainer that demands only one brain cell. Several minutes later, people were squirming and looking away (and ignoring the fact that they were bored out of their wits as well).

And that brings us to the issue of the dialect. Vishal responded to criticism against the film in Mumbai Mirror[2] interview. The most relevant extract follows:

The language used in Omkara is very difficult for the audiences to understand. Don't you think if you had used Hindi instead, it would have worked better?

I think the language of cinema is more important that[sic] the actual dialect used in a film. We do appreciate international and regional films which have rich cinematic content, don't we? I think it's unfair to say that the language has created problems in understanding the film. I am told that that people are understanding the jokes and reacting to the scenes.

I can confirm this. I was in a theatre in Atlanta, GA surrounded by desiis of various confusions and places of birth. I didn't hear complaints about the dialogue; I could hear people laughing at all the jokes; (I was also impressed at how quiet the hall went during the final sequence); I too, not being familiar with the dialect at all, could follow what was happening. It seems like this inaccessibility comes not from the film itself but from the audience.

The only variety I see in the list of factors affecting the film's performance at the box office comes courtesy Prakash Jha, who's handling the distribution of the film in Bihar: the film is rich in technique and employs light and shadow and a lot of silhouettes. Small towns do not have the projectors to show it with clarity. If anyone's listening, it's time to ape the west and get some multiplexes out to the remote areas -- even though we can't (and don't seem to want to) address unimportant issues like education, poverty, water and electricity, we've managed to sharpen our multiplex-building skills; we might as well put them to good use.

It's bad enough that a lot of critical hosannas miss noting just how effective Vishal's transplantation of the Moor's Worst Gaffe to not just the Indian milieu but also the Bollywood ethic has been. People have been cribbing about the twist in Omkara and how it seems to lose the power of the original in the play. They seem to forget that in Maqbool, which they loved as an adaptation, Vishal had "twisted" Shakespeare's original text in a crucial manner: Lady Macbeth was Macbeth's wife (duh!) but Nimmi could never graduate from being Maqbool's mistress.

Vishal's efforts pale before Karan Johar's "daring" attempt at tackling the failure of the modern Indian marriage in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna aka KANK. In her NYTimes article Anupama Chopra discusses this forthcoming flick and Rajat Kapoor's Mixed Doubles (a non-mainstream film that I haven't finished watching, but have enjoyed every minute of so far). The article ends with a Shobha Dé quote that also serves as a juicy example of just how bad things have become: 'Mixed Doubles' is art house. We think, 'It's not about us, it's about them.’ But a Karan Johar film is definitely about us. The closing rejoinder in Uma's post (which is where I found a pointer to the Chopra article) says it all.

KANK hits cinema halls on Friday, August 11. Omkara has till then to run up some more box office numbers; once the Johar opus plays its pipes, only a few of us lame kids are going to be left behind.

Time to go listen to BC sutta again.

[1] it's a Mumbai Mirror URL, so life expectancy is nil; if you have problems accessing the page, drop a comment on this post and I'll find a way out.

[2] yes, Mumbai Mirror once again, if you have a problem getting to the page, drop me a comment.

addendum: [august 06, 2006]: The fun doesn't end. Another goulash of trade shock appears online. It even picks paraphrases portions from the review by Tenacious Trademaster Taran (aka the Reviewer From Hell): 'Omkara' is dark and disturbing. The generous use of the cuss words gives the viewer cold sweat. The writers could have toned down the expletives in the film. Also, the tense moments get too heavy after a point and would work only for those who appreciate realistic cinema. T3's review also had the gem certain dark scenes could've been better lit, which makes me wonder if he was on the censor board when they did the number on Paanch.

addendum: [august 06, 2006]: More fireworks. A DNA article notes that Devgan, Kumar Mangat and Vishal are upset about rumours that the film is a flop. Mangat notes that the film did Rs. 31 crores worth of business worldwide in just seven days. I wonder if that really reflects a gain, because there's no mention of the distribution costs and agreements for this film in India and overseas. It's unforunate to see things come to this. IBOSNetwork hasn't published any figures for Omkara yet. Meanwhile, the aforementioned article contains no quotes from Vishal, who is contributing time at Subhash Ghai's Whistling Woods International.

addendum: [august 08, 2006]: (warning: this article references a plot element that many might regard as a spoiler) Subhash K Jha asks Vishal the same questions and Vishal has candid responses:

The graphic Hindustani expletives have embarrassed and put off a lot of people, specially women and children.

I don't see why. It's the characters mouthing those words, not me. I'm not the censor chief. The censors understood my intentions as an artist. My characters don't use forbidden words to play to the galleries. I'm trying to create a reality.

The abuses are done in a cheerful not in a malicious way. The censor board has exercised its democratic right by allowing the cuss-words. They very kindly gave me the choice of either erasing the expletives and giving me a 'U' certificate or retaining the expletives with 'A' certificate.

I chose the latter option because I knew in any case that the film isn't suitable for kids, with or without expletives. Sidhartha of "Rang De Basanti" called to tell me kids in the theatre while watching it were in splits at the expletives. I don't know how they got in.

And as for women, I think men in the audience feel self-conscious in women's presence. Women are quite comfortable watching the expletives in groups of their own. In any case, the language wasn't dictated by who'll be shocked and who'll not. The characters spoke as they should. I've never made a film keeping audiences' sensitivities in mind.

And if audiences are so offended by the language how come the film is doing so well everywhere? I'm going to my hometown Meerut right now. It's a sensational hit there.

addendum: [august 09, 2006] Uma tears up Tenacious Trademaster Taran's review of the film.

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