It is perfectly okay for Indians to hold their filmmakers to international standards and demand that they produce art which satisfies creative tastes while supplying entertainment.
Last week Christopher Nolan’s take on the historic Dunkirk evacuation, Dunkirk, opened to near-unanimous praise and great viewer interest. Critics have hailed Nolan’s attention to detail (which included using battleships from the actual evacuation), dazzling imagery and the film’s ability to move without resorting to fake heroics. To me, this feat is even more astounding considering the fact that Dunkirk, unlike some of the other great war movies like Saving Private Ryan, is not even about a great military win for the allies. Stripped of all its connotations and context, this is essentially about how a large group of armed forces were saved from getting killed.
Which raises the question: why does Bollywood rarely, if ever, produce a movie like Dunkirk?
In sports, whenever the comparison with developed nations is made (When will India produce a Wimbledon singles champion?), the tendency is to immediately point fingers to the broken system, lack of infrastructure and corrupt government machinery. Unfortunately, none of these arguments help Bollywood in this case.
Dunkirk is not a big-budget film in today’s context. Adjusted for purchasing power parity, movies like Dhoom 3 and Dilwale cost about the same as Dunkirk. Also, Nolan has significantly cut down on CGI to rely upon what can be called as practical effects. In any case, anybody who has watched the visually spectacular Baahubali franchise can attest that in terms of visual effects, Bollywood is lacking neither the know-how nor the budget to compete with the best in the Hollywood.
So then, what stops our film houses from producing movies like Dunkirk?
First of all, unlike Hollywood, Bollywood does not really have a category of films or filmmakers that straddle the art with the commerce of movie-making. Unlike Hollywood, where big budgets are allocated to films with an artistic vision that defines the respective generation, Bollywood spends big budgets primarily on commercial, masala films only.
It is interesting to compare the awards of both industries in this light. In Hollywood’s premier award, the Academy Awards, the movies competing for top honours often have very little commercial appeal and yet they have the A-list stars and directors working in them. In Bollywood’s premier awards, very often the top movies competing are also the top grossers of that year. The idea of a commercially top-drawer actor like Shah Rukh Khan winning an award for what can, at best, be a competent performance in films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, is as unthinkable to Hollywood as the idea of A-listers like Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto going through complete physical transformations to play AIDS patients is to Bollywood. So, in an industry where commercial success is often tied to peer recognition, it is difficult to produce films that are creatively risky and yet need a reasonably large budget.
Secondly, our heroes are larger than life and not afraid to flaunt that status. So the idea of an ensemble film where big stars have shared screen time goes against the grain of the “Who makes a film hit?” kind of ego. In the late 1990s, Terrance Malick’s searing look at the Guadalcanal battle during the Second World War, The Thin Red Line, had superstars like John Travolta, George Clooney and Woody Harrelson having fewer than five minutes of screen-time each.
Other than vanity cameos (mostly song and dance sequences), it is hard to see any Bollywood star agreeing to do that. Earlier this week, Vivek Agnihotri, during his speech at my novel’s release, said whenever people in India are told about a new film, their first question is “Who is starring in it?”, whereas overseas people are often more interested in what the film is about. Even taking some generalisation into account, one must admit this tendency might also be coming in the way of visionary film-making like Dunkirk.
There is also the fact that Bollywood, with all its overtures to the twenty-first century and liberal ideas, still remains one of the most patriarchal industries where the creators are still clinging to an embarrassingly outdated notion of masculinity. Heroes kill villains (always using their own hands), heroes win heroines over (even if it means stalking them to start with) and heroes don’t age. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone calmly attends his nephew’s communion while his henchmen murder all his opponents. That is the equivalent of Hrithik Roshan praying in a mandir while his men kill Sanjay Dutt at the end of Agneepath. Hard to imagine, eh? A film like Dunkirk, where even the protagonists are at best following orders and saving their own lives, may not appeal to our eight-pack-flaunting actors with their notion of hyper-masculinity.
Again, does Hollywood not have those? Of course, they do. In Hollywood, terrorists can shut down an entire country and still lose to a foul-mouthed, techno-illiterate cop like Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4. But in Hollywood, a Tom Hardy can provide counter-balance to Bruce Willis with equal commercial appeal. Bollywood does not simply have a category of risk-taking and commercially bankable actors. The efforts made by a few actors in Bollywood would have to count as an exception rather than the rule.
It is also possible that filmmakers (Hollywood and Bollywood) with politically left leanings find the idea of war itself an expression of ugly nationalism, and hence would not like to spend money and their creative energies on making movies about war. A few years ago, Clint Eastwood, as respected a director as he is, was accused of propaganda for making American Sniper. This sentiment has perhaps become more pronounced in India after the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance rode a popularity wave to an election victory in 2014. Bollywood, which has often made movies like Fanaa, Roja, Mission Kashmir or Maachis that show various separatists in a sympathetic light, may not wish to make a movie glorifying soldiers for the fear of stoking the nationalist sentiment that they are already deeply uncomfortable with, even further.
Whatever the reasons might be, Dunkirk should serve as a reminder to us viewers that in an increasingly inter-connected, globalised world, it is perfectly okay for us to hold our filmmakers to international standards and demand that they produce art that satisfies our creative tastes while also supplying entertainment.