2017 Wishlist: Getting Our Cinema Out Of Dumbing-Down Pit And Making Films That Connect 

Vivek Agnihotri

Jan 06, 2017, 03:40 PM | Updated Jan 05, 2017, 03:23 PM IST

A still from the movie Dangal (Source: <a href="">Dangal Official Trailer</a>)
A still from the movie Dangal (Source: <a href="">Dangal Official Trailer</a>)
  • I am convinced Indian stories can have a bigger market than the current trend of window-shopping in foreign lands.
  • I like to go out of Mumbai, for months, to write my scripts. Yeah, it costs more to the producer but the value is immense. Very often, in film production, one finds people who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This is the reason why the cost of filmmaking has soared and the value is scraping the bottom. Why is it that in India, in a given year, not more than a few films (out of several hundreds) are valuable films? Why is it that most of the films do not surprise us? Why are they not adventurous? Why are they so mediocre? Why does the audience reject 90 per cent of the films? Why are we constantly blamed for the dumbing down of our cinema? Why?

    Investment in research and writers

    The biggest complaint of the audiences is that our films are set in La La Land. We create a world which is neither real nor fantastical. Mostly, it is illogical. Which is why a lot of films meant for an adult audience are consumed by five-year-olds. This happens because there is hardly any faith in the script and the research that should go behind it. A lot of filmmakers these days are moneyed kids who haven’t stepped out of Bandra. Their sense of reality is strangely opposite of what India is all about. Some of the recent films which wanted to cater to the “cool” Indian youth have proved that they have no idea about the real “cool” Indian youth. They assume that Indian youth is about Paris, short clothes, no purpose, no values and no ambition. They deliver what they see in their limited universe.

    The Indian youth is studying hard, struggling for a job and trying to create his space in a fast-changing economy. This gap between the perceived reality and the ground reality is directly proportional to the dumbness of our cinema. I hope the producers invest in research and development where they employ rooted people who can present the Indian reality as the foundation for a typical Bollywood fantasy to be erected. I hope that our producers give a chance to these poor writers to take out few heartwarming, real and human stories from their bags.

    A progressive and relevant television

    Another big challenge that needs to be addressed immediately is the advent of the stupid. The real, emerging consumers of cinema are the youth of this country. Today’s youth has grown up on modern television. Modern TV has slowly, steadily and systematically uneducated the cinema public. It has changed the comprehension of cinematic imagery. It has deconstructed the language and grammar of cinema and converted a big part of cinema’s audience into a “commercial break” audience. TV is a medium of fleeting images and information and low-impact content. So, a whole generation, which has grown up on TV entertainment where one doesn’t have to concentrate, where one doesn’t have to comprehend, interpret and imagine, is not ready to appreciate cinematic language.

    That’s why good cinema has to struggle to find an audience. TV has contributed quite effectively to this “dumbing down” process with regressive, unreal and Stone Age stories. The single-minded focus on grabbing the audience’s attention has given birth to stupid characters, stupid cinematography, stupid plots and stupid ideas. To make it worse, the queen of TV, Ekta Kapoor introduced Madrasi cuts (repeated cuts of the same expression with blaring music) and monstrous camerawork, topped with rehashes of Bollywood songs, leaving no scope for the audience to think or imagine.

    I hope the TV think tank concentrates on discovering Indian stories and use its immense variety and depth to challenge the IQ of our cinema. A strong competition from TV is always beneficial for cinema. The quality of American TV shows is so high that their cinema has no other route but to excel.

    Multiplex monopoly and exploitation

    Multiplexes have changed the whole dynamics of film distribution. When multiplexes came, one thought it would open a world of choices for the audience. But…but…but….the people who own multiplexes are not in the film business. They are in the amusement business, “we also show movies” types. And the cost of running this amusement business is very high. So high, that this business can’t afford to experiment. This business has no patience. Quick-turnover-high-volume is its DNA. With the advent of multiplexes, movies are now released on 1,000-4,000 screens, loaded with huge star fees and marketing budgets. So, any film which is not making big money is shown the door immediately.

    A film which is not star-studded needs time to find its audience. And that audience is not a first-day-first-show audience. They are slow starters. Laggards. Due to a lack of marketing blitz, these movies survive on word-of-mouth and favourable press. This is a slow process. And before it can find its audience, it is being gobbled up by another blockbuster, backed by a huge campaign that dominates the media noise. The multiplexes, therefore, need to come out with a policy where it is an affordable, just and equal-opportunity distributor.

    There isn’t a single example in the world of marketing and distribution where a product is not segmented by price. Which means that the price corresponds to the size and volume. A Mercedes costs more because more money is invested in its engineering and quality. Only in our box office system does the ticket for a Rs 3 crore film cost as much as that of a Rs 200 crore film. So, the audience which spends a huge amount on a ticket seeks instant value for money. Instead of absorbing the story and characters, it wants instant rewards. That’s why we see so much emphasis on style, item songs, locations, costumes etc and desperation to keep the audience distracted from the absence of a powerful story. This system is fundamentally faulty. A fundamentally faulty system soon becomes an exploitative system. This must change. Smaller films need to be given a chance to survive.

    Make cinema experiential, again

    Because of this fundamental flaw, the entire effort is to make blockbusters and bring in the audience with marketing muscle and hype. A hyped up audience wants more excitement in the film, which is impossible to match. This audience seeks instant gratification. It wants to consume over-simplistic, feeble content.

    I have been told, on many occasions, by studios, producers and stars to keep the storyline very thin. In fact, only yesterday, I was told by a film tycoon that a recent movie is so successful because it has a very thin storyline. When I started my career, a star asked me to keep the story minimum so that even an idiot can understand it. The buzzword here is to make an idiot-proof movie. Therefore, what comes out is also idiotic cinema. Cinema with no sense of reality, common man or history. It is a cinema with no context and no content.

    A film with context and content is perceived as “different” or “experimental” or “arty-sharty” types. Initially, nobody cares about it. Then it begins to sink in. It starts moving some people. It starts to create its own ecosystem, but not for long. There comes another blockbuster and it’s out of the theatres, reinforcing the industry’s collective belief that these kinds of movies are only for the film festivals. Sigh.

    Make filmmaking less corporatised

    Now, the bunch of executives at corporatised Bollywood, who earlier worked in Procter & Gamble or Unilever or Nokia, close the window for these movies. And these executives are the third most important part of this dumbing down process. Why, one may ask. Because no talented, ambitious filmmaker is going to do those jobs. He’d be out on the sets being part of filmmaking. But big corporations need big numbers of executives.

    These people have nothing to do with cinema, but they are good with numbers. Since they don’t know a thing other than numbers and they have to deal with people who know nothing about numbers, they get nervous. These hundreds of nervous executives end up deciding what to make. So they end up making what can be quantified. Without realising that some of the biggest blockbuster classics were started with an instinct. But here, it all boils down to budgets, number of prints, star fees. Nothing wrong about that if only we add content, research, passion and value to the list.

    Films are not made now from the position of conviction, confidence or courage. They are made with fear and manipulation, all focusing on the bottom line. They are made to be idiot-proof. From the point of view of what one wants to hear, and not what one wants to say. That’s why there is no bravery, no adventure, and no surprises in most of the recent movies. Don’t feel bad, as it’s not happening only to cinema. Look at our mainstream media. Everyone is becoming part of a dumbing down process.

    Bring India and its common man back

    India is a god’s gift for filmmakers. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, we are full of such a wide variety of mythological stories, folk tales, fables that we can keep producing engaging content for centuries. We have fascinating history and myriad current conflicts. Wherever we look, there is a crisis, a conflict. We need to invest in them so that people find a reference point.

    It’s unfortunate that despite giving birth to four major religions, we don’t find any insights on these greatest of the human creations in our cinema. Our films fail to reflect our society, our people, their culture, the architecture, their motivations or aspirations. If a foreigner picks up some of our latest blockbusters in order to learn about our culture, society and politics, I am sure he will end up learning more about New York, London and Paris.

    I would like to see our producers invest in our stories. The Indian stories. I am convinced Indian stories can have a bigger market than the current trend of window-shopping in foreign lands. The unprecedented success of a small budget Marathi film Sairat and a mega budget film Bahubali are perfect examples of what Indians actually want to see.

    Indian cinema can be divided into two eras—the era of the common man and the era of the NRI. I call it the pre-SRK and post-SRK eras. With the increased demand from the NRIs wanting to reconnect with their roots, Indian cinema saw increased revenues from NRI-dominant markets like the United States, United Kingdom, West Asia and Australia. Filmmakers instantly understood this trend and started delivering the content that suited their demands. This NRI audience wore Gap T-shirts but was proud of celebrating Karwa Chauth. A strange mix of modern and ultra-cool surface and regressive content became the order of the day.

    This formula brought in so much money that the makers started depending only on the ultra-cool surface and slowly the common man died in our films. The concerns and scenarios started looking alien to Indian masses and they started rejecting film after film. So, the producers migrated this ultra-cool hero to Indian cities and villages. The geography changed, but the Hero still remained alienated. And the audiences remained indifferent. I hope to see this common man resurrected in our cinema.

    The “audience wants it” argument is inane, irrelevant and mediocre. I don’t believe that the audience needs to be titillated and sensationalised. I don’t believe that a film is for weekend consumption only. I think intelligence and quality need to be pushed back into the audience’s expectations. What should be a standard has become an exception. I believe that cinema is modern literature. I think it’s a medium through which my children are going to connect with history and the world. For cinema shapes our worldview. Cinema touches our hearts, our lives and fills us with hope.

    In a recent movie, the heroine says it’s all about “Entertainment….Entertainment…Entertainment.” This dialogue found resonance amongst people responsible for the dumbing-down process. Very often producers use this dialogue to reinforce their line of argument for pathetic content. My answer to them is simple: “If cinema was just entertainment then it’s not different from circus.”

    I think the biggest challenge for us in the days ahead is to get our cinema out of this dumbing-down pit. Freedom Song

    Vivek Agnihotri (@vivekagnihotri) is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, public speaker and thought leader. He has made an award-winning film on urban Naxalism – Buddha In A Traffic Jam. His book Urban Naxals was released in March 2018.

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