Reports say that Vishal Bhardhvaj’s Omkara is a good film and a flop. Karan Johar’s KANK is a conservative film and a hit. Critiques feel that this tendency in the career of films where a good film flops and an average film hits is regrettable. We all share such a feeling, more or less. But I feel our categories of good and bad films is not very useful to understand the situation, given that good and bad are relative terms and cannot be applied without some subjective preference. In this context, Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s distinction between Hindi cinema and Bollywood cinema is useful.
According to him Hindi cinema is one where the film and its world – its inner and afterlife as it were – has a traditional approach. Hindi cinema is geared towards the Indian middle class market, made with an established grammar of aesthetics, even when non-conventional, it orbits the older world of cinema.
As against this the Bollywood film is geared towards the glocal, towards the borderless, is depthless in value, indulgent in emotions, conservative in outlook, and generates its money through a variety of novel ways. Thus in terms of its inner life (actors, storyline, emoting, its costumes, tunes, locales etc) and its afterlife (distribution, promotion, use of allied media, etc) these two are different. Bollywood is for Rajadhyaksha a culture in itself.
Here we seem to see the difference that can work, at least to some extent. Films such as KANK are ‘born hits’ in the manner the film is surrounded by its afterlife; ones such as Omkara (leave alone a Kasarvalli or Shyam Benegal production) have to fight it out in the good old manner. But with much of the revenue being generated today by the shows in the multiplexes rather than good old theatres, Hindi cinema starts with a limp compared to Bollywood cinema. The audience who make the box office jangle at multiplexes prefer less intensity and more emoting, less radicality and more conservative outlook, as long as the Janus faced modernity so typical in
Indiais in place: a westernized behavioral world with a neo-brahminic cultural value.
I don’t know about Omkara and KANK, but today most films fall broadly into Rajadhyaksha’s categories. In appeasing the new middle class with its surface passion and core conservatism Bollywood film has left Hindi cinema behind; Hindi cinema of both the kinds: the daring type that ventures to explore the new and ask questions and the traditional type that is conservative but is not made in the mould of Bollywood or doesn’t have the cultural and marketing trappings of Bollywood.
In such a scenario Shyam Benegal cannot any more make a Manthan. His genre is forced to engage in a dialogue different from the earlier ones. And with a different interlocutor. Not that parallel cinema ever did well in box offices, but it seems that today the very possibility of making such films is hardly imaginable. Ideological shifts are perhaps one reason; I also feel that cinema as a media has shifted decisively towards postmodern aesthetic grammar and parallel cinema doesn’t fit in.