What’s making the best non-Bollywood cinema tick and the lessons big-budget Bollywood can learn from it

Big Bollywood is petrified of angularities: what if the mass gets turned off? The broadest of brushstrokes are still the default mode. But do look at how badly a Tubelight (Salman Khan) or a Jab Harry Met Sejal (Shah Rukh Khan) has fared: both helmed by the most powerful Bollywood A-list club.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi | Updated: August 27, 2017 1:41 pm
R Madhavan, R Madhavan pics, R Madhavan images, Angamaly Diaries , Angamaly Diaries pics R Madhavan plays a cop with copius swagger in the Pushkar-Gayathri directed Vikram Vedha. Angamaly Diaries captures the rhythm of small-town India.

On the map, Angamaly is just a tiny dot on the outskirts of Ernakulam, Kerala. In Angamaly Diaries, it comes fully alive, and you are drawn into the doings of a small town which revels in its here-and-now small-townness while busy sprinting ahead, at the same time.

It is this state of flux that director Lijo Jose Pellissery catches in the rumbustious, often outrageous, almost always entertaining Angamaly Diaries, a small Malayalam film which has become a runaway box-office success, and attained an instant cult status in film-loving outposts.

Those of us who raced off to catch Angamaly Diaries, buoyed by terrific reviews and WOM (word of mouth), came back exhilarated. It didn’t matter that many eager viewers were not native Malayalam speakers: what mattered was the film, which, like all good films, transported us.

It is, in one word, picaresque. A loose, episodic ramble of rogues, ranged in a gallery of 86 new faces. They are not evil, conventional villains. That would be most dull. They are not artificially quirky, but have believable quirks. Rogues can be lovable, and you fall in love with most of the Angamaly boys-grown-into-men, especially the dreamy eyed lead, Antony Varghese playing Vincent Pepe, who falters but finally finds his path.

Most of the running time of the two-hour-and-some film is taken up with fizzy, fast-paced scenes of cooking-eating-drinking-scuffling, seguing from the easy and laid-back to the much more serious, where lethal accidents and deaths occur, and the comedy becomes very black indeed.

If it was just drunken louts belting out colourful ditties and laying into each other, Angamaly Diaries wouldn’t be the film it is. What it does is to show us a place from the inside, locking into a particular time, with an array of characters who look as if they’ve risen from the soil. Not grafted. Which is why the lines and situations are so natural. Which is why we believe, instantly.

Vijay Babu, the producer of Angamaly Diaries, cannot hide his glee as we chat over the phone. He won’t divulge numbers, but clearly their shoestring budget has come back, multiplied several times over. The story came from the director and the scriptwriter (Chemban Vinod Jose), both from Angamaly, so authenticity was never going to be an issue. The real bold stroke, says Babu, was in the casting, and the team’s unshakeable decision to not take any stars (many “requests” came their way; each one was nixed). “In all my films, I have taken new directors,” he says. “This time, I was very clear, let us have experienced technicians, but completely new faces.”

All these elements — an engaging plot, interesting characters, flavourful atmospherics (all the food on display can make you ravenous if you are a fervent meat-eater; a staunch vegetarian told me that he was happy watching all the sizzling meat because it gave him an instant idea of what the people ate, and, consequently, where they were coming from), and a real sense of place and time, has turned Angamaly Diaries into one of the biggest breakout hits of the year.

Will it impact filmmaking in Kerala, going forward? Babu thinks so: “We have shown that it is possible to make a successful film without stars.” This business of going local and finding universal relevance isn’t new. Whenever a film mines its knowledge of the place it springs from, it usually connects with viewers everywhere. What’s new, particularly in the last four or five years, is that more of these films are releasing outside the states they were made in, and for. And many more of us are aware of these films, and looking out for them.

Subtitles and the proliferation of social media — these are the two things that have made a huge difference to the availability and awareness of films from other parts of the country. Filmmakers are increasingly more willing to run off a few subtitled prints, confident that online chatter will precede it. And exhibitors are being pushed into, however reluctantly, creating a slot or two for these films from the outside.

I caught the gripping Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru (D 16), a crime-thriller-police procedural in Tamil, after lucking into an exchange on my Twitter timeline. Barring a couple of glitches here and there, D 16 turned out to be a solid genre film, which keeps you guessing. It is set in Coimbatore, goes back and forth in time, and at the heart of this murder mystery is a middle-aged man who lives with the painful realisation that, sometimes, death doesn’t come as an end. The plot is busy, but the bigger themes of love and loss stay visible, and that’s the true strength of this debut feature, made by Karthick Naren, all of 23.

Did he say 23? Yes, he says, laughing. The reason why D 16 works so well is that the story is the real hero. There are no distractions from well-known faces fighting to fit in. Which is why star-driven big-budget Bollywood can never make a credible murder mystery, because the star needs to fulfill his starry street cred, and the plot is peppered with scenes (and, shudder, songs) to that end. Who killed whom becomes secondary to song sung blue, and truth goes out of the window.

Naren, who came to his first feature through short films, tells me he was lucky to find the perfect producer: his father, who is not a part of the industry. A film made without compromises is the perfect calling card. Established director-producer Gautham Menon is producing his second, which will go on the floors in a few months.

Part of the charm of D16 is the setting: Naren comes from Coimbatore and knows it from the inside. The town is an integral part of the plot, just like in Angamaly and just like the Mandya district of Karnataka is the setting of the delightful Thithi, directed by Raam Reddy. Its procession of delightful people and the language they use could only have come from that village. Nowhere else.

Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, a searing tale of doomed young love, has been optioned for other languages. But, from all accounts, the faithful Kannada remake Manasu Mallige, starring the very promising Rinku Rajguru, who reprises her role in Sairat, isn’t half as effective: when a film comes together, so do all its parts — the tongues it speaks in, the locations it is set in, and the faces it shows.

There has also been talk of Bollywood producer-director Karan Johar making a version of Sairat: how would that pan out, from a man who only knows urbania? It’s not as if caste and conflict don’t play out in urban spaces, but then it (if it gets made and is set in a city) would be a vastly different film.

This question — of specificities that define places and people who live there — has plagued Bollywood for a long time. The bigger the stars, the bigger the budgets, the fuzzier the films are. In their desperation to appeal to a massy, pan-Indian audience, the old, hoary no-name-no-place la-la land is still liberally used.

Big Bollywood is petrified of angularities: what if the mass gets turned off? The broadest of brushstrokes are still the default mode. But do look at how badly a Tubelight (Salman Khan) or a Jab Harry Met Sejal (Shah Rukh Khan) has fared: both helmed by superstars, both part of the most powerful Bollywood A-list club.

dangal, dangal stills, dangal aamir khan, dangal photos, dangal pics, dangal aamir khan stills

The same audience has embraced Aamir Khan’s Dangal (2016), directed by Nitesh Tiwari. That’s because Aamir, also an A-lister and a superstar, decided to go angular. Or rather, tubular: he wore his big gut low, dared to go grizzly and growly, and admitted to being the father of four young women. Dangal is the biggest hit to have come out of India, not just Bollywood, and it is still going strong globally, not just locally.

If Bollywood, which for better or worse is the popular face of “Indian” cinema globally, learns just one lesson from the Dangal story, it could be a willingness to tell real stories realistically, and give us, for the sake of all that’s holy, a plot and a setting we can buy.

Why is that so hard? Basically because of the way star-driven projects get priority in the value chain. Producers, distributors, exhibitors, all get excited when it’s a star, and start dragging their feet when it is not. Will it change anytime soon? A long-time industry watcher is sceptical, because fattening bottom-lines is where it’s at. What if, though, those tired tentpoles start to crash? What if we don’t want to see those films at all?

Will it still be all about numbers?

Smart cinema in other languages, especially Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali and Marathi, have been routinely adding arthouse elements into their mainstream narratives. It’s now happening in other languages too. It makes the storytelling sharper and more stylish, and adds the crucial freshness and flavour that we, as viewers, are constantly seeking. If it’s not new, it’s not a view: it’s a blank wall.

This mix, of suffusing genre conventions with arthouse nods, makes storylines much more exciting. Take, for example, the Tamil-language Vikram Vedha, directed by Pushkar-Gayatri: its gangsta-and-cops-and-robbers aesthetic is shot through with tactics that immediately make you sit up and take notice. R Madhavan plays the cop-who-thinks-he-is-always-right with a swagger. Vijay Sethupathi’s bad guy out-swaggers the policeman.

The film, based on the myth of Vikram-Vetaal, is after a bigger conceit: will black and white always remain on either end of the spectrum, or can the two meet? As the film proceeds, with lots of slo-mo shoot-outs and loud background music, we see the grey growing. That good can also be bad is a cliché, but the way Vikram Vedha does it, breaks a few moulds. It will certainly be on my Films of The Year list.

The saturation of colour is something most blockbusters have to depend upon — any variation can chase the audience away. But in cinemas which are comfortable moving away from the tried and tested, there are experiments underway. In Prasad Oak’s Kaccha Limbu (Marathi), which deals with the difficult subject of disability, not strictly from the usual point of view of the disabled person, but from the parents’, black-and-white is the hue of choice. “No one focuses on the sadness of the parents. I wanted to show their vyatha. Their lives are so colourless,” he says, “that I chose to shoot it in black and white. Only when there is a flashback, or there is a shot out of time, I use colour.”

Kaccha Limbu is just one of the many Marathi films which have been straddling the mainstream and middle-of-the-road space for over a decade now, and which is capable of reaching a wider audience: disability and the difficulties that parents’ face, is a universal phenomenon. The fact that it has subtitles will make it easy to access when it comes to a screening up north, which may happen soon.

The main reason why Marathi cinema is so rich in texture and subject is because a lot of it borrows from literature (Kaccha Limbu is based on Jaywant Dalvi’s celebrated novel Runanubandh). The other reason, of course, is that big stars contribute. Sonali Kulkarni plays the mother in Kaccha Limbu; well-known director Ravi Jadhav plays the father. Riteish Deshmukh, who works in big-budget Bollywood, both produces and acts in Marathi cinema; now Priyanka Chopra has joined in, on the production side.

It’s not as if Bollywood stars do not greenlight tricky subjects, but it is still a rarity. Shoojit Sircar managed to get Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone and Irrfan for his Piku, which spends all its time talking up the end product of a crotchety old man’s alimentary canal, and just the fact of their presence made the film reach a wide audience.

While Sircar is aware of what the stars bring to the table, he is also equally clear that they have to submit to the story (written by Juhi Chaturvedi), and that his budget has to be “returnable”. He also knows the importance of place. “A Pink, which was one of the best Hindi films of 2016, could not have been made in any other place. Only Delhi. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it,” he says.

Plot. People. Place. And the correct pace. You get those four things right, and you’ve got a movie. Everything else is window dressing. This is what Bollywood really needs to focus on. In Dangal, Aamir Khan picks up a real-life story, and powers the plot with a detailed performance, making sure that his co-actors have enough to do. And sets it in Haryana, speaking as close to the Jat lingo as is possible for a non-Jat: in that sense, Dangal is actually a “regional” film made in Bollywood!

At this point, an assessment of Indian cinema would be incomplete without taking into reckoning the astonishing phenomenon that SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2 (the sequel to 2015 Baahubali) has become. Like the original, it melds epic fantasy myth-making and jaw-dropping special effects on a scale not seen before in Indian filmmaking.

I ask Shobu Yarlagadda, the unassuming producer of the films, to unpack the secret of their staggering success. That’s simple, he says. “Though the films are in Telugu, they are not constrained by ethnicity. The story and the emotions have pan-Indian appeal. And nothing has been as big before. We have proved that a film doesn’t need to be from Bollywood to cross-over. It can be from anywhere.” Quite.

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