Talent is renewed by patterns of migration. The partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 destroyed lives and homes in the north, but brought a huge talent pool of actors, writers and directors from Lahore to Bombay. Lahore was an important film-producing city in undivided India, as big as the then Bombay industry, and dozens of artists and technicians relocated to Western India, rebuilt their careers there and enriched themselves and their profession.
Similarly in the east, the then Calcutta film industry was divided by Partition into two Bengali-speaking parts, and there is enough evidence to suggest that this political division and consequent drain of talent led to the decline of the great Calcutta studios. Some of the finest Bengali writers and directors migrated to Bombay and worked in Hindi.
This leads us to a big question: what kind of Bengali films would Bimal Roy have made had he not come to Bombay and made Hindi movies? Along with Guru Dutt, a filmmaker of Konkan descent, he was the finest Hindi auteur of his era, but what could he have done had he worked in his own language and culture? Would he have matched Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak?
Mumbai is the city of gold. But it is not a city of the soul. There is a salesmanship quality to the metropolis that seeps into the work of the most intense and progressive artists. And when they stop being itinerant and make their home in the city, it starts corroding their personality, their character and the depth of feeling they possessed on their arrival in the metropolis. It is probably a good thing that the remarkable Bombay Progressive Artists Group, to which MF Husain belonged, started to scatter across the globe—SH Raza to France, FN Souza to London, then New York, and Husain himself eventually to exile, after a lifetime of wanderering around India and the world.
But we speak of cinema here, and when Guru Dutt made Kagaz Ke Phool, could the title have been as much a reference to the industry, the medium and the artist, as it was to the city he lived and died in? An artificial flower, people of fluff—that is what he was talking about, and if we accept the explanation that Dutt had a negative vision of life itself, we may do him an injustice. He was reacting to a social and cultural climate that places disproportionate emphasis on commerical success as a signifier of artistic accomplishment. And since the late 1950s and early 1960s, the days of this acclaimed filmmaker’s prescient observations on greed, vulgarity and the untenable quality of romantic love entwined with worldly triumph, nothing in Mumbai or the film industry has changed.
So when the second wave of migration to the Mumbai film industry took place in the 1990s, after Babri Masjid and the 1992-1993 riots, and after economic liberalisation, things were not markedly different.
This second wave of talent relocation was small-town India sending its gifted to Mumbai, to the entertainment industry, for aspiration and employment. As the opening up of the economy identified new avenues for career choices, as media schools mushroomed, as cinema distribution became more decentralised, as satellite TV channels hired more and more trained camera and studio technicians, as the concept of the multiplex theatre took shape, we saw a sudden spurt in demand for youth, freshness and Hindi language fluency. The Hindi and Urdu heartland, mofussil India, sent its finest, at first to write for TV, because no Mumbaikar had a command over the ideas and language that worked in the largest areas of Indian TV viewership, but later to Bollywood, which had also run out of steam in story creation and language inventiveness.
An examination of the journey of three of these young aspirants from small-town India who came of age in the city—Vishal Bhardwaj, Imtiaz Ali and Anurag Kashyap—is revealing. It shows a graph that moves upwards in creativity and then levels out to a plateau, sometimes going into decline.
Vishal Bhardwaj was born in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, and was brought up in Meerut before going to college in Delhi and then coming to Mumbai. After working in the city as a successful music composer, he made Maqbool, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In originality, it was no Kurosawa, nor a Throne of Blood, but it was a distinctly new cinematic language in the sheer creativity of its adaptation: turning the glens and castles of Scotland to the underworld of Mumbai, detailing a sinister sexuality in the collaboration between the murderer and his mistress, and the masterstroke, turning the three witches into two part-time astrologers (played inimitably by Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri).
Then Bhardwaj continued with Shakespeare and made Omkara, based on Othello, creating a very fine Iago (Saif Ali Khan), but a terrible Othello (Ajay Devgn). He robbed the Moor of his dignity and turned him into a political wheeler-dealer and killer from UP’s badlands. Shakespeare’s Othello was a highly-respected military leader before he was duped and goaded by uncommon jealousy into murdering his wife. In Omkara, he is a common murderer who kills people with impunity as part of his profession. So when he does eventually murder his Desdemona (played by Kareena Kapoor), it is no big deal, just another murder on his criminal record. The tragedy of Othello does not come through at all.
The sad thing is that Bhardwaj is in decline as a filmmaker, and the slide began with Kaminey, really, a film derived stylistically from contemporary cult directors in the West, especially from Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for turning violence into a joke, for creating violence so unpredictable it actually becomes funny. Kaminey was all style, with not a single character you could identify or connect with. But Bhardwaj was told by his mirrors in Mumbai that he had made a masterpiece.
True, the absence of an intelligent critical tradition in popular culture is partly responsible for preventing a director, especially one from a small town who has made it big in Mumbai, from seeing his own work objectively. But the big problem is that the city—the stars, the glamour, the incestuous circle of admirers and wannabes—destroys talent. Enclosed in the bubble of Bollywood, Bhardwaj went on to make that badly-lit, absurdly written, unmitigated disaster, 7 Khoon Maaf.
Not every upcountry director has a chart that moves up and down like this. Imtiaz Ali is from a Punjabi Muslim family in Jamshedpur, where he spent his early life. He has a completely natural and beautiful sense of space, and uses the architecture of cinema very well. Only someone from small-town India could’ve made Jab We Met, a film about the great Indian train journey from Mumbai to the North.
The hero (Shahid Kapoor) wanders into a train compartment for no good reason. He is depressed and wants to get away from his life in Mumbai. Suicidal, he meets this irritating chatterbox (Kareena Kapoor) en route, and all the stations along the way are peopled by upcountry characters—station masters, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, policemen—who create a wonderful ambience of an older India, so different from the disconnected modernity of a metropolis. In this and his next film, Love Aaj Kal, he extends this theme of disengaged modern life, and also sketches a contrasting North Indian gregariousness, particularly of the Sikh community, very well, and with affection and poetry.
But by drifting away from small-town India—the film uses space and time equations to illuminate the four metropolitan areas of Delhi, Kolkata, London and San Francisco—Imtiaz seems to be tempted by the Mumbai industry trap of scripting and shooting for the urbane, westernised film stars he hires, rather than for his own memories and experiences. An auteur evolves by keeping in touch with the truth within himself, not by being swayed by the perceptions of his producers, actors or audience. And this is only possible if he goes back to his roots and re-examines what has shaped his unique visual sense—which, by the way, is architectural in its use of spaces.
Imtiaz Ali is the kind of filmmaker who should never live in Mumbai, keep a low profile, and only visit the city to make movies. The quality of his talent, his inspiration, is from interior India, and it will surely be lost if he doesn’t live there. America’s best filmmakers do not live in Hollywood. Only Studio People live there. Hollywood, after all, is a town that Woody Allen makes fun of. The country’s good independent writers, directors and producers live all across the US. That is how they make authentic films about people and conditions across their land, and this is so even in the thriller genre.
By living in Mumbai, interesting filmmakers have short shelf lives. So one does worry about an abundantly natural talent like Anurag Kashyap. He was born in Gorakhpur and grew up in various towns across the Hindi belt, going to school in Dehradun and Gwalior. The films he has written, directed and produced draw enormously from his knowledge and experience of people, lifestyle, culture and language across India. His Dev.D is the only post-modern interpretation of a novel from the Bengal renaissance. It is funny, irreverent and has the effect of placing Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s idea of unrequited romantic love into a current context by stating the obvious, by saying that that kind of romantic fantasy cannot exist in a world as amoral and sexually promiscuous as ours.
The films Kashyap has co-written and produced are equally interesting, especially Udaan, a fine study of how a small industrial town (Jamshedpur) creates a suffocating middle-class mindset that prevents the truth from emerging, in this case the story of a tyrannical father who taunts his sons and beats one to unconsciousness. Like other writers from smaller places, Kashyap lives and works in Mumbai. He is vulnerable to its corrupt culture of self-approbation.
So why live in Mumbai? In this day of instant communication, it is easy to live and work outside the city, and use visits to co-ordinate film production, including finance. This is an approach that could grant creative longevity to any gifted auteur. But perhaps the temptation to discuss a script at Olive, amid perambulations of the beautiful people, is too difficult to resist.