Cannes 2012: Indian Cinema Moves Beyond Bollywood

Miss Lovely Cannes Film Still 2012

The song-and-dance epics of old are giving way to a new generation of talent that is redefining India's film sector.

A curious thing happened when Cannes Film Festival Critics’ Week artistic director Charles Tesson announced this year’s final selections.

“Good news,” said Tesson “Indian cinema is now fearless.” Tesson went on to single out Indian Critics’ Week sidebar entry Peddlers as “something we’ve been waiting for from Indian cinema for a long time.”

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The fact that Tesson used the term “Indian cinema” and not Bollywood was telling and indicative of the tectonic shift that is happening in the world’s biggest film industry. Traditional Bollywood fare — star-driven song-and-dance melodramas that adhere to formulaic plots and recognizable archetypes — are now being challenged by low-budget indie productions with auteur sensibilities and decidedly edgy subject matter.

That trend is well represented in Cannes this year. In addtion to to Vasan Bala’s Peddlers, a relationship drama set in Mumbai, two other Indian titles are screening here: the Un Certain Regard entry Miss Lovely from director Ashim Ahluwalia is set in Bollywood’s exploitation film world of the 1980s, while Anurag Kashyap’s Directors’ Fortnight title Gangs of Wasseypur is a two-part-epic about two feuding families in an area of India dedicated to coal mining.

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Insiders say the Indian film sector’s move toward grittier fare is a long time coming.

“I think the biggest myth that has been shattered is that you have to belong to the film industry to be a part of it,” says Kashyap. “It’s now great to see new talent coming from outside, and they are not in awe of big stars or Bollywood.”

Kashyap should know. The 39-year-old director has been challenging convention for years with releases like 2004’s Black Friday, about the 1993 Bombay bombings, and 2009’s stylish new noir DevD.

Kayshap is also co-producer of Bala’s Peddlers through his Films Private Limited (AKFPL) banner. In true indie spirit, the film’s modest $500,000 budget was also crowd-funded via Facebook.

“What works for indie cinema is that those who are getting into it are not bound by any rules,” says Bala, who also handled assistant director chores on Michael Winterbottom’s recent Freida Pinto starrer Trishna. “The problem with [mainstream Bollywood] is that those who understand the rules get stuck by them.”

It isn’t just Cannes programmers who have noticed the changes in the Indian industry. Increasingly, non-traditional films are receiving major studio backing. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, a biopic about an athlete who became a notorious bandit starring Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spider-Man), was backed by Walt Disney-owned UTV Motion Pictures, while Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, starring Vidya Balan as a pregnant woman investigating her husband’s death, was produced by Mumbai-vased Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

UTV was one of the first majors to also launch a special offshoot, Spotboy, to produce smaller-budgeted films.

“The success of smaller films has been a trend for some years — but the penny has dropped since last year,” says UTV Motion Pictures CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur. “Cinema that was never considered mainstream earlier is now considered mainstream.”

Which means it is now possible to mix genres, something Viacom18 Motion Pictures CEO Vikram Malhotra calls a “trend intersection,” pointing to Kashyap’s next project Bombay Velvet, which stars top Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor, as an example. “We don’t want to be known as the producers of the biggest film of the country but rather the smartest, most loved and most profitable movie,” says Malhotra.

Still, Miss Lovely director Ahluwalia isn’t convinced that this approach always works. “Honestly, when mainstream marquee stars want to deconstruct themselves by playing the disabled school teacher, they still end up playing that as if they are doing Ben Hur,” says Ahluwalia. “I mean, even in The Tree of Life, the star [Brad Pitt] dominates the frame. I really don’t think you can have the star and the director together. It’s really either one of them. I’d still prefer to introduce new talent.”

For the time being, India’s new generation of auteurs is choosing to enjoy the fact that there is finally a much-needed alternative to mainstream Bollywood. Says Kayshap: “The mainstream is not mindless anymore.”