The Half-Baked ‘New Wave’ of Bollywood

Harish Wankhede05 Jul 2012

While films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Shanghai are getting critical acclaim and directors are being hailed as bright shining stars in emergence of ‘new wave’ in Bollywood, the author dismisses them as half baked efforts, of mostly smart improvisation on Western formula and Bollywood clichés. He thinks renaissance of class cinema in India needs to be grounded with original imagination and a punch of creative superiority.

The rural north of India is the new favorite site of Bollywood. Its rustic, violence prone and anarchic social milieu is a readymade material for the young writers and directors who wish to wear clothes made of earthy fabrics. This 'new wave' of Bollywood is aspiring to distinguish itself from the masala-coateddishes of Bollywood typicality and provides a realistic looking narrative to the audience. What has been germinated in 1990s by Shekhar Kapoor in Bandit Queen and Gulzar in Maachis and was later restructured by talented Vishal Bharadwaj in Maqbool and Omkara, in the very recent times, this genre is now getting promising followers like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee. The recently released two films, Gangs Of Wasseypur (GoW) and Shanghai have been debated in the critical circles as brave efforts to bring realistic values to the medium of storytelling. Further, it has been argued that its box office success may inspire the upcoming brigade of young film technicians who sincerely wished to break the traditional norms of filmmaking and set new innovative stereotypes. The courageous appreciation to these films from the critical bench further endorsed its distinct style. However, most of the debates are circled around the technical aspects and not much focus is given on its form and content. I will argue that both the films have distinct values; GoW is a smart and talented reproduction of Bollywood's stereotypes, whereas Shanghai is a sincere pupil of the western 'New Wave' cinema.

Most of the new brigade of film directors in Bollywood is inspired by an innovative method of screenplay writing of the 'New Hollywood'. The new generation, educated in Film schools are trained with a curious appreciation of Hollywood films, especially of those films which we usually seen as 'New Wave Cinema' of America. This wave started in the beginning of early 1970's has belittled the classical form of filmmaking in Hollywood and brought realistic characteristics of urban secluded living, sexuality and anti-establishment attributes into the cinema. In the later decade, the 'director screenplay ridden films' have established people like Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as the essential fodder for the scholars to understand and analyze the contemporary films. However, in India this particular model remained popular mainly in the niche group of film intellectuals and hardly filmmakers do a conscious effort to utilize this option to make mainstream-commercial films. The 'multiplex economics' does affect the typicality of the Bollywood cinema to some extent and bought style and content to it, but it remained exclusive and 'class' centric.

What distinguished the Indian brand of new wave from the western one is that our films have introduced the 'new wave' techniques without altering the formal values of Bollywood cinema. The themes, ideas and storyline remained in the classical mode and only the setting and technical aspects have been radicalized. For instance, Maqbool and Omkara were adaptation of Shakespeare's classics Macbeth and Othello respectively. The eternal tale of violence, conspiracy and guilt ridden characters is appropriate to represent the identical social setup of north India. Hence, Vishal has simply set the classical story into the rustic local setting of Uttar Pradesh (UP), in the dialogical form; he adopted a rural dialect with open usage of non-parliamentary terms and personified the characters with known stereotypes. Thus, a formula is created in which the technical aspect of new wave cinema is utilized to tell a gritty-dark story of semi-urban backward social condition of India. His later film Kaminey, further was reinterpretation of the known populist Bollywood tales (as it was a classical Masala formula of two separate brothers, mistaken identity, gang wars and a violent bumpy climax). His borrowed form of technique is utilized to tell the old Bollywood stories in a new 'class' style.

Anurag Kashyap's magnum opus GoW further needs identical scrutiny. One has to ask what distinctive attribute he has to offer to Bollywood to rank this film as one of the classic. The appreciation of this film is coming from the quarters that are impressed by the film's saga like characteristics, its rustic anarchic tendencies, sexual overtones and realistic depiction of violent encounters. However, the film failed to break any classical forms of storytelling and remained impressed by the populist norms. Let me explain. First, GoW is a revenge saga of Sardar Khan in the crime ridden land of stateless Dhanbad. Sardar Khan is briefly identical to Amitabh Bacchan's quest for revenge that he demonstrated in most of his populist films (Zanjeer). Second, the 'Godfather' hangover reflects much obviously with the depiction of calmed conspirators' quest for power and their next generation, growing in the background of violence and treachery. Finally the classical heroic/villainous personification of Sardar Khan is narrated by his competitiveness in the early young age, diffidence and quest for dignity in the middle and at the end achievement of glory and immortality. The song which culminates the first half of GoW: Jiya ho Bihar keLala, is an endorsement of this judgment. Thus Kashyap grinds major populist elements which were already tasted by the Bollywood cinema lovers as its essential recipe.




It appears that Kashyap is on a spree to prove himself as an intellectual director and thus contemplated passionately to make a 'hatke' film. Such crafty indulgence can be materialistically beneficial (the film is a commercial success) however, I will not rate this film as a league apart or something close to special category. It is a smart and aggressive film but sans intellectual merit and honesty. On the other hand, in comparison to GoW, Shanghai stands with a mature commitment to re-establish the new wave cinema in India. Benerjee's earlier films are rated as intellectually honest films with a substantive effort, where he utilized the instrument of 'realism' to depict certain untapped locations. Banerjee was creative in unfolding the less known psyche of the peripheral lower middle classes of Delhi in Khosla ka Ghosla. In his next film he tried to realize the challenged and complex life of a perpetual thief in 'Oye Lucky Lucky Oye' again in the setting of national capital. Finally, in Love, Sex and Dhokha he brought an instrument 'Video Camera' as a main protagonist to depict the dark side of common urban life.

His latest film, Shanghai, is an adaptation of Costa Gavras' French film 'Z' (based on the eponymous novel by Greek author Vasilis Vasilikos) depicted on the imaginary location of 'Bharatnagar'. It also showcased commendable technical quality while presenting the location of the film. The film has a political specificitywhich seeks a clinicalscrutiny of the corrupt and violent socio-political system. The instrumentalization of the murder of a little known leftist activist to explore the hidden criminality of political mafia has a gutsy ideological vision. The relationships depicted in the film are quasi post-modern and standsantithetical to the conventional morality and social ideology. Though Shanghai is a powerful attempt, it is not an original invention. Like Kashyap, Banerjee has also not liberated the film from the populist concerns of the Bollywood (the cheesy 'Kamariya' song is the example) and thus remained honest mainly to the technical side. It appears that the adaptation of Western tales and its reinterpretation conducive to the Indian setting has becoming a tested formula for success




Major films of the 'new wave' genre including GoW are considerable and impactful attempts, however this renaissance of class cinema in India needs to be grounded with original imagination and a punch of creative superiority. Most of the films in this category have adopted only the technical aspect from the West but failed to change the 'content' and populist'value' of the narration. Recent films like Yeh Saali Zindagi, Ishqiya, Rakht Charitra and Paan Singh Tomar have explored new grounds and locations to depict the stories; however we are yet to confidently present an indigenous model to be called as the re-entry of 'new wave' cinema in India. We are still inspired and galvanized by the traditional mode of storytelling and continuously repeating the formulae based ingredients to make a film. The lack of imagination to think beyond the Bollywood logic, its commercial angel and our habit to look towards the West for qualitative inspiration have crippled the Bollywood cinema as 'second rate' material in front of the international audiences.

Tags: Gangs Of WasseypurShanghaiOpinionFeature

Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches Political Science in Delhi University and has regularly contributed research articles and commentaries on films, politics and society in some of the major newspapers and magazines. He can be contacted on enarishATgmail.com

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