Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Crisis of content and lack of social relevance in Indian films: Director of South Asian Cinema Foundation

Recently, I met the director of the South Asian Cinema Foundation and we spoke at great length about flims. The man, Lalit Mohan Joshi, said that Indian films (for many read as Bollywood) lack quality content and social relevance. He urged directors to pick up subjects that have an undercurrent of realism.

But again, the game is not won just by picking up such a subject. Talking about Girlfriend (a recent Bollywood film on lesbians), it was felt that sensitivity and subtlety are equally important. Here is the piece I wrote for the paper:

A failed attempt at acting in a Shyam Benegal film did not douse Lalit Mohan Joshi’s fascination for Indian films. “The seed did not die,” recollects Joshi. Gradually, over the years, that “seed” germinated into the South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF), an organisation dedicated to portraying a “whole picture” of Indian cinema in the UK and elsewhere.

Formerly a journalist with the Hindi service of the BBC, Joshi says SACF seeks to correct the “myopic western perception of Indian cinema as either Satyajit Ray or rubbish”. Neither is it something “highbrow or elitist”. “We want to use cinema as a tool to empower the people, especially the South Asians in the UK,” he adds.

Co-founded in 2000 with Derek Malcolm, The Guardian film critic, SACF brings out an annual thematic journal on Indian cinema (the latest one is on Partition films) and holds regular events aimed at sensitising the UK to films that go beyond Bollywood – a term that many think encompasses the entire range of Indian films. Just like many here in India would associate English films produced outside the US as Hollywood productions.

And one of the films, also one of his personal favourites, that Joshi has tucked into his quiver is V Shantaram’s 1937 classic “Duniya Na Mane”. The film portrays a woman who is married to man as old as her father and how she struggles to change her fate. “We screened it and people were amazed to see a woman oppose the marriage without being very loud. Such a situation (as the plot) still exists amongst several South Asians in the UK,” says Joshi.

A far cry from the “socially relevant” films of yore, he feels that there is a “crisis of content and social relevance” in Indian films now. “Not that I am denying Bollywood its importance, but look at Mohabbatein. It features a gurukul in Wiltshire with students eating Pringles chips and girls in short skirts. Whom are they trying to fool,” Joshi asks. “Instead, cross-cultural films like Bend it Like Beckham are playing a much better role than nonsensical Bollywood films,” he adds.

Tracing the crisis to the 70’s, Joshi says that the crisis still continues with “declining” social values and directors being undermined by commercial forces. “Directors must take up socially relevant subjects. If Ram Gopal Varma decides to make a such a film, money would surely pour in,” Joshi says. With all his love and frustration for Indian films, he feels that Indian films and filmmakers are headed for a brighter tomorrow where regional films would also gain more importance. “There are many Shekhar Kapurs simmering in India,” Joshi adds.


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