I discovered a quote from Shyam Benegal’s essay on tumblr via Dhrupad and was hooked. I discovered that the quote was from a longer essay on the formulaic nature of Hindi cinema and the problems new cinema was facing and some solutions. I have a 1400 word long excerpt from that essay, which you can read in full at the above link. But before we jump into Shyam Benegal and his lovely essay, here is the symposium’s topic defined.
India’s film industry has manufactured and peddled over many decades a distinctly unique commodity to a wide and unsuspecting audience. Based primarily on fantasy, it has mocked at every value in a richly diverse culture. Mock heroism, mock sex, mock dancing,mock singing, mock religion, mock revolution — the lot. In its end product, it has shown the degree of degradation to which a transparently synthetic approach can lead. Its influence on society has been startling — in dress, styles of living, methods of working and,most shatteringly, in the dreams and aspirations of a deprived people. The bizarre world of the screen is the world to reach for. Unfortunately, this commodity faced no challenge of any stature until the arrival of the new Bengali film under Satyajit Ray. His Pather Panchali showed that films could be made with little finance, and no stars, and with integrity. Since then, there has been a gentle struggling, a push here, an upsurge there, a raising of more authentic voices, the slow birth of an indigenous cinema. But, it is beset with problems. Finance, distribution and, infinitely more serious, that of communicating in a medium which is not mock fantasy any more. For, the audience has come to regard the film as synonymous with a particular breed of song, dance, vulgarity, burlesque, violence, crudity, escape, often under the mush of misleading progressive situations — rich man poor girl, rigid father growing son, erring husband devoted wife, etc. Is it ready, even in small measure, to receive a new experience from a familiar medium? If not, then how can the struggling new cinema survive and break through an obvious initial rejection.
The success formula Shyam Benegal
THE Hindi film business ,in India consists largely of working out the equations to make commercially successful films and then to work out a strategy of publicity and distribution to fake in the largest profits possible—a vast, speculative activity that begins with formulating and analysing the success of any one or more films running at any given time in terms of what makes them tick, which usually means the right mix of ‘ingredients’ such as stars, songs, and music, the plot innovations and a generous helping of what are known as production values such as enormously expensive sets and property, lavish public relations’ devices like parties replete with cabaret items in five star hotel suites.
There are storywriters who will produce on call’ several plot lines lifted from successful films, mainly from Bombay and Hollywood as well as from popular western writers like James Hadley Chase to produce a biryani of a film all ready to be hogged by the film-going public for 50 weeks or more in cinemas all over the country. There is a huge demand for well-known stars to act in these films and for music directors to turn out their lilting songs, and for dancers to give new, sexy turns to’ their cabaret items.
The directors who direct them are recipients of paeans of praise for their originality. The producers are the happiest with their success and end up signing up more and bigger stars for their next ventures as distributors willingly take even greater risks by committing larger sums of money for each territory. The pattern of business points to an industry that is happily and profitably stewing in its own juice.
There are several kinds of success formulae. Each one is specifically categorised, such as social drama (meaning poor boy/rich girl or vice versa), family drama (lost child, suffering widow, large doses of amnesia), action movie (good man-turned-bad dacoit-turned-good man), historical (now not much in vogue) or mythological (generous helpings of sex relating to gods and goddesses). In each category, the need is for the biggest star or stars. If you can afford it, you would have all of them together. The music director is chosen according to the size of his contribution to the latest hit songs (do I hear a resemblance between his tunes and the top-of-the-pop in London?). Similarly, the ace writers. Writers, of course, do not really write. They sit in posh hotel suites and narrate scenes for the next day’s shooting.
It is an expensive and serious business. Very expensive. And films flop. Despite or, perhaps, because of this, the Indian film industry ticks. Flop is a relative term. Very few films are known to fail altogether. The only thing that might happen to a film is that it may recover its cost over a longer period of time
The serious problems that beset the industry are the highly inflated rates paid to the marquee names in the film—the stars, the music directors and, recently, the music directors. There are stars who sign up for as many as 50 films at a time. Logically, it would take him or her about ten years or more of work every day to complete so many films, but they are signed up nevertheless. Similarly with music directors. The chances are that a lot of money spent on such films will prove to be irrecoverable because the films are not likely to see the light of day. And whatever is spent in signing up to start the film will be lost forever. This constitutes an enormous waste. Then,again, there is the matter of dates.
It costs a lot of money to set up a shooting schedule. In this situation, if a star cannot give dates the entire expense in mounting the schedule is lost. The stars themselves under these conditions tend to develop an inflated sense of their own importance. They feel
no obligation to keep to their schedules, nor do they feel the slightest compunction to break appointments—a bit like successful politicians. They appear to follow no normal set of rules.
Again, there is a reason for this behavior. Most producers have no money to begin with. They trade on the names of stars, music directors and writers to raise money. The stars are generally very insecure, never sure that any of their films ar going to be completed. They cannot possibly take the risk of signing just one of two films. if the films do not get off the ground and get stuck mid way they are out of jobs. Nothing is worse than an actor without a job.
The distributors who market films have defined their films as those meant: (a) for the masses, (b) for the classes, (c) art films that will attract no audiences. The films that are likely to be the biggest successes are the ones made for the ‘masses’. They could be defined as films that are utterly naive in their story content, with non-existent character development and two dimensional emotional and intellectual attitudes.
Films that will fetch the highest price are the ones that have the largest number of stars, a storyline replete with what are now essentials — thrills and chills, rape scenes, dance numbers and cabarets, choreographed fights and comedy. (There are specialists who are known as ‘thrill masters’ apart from ‘fight masters’ and ‘dance master’. Soon one expects there will be ‘rape masters’) Brilliant colours and sharp cutting is a must.
He goes on to talk about the costs incurred by producers in a typical film and establishes the reason why the films are shot they way they are. Then he moves on into the need for a sustaining structure for alternate cinema
If we are serious about developing an alternate cinema, the FFC would have to develop a distribution circuit that is able to compete for audiences with the regular so called commercial films. In addition to this the cost liability for the production would have to be borne
A more insidious development in films has been caused by outside factors. Paternalistic and straight-laced censorship has made film producers increasingly irresponsible. As we all know, authority of a certain kind often creates an irresponsible attitude in those who are under it—they expect to be corrected rather than correct themselves. This has become so acute, that many films only attempt to push in directions in which the censor board is likely to be heavy-handed, only to check out how far they can go. Often, the only innovation in a film comes in the techniques to project ‘soft’ pornography or violence that would catch the censors napping. This has led to the making of films which encourage ugly social attitudes, particularly between men and women. They are done with such crudity that one wonders whether those who see such films come unscathed out of them.
As is well known that with cinema, particularly when it happens to be the only entertainment medium, life starts to imitate film. We have only to look at those parts of the country where film is the only entertainment, medium to see that this is true. The way boys regard girls, the way they dress themselves, the kind of music they enjoy most, the speech they use—and with the new-rich—the kind of interiors they have, replicas of film sets.
Yet. with all this, a different kind of film also runs. Audiences will see films that reflect social realities. All that it requires is the kind of distribution which the commercial industry provides. The movement has already started. What is needed is the infra-structure that will make it self-generating.
Indian film or, more particularly, the Hindi film, from its very origin has developed its formats’ from the existing theatrical forms. The songs, The dances, the main plot and its comic parody, have all been absorbed by the cinema. If the alternate cinema has to grow, it cannot ignore these factors^ An extension of these forms is needed rather than unfamiliar ones and a far truer depiction of social realities. Only then will it be able to seriously compete for audiences. Short of this, the new cinema will be guilty of producing films for the sake of a small cineaste elite