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Directors prize quality over box office numbers, actors today are more open to experimentation, and at least some of them are thinking about the choices they make from the perspective of social responsibility. There is a long way to go, but this is a good omen for Indian cinema.
We are almost at the end of the decade, and it is a time for stock-taking. To look back and understand what has happened, and to look forward and plan for the future.
On the cinema front, Film Companion has released a list of the 25 Greatest Hindi Films of The Decade, and a list of the 100 Greatest Performances of the Decade, across Bollywood and regional cinema. Following this, it also got together six of the Hindi film directors (Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Sriram Raghavan, Shoojit Sircar, Shakun Batra and Maneesh Sharma ) whose films made it onto the list of 25 for a roundtable discussion with Anupama Chopra.
In a separate roundtable, eight of the actors (Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Manoj Bajpayee, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vijay Sethupathi and Vijaya Deverakonda) whose performances made it into the top 100, also spoke to her. Both these ‘addas’, as Film Companion calls them, offer valuable insights into how the current crop of film makers and actors think about their craft and cinema as a whole.
In the directors’ adda, a major discussion point was the intense pressure that comes from the increased focus on box office numbers.
Zoya Akhtar was quite clear that while she did want a return of investment on her films, the numbers should be the business of the trade only, and not of the consumers. No one, for example, asks a restaurant how much they earned, they go there to eat before they like the food. None of the directors was comfortable compromising on their voice, and as Anurag pointed out, the one time he went against his grain, to make Bombay Velvet, the result was a dud.
A common complaint that one often hears, whenever when speaks of the need for better stories, more socially responsible films etc. is that such films don’t make money. With that in mind, it is a good sign that while directors want their films to make money; they want to do it without compromising on making ‘good films’.
A key point that came up in the conversation between the directors was how actors these days were less concerned with being ‘heroes’, and more devoted to the ‘storytelling’. Zoya Akhtar spoke of how it was never an issue for Ranveer Singh that in his ‘intro scene’ in Gully Boy, he is actually in the background. Sriram Raghavan gave the example of Varun Dhawan, who in Badlapur, let go of the traditional ‘hero’s arc’ for an unconventional role, inspired perhaps by Breaking Bad.
In the actors’ adda, Anupama Chopra asked them what motivated them to take these risks.
Vijay’s Sethupathi’s response to this question was particularly noteworthy. Speaking about his role as a trans woman, Shilpa, in Super Deluxe, he said that he fell in love with the role, and begged the director to let him do it, and was ready to work for free. Personally, while I feel that the role should have been played by an actual trans woman, I cannot deny that Vijay Sethupathi did absolutely nail the performance. It was very heartening to hear him speak about how, in order to do justice to the role, he had to find the ‘female’ within himself.
Shoojit Sircar, in the directors’ adda, had observed that female actors were more open to such experimentation, and the other directors unanimously agreed. When Anupama brought this up, Ranveer Singh and Vijay Deverakonda were of the opinion that there isn’t a gender difference at all.
However, before the discussion could veer into one on risk-taking in general, Deepika brought back the gender element into the conversation. According to her, while the actors in the current generation are more open to experimentation, irrespective of gender, women in cinema have always been more open to risk-taking (as a survival strategy, at the very least), across generations, and that doesn’t take away from what the men have been doing.
Alia Bhatt, while agreeing that it could not be reduced to a man vs woman competition, also agreed with Deepika that female actors, on the whole, were freer to experiment.
The discussion around Kabir Singh that has played out amongst the general public has been a heated one, and it was this question –whether they would play a controversial character like him, that elicited the most insightful responses.
Parvathy: Glorifying of misogyny or violence is wrong, films should be socially responsible
Parvathy had the clearest and most consistent response –that she would only do films that were socially responsible. She made a distinction between cinema that engages viewers and makes them think, by reflecting the reality of misogyny in society versus a film that glorifies misogyny, and spoonfeeds it to the audience. The fact that this choice is a personal one for her is no surprise. When her own relationships became passive-aggressive and abusive, she thought it was okay, as that is what films had taught her, and she does not want to propagate that sort of messaging further. She believes that films don’t need to be intellectualized to be socially responsible –they can be fun, entertaining and commercial without being misogynistic.
Personally, I can relate to this point of view, as I myself have written before, of how my own relationships and ideas about love were coloured by what I had seen in films.
Bringing up Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh as an example, Parvathy said that the movie was an example of a socially irresponsible one. (A point to note here –she used the “bipolar” here in casual conversation, thereby creating a false equation between abusive behaviour and mental illness and was called out for it by Divya Kandukuri on Twitter. Parvathy, in her reply to the tweet, accepted that she was wrong, and promised to do better. Great to see her walk the talk when it comes to social responsibility!)
Vijay Deverakonda: Social responsibility is “too much of a responsibility to take”
According to Vijay Deverakonda, who played Arjun Reddy, just by making a better film, one cannot save the world. He feels that social responsibility is “too much of a responsibility to take,” and a person’s behaviour is not just guided by one film –parenting, schooling, other societal factors all play a role.
While insisting that he didn’t want to justify abuse or violence in relationships, there may be real life couple who “is completely in love, and they give each other little hits and stuff, and they completely understand, and they are still in love.”
(A personal note here: Violence and abuse, no matter how ‘understood’ are never love.) A child from an abusive home may find Arjun Reddy scary and triggering, but for people in a relationship like the one portrayed in Arjun Reddy, the film works, and so he cannot make a film for everybody’s personal likes and life situations.
Personally, to me, it sounds like a bunch of lazy excuses. It is not one Kabir Singh or Arjun Reddy that has normalized violence against women –it is too many such films. Similarly, one film may not change the world, but if every actor and film maker chooses wisely, the collective influence can certainly bring about change.
Manoj Bajpayee: Movies can influence only trappings of a person, not the core
Manoj Bajpayee too said that he chose roles not on the basis of social responsibility, but on the basis of how appealing he found them. In his opinion, movies can only influence a person’s hairstyle, or fashion etc, but not a person’s moral core, which like Vijay said, is determined by other factors.
Alia Bhatt: Would love to do negative characters
Alia Bhatt said that she is also a selfish actor, and she would love to do negative, even abusive characters, as long as that it is clear that such a character is not to be emulated.
Ayushmann Khurrana: Message a film delivers has to be right
Ayushmann Khurrana, like Parvathy, was consistent in his insistence that the messaging of a film mattered. According to him, the side effect of fame is that one is an opinion leader, who has a great amount of influence on how people think and act. The message a film delivers has to be right because it does influence more ‘fickle minds’ (bad word choice!), including himself, because as a teenager he was influenced by the movie Mohabbatein.
Deepika Padukone: In India, cinema and cricket have an unusual amount of influence, so responsibility is important
Props to Deepika Padukone, who took control of the discussion, to point out that in India, cinema and cricket have an unusual amount of influence, irrespective of all the other factors like parenting, education etc,. While each actor is free to make a choice whether they want to be socially responsible or not, they cannot deny that the influence exists.
For the directors, looking forward into the next decade meant being able to continue doing good work. Shoojit Sircar in particular wants the freedom to make political films in which he can name names. For Zoya, the aim is to push female voices –women and their stories.
In 2019, we have witnessed a greater level of violent protests against movies that ostensibly violate ‘religious/community sentiments’. Cinema is also being used, increasingly, as a political propaganda tool and women are not yet adequately represented on and off the screen in Bollywood. So these are welcome goals indeed.
It was the last question in the actor’s adda, that I found most fascinating. Anupama Chopra asked them what they would like to do with the power and influence they have. Unfortunately, it is only Vijay Deverakonda’s and Ranveer Singh’s replies that are part of the video, and even those were not particularly inspiring.
In my opinion, Vijay’s answer about ‘making memories’ was all about “me me me” and basically boiled down to “I will be nice and allow people to take selfies with me, and thereby make them happy, if I am in the mood.” Ranveer’s response, slightly more thought through, was that he wants to make people smile, feel light and happy, and make things ‘bearable’ as he feels that he was “born extra-sensitive to the agonies of existence.”
Sadly, we never get to hear the women speak!
Overall, it is nice to see that film makers are unwilling to compromise on the stories they want to tell, despite box office pressure, and that actors are starting to at least think about social responsibility. There is a difference between cinema of 2010 and cinema today. Hopefully, in 2030, we will have a society that offers film makers greater freedom of expression and actors who are acutely aware of the influence they hold, and who make choices responsibly.
Image source: YouTube
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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