In the recent release Cocktail (directed by Homi Adajania of Being Cyrus fame), at one point in the second half of the film, the lead character, Veronica, played by Deepika Padukone, gets belligerent due to excessive alcohol consumption doubled by the emotional upheaval she is going through of having lost her love (Gautam aka Saif Ali Khan) to her best friend (Meera aka Diana Penty). While driving back from the nightclub the three of them were at, she insists Gautam to accompany her when she has to go pee, and not Meera, reasoning that he has seen ‘everything’ for her to have any inhibitions. Next up, the film goes dangerously close to taboos of a threesome upon initiation from Veronica and yet, it chooses to stay away from it. Thereafter, the film succumbs to mediocricity and superficiality, lumbering along towards its predictable end despite weaving out interesting characters that explore bad behavior which is a latent resident in all of us.
Why do interesting plot points ultimately get watered by the baggage of popular interest? Why is it so hard for filmmakers to step out of their comfort zones and go the whole hog? And if they do, why is their manifestation of creativity decreed to be conformist, blanket-like and archetypical? Why is this mold so difficult to break in commercial filmmaking?
One of my favorite directors ever in Indian cinema, Dibaker Banerjee, points out in an interview here, that all filmmakers should leave their comfort zones and focus on new ideas. Until they come out of this mould they have created for themselves, no new grounds will be broken. Ironically enough, there is no better person to advocate this thought than the man who has harped on stunning new territories and innovative storytelling techniques in all of his four films. But the problem doesn’t end here. Commercial filmmaking has forever been straitjacketed by many overweening forces seeded in our cinema culture for ages and while today, we have knocking opportunities and respectable avenues to go ahead and make the film one wants to and also get a theatrical release, there is a bigger threat that looms upon the filmmakers. As Anurag Kashyap has pointed out in various interviews, the fight now is not with the studios and producers to support the film that you want to make, the real struggle now is to live up to an expectant audience who respects you for the work you have done but does not want you to explore anything different in your future ventures. For instance, Kashyap himself faced enough flak when he decided to produce upcoming films like Aiyyaa and Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana under his banner.
As Kashyap has pointed out on numerous occasions post his commercial success with DevD, most of the feedback from the doting audiences was to see him make another similar movie. Success of films brings a lot of good things, but one of the disadvantages of success is that it plants a bit of fear, whether we realize it or not. This fear is rooted in the expectations of the audience who want a Kashyap to only make a dark serious film that could carry forward the flag of alternative cinema, in their self-assumed way. These expectations could become an hindrance to real creative exploration, showing up in the form of conformist ideas or indulgence in some other filmmakers. Though Banerjee may coax filmmakers to be inspired differently each time and they may actually be able to find support for their dream, but they can still wheeze under the weight of these expectations to do something within their constructed comfort zones.
Resting under the umbrella of one's comfort zone and hurling out cringe inducing plotting has been a redundant practice in Indian cinema. Whether it is a character sketch that is built around certain chronic stereotypes or ham-fisted cliches or a well accustomed successful formula pattern that is unrelentingly repeated in many ventures or just associating clumsy traits and behaviors to the people of particular cast, race or region, we seem to have done it all. Prakash Jha's Aarakshan diluted the topic of reservations in the interest of minimizing hurtful content. Only a 5 year old cannot guess what would happen next in one of Madhur Bhandarkar movies. Imtiaz Ali has been pummeled time and again for redundantly re-writing the carefree female characters travelling to amazing locales to fall in love. This year's release, Ishaqzaade, went a step ahead and justified its male chauvinism with a despicable undertone of love. Even Anurag Kashyap was blamed for his indulgence in Gangs of Wasseypur I by the same audience who wants to see him do that.
When it is not indulgence, proverbially hackneyed character sketches become the order of the day. From Mehmood in Padosan to Shah Rukh Khan in Ra.One, we havent outgrown our depiction of South Indian characters as one common template of a Madarasi doing 'Aiyyo'. Abhishek Bachchan's character in Bol Bachchan is just another example of profiling effeminate characters with a threadbare gay image (or vice versa, I am not too sure what Rohit Shetty intended to do!). Over years of Indian films, most girl characters who are 'modern' with habits such as drinking, smoking etc. are shown to be Christian; most cops are shown to be Marathis; most foreign characters are shown to know and speak in Hindi; and most gangsters are shown to be Muslims. Our biggest hits are the ones where female characters dont get much to do rather than being an object of desire. This inherent sexism allows us to cast our lead heroines only in characters that suit the sensibilities of the masses, that too only until they are married, while we have no qualms about the middle aged hero playing a college kid.
Does it hurt to show a South Indian or a North Indian or a gay character in his/her regular capacity rather than a mere extension of caricatures? Does a gay character have to wear pansy outfits and give provocative expressions to men? Why are no lead roles written for middle-aged actresses as opposed to the custom anywhere around the world? While I hold the filmmakers responsible for these fallacies, I would still argue that it is our expectation of what we want to see that builds these characters on screen. The filmmakers are just more than ready to serve what we want to see, motivated by the Box Office outcome.
Hence, expectations infallibly become the bane of creative filmmaking in most cases. It is only when our scriptwriters and directors dare to get rid of these trite expectations and reconstruct their structures without a hegemony towards derived influences and thoughts that we will we see a dawn amongst the audience, because all they care about is a good time at the movies. Cinema being a one-way medium of entertainment, the change cannot really come the other way round. Filmmakers should not be afraid of failures, even if it comes in the form of a criticism from their own fan base. Give the audiences zero options of stereotypes or formulas at the theatres, yet provide them the wholesome entertainment they crave. Remember, well-made films will always work. I wish to intone this as a necessity, more than a requisition!