I was recently watching a movie called "Bheja Fry". Seeing the movie, I couldn't help reflecting that a movie like that would never have been made even a generation ago. What a contrast movies today are, as compared those in the 90s when I grew up!
To drive home the point, let me come back to the movie I was referring to. Bheja Fry was admittedly a remake of a French movie called "Le Diner de Cons" but looking at the starcast and the format, you know right at the outset that its the kind of movie that would never have been made in the pre-multiplex age. Not a single member of the acting cast has even the slightest pretence to being a "Star". Even more interestingly, there was not a single song in the movie- an unthinkable proposition barely a decade ago. Back in the 90s, the age of "formula cinema" was not yet over.
You knew almost every twist and turn of almost every movie back then: corrupt politicians, corrupt policemen, an idealistic hero whose passion transcended the realms of reason, a showpiece heroine who would suddenly appear whenever the director felt the need to insert a song... it was all the same. One of the enduring legacies of Indian cinema is music. The first ever Indian talkie "Alam Ara" is said to have contained several songs. In fact, talkies back then are said to have had 60 songs on an average, with Indrasabha setting a record with 71 songs!
For the better or the worse, those early, pre-independence movies set the template for film making. All the changes notwithstanding, songs remained an integral part of movies right from the age of Mahatma Gandhi down to Nehru through Indira Gandhi and her successors and down to our own day. Another unfortunate corollary is that the songs frequently overshadow the movie and assume an importance of their own. So much so, that filmmakers concentrated (many of them still do) more on the music than the movie itself.
And yet, Indian cinema has undergone nothing less than a revolution over the last few years. Take the comparison between Chak De (2007) and Lagaan (2001). Lagaan was itself an extraordinary movie in its time and yet, some of the themes in that movie look archaic today: a villain, a jealous rival in love and a few songs, almost all of which had little relevance to the scrips. Move 6 years ahead to Chak De (and anyone who's lived in urban India in these 6 years would know what dramatic changes have occured in that time): no villiain, no meaningless songs, no romantic angle... just a simple story of a coach who guides a talented side to an unprecedented victory.
Lagaan in all probability catered to the requirements of its time: the demands of the average theatre going viewer in that age when going to a theatre was dying out, long long before the advant of multiplexes. The arrival of the multiplex has transformed the face of Indian cinema. Unlike the big budget, multi starrer dramas of the 90s or early 2000s which demanded a share of the role for each star, a simple script, running on a limited (sometimes shoestring) budget, without recognised faces is perfectly acceptable in this day and age. The reason? You have more intellectual, upwardly mobile audiences for such movies- all thanks to the multiplexes.
While sequels and remakes proliferate, we have also had movies like Rang de Basanti, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Chak De, Manorama- Six Feet Under, Bheja Fry, Dor, etc. within the last 24 months. Of this lot, the first three were not only critically acclaimed, all of them were massive hits. For those who claim that critical acclaim does not necessarily make for good business, this one fact should by itself adequately answer any such doubts.
Recently, I read an interview of Javed Akhtar- the very Javed of Salim-Javed who scripted bollywood classics like Sholay, Deewar and Don, in which Javed Saahab said that he once presented a script before a producer, who lauded him on the idea but refused to touch it. The reason? Such a story had never been told in the history of Indian cinema until then! That very Javed Akhtar's son was able to show one of his protagonists falling in love with a woman 15 years older than him in his very first movie- something no director in the 90s could have even dreamt of showing.
That simple difference between the father-son generation gap brings out how far Indian cinema has matured since Amitabh Bachchan's heyday. True, Indian cinema still has a long way to go, but that long journey has finally begun. Just as India is finally beginning to mature after a childhood of over 50 years, so is Indian cinema. Its not an adult yet, but its reached its adolesence. It remains to be seen how soon it makes the transition from adolesence to maturity.