You may be forgiven for thinking that Bollywood films are largely lavish musicals with good-looking people breaking into song and dance at the slightest prodding, but acclaimed director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra insists that there's more to it.
In his 81-minute documentary Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, which made its outing to a mixed reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, the Rang De Basanti director attempted to demystify Bollywood without being apologetic about it.
"Lots of people see our cinema and have termed it Bollywood — they only see it as musicals… but I have gone beyond that. I have used song, music and dance to tell a story and taken the archival route. I have touched upon our milestones from post-independence India to the current day and how our cinema has reflected it — all through song and dance," said Mehra from Mumbai before his Cannes journey.
Produced by Shekhar Kapur and UTV's Trishya Screwvala, this documentary — co-directed by American filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist — is the sole representative of Indian cinema at the prestigious film festival. Though a sizeable Bollywood contingent, including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Sonam Kapoor, is currently anchored in Cannes for product endorsements, Indian films have not made the festival screening cut. Barring Udaan (2010, in the Prix D'Un Certain Regard section that recognises young talent) and Neecha Nagar (1946), Indian films have not exactly conquered Cannes in the past either. Ask Mehra about it and he is pragmatic about the void.
"Until date our cinema has catered to a specific audience. Look at it this way, Hindi films don't even go to south India often. South India doesn't cross Dharavi [Mumbai] and come to Hindi markets. So now you are talking about a world market. When we talk about cinema worldwide, you are talking about exporting culture. You are talking about international integration," said Mehra, adding that the West has done it successfully through merging of economies and exporting the culture through music and novels. But India hasn't missed the festival boat entirely, according to the Rang De Basanti filmmaker.
"This part of the world has never been outgoing. It's just now that India is getting globalised. So in the coming years you will see more presence. Earlier the effort wasn't there. So the moment we start breaking the glass ceilings with our movies and start capturing bigger markets, we will arrive. That doesn't mean we make bad films," said Mehra.
UTV's Senior Vice President (International Distribution & Syndication) Amrita Pandey is not bogged down by the bleak picture.
"Indian filmmakers are making films to entertain Indian audience worldwide… I don't think a film not making its way to film festivals is in anyway short-changing the film. In fact most often when we release a film in India, which might have done well in the festival circuit, we may not even use that fact in the promotion of the film. I don't see super successful films from the west like Hangover or Avatar taking the festival route, the main purpose is to entertain," said Pandey in an e-mail interview.
And entertain — Mehra does. In Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told he has weaved in brief commentary with Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Katrina Kaif all the while tracing the evolution of Bollywood heroes over seven decades.
"It's not a talking-heads story. My intention was to trace the evolution of Bollywood cinema and its heroes. For instance, earlier cinema — when we just got independence — was more purposeful, later came the escapist cinema where heroes started singing and dancing, then came anti-establishment films because there was so much corruption around us… the layers will slowly open," said Mehra on his Bollywood de-construction project. He is equally confident about Bollywood's all-pervasive powers.
"Nowadays, if you got a meeting in Wall Street you need to have an India and a China plan — the spotlight is one of these countries. Our cinema is not going to be left behind either."
"The reason is why we brought him [American director Jeff Zimbalist] was to bring an element of objectivity and that internationalism to it." - Co-producer Trishya Screwvala