|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 20, 2004|
|SOCIETY & THE ARTS: CINEMA|
|Speak Easy |
English, spiced up with multilingual accents from across the country, was the language of choice for Indian filmmakers in Goa. It made it easier to overlook the abysmal turnout of foreign films.
|By Sandeep Unnithan in Panjim, Goa|
Shoe man,'' sneers Vijay Raaz derisively to his tourist passenger as he putters away on his autorickshaw, ''but I not buy.'' Raaz, who connects with audiences as Hari Om in the eponymous film by Bharatbala, may not have spelt out a breakthrough in English language film, but in his role as the benign superviser to Koel Purie's call centre employee in India's first BPO romance, American Daylight, he has a blast. ''Screw the company,'' he advises colleagues in his thick cowbelt accent.
The ''I'' may have been missing from the just concluded 35th International Film Festival of India (IFFI)-the turnout of foreign films was meagre and even unemployed Hollywood star Val Kilmer couldn't be persuaded to fly down to promote the festival's closing film, Alexander-but that didn't really matter as most of the films in the Indian panorama were in English. They stood out in the spread that comprised the usual lingual suspects-Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, even a son-of-the-soil Konkani film and a first-ever film in Tripura's Kokborok language.
English was the language of choice for the films that had audiences spilling over into the aisles and doorways. And it was delivered in a delightful array of multilingual accents from across the country-from Atul Kulkarni's Marathi accented English repartees (for a Malayalee character!) for Neha Dubey's cosmopolitan English in Mansarovar to the Doon school accents and babu English in Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and the anglicised accents of Kolkata's tiny Anglo-Indian community in Anjan Dutt's Bow Barracks Forever.
Love, indeed the love triangle, Bollywood's staple diet, was unusually well represented. Whether in the time of strife-like in the brilliant return-to-form Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi set against the politically turbulent backdrop of the Emergency-or a simple urban backdrop-Manu Rewal's Chai Pani Etc which has filmmaker Zafar Karachiwala falling in love with twin Konkona Sen Sharmas, or even the Parisian Sikh refugee Vikram Chatwal who plays a faux Indian superchef juggling his Indian fiancee Smriti Mishra and French girlfriend Gabriella Wright in One Dollar Curry.
In Anup Kurian's unusual and unpredictable love story, Mansarovar, Kulkarni jokes about disrobing in front of corporate harridan Dubey after a dip in Pune's Mulshi dam: ''I am a new man ... and the new man is usually naked ...'' Kurian, a computer engineer who worked in the US and scraped his savings to finance the Rs 25 lakh film, says he structures his thoughts in Malayalam because he spent over half his life at Kottayam in Kerala, but communicates in English. He resisted the temptation to make a Malayalam film because he did not want to limit his audience. ''English,'' says Kurian, ''is the language of true pan-Indian cinema. Hindi is an emotional choice, English is a logical one.''
''Eventually,'' says actor Boman Irani who shot to fame with his schizophrenic rant in Let's Talk, ''it is not just about language but about how someone likes to express himself.''
More films are joining the trickle that began with Jhankaar Beats, Let's Talk and Joggers' Park where one is more likely to see the cast of the new multiplex actors like Raaz and Dubey on the marquee rather than Shah Rukh Khan or Hrithik Roshan. Perhaps that's the reason why Bharatbala calls Hari Om an Indian film. ''When a westerner steps into an autorickshaw,'' explains Bharatbala, ''English naturally becomes the language of choice.'' Raaz, the auto driver with a heart of gold, a weakness for gambling and with a rickshaw named Madhuri (yes, the actor), finds it easier to tear across Rajasthan with lost tourist Camille Natta in the first Indian rickshaw-on-the-road movie than stitch together his sentences to impress his passenger. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi may owe its title to Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib but all its characters speak various Indian versions of the Queen's language, from Doon School and St. Stephen's accents to babuspeak. English also rules in Madhu Ambat's ponderous love-and-suicide flick 1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love.
As the mushrooming multiplexes attract larger audiences and create the new movie genre, Indian filmmakers are turning to English as the medium to connect with global audiences everywhere from Lucknow to Los Angeles. Vinod Ganatra, director of Heda-Hoda (here and there), the children's film in Hindi which has children chasing camels across the India-Pakistan border, says his next film will be in English because, ''it instantly opens up new doors for international funding of films''. Both Bharatbala and Vijay Singh's films were made with French financing. The flip side? Dozens of cleverly conceived but poorly executed English language films fall face down at the box office. ''Producers and directors say there is a market, but no one is paying attention to the content and so the films are flopping,'' cautions Heeraz Marfatia, director of the Academy award-winning short film, Birju.
Language was something the festival's cow, or the Cinema of the World section, didn't allow to interfere with appreciation. Cinema enthusiasts used the keys of subtitles to unlock the doors to some inspiring stories from the world cinema, whether it was the spectacularly shot The Motorcycle Diaries about two young students on a journey of discovery which transforms one of them into Ernesto Che Guevara-one of 20th century's greatest and now, thanks to the merchandising, most recognisable icons-or the true story of a transvestite Thai boxer whose silken clothes hide a steely resolve to soar above his humble origins in Thailand's Beautiful Boxer. If they wanted an insight into how Russian girls are trafficked by bedouins to Israeli pimps, they could watch Amos Gitai's controversial and gut-wrenching The Promised Land. These were by far the most raved about films at the festival.
The film bazaar, set up to cater to the global buyers, may have folded up without selling a can of film and the tributes to cinematic legends such as Vijay Anand may have played to empty houses, but Goa was not going down without a fight. The jugglers, acrobats, live music performances, floats, parades and daily beer and beach parties-crowned by Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar's party held atop a new cable-stayed suspension bridge-tried hard to convince film connoisseurs that the spirit of the state's famous carnival revelry would rescue the festival from drudgery.
But with the banners coming down and the tourists in sun hats and the cheesy ''Goa Beach'' T-shirts moving back to the beaches, the million-dollar question on everyone's mind was whether the tiny state does indeed make the grade for playing a permanent festival host. To put it cinematically, whether it has earned the right to make IFFI-Goa into a serial franchise. The previous NDA government felt it does, but the present UPA Government, which is uncomfortable about handing it over to a BJP-ruled state, is more circumspect. ''There are some difficulties,'' admits Union Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy. ''But these are not political difficulties and are in the realms of organisation, administration and management.''
Parrikar, who desperately wants Goa to be declared the permanent venue, has said that the festival will get the global recognition it so sorely lacks in the next five years. Will the festival return to Goa next year and the year after and perhaps one day be India's answer to Cannes? This question, more than any of the more mundane concerns about which films would get the Golden Peacock, overshadowed everything else at the festival. The jury is still out on that.