Raman Fielding, lolling with sweaty saffron-headbanded Youth Wingers one minute, passing out in a state of Dionysiac bliss the next in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh. Subhash Nagre playing carrom with his son's wannabe girlfriend and fondly tousling the hair of his grandson in Ram Gopal Varma's Sarkar.
Compare them and weep. Both are caricatures of one extremely powerful citizen of Mumbai but one is poison pen accurate and the other is pussycat fuzzy. It pretty much sums up the creative gap between Indo-Anglian fiction and Mumbai cinema. While writers from what politicians with socialite pretensions like to call the English-speaking elite have managed to articulate the angst of the urban middle class, it hasn't been the same for filmmakers. Give me the robust Butter Chicken in Ludhiana of a decade ago, where a teenaged girl in Jhansi dreams of making it big as a fashion model, over Bunty's Babli with her variable Punjabi accent and too-perfect lip gloss. Give me Rushdie even at his florid best over Varma's whitewash for Balasaheb Thackeray. And certainly give me Jhumpa Lahiri's subtle Namesake over Kal Ho Naa Ho's themepark version of NRIs.
Why has Indian cinema, despite a new generation of literate writers and educated directors, not been able to capture any of the zeitgeist beyond the current hair colour and body type? Partly because despite an array of poseurs who claim to beat the system, ultimately everyone compromises. If it's mass, they assume it has to be crass. And if it's popular, it has to be populist. The excuse: cinema is a disorganised business, not just an individual expression of creativity. So we applaud our weak achievements. My Brother Nikhil shows two gay men not daring to even hug onscreen and we think it is a great move forward in the portrayal of alternative sexuality. Mathrubhoomi shows a succession of rustic men raping a wooden woman and we assume it is a profound statement on the status of marginal people in our society. Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi shows a man who looks a prizefighter version of Sanjay Gandhi and it is hailed as the most authentic testament of a dark period of unfreedom.
Is there any movie among the ones being made today which will stand the test of time? Not very likely. Certainly not unless filmmakers have the courage to stay true to their experience. However limited it may be.
A story, after all, is a story.