The legacy of Tinseltown

Filmistaan, a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Yasmin Kidwai that delves deep into Bollywood, has been making waves at international film festivals, writes Aekta Kapoor

The city of dreams and the land of dream weavers – that’s Bollywood for you. No other institution in India has done as much to create happiness and hope for its people, and build  bridges with the rest of the world, as the Indian film industry. Bollywood – the informal term assigned to Hindi cinema made in Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) – has now come to encompass not just the films themselves but everything else associated with them – the stars, the studios, the glamour and the grit. From Guwahati to Gandhinagar, practically every Indian has, at some point, been affected by the stories he or she has watched on a 70-mm screen, and the actors who have played larger-than-life characters in them. As the numerous international fans – from the alleys of Addis Ababa to the highways of Berlin – also prove, there’s something about Hindi films that you cannot resist, whether you know the language or not.

In an effort to capture the magic of Hindi movies, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India, roped in award-winning filmmaker Yasmin Kidwai to make a documentary that would go behind the scenes and bring to the fore the fundamental identity of Bollywood. What is it that makes our films so relatable to cultures around the world? Why are film stars worshipped like gods? In a country of hundreds of communities and several religions, how do Hindi films manage to inspire and assimilate everyone in their fold? What makes this the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of Indian art forms?

Kidwai, who has made over two dozen films in her career, had her work cut out for her: how does one capture a composite culture spanning over 100 years in 60 minutes? But the filmmaker, whose documentary No Problem! – Six Months with the Barefoot Grandmamas has won over 20 awards at film festivals worldwide, has done a commendable job this time too. Filmistaan – literally, the country of films – features the biggest names in Bollywood. From popular actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Irrfan Khan, Sonam Kapoor, John Abraham, Javed Jaffrey, Jacqueline Fernandez, Taapsee Pannu and Jackie Shroff, to other members of the industry including Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty, the film is peppered with fascinating experiences – from the way fans idolise them to how they decipher their own star power, and what makes Hindi cinema so irresistible.

Lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar talks about the inherent secularism of Bollywood films, which are largely ‘Hindustani’ in language and voice, inspired by different elements of Hindi and Urdu. Actor and TV personality Annu Kapoor has an interesting take on the word ‘Bharat’, which he says is the coming together of bhav (emotion), ras (gist) and taal (beat), which are also, in effect, the essential ingredients of Bollywood films. Filmmakers Aseem Mishra and Pooja Bhatt, film critics Anupama Chopra and Komal Nahta, costume designer Niharika Bhasin Khan and screenplay stalwart Salim Khan also share intriguing insights from their own perspectives of the industry.

“The unifying features in most Bollywood films are family values and the triumph of good over evil. All this is communicated in a very emotional way, which you understand even if you don’t know the language. That accounts for its global appeal,” says

former spokesperson of the MEA, Vikas Swarup, who spearheaded the project and believes that Bollywood carries with it a pan-Indian consciousness. “It packages India in a very nifty way for outsiders, and can be considered our best cultural export.” He is appreciative of the way Kidwai has handled the production aspects of the film, getting the biggest stakeholders on board and depicting the hard work behind the characters on screen. Released in 2017, the film is now being screened at film festivals in India and around the world.

It took Kidwai over a year to shoot Filmistaan, which included extensive travelling – from famous Mumbai film studios to locations in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. She met fans of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, who idolised them to the point of making temples for their heroes at home and covering entire walls with their pictures. She interacted with movie buffs from Kerala who travelled to Mumbai on the day of their favourite actor’s film release, and others from Kolkata who stood in long queues to get a glimpse of their icons. The film also covers locations in the UK, the US and Canada, where Bollywood stars have performed in dance shows. The sheer devotion, excitement and vitality of the audience “leaves you with gooseflesh”, actor Abhishek Bachchan says in the film. Indeed, foreign audiences are even more enthralled by Bollywood stars than those in India, as the visuals in the film testify.

Co-director Fazal Kidwai recalls shooting the crowds outside Shah Rukh Khan’s house on his birthday: “It was mindblowing – the undiluted, raw energy. It was pure love at its best; the crowds were not organised, they didn’t even know if SR K was in town and yet, they waited.” The team was also moved by an experience at Dal Lake in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir, where they had been looking for an appropriate place to shoot. “It was the best time and light to capture the hues of the lake,” the filmmaker narrates. “Suddenly, we heard this haunting voice across the still water. Someone was humming an old Hindi movie song. It was mesmerising. That’s what really set the tone of the film  for us…The reach of Bollywood across languages and generations. You may not call a Hindi film mystical; it has that homely feeling,” says Kidwai, whose Delhi-based company has produced an impressive repertoire of films: from Purdah, exploring a woman’s relationship with her veil, to Chukker – About Polo, which looks at the evolution of the game in India.

“That smell of the soil of home, replete with everything that it means – the familiar, the comfortable, the private and the personal. It is this that Bollywood represents: an expression of the idea that India is more than one community or religion, and that a fluttering flag expresses better than the stomp of military boots. One size does not fit all, there is my way and yours and many others, and we can all get along,” the director says and adds that her film imagines India as its founders did: sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic – ideas that are endorsed in Bollywood. “Hindi films, even jingoistic ones, have repeatedly trodden this line, imagining economic prosperity and rights for all.” As actor Saif Ali Khan says in the documentary, “If democracy means people power, then this is the ultimate democracy.”

That’s what Filmistaan highlights – “A shared culture giving dignity and acceptability to even the marginalised – a pillar of the foundation of the India we live in,” she says. It is an idealistic dream, the expression of India’s soft power and a celebration of India’s place in the heart of the world.

“Why do you watch Hindi films, my films, every day?” Amitabh Bachchan had once asked his father. “Because I will get poetic justice in three hours,” his father had replied, “in a way you and I will not get in this lifetime or several lifetimes.” And that, as Bachchan says in Filmistaan, “is what Hindi cinema is all about”.

The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in the article are her own

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