Review: From reel to real India

Greek film director Elia Kazan once told Satyajit Ray that making a movie in India is no less than a challenge because it must appeal to the Indian intelligentsia and small-town cine-goers with the same level of intensity and interest.

Over the years, very few films in India have really appealed to both the sections because what’s liked by the masses is not often appreciated by the classes or critics and what critics like is not always a criterion for a movie’s success at the box-office.

Like cricket, cinema (particularly Hindi cinema) is a religion in India, especially for the people belonging to small cities, towns and villages. So, any book written on Indian cinema must be judged from the perspective of an average movie-buff who has nothing to do with the intricate aspects of film-making, plots, themes or any message.

Namrata Joshi’s brilliantly written Reel India is one such book that captures the moods, dreams, aspirations and ambitions of those who religiously visit cinema halls and drown their worries, sorrows and sufferings for three hours.

They relate to the actors on the marquee and temporarily consider them as their real and emotional extensions. In other words, for the mofussil India, cinema is and has always been a ‘visual opium’ (film critic Leonard Maltin’s phrase).

An Amitabh-starred Manmohan Desai’s typical flick still opiates the minds of cine-goers from the hinterlands. A kind of Dutch-courage provokes the village crowd to emulate their superheroes without a shred of doubt. Here lies the success of our Hindi films.

Literally, as well as metaphorically, our films speak to us in our language. There’s always an element of instant connectivity and quick relatability. They (films) could be light years away from reality, yet this very unrealistic depiction is what makes a Hindi film click with the audience.

They provide a faux, but effective, sense of psychological empowerment and a kind of emotional anchorage to a largely emasculated and deprived audience.

Chidanand Dasgupta aptly said that most of the Indian movies (Hindi and vernaculars) are proverbial balms for the frayed nerves of have-nots. Viewers with crushed dreams in life find succour in them.

In the West, cinema is a separate entity whereas in India, it’s an innate identity. Not just plain masses but even the so-called urban viewers also identify themselves with actors they dote on.

Namrata has beautifully brought out this obsession through a number of instances which are sure to bring a grin or a chuckle to the urban and urbane readers. She’s a very patient listener imbued with a heightened sense of observation.

She interviews the crazy characters, drunk on Hindi films, without being judgmental or critical. Nowhere is she condescending towards people whose mannerisms are ridiculously cinematic, nay theatrical. This is indeed admirable.

To understand the collective psyche of Indian cine-goers, based in small towns, one must read Namrata’s book Reel India that opens the door to Real India.