Bollywood’s new inspiration

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Eleven years after Jessica Lall was shot in a crowded Delhi bar, a movie called No One Killed Jessica — originally a Times of India headline — hit cinema halls. Meanwhile, another news potboiler — the recent Nira Radia tapes — is being readied for the big screen.

It’s a developing story and nobody really knows how it will end. But, that won’t prevent Bollywood from making two films about the Radia tapes, one from the Mahesh Bhatt stable and another to be directed by Vijay Desai and Alpesh Dixit. The Desai-Dixit film is, for the moment, being called 2G Radia-tion. Is daily news the newest masala in Bollywood? It’s been this way for a while but the trickle is now a flood. Anjum Rajabali, who wrote Rajneeti, says that after the tandoor murder, in which Delhi Youth Congress president Sushil Sharma tried to burn his wife’s body in a restaurant, six film names were registered. One was Tandoor. Rajabali says “it’s important to be able to tell the difference between the filmmakers, who put some thought into their movies and the ones, who reach for every news story that comes along.”

Film industry analyst Komal Nahta says that movies based on reality usually don’t do particularly well at the box-office but No One Killed Jessica is drawing audiences. Is this because it doesn’t offer a blow-by-blow account of what happened but  an interpretation? Vikas Bahl, chief creative officer of UTV Motion Pictures, which made the film on Jessica, recalls his wife first pointing out that the story deserved to be made into a movie. The interpretation the film settled on was that of Sabrina, Jessica’s sister. “By now,” said Bahl, “Sabrina wasn’t angry or bitter. She’d come to accept the system for what it was.” The industry is said to be watching the film’s takings closely. At least one film reviewer says if it proves a hit, it will open the floodgates and many more movies loosely wrapped around real-life stories will follow.

Cinematic interpretation may be the key. Ekta Kapoor’s take on the MMS scandal involving a Delhi schoolgirl will reportedly start out with the trigger MMS, then morph into a paranormal thriller.

So has Bollywood become a news junkie? The change has occurred slowly over the years with the industry moving away from fantasy — with scant elements of reality, for instance an angry Bachchan taking on the entire system single-handed — to reality with scant elements of fantasy.

Observers say at least some of this change has come about because of India’s vastly changed news environment. Ira Bhaskar, associate professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says it is all about the changing of our society, from one in which the parents in a household watched an hour of news every evening on Doordarshan, to a society that lives with 24/7 TV news.

Unsurprisingly then the new wave of filmmaking is led by younger people, who are understandably inspired by headlines on telly.

Abhishek Sharma, for example, made Tere Bin Laden, which pokes fun at both TV news channels and American foreign policy. He remembers worrying about his sister, who was in Ohio on 9/11.

Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhoka, which reviewers called Bollywood’s coming-of-age film, acknowledges inspiration from the original Tehelka sting operation. Banerjee says the sting, “very quickly turned into a farce with every other news channel conducting its own stings.” He mentions a sting on a (senior) Bollywood actor by a TV reporter who posed as an aspiring actress and tried to capture all the gossip about Bollywood’s “casting couch” on video. “I remember feeling how vulnerable the actor seemed. A few grainy shots and a person’s life is in tatters…. That hidden camera played a leading part in Love, Sex aur Dhoka.

But everyone’s agreed it all really started with Tamas, the 1987 six-part TV series on partition directed by Govind Nihalani. The first four episodes were aired on Doordarshan, after which a special leave petition was filed with the Supreme Court — a writ petition had already been dismissed by the Bombay High Court — because certain outfits objected to the series’ depiction of them as responsible for the killings that occurred. The TV series was yanked off air; the Supreme Court heard both sides of the argument and allowed the other episodes to be telecast. The irony, say the initiated, is there was no reaction — and certainly no protest — when Bhishma Sahni wrote Tamas, the book. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975 but somehow the book did not cause the ripples the television series did — beamed into millions of homes.

Today’s TV news is hardly as credible as Tamas, the television series. But it still has enormous impact. P.N. Vasanti, director of the Center for Media Studies, says that the number of news channels is increasing, but their credibility is not. People, who watch the news channels, later check what they’ve heard with the newspapers. If Bollywood were to blindly head down the path followed by TV news channels, many warn cinema will be just another version of a shrill news media.

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