Bollywood Polemics – A debate with Anurag Kashyap 2
the earlier thread already has 220 comments! I think a new thread might better serve this purpose! No comments should be added to this thread just yet. These will be deleted. In the meantime I have kept the older thread open. I am reproducing the body of the older post here..
Is it nepotism only when established actors do it or does hyperbolically praising one’s buddies at every turn also count as such? Proclaiming a film like Rockstar more or less a work of genius or suggesting Shanghai is so great and the director so self-evidently India’s best that there cannot even be a debate on this! I shall of course remember to not bring up Adoor Gopalakrishnan in this discussion forget lesser mortals like Bala and so on.
Is it about being gutsy and “ballsiest” only when one wants to support the filmmakers to praise the films in question beyond all reason and not do so when it’s the opposite or one doesn’t care for the actors associated with the latter?
I wouldn’t bring up all of this if it were a stray comment here and there but it’s a consistent pattern. And it’s incredibly disappointing that a filmmaker of your gifts has decided to more or less become Bollywood’s ‘rebel-in-chief’ and make these pronouncements that increasingly take you into the realms of non-seriousness than provoke any sort of critical discussion which is otherwise your stated claim. I have actually liked most of your films if not all. I have great admiration for your skills. But there is a trap that one can very easily fall into. which is that one starts depending on the very ‘big bad Bollywood’ that one pretends to denounce. In other words the mediocrity of the system such as it might be (and I’d agree with very much on this score) is precisely what you need to proclaim yourself the misunderstood and underappreciated genius of the system along with your buddies. In other words one can’t have it both ways. If the standards are absymally low in Bollywood and in every sense according to you isn’t it a sleight of hand to then market your works or those others you celebrate as the very best? What does this even mean?! In Italy the old joke was that you either had Fellini or Antonioni or Rosselini and so on or you had junk cinema. This wasn’t very far from the truth. But what if Fellini had said that he was way better than everything else in his industry?!
So it’s a trap because one can get too comfortable in one’s role as provocateur-in-chief for one’s industry. And let’s be honest — there is a market for this in contemporary Bollywood. The system allows you to play this game. No one is very bothered by your statements! I wish they were but they’re not. Forget what Bollywood is doing. Forget this rebellion. This is such a boring enterprise anyway. The industry is so tough for you and what not. Sure it is! There are such horror stories all over the world in every industry and not one is worse than Hollywood which in the words of a writer whose name escapes me is more certain death to an artist than anything else imaginable.
But also there are consequences to this sort of unthinking (one hopes it isn’t genuinely felt) commentary. One becomes a symptom of the system in the very same ways that one things others are. How? If there is no intelligent commentary anywhere in the industry, if the film media is utterly bankrupt.. and so on, isn’t there far greater responsibility on someone like you to inform and educate? Or is taking potshots and issuing such totalitarian statements where all debate is foreclosed the the limit of your ambitions?
I’d also say this. It is very easy to criticize a commercial industry and celebrate the marginal. I am all for this but the latter almost always depends on the former. There cannot be only a marginal industry in any country which has to resources to foster a major commercial industry. By the same token rebellion or provocative gestures don’t mean as much when a Kashyap indulges in them as when a Santoshi does. Why? Because the audience keeps you in a box and they’re quite happy to get all your rebellion as long as they can keep you ghettoized. The same possibility does not exist with Santoshi. Do you know that every existing official VCD/DVD of Khakee that I am aware of whether in India or outside has two crucial and potent political scenes censored? Admittedly smaller films are sometimes harassed as with your Paanch but the larger commercial film always invites greater attention because it’s the truer mass vehicle and people are afraid of the messages thus sent out. In any case the rebellion you think you’re indulging in has already been accounted for by your system. Which is why you should actually make a somewhat bigger film and push the envelope that way.
I am hardly denigrating your brand of cinema or the useful gestures you often provide this way but it seems to me that one must get out of this infantile desire to simply shock one’s bourgeois audience by using sexual frankness and cuss words and so on. Again a similar structure holds. One depends on the very bourgeois framework that one otherwise mocks to enable one’s rebellion! And yes you’d say that you’re simply producing naturalistic detail. That’s true but the real impulse is to shock. Again let’s be honest! This might be a valuable gesture on its own but shouldn’t one advance beyond this stage? Specially if you’ve made a number of films. Again I like most of them, maybe all of them, but why not show greater ambition? Why remain boxed in?
And here I will leave you with a final observation which also connects with one of my own favored topics of discussion — the career of Abhishek Bachchan. Abhishek is really the model for what you thinks ‘stars’ should do but also the example that greatly unnerves you because he of course represents total privilege (not that the others don’t but obviously he has the biggest brandname). And in your framework of ‘rebellion’ one cannot be both at the same time. You finds it impossible to lionize Abhishek (I’ve seen some fairly absurd statements from you in the media on this score) because you also sees him as representing everything you dislike. But that’s like not wanting to praise Tolstoy’s efforts because he was a Count! Unfortunately there is no straight ‘Marxist’ line to be drawn between one’s talents, one’s motivations and one’s class. And the best Marxists all knew this. Including Marx. Which is why there are all these great literary allusions and references that constantly pepper Capital. Or you have someone like Walter Benjamin writing a seminal essay on Proust. One can have an opinion about class and so on but one has to live with the reality that great artistic impulses and goals often emerge from great privilege. Here your mentor RGV is much wiser than you or at least less burdened with this truth. Much as evidently there are very many important talents, North and South, who see a fine actor in him but you find it impossible to do the same even as you celebrate some other stars with pedigree and who have done nothing at all to justify such praise. Even if you genuinely disagreed with my (and Rathnam’s and Mehra’s and RGV’s……..) estimation of Abhishek’s talents you would at the very least have to appreciate his willingness to take these risks and suffer the consequences when he absolutely didn’t need to and could have stuck to an obvious formula once he had some hits. It is precisely because he is at the ‘heart of the system’ in so many ways that his rebellion means so much more. His gestures genuinely destabilize the system. This is what a great of the hostility about him in the media and even within the audience is about. He’s a ‘traitor to the system’ in various ways. I actually give you some credit here. I think you at least dimly intuit all of this. But this is as I said earlier contrary to your romance of how things should be. Again it is not about social justice and fairness when it comes to art. Nor should it be.
I am not suddenly saying all of this. I have made all of these points at much greater length elsewhere. But I finally decided to write to you because I think you can understand very clearly everything I’m saying. I do believe you have the honesty to appreciate it even where you might disagree with any and all of it. But your entire posture within your system is a deeply problematic one, a totally counter-productive one even with respect to your own goals, and ultimately a dishonest one as well. I can give you greater credit than your statements would lead me to believe but nonetheless you’re not saying those other things.
The sadness regarding ‘Bollywood’ isn’t that Housefull is loved by people and that Delhi 6 isn’t. It’s really about the lack of a genuine film culture that can inform, enlighten and really set the terms of the debate. This is the key difference between say the US and India. Not that average audiences are that much more into enlightened cinema (here too you are simply wrong when you offer misleading examples about filmmakers here.. you should read Soderbergh’s interviews on Che and then furthermore follow the release schedule of both the regular and especially the roadshow version.. similar examples could be offered from Europe.. on Carlos for example) but that there is a sane critical culture that evaluates things independently of everything else. You could have been at the forefront trying to bring about such a change in Hindi circles. You still can. I actually think you would do very well with Abhishek in a film and vice versa. But do something ambitious. Not No Smoking and stuff like that. It needn’t be big. But something important, something truly meaningful and ambitious.
By the way liked Girl with Yellow Boots a lot. But again since Cannes and the festival circuit is your preferred model of comparison my response is ‘interesting film but what’s the big deal?’ Not insulting you at all but you see the problem?
First off thanks for the responses. I know it’s hard to put up long responses on twitter. I’m quite sick that way! But some of your notes nonetheless allow me to clarify some things..
I actually don’t disbelieve you when you say that you’re not supporting DB just because he’s a friend. I have no problem with the claim that he’s a fine talent, that he’s a great craftsman. Even the idea that you consider him the best is not something I would necessarily argue with even if I disagreed with. But the whole question is one of contexts. The ancient Greeks had a very wise dichotomy where the opposite of the ‘true’ wasn’t the ‘lie’ but the ‘false’. And the reason some of their thinkers insisted on this distinction was that sometimes the ‘truth’ can be used like the ‘lie’. Which is to say one can be correct in a legalistic sense and still create a very deceptive sense of the matter. And so the ‘false’ covers both the ‘lie’ but also a ‘truth’ than can be used to deceive (consciously or not one might add today).
And so back again to DB. But let me offer some other examples here. You praised Love Aaj Kal to the skies. Here I was bewildered not because I felt you were being hyperbolic but because I didn’t see what there was at all to praise here. Or by these liberal standards very much coming out of Bollywood could be praised. I remember being extremely disappointed by Imtiaz Ali here. I felt he had Joharized himself. Or performed a kind of upgrade on that kind of cinema. There is absolutely nothing to get excited about here as far as I can tell. But let’s move onto Rockstar. Here’s a film that I liked even though I felt it was uneven and had some problems. I actually liked it more than I could defend it at certain levels. But that’s fine. I’m not after perfection. The interesting that is flawed is a lot better than the mediocre that is perfect! I wrote two pieces on the film and one where I expressed some dismay at the audience (my day job most of the time!) for not supporting this film more (it did well in some respects but not well enough). The film in short was far superior to LAK in my view and I hope Imtiaz Ali remains this sort of filmmaker going forward or doesn’t compromise more than this as a commercial director. LAK is to my mind a pointless film. If Imtiaz Ali is going to do this we might as well stick with Johar and the like. But even with Rockstar I don’t see why you made it your mission in life to respond to so many journalists or challenge them on their objections and even take the extraordinary step of inviting them to a session of rebuttals and what not. All this ‘theater’ for what? Rockstar?! A film that was already receiving good reviews on the whole. Did this film need such support from you? And in any case there was something a bit disturbing in your insistence that no one could ‘dislike’ Rockstar and if they had they hadn’t understood Imtiaz Ali’s great art!
Another example: you showed up at an NDTV interview once where the subject of discussion was Luck By Chance. Not a bad debut at all, some interesting things here but nothing to go crazy over either. Still for a first film one could excuse some of the enthusiasm (though I found Zoya Akhtar’s followup frighteningly mediocre). On that show there was this whole ‘ra ra..’ tone about the film as if some revolutionary film had arrived and Hrithik was being discussed as if he was a thespian of some sort, you were sort of chiming in at points. I didn’t get the sense you were agreeing with everything but you weren’t registering any disagreement either. Why not have the guts to either say something to the contrary or not show up on the show at all if one thinks that the format doesn’t enable one to do this?
Note how I am actually giving you much more credit that your own statements and interventions (as in the examples I’ve laid out). In other words I think you know better than your statements would have one believe if taken at face value. I have no evidence for this. It’s just an educated guess. But the problems begin here. Because if you have the whole rebel’s demeanor both on and off screen you also have greater responsibility. Here I am rather disappointed at your copout response about not wanting to take on the responsibility of an intellectual or an academic or what have you. I have not done this. You have yourself taken on this role with many of your statements. What does it mean to say that “we” (in Bollywood) are far behind those around the world? Of course this is not literally true. Hollywood is possibly a more bankrupt industry than Bollywood relative to its resources and relative to its audiences and so on. One could say the same for other European industries. we only see the best French or German films or whatever. We don’t watch the average Thai film! If we could select the ten best films just from Bollywood every year, irrespective of scale of production, and leaving aside even what’s being made in the rest of the country (the Tamil ‘new wave’, the rennaissance in Marathi cinema and so on) I think we could come up with a fine list. For example I could have Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Bannerjee, Rohan Sippy, Rakeysh Mehra, some other names, a fantastic film like Udaan and some other like it.. etc etc and soon there would be a list strong enough to stand its ground in most film festival circuits. But in any case when you approach it in this fashion what are you really saying? That there is a level of ‘artistic’ cinema that Bollywood does not know about or does not celebrate even if is aware of it. But how can this ‘artistic’ cinema really be celebrated? Let’s say I asked you to write a piece on Love Sex and Dhokha. Would it be possible for you to do justice to DB’s achievement here without talking about his technical registers and so on? Couldn’t this then be dismissed as an ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual’ discussion? When you say that no one picked up on the Heer Ranjha reference in Rockstar (I personally think it’s more Orpheus than this but that’s another matter) aren’t you again talking about something ‘intellectual’ or ‘academic’. I frequently have people who tell me that I read too deeply into commercial films or take them too seriously. So the ‘intellectualism’ can be in the eye of the beholder. But leaving this aside how is it possible to really esteem a true artistic work without getting into some of this stuff? If I’m talking about Rathnam’s Raavan I could discuss his remarkable montage at the film’s beginning or how it reveals his designs in the film, I could on the other hand talk about his anti-Ramayana here (a tradition which exists in India, even more strongly in the South with the Kamban Ramayana and so on), I could get into how he really introduces the Maoist discourse here and really takes us to the ‘other’ side as it were, on and on.. In each instance the discussion could be called ‘intellectual’ and ‘academic’. Regrettably there’s no way to discuss Rathnam in terms that would otherwise be appropriate for Karan Johar and Sajid Khan! You know this far more than I do. You know the craft, the ins and outs of cinema better than I could ever hope to. How is your entire project to be defined if one can only do so in pedestrian ways? Do I just say Girl with Yellow boots or Gulal is a ‘good’ film and move on?! Surely that’s not what your own critique of Bollywood or your own statement on cinema amounts to?! It is exactly the opposite. You have yourself conferred this role on yourself not just with your works but even moreso with your polemics. In other words you can ask for credit upto a point and the moment you’re questioned more on it introduce this escape hatch and go ‘hey I never asked for this responsibility’!
Your lionizing of LAK or Rockstar or DB is problematic precisely given the terms of your own debate. In one instance you are frankly, and with all due respect to Imtiaz Ali with LAK, celebrating the utterly mediocre, in the other you are celebrating DB as if he were Ray! But there’s a common thread to both. I wouldn’t have a problem if you celebrated some other mediocre films the same way or if you celebrated some other directors as much as DB. But the friendship thread runs, rather coincidentally, through all your statements. why? What couldn’t you find it in you to get hyperbolic about some other films as well? And this is where that greek example comes in. It is not that I do not believe you (though many times I don’t in other instances!) on DB. But the contexts matter. If you had also celebrated Rathnam or Mehra or Rohan Sippy and so on (take your pick) I wouldn’t have a problem. But one can present a false picture by omission. What’s the need for such selection? Doesn’t this give people a false impression? Whatever your reasons might be for liking one director and not another, one film and not another, which is of course your will and wish and absolute right, don’t your polemics demand a more coherent set of choices? Is it really possibly that you can admire both the craftsmanship of DB or Imitaz Ali or at least like the works of each but find nothing of value or interest in Delhi 6 or Dum maaro Dum? Do those directors, even if they weren’t friends of yours, really need your support or attention, when they are already being celebrated by important cross-sections of the media? Shouldn’t you be sticking up more for films like Delhi 6 or Raavan, precisely those the media for all their usual ideological and partisan reasons gets hysterical about? Isn’t this precisely where the guts are required? Even if you don’t like the films you know very well there’s a lot of value in them. Shouldn’t you be more vocal about this? DB is already being praised in those very quarters! He doesn’t need, to use a sports term, the ‘assist’! Let alone someone like Imtiaz Ali!
And here irrespective of my own interest in or estimation of Abhishek there should be a larger goal here that precisely you should be on board with. First of all if he’s so extraordinarily privileged why is he so mercilessly attacked and ridiculed in various ways when his peers don’t live with half that burden. It’s not just about relative success or failure. It’s about something more. If you’re not going to support the guy who does Raavan and Delhi 6 and Gowariker and Rohan Sippy and Balki and RGV when he could easily just do BnB 1,2,3.. or Dus 1,2,3 or whatever the genres that work are who can you support? Isn’t he precisely the one who comes from privilege and who could make easier choices, specially as someone who failed so much earlier on, isn’t he exactly the ‘intruder’ at the heart of the system who should be ceebrated for his overall project even if one doesn’t take to him as an actor? If he’s not even going to get the critics or leading lights of alternative cinema like yourself to support his project more (in a general sense) he might as well do stuff with Rohit Shetty all the time! You as his peer in a larger sense, I as part of the audience, both of us have a larger responsibility, Specially so if we’re going to rant and rail against the system as both you and I do in different capacities, you with infinitely greater degree of influence. But no, you were part of a show celebrating Hrithik for LBC! It’s not about one or the other actor, one or the other filmmaker, you might privilege DB, I might privilege someone else but it’s about the larger framing of the debate. And you have yourself sought this role. You can walk away from the responsibility now. Even if you could what did you expect? That you’d just criticize on the sidelines whoever you wished or support whoever you liked while someone else would have to do the heavy lift that required assuming greater responsibility?!
Believe me I’m not judging you despite everything I’ve said. I find that sort of thing very boring. I am engaging here precisely because I have enough respect for what you do and what you say. But one can get oneself into a rather comfortable position without realizing it. Much as one can always believe things are easier for others or that others ought to be more responsible and so on. What about one’s own statements? And one just cannot play both sides of the coin. So on the one hand it’s all about interesting films and going against the grain and what not. The moment one critiques the films the response then is ‘hey I’m not trying to be Kurosawa here’! So what does this amount to ‘allow me to only say and do and test myself to the extent I am comfortable with all of this’! ‘Don’t ask for more otherwise I’ll say that’s not my role’! But the moment one says and does things there’s a certain logic one sets up. One can’t just enter and exit the discussion on one’s schedule. You can play a much more useful role, a much more subversive role. One can however keep playing to one’s romance of rebellion without realizing that the system is co-opting one at every turn. The equation keeps changing. It takes more than flame-throwing to change things. And if one doesn’t want that change one shouldn’t complain about things either.
I assure you I indulge in all of this criticism with the greatest respect. No insult is intended here. But I prefer honest, frank discussion rather than dishonest, polite ones. I know you do too which is why I got into this. These are things I’ve sensed for a long time. Didn’t suddenly come to this realization!