The new generation of Hindi films boldly deals with taboo subjects that break away from mainstream Bollywood. Kaleem Aftab talks to two directors whose movies premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival
The success of both parts of Gangs of Wasseypur is spurring a new era for the independent Hindi film scene. All of a sudden, it's not just Bollywood films made in Mumbai by big studios starring the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Katrina Kaif that are making headlines.
At Cannes this year, all the Hindi films showing were from the independent sector: there were both parts of Anurag Kashyap's tale of revenge, Gangs of Wasseypur; Vasan Bala's essay on destitute drug addicts The Peddlers; and Ashim Ahluwalia's look at the era of 1970s B-rated movies with Miss Lovely.
They're all part of a revolution taking place in Hindi cinema: Bollywood, with its traditional studio system, is no longer the only player in town. More and more films are appearing without song-and-dance sequences, and genres now include everything from horror to sci-fi to cater for a new, wider audience.
The change has affected the studios, and they've started to bring out broader comedies, such as Vicky Donor, to target audiences. Multiplexes are looking for different content, too. One size no longer fits all.
Vasan Bala is a typical example of the new breed of Indian filmmaker. He was raised in a conservative family to be an engineer or a doctor and started his work life by getting jobs in advertising and in a bank. Then, when he was 28, his parents asked him to pick a career and stick to it. He told them he wanted to try being a film director.
Bala started to communicate with the Gangs of Wasseypur director Kashyap.
"We met on an online portal called Passion for Cinema and then he called me and said: 'Start writing the script' and I said: 'I'm not a writer' and he said: 'Just try to do it'. Then he started making films and I joined him."
When Bala describes their office and working environment, it evokes memories of the fabled meetings between the New Hollywood directors - Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese among them - that took place in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
"Anurag's office is in Andheri [a Mumbai suburb]. There is barely any money to run the office and no salary structure so you get paid as and when something happens. I'm glad that I have a house in Mumbai, otherwise it would be difficult to survive. You need a lot of will power."
Michael Winterbottom was a big inspiration for these filmmakers to pick up a camera and shoot the films they wanted to make.
Bala worked on Winterbottom's Trishna and saw that films could be made without a big crew and budget. Winterbottom showed that there are many ways to make a movie.
The other advantage of working outside of the mainstream is that the director has more power to make the film he wants without worrying about the budget or offending the audience. The result is the freedom to deal with subjects that are taboo, Kashyap says.
"Sometimes I see all these young filmmakers and I envy them. I made The Girl in the Yellow Boots and it premiered in Venice. The German director Fatih Akin saw it and told me that my problem was I didn't go far enough. I told him that if he came to India he would see that people think I kick the door down on subjects and that I'm nasty and immoral. It's all relative. These new boys are fearless. They go and make films as they want. I say it doesn't matter if it doesn't work. You are answerable only to yourself."
If the advantage of being independent is that taboo subjects can be met head on, the big disadvantage is that there is very little financial support for filmmakers working outside of the mainstream.
The Miss Lovely director Ahluwalia says: "I mean, there is no independent scene in India. You have to start from scratch. There is no state funding such as in France or Germany or England. In India, if you want to make an independent film, you are in trouble, essentially."
But the passion of the filmmakers means it's not a lost cause.
"I have to say that the independent scene in India is small, but it's going to happen because there are enough mad people out there, like me, who are going to do it anyway," says Ahluwalia. "But right now, from the point of view of finance and distribution, it's very negligible. From a filmmaking point of view, there are more filmmakers, and I think it's very exciting. Traditional Bollywood is breaking down. Big budget films are not doing very well and they have a crisis of identity because the films resemble Hollywood. If the film doesn't have songs in it anymore, is it still a Bollywood movie?"
It's time to throw those preconceived notions of Indian cinema to the dustbin. A revolution is taking place.