This article first appeared on the cinema portal Passion For Cinema. To read it there please follow the link
One of those best of Madan Mohan collections has him speaking about his craft. With a characteristic understated passion he recounted what it took to craft a melody. The result was work that was sophisticated and accomplished, popular at the time and classic ever since. Why is it that today’s Indian finds it so hard to create what might be popular and artistically/intellectually gratifying? Why has the gulf between sensible critical acclaim and mass appeal widened beyond comprehension when it comes to art in general and cinema in particular?
We are negotiating with a very important curb in our history where economic growth, dominance and discrepancy are the preoccupation in all quarters. Are we making any classics along the way though? In these times of the pettiest of bloody politics and a surging feel-good factor despite of it, what is happening to our art?
Bed and Board is a classic as nearly all films directed by Francois Truffaut are thought to be. It is a deceptively simple tale of a marriage and its graph principally. Antoine is married to a violinist and lives out his days in a quaint neighborhood dyeing flowers for a living. Their blissfully ordinary existence is threatened when Antoine embarks on a nearly inexplicable affair with a Japanese woman. Drawn apart (after a dramatic scene in which his wife on discovery of his infidelity greets him in a horrific madame butterfly getup), they are nonetheless unable to settle down without one another and come back together soon enough. This ‘end’ however is happy in only a skeptical sort of way as they are shown not to live ‘happily ever after’ but slip into a life of stable bickering indifference.
Truffaunt’s classic brings to mind our cinematic middle class spokesperson Aziz Mirza’s Chalte Chalte or atleast the second half of it.
After reliving his Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge role in a less flamboyant, more vulnerable avatar, Shahrukh Khan(Raj again) who only ever plays a superstar, settles down in a middle class neighbourhood in Mumbai with his much different wife, Priya.
The ordinariness of their life is shown among familiar character sketches of ‘regular people’ reminiscent of the ‘Nukkad’ life. The wife cooks, cleans, shops for veggies while anda-walas and dhobis walk in and out of her tiny apartment. The husband does his job, hangs with his buddies, comes back home to bicker with wife or woo her with his boyish charm. The break here is not an extra marital affair but Raj’s brash, complexed mindset. He is jealous, loud and feels inferior at the drop of a hat. In both films the ‘fault’ comes from the husband but it was too much to expect a hindi film hero to cross the sacred line of sexual commitment up until Karan Johar’s rebellious but misguided Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Nonetheless Raj is grey and real. He broods dramatically and displays only melancholic shades of anger, depression and longing after the wife leaves. Naturally Truffaunt is not given to such show of undiluted emotion. Antoine’s journey is highly personal and internal – his attachment to his wife is palpable but never obvious. Equally stark is the wife’s ‘forgiveness’ of her husband in the end in contrast to Chalte Chalte’s traditional teary climax (replete with sukhwinder singh’s heart rendering high pitch). The end is happier here despite bickering thrown in for good measure, but then anything would be happy after that melodramatic climax at the airport, no less.
It would be easy to see, Mirza made Bed and Board within the Bollywood formula (not implying he copied it. It is a theme often visited by writers/filmmakers and common enough not to attract insinuations of plagiarism). But beneath the obvious conclusion is another story – that of our cultural psychology and philosophy. Evidence is simply in the names of the films. Bed and Board, is as stoic as the film- a demystification on the institution of marriage. It intends to reveal the shallow waters of a much-touted social more and strengthens its case with a strong disillusioning end. Chalte Chalte is more poetic (borrowed from one hindi film song or another), conveying a sense of journey, its mystery and even a hint of fatalism, linking up with its own end brimming with ras. The significance of rasas infact is an Indian cultural obsession from time immemorial. Its unpopularity in the west can be gauged by considering there is no equivalent word in the language for it. the closest one can come is a literal ‘syrupy’ which has derogatory intonations. Bed and Board perhaps unintentionally addresses France’s, rather Europe’s fascination with existentialism. In the end it all means little. Chalte Chalte is rooted deeply in india’s unshakeable romanticism that springs from the abundant faith in our DNA. We are the children of God (and literally too, there are castes a dozen claiming descent from one or the other avatar of the holy trinity) and religion is our single-minded passion. Marriage like all else is tied up with it and therefore sacrosanct (to be fair there is little India that is not sacrosanct in some way or the other, even rats). In the final moments of the climax Raj gives away his Allah charm to his wife. This moves her sufficiently to return home and say, “my place in life is with you”. Religion, fatalism and an pursuit of emotional intelligence underpin the formula to audience appreciation. We go to the cinema “leaving our brains at home” (a popular phrase coined by Indian critics to deride/describe most Indian masala movies), but we take our hearts along and how. You can titillate us all you want but you’re not a bumper hit unless you move us, shake us. The difference in Chalte Chalte and Bed and Board is of bad and good cinema, undoubtedly. But the concept of good and bad cinema is derived intellectually in India from the west. But marriages were made in India. Like heaven was.