The Times Have Changed, The “Showman” Has Not

Subhash Ghai often bookends his replies with one-word questions. But none of them are really questions, because he isn’t looking for an answer. He’s looking for validation: About his earlier films, which have been consistently and cruelly ignored — both by the critics and the masses — for the last 15 years. And as Ghai braces himself for the release of Kaanchi, the 16th film in his 38-year-old career, he’s hopeful that at least this film will turn the tide. Because Ghai’s last four films — Yaadein, Kisna, Black and White, Yuvvraaj — have received all kinds of criticism: revulsion, disappointment, genuine befuddlement, uncontrollable sniggers. ButKaanchi risks something more grave — complete indifference.

Earlier, Ghai was fighting to be successful; now he’s fighting to be relevant. For the moment, he evades this concern by looking forward to his next film: “Kaanchi is a powerful story of a young girl who revolts against the powerful, and tells you to be fearless,” says Ghai. “It’s a dramatic film, a story of a girl who will inspire today’s suppressed youth of India to revolt against the circumstances, against the system.”

But Ghai doesn’t look to break any new grounds with Kaanchi. The film mirrors the embarrassing mistakes of Ghai’s recent failures. A filmmaker like Ghai, who’s been making films for close to four decades, cannot allow time to outrun him. Not that he thinks it has. “In 1975-76, I made Kalicharan, and then Vishwanath. Five years later, I made Karz, a musical. They were ahead of their time, right?” asks Ghai. “Then I made Hero, which was a love story, then an epic film in 1991, Saudagar, which was on a bigger canvas. Then came Pardes and Taal, which were women-oriented movies. So over the years, there is a progression of approach. I live every year of my life. I don’t live in the past. I live in the present and the future.”

And yet, Ghai feels the need to invoke his past to underscore his present. “Kaanchi is a rural girl of 2014. In 2014, the rural girl is not like a hero dada or khalnayak, or like Mansi fromTaal,” says Ghai. “When you see Kaanchi, you will find it is contemporary. Today’s village’s girls are very aware. In Kaanchi every character belongs to 2014.” Ghai emphasises that he’s contemporary because he’s clued into the latest filmmaking trends: “I am the filmmaker who’s brought many technologies to the movies. Kaanchi is the first Hindi film to use an Auro sound-11.1 soundtrack; so far, the theatres have had 5.7 sound,” he says. “I am also teaching new technology to my students. At Whistling Woods (Ghai’s film school), we have 3-D cameras. My interest and passion is to learn new things; to be as young as I can be.”

Ghai has always been a mainstream filmmaker, and consequently his films have followed the idioms of popular Hindi cinema. But in the ’80s or the ’90s, the gulf between Ghai and other mainstream filmmakers wasn’t as pronounced as it is today. Because for the last 10 years, a significant part of Bollywood’s mainstream — or the “New Bollywood” — has found its voice through a more global cinematic grammar.

“The new generation is coming closer to world cinema,” says Ghai. “They are more informed and knowledgeable, so they have huge information in front of them.” Ghai is obviously a misfit in the “New Bollywood” camp but since his stories have stopped resonating with the audience for the past many years, he cannot be clubbed with the mainstream bigwigs — filmmakers such as Rajkumar Hirani, Anurag Basu, Karan Johar — either.

In 2008, Ghai tried to break his mould by attempting a grim, gritty drama, Black and White. However, the results were far from favourable. The film scuttled at the box-office and even critical acclaim eluded the film. Phelim O’Neill, The Guardian‘s film critic then, noted in his review, “This Indian film bravely wrestles with the concept of getting inside the mind of a fundamentalist suicide bomber, but is shackled to clichés that are anything but revolutionary.” Since Black and White, Ghai has gone back to his roots, which have resulted in Yuvvraaj and Kaanchi: “My movies are still melodramatic. They are more centered on theatrics. Even Kaanchi is like that. But the characters belong to today. I have my own style of narration. Because finally the storytelling has to be by Subhash Ghai only. It’s like expecting Ravi Shankar to play guitar just because the younger generation has taken to the guitar.”

Ghai began actively producing the films of other filmmakers in 2001. Since then he has produced nine films, but barring Iqbal, none of them have been notable. In fact, that list includes many films that not only sank quietly the box-office but also failed to create a stir because of their content. “As a production house, we make all sorts of films. There are many hits; there are many flops. It’s all part of the business,” says Ghai.

Delusion is often the last resort of the perennially inept. Ram Gopal Varma, who finds himself in a similar situation, has said in plenty of interviews that he’s unfazed about his failures because even a filmmaker of Stanley Kubrick’s calibre faced failures in his day — today, they’re celebrated as “cult” films. Even Ghai believes the future holds a lot of promise: “None of my films have been critically acclaimed at the time of release, including Karz or Taal. But they went on to become classics. Am I right or wrong?” asks Ghai. “You see the real depth of many movies when you watch them for the second or the third time. The first time you only see films for entertainment, right? But the second time you see the second layer of seriousness. And then you see the theme. The fate of films also depends on the wave then. For instance, Karz drowned because Qurbaani was a huge hit. But now does anybody remember Qurbani? Do you remember?” When I inform him I do, he says, “But it is not on your shelf. You can keep Karz on your shelf, right?”

Ghai believes the ultimate test of a filmmaker is on a Monday afternoon. Because it’s then the audience announces its final verdict. But Ghai needn’t worry because he has already framed the answers. “You have to understand your film in two ways — one is the box-office performance, the other is the quality of the film. The box-office performance of Karz was poor. But I was not bothered because I knew it was a very good film. And after 10 years, it became a cult. After 30 years, it is still alive. So, similarly, Yuvvraaj and Kisna have also been wonderful films. I was very happy with them. And after 10 years you will find students discussing these two films as cinematic classics. Then?”

The piece was originally published at The Sunday Guardian

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