Realism in off-beat films

Realism in off-beat films

Yeah, so I agree with David Lynch when he said that ‘the whole world is wild at heart and weird on top’ because the words fit off-beat films like evil intent does to the wily wolf in that fairy tale with a red riding hood. Off-beat films are about the real facts that we are always trying to run away from… and this is why the commercial films, on the other hand, seem so real to us. They (commercial films) are so full of the fantasy that people love to fill their waking hours, thoughts, and dreams with… and I include both the masses and the classes here, that we feel that what the off-beat films have to say is totally unreal. The real, according to us, is what keeps the real away from us… and so we close our eyes and pray when we are watching an off-beat film!

It was Shyam Benegal who said that films are for the masses, the classes, or are simply art films and then went on to famously say that ‘the films that are likely to be the biggest successes are the ones made for the masses.’ He also talked of the features of such successes and specified that ‘films that will fetch the highest price are the ones that have the largest number of stars, a storyline replete with what are now essentials — thrills and chills, rape scenes, dance numbers and cabarets, choreographed fights and comedy.’ Shyam Benegal is both right as well as wrong in his conjecture. Off-beat films today aren’t averse to including any of the ingredients that Benegal prescribes for a film for the masses. Look at Bhag Milkha Bhag and tell me if it doesn’t have dance numbers that rival those in commercial films… or the comedy in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron… or the rape scenes in neo-realism films… or the choreographed fights in Paan Singh Tomar… and these are all films that are perceived as vehicles of social change! What else is realism about? Yes, the ‘cinema is an old whore, like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure.’

We can call an off-beat film by other names like parallel cinema or an art film or a film that wears the clothes of realism or something that simply reflects life. And life, I insist, is wild at heart and weird on top and such films today do earn money and have audiences that are increasing in numbers.

This wasn’t always the case. This kind of reception wasn’t given to the sort of abstractions and artistic interpretations that V Shantaram tried in his lifetime and films like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje and actresses like Jayshree and her daughter Rajshree remained on the outskirts of public adulation. So the art film movement did begin in the 1920s and the 1930s in the Indian film industry, though film historians feel happy calling Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome of 1969 as the first born of the Indian parallel cinema.

I was quite lost in my thoughts while writing on parallel cinema and did not hear Specky come up, stand behind me and read what I had written. Her question brought me back to the real world. She asked, ‘Catalysing social change simply means influencing attitudes and behaviour. Didn’t a film like Zindagi na Milegi Dobara actually promote a spirit of adventure and brought in a fresh wave of tourism for Indians?’

‘Yes, it did,’ I said. It is true that some of the hits like Ganga Jamuna, 3 idiots, Hum Dono, Anand, Safar, Kal Ho Na Ho, Devdas, Aradhana, Bobby, Munna Bhai MBBS, and even Sholay not only set their records in the commercial world but also helped us all understand one or the other facet of life in a better way. Isn’t this what a film in realism actually sets out to do? Well, the definition of off-beat cinema is surely set to blur though there will always be films that simply entertain and do nothing beyond that. Not that the parallel cinema doesn’t entertain or it doesn’t have the best of all actors. It isn’t just directors like Chetan Anand or Ritwik Ghatak or Bimal Roy or Satyajit Ray who have been at the forefront of this movement… there are a host of others too and the list includes many who have dabbled in commercial cinema well. The same goes for actors too. Even veterans like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, and Shammi Kapoor have been in films with a conscience… as have been actors like Waheeda Rehman, Rakhi, Rekha, Vidya Balan, Nasiruddin, Smita Patil, Amol Palekar, nana Patekar, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Kamalahasan, Balraj Sahni, Rehana Sultana, and even Anoushka Sharma. They have all followed what Ingmar Bergman said: ‘Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.’ Yes, a film that goes straight to our emotions is what can rightly be called an art film!

Some of the films that have managed to pierce through my stubborn consciousness and stirred me to get up and explore a new meaning in life include Traffic Signal, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, New Delhi Times, Mera Naam Joker, Black, Paan Singh Tomar, Kahani, Maachis, Guide, Dev D, Ardhya Satya, Satya, Vaastav, A Wednesday, Rang De Basanti, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Junoon, Paa, Pakeezah, Mere Apne, Peepli Live, Dhobhi Ghat, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, Yuva, Black Friday, Being Cyrus, Mr and Mrs Iyer, 15 Park Avenue, Udaan, Khamoshi, Taare Zameen Pe, Bhag Milkha Bhag, and Vicky Donor… and a whole lot of other wonderful creations on celluloid that obviously cannot be mentioned here as this post isn’t all about a listing but a point of view.

Another issue that needs to be mentioned before discussing specific films is the one where some feel that mainstream Bollywood ‘masala’ films have a somewhat tackily similar story-line each time… and I quote Jean Renoir as my opposition to this misconception. He writes: ‘A Director Makes Only One Movie in His Life. Then He Breaks It Into Pieces and Makes It Again.’ So does this mean that even an art film leads its creator to make similar films that look like the previous effort but necessarily degenerates into a masala film? This is simply not true. It is realism that has broadened its base and includes a lot of effort that may not have qualified as an art film, say forty years back. So far as earning money is concerned, every good film made ends up earning money… which is quite unlike the times when a great effort like Adhaarshila struggled to be released in cinemas. Yes, there were times when films with realism were rejected by the distributor and exhibitor lobby… but those days are now over. People want to see a movie that holds your attention and tickles and wakens up thoughts within the mind… and so I am going to tell you why I have loved watching Paan Singh Tomar, Bhag Milkha Bhag, Khamoshi, Mera Naam Joker, and Traffic Signal.


This 1970 b/w movie with evergreen songs like Tum Pukar Lo Tumhara Intezar Hai and Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi is actually a jog into the psychology of love and relationships. Gulzar and Asutosh Mukherjee have ensured that the story has nothing that resembles any of the usual story-lines… and the director Asit Sen makes the cast of well-entrenched stars like Rajesh Khanna, Waheeda Rehman, Nasir Hussain and Dharmendra give their best. The story is of a nurse (Radha: Waheeda Rehman) in a psychiatric hospital who is required to help treat patients by making the patient believe in the power of love. She does it… but at the cost of her own sanity.

Haunting songs sung by Hemant Kumar meander between a compelling story-line that defines love in a somewhat eccentric way. Waheeda Rehman proves that she can show us how insanity actually tip-toes into lives without anyone realising that it has happened. The mood throughout the movie is of compelling waves of love that simply get stronger and wilder without the person on the shore realising that he is now in the midst of a storm! So yes, the subject and its treatment are what transformed this movie into an artistic rendering. The movie is a proof of what Jean-Luc Goddard once said: ‘The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life. Unlike painting and literature, the cinema both gives to life and takes from it, and I try to render this concept in my films. Literature and painting both exist as art from the very start; the cinema doesn’t.’

Paan Singh Tomar

Just as Khamoshi was about the progression of a woman into madness, this movie is about the transformation of a disciplined man into a dacoit. The movie takes us into the heart of heartlessness of not just civil society but also of official apathy. Paan Singh Tomar is a Hindi-language film, based on the true story of a Man who joins the Army and adopts athletics because it entitled him to more diet. This movie that is Directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, is about the devolution of a dedicated soldier into a baghi.

If photography is truth, then ‘cinema is truth twenty-four times per second’ is what Irfan Khan proves in the movie… his expressions, as they trudged up from the child-like thrill of a yokel who qualifies for more diet if he runs well to that of a man who is dejected at not being sent for war because he is an athletic asset and a medal winner… and then to frustration as he is unable to amicably solve the land issues back in his village… and finally to confident aggression as he pushes himself into wielding the gun in civil life. Some called him a dacoit and others revered him for his wanting to wake up justice around him. Paan Singh Tomar was a seven-time national steeplechase champion in the 1950s and 1960s who couldn’t out-run corruption and greed in relationships… yes, this movie is easily a part of my choice of the best five in realism. No falsity at any stage and no deliberate underplaying of any aspect is what realism is all about.

Stanley Kubrick has rightly said that ‘a film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.’ This is one movie that shows this progression very well… and I love it for this.

Mera Naam Joker

A 1972 movie on the life of a joker in three chapters and one where the hero does not win… why would I want to place a movie that goes on for 224 minutes in my list of the five best off-beat movies in the Indian cinema? Enough reasons are there… and they include music, songs, philosophy, metaphoric lessons, cinematography, and also acting. Yes, all the trappings of a great commercial venture are also there in this one and it includes a star cast that is more than just impressive with Raj Kapoor, Simi, Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Padmini, Rajendra Kumar, and Achala Sachdeva adding to the verve of a bevy of Russian actors and circus artistes.

The movie goes on beyond the conventional length, has no constant heroine, and the hero keeps philosophising and losing them all… yes, this is one off-beat movie that also told me how to think about relationships. I remember I was in school and saw this movie with my father and my grandfather… and the deep introspective discussion the two elders had as we walked back from Amba Cinema in Ghanta Ghar to my uncle’s house on Bunglow road in Delhi at midnight when we could hear echoes of our own footsteps, is unforgettable. I wondered, for the first time, how movies could also make you think on life and that how interesting it is to relate scenes and dialogues with your own interpretations about life.

The movie is about the phases in the life of a human being… and how he prefers to stick to his philosophy of making people laugh and how the women he falls in love with, keep gifting the joker in him back to him. There are intuitively introspective moments scattered throughout the movie and despite its long length, one never wants to get up and go out for a break… like I did while watching Ram Gopal Verma’s Aag.

Bhag Milkha Bhag

Prasoon Joshi wrote well. Farhan Akhtar, Divya Dutta and Pavan Malhotra gave credibility to their roles. Music by Shankar Mahadevan, Loy Mendonsa, and Ehsaan Noorani is mesmerising. The songs are appropriately placed. But the best part and the crowning glory of the movie is the way the story of the life of Milkha Singh is told… every moment is hypnotising. This sort of perfection is achieved only when there is complete harmony between all the people connected with the making of a movie. I have watched this movie many times… and felt the same excitement every time. I can watch this movie from anywhere and still enjoy whatever I am seeing.

The non-linear format of the movie ensures that your mood changes from the ecstasy of seeing Milkha win a medal to that disturbed apprehension when watching a nation being divided… and then again to a sheer feeling of kar ke dikhayenge when you come to scenes where Farhan Akhtar is training hard. Hollywood has a lot of movies where they tell us about the real story of their medal winners… and this one stands up to the best that even Hollywood has ever produced. This was a challenging theme and the movie maker has given us realism with a lot of entertainment woven skilfully. I have seen the movie and I have read the book and I know that truth in the movie has not been glossed over… which is quite unlike what had happened to R K Narayan’s Guide.

Edward Zwick would have been thoroughly pleased because the movie follows what he wrote on this matter: ‘There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive – in fact, each can fuel the other. As a filmmaker, I want to entertain people first and foremost. If out of that comes a greater awareness and understanding of a time or a circumstance, then the hope is that change can happen.’ Yes, change is what even this movie has the power to bring about. A change in the way sports is perceived. A change in the way winning is perceived by our athletes. A killer instinct in an athlete is what is achieved only by focus, determination, and unflinching dedication… and this is what Milkha did… and this is what the movie brings out. No wonder then that this is one movie that will remain in the top list of anyone who wants to see a positive change in the social fabric around him.

Traffic Signal

Billy Wilder once remarked that ‘a director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.’ Madhur Bhandarkar is all of them and the movie tells us all about life at a traffic signal that we all knew all the time but never talked about.

This film is indeed ‘a petrified fountain of thought’, and captures the meaninglessness of life forces to create a new meaning! Bhandarkar has proved that if such meaninglessness in life can be written about, it can also be filmed. He did it… and did it well. In Karel Reisz’s words, this film also shows us that ‘a style is not a matter of camera angles or fancy footwork, it’s an expression, an accurate expression of your particular opinion.’

Kunal Khemu, Neetu Chandra, Upendra Limaye, and Ranvir Shorey are brilliant… and what we see in the movie is the truth, the sordid truth, the likeable truth, the change-worthy truth, the disoriented truth, the disdainful truth, the abusive truth, the pathetic truth, the violent truth, the dirty truth, and the real truth. This is one movie that simply tells it all… that goes beyond the façade of what we see and look the other way to bring it all back to us and force us to mumble, ‘Yes, yes, I know it all. I mean, I don’t know if this is really true but I believe that this is true.’ And when you begin to know that a particular truth is there despite your efforts to not see it standing there… you begin to think about what may need to be done.

Yes, this is the kind of film that brings us nearer to wanting to do something for those who spend their lives at a traffic signal… begging, selling, pretending, thieving, romancing, loving, lusting, forcing, and doing all the things we too do in our exalted life styles.


So yes, off-beat films are indeed wild at heart and weird on top… and are full of fantasy and the unreal because all they have in them is not what we want in our lives. We’re happier watching Katrina gyrating, Sunny Leone pouting, and the hero thrashing an army of goons… and all this keeps us sedated and away from the real truth. ‘Realism in films,’ I sigh and say, ‘makes my life feel so transparently naked and vulnerable.’ And yet, I know that it is these films that extend their hand to say: I’ll help you understand life.

This post is a part of the Miss Lovely Activity in association with BlogAdda.

Miss Lovely, an off-beat film directed by Ashim Ahluwalia is set in the lower depths of Bombay’s “C” grade film industry. It follows the devastating story of two brothers who produce sex horror films in the mid – 1980s. A sordid tale of betrayal and doomed love, the film dives into the lower depths of the Bollywood underground, an audacious cinema with baroque cinemascope compositions, lurid art direction, wild background soundtracks, and gut-wrenching melodrama. Miss Lovely is scheduled for commercial release on 17 January 2014. 




Arvind Passey
12 January 2014