Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Thursday, December 27, 2012


The vagabond scrounges for meaning under the haze of neon lights, the well-worn furrows on his face primed and stark for the next battle of survival. The halogen swirls in a surreal, dank dream.

The shadows of a murky Mumbai lose themselves in the alleys and the brooding darkness doesn’t let you see what lies a few feet ahead. And Aamir Khan in Talaash prods and pokes at the fringes, digging out the unpretty side and thrusting it into popular mainstream consciousness.

Talaash, while executing the clich├ęs of the film noir tradition, has a righteous cop questioning not only his own beliefs and shortcomings, but also peeling the humane layers behind the complexity of crime. If he had not been more discerning of his choices in saving his child, he had no authority to rail at the hardball choices of others borne out of their lesser privileged circumstances in life or their lack of ability. And therein lies the struggle to accept his flaw with theirs. Coming as it does after Kahaani, the other film that stripped the genteel veneer of an intellectual Kolkata, disembowelling its bugs and beasts, the underbelly is not only dominating our films but percolating to the popular drawing room space of television.

Weekend prime time bands, so far confined to the Karan Johar-isation of a relaxed mindspace, are now beginning to revel in gore and grime. And the fact that it made it to the `100 crore club and crime shows are scaling the ratings graph, it seems that the city underbelly has indeed become what NYU Professor Aurora Wallace recently likened to macaroni and cheese, the new “comfort food of television”. Or as filmmaker Anurag Kashyap puts it succinctly, “Throw away the warm duvet. Take off the skin and see the turmoil of emotions beneath, the tangle of messy heads and unfulfilled expectations that we so wish to hide under the carpet. Look at the failures because of our egoistical pursuits, our indulgence of the ugly.”

What is with this obsession with the macabre, this almost self-crucifixion of sorts on popular space and not some rap-venting at an alternative music concert? Sociologically speaking, the myth of the big city shimmering as a backdrop has ceased to represent highs in a globalised world. The idealistic struggle to chase rainbows has finally taken its toll, extracted too steep a price and left one wounded. Some have made it in the big city, others have reconciled to their migrant lot while yet others have been defeated and condemned to the hook or crook means to an end. The tussle for a new India has divided the self, exploited it and fuelled a bestial resurrection against odds. The moral fabric is frayed and flawed.

There is no room for oscillating between extremes, city life has perched itself on binary axes of neo-excellence and decay. These ideas have informed popular literature from time to time and have now invaded the mainstream. The abnormal and misbegotten, the chawls around the high class districts of Mumbai, the labyrinthine coldness of a Bob Biswas in Kahaani, the horrid stories of a deformed mind on Crime Patrol are all metaphors for a Mr Hyde co-existing on the same plane as the gentlemanly Dr Jekyll. Evil, too, has a next door neighbourly face, living a smooth life off it.

This acceptance of the war within society to push the city’s limits to the maximum has finally spilled over its popular tools of expression, films and TV. Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, who has journeyed from a village in Punjab to setting up the Junoon restaurant in New York, has himself wrestled with the warts of a big city alongside his two club feet. “I believe the best expression comes from suppression. Take the literature and art of post-War Europe to understand the depths of the human condition, the cynicism, the desperation and the will to tide it along. For far too long we have lived in brackets. Finally, the time has come to break those barriers... this is happening in films, TV and even food. Street food and community platters are even making it to the high end eateries.”

Kahaani story writer Advaita Kala talks of the counterfoil approach. Says she, “The whole noir tradition got some attention in literature and has moved to film, which is an often noted transition. I think the audience is over being feted by stylised sets. I think the nineties and the representation of a ‘photo shopped’ India was a possible reaction to the socialist India of the recent past and the visual drabness of it. I think we are now in a space where we can deal with the reality of our cities. I think human psychology has a tendency to veer towards the macabre, it’s what makes us slow down while passing a vehicular accident on the road. Curiosity for the macabre, the forbidden. When done well, it can be art and even entertaining.”

Explaining the underbelly premise further, she adds, “Crime has always been a popular subject in films. I think there is a certain cleverness that is needed when plotting a good crime thriller, staying one step ahead of the audience, unlike a romantic film, in which you carry your viewer with you on an emotional wave.” Perhaps it is this cleverness which has been permeating the urbanscape as an edgy subculture that has come to the forefront. The raw, deviant and the manipulative mind is finally out. As Kashyap said before the release of Gangs of Wasseypur, “I didn’t glamorise crime or criminals as an exotic indulgence of the upper class vision of how the underbelly is, I present crime from a human level, making the viewer himself analyse the real outcome of crime. I present reality and make you think on the subject.”

Not only that, the urban underbelly is becoming quite the grosser. While filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee moved from tugging at the subliminal in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye to the gruesome excesses of Love Sex Aur Dhokha and an upturned middle India in Shanghai, all at a profit. Kahaani and Talaash made it to the crore club. Vishal Bhardwaj took Shakespeare to heartland India in Omkara while Anurag Kashyap took Wasseypur’s eccentricities and grammar to Cannes.

Distributors now say that what was once a niche business in multiplexes — these making about 0.06 per cent of the 12,000 screens in the country — is contributing 38 to 40 per cent of box office revenues.

And if films have showed the way, television has completely broken new ground. Sony TV experimented with urban crimes in a docu-drama format over the largely unclaimed entertainment band of the weekend. Its CID continues to run in its 15th year and notched up a TRP of three till the last TAM reports came in. The newsy Crime Patrol notched up 2.7 points and Adalaat 1.7. Vipul D Shah, the producer of Crime Patrol, says: “When we started the show, our focus was on humanising the news around us. Drama and entertainment has to be part of anything on small screen, so we cashed in on the emotional and human aspects. We concentrated on storytelling and the TRPs shot up. Reality always had a recall value.”

Sony’s pioneering move was followed by rival channels across age groups, each show notching up ratings decent enough to sustain itself. Zee’s Fear Files, treading the unexplained and spiritualism a la Talaash, scooped up 3.6 points, while Savdhaan India on Life OK and Shaitaan on Colors inched closer to the analysis of the criminal mind. “It’s been the year of clones. Our commitment to creating original, differentiated content over weekends has spawned an entire range of such shows across channels.

We take imitation as a form of flattery and try to stay ahead with our commitment to characters, originality and quality,” says Vivek Bahl, chief creative director, Sony. The youth Channel V broke complete format with Gumraah, probing how urban youth are grossly waylaid by their own twisted beliefs. “We are not just retelling the crime, we go into the psychology of it. Maybe this show helps them talk about issues which would have already been swept under the carpet. We are building awareness in that sense,” says Prem Kamath of Channel V.

Suffice it to say that serious production houses, with entire teams dedicated to research and choosing cases juicy enough to be told in the drama format, often cannot put a finger on what works in this novella-like approach. For some, it’s the conflict of the good and the bad, the thrill of who will be the greater kill and the resolution — all elements of great drama and storytelling. For others, there is a sort of finality in a case closed under an hour compared to the much awaited justice in the real world.

Most though find the characters fascinating. They wonder why people like them or even those well placed in life are driven to heinous crimes and murder. “Everybody wonders why an average clerk would kill his wife and keep her body in the freezer, why would somebody poison his own children, why would the moneyed be perverse in his excesses, why a teen rapes an old woman or an old man abuses a child. Often it’s more about the possibility of flawed relationships in a society that’s tensile strength is being challenged by constantly changing circumstance, be they social, economical, cultural or political,” says a creative head.

Shows make a connect only because they focus on the emotional impact on victims and relatives. It’s more about the jealousies, the disappointments, the alienation of people and the hitback born out of these insecurities. In a way the belly-up approach essentially means coming to terms. And that, as some creatives say, is cathartic. Apparently a leading broadcaster is already making plans to launch the country’s first crime-only channel along the lines of Fox Crime and has approached filmmakers Kashyap, Banerjee and Nishikant Kamath to make pilots. Anil Kapoor is taking on the terror threat in our cities in the Indian adaptation of the hit series 24.

There is a moral debate raging on the ethics of bombarding TV with violent imagery, particularly at a time when news television is flooding the same in our minds day in and day out. “I do not think the growing crime spiral in our society is responsible for these shows or raking up the underbelly is atavistic or altruistic. If not anything, it opens up our mind to triggers that could explode anytime. What we are doing is building a sensitivity index. Our show is not premised on the bad or its horrific dimension, it is about how the usual can morph into anything. It’s about understanding, not moralising,” says Shah.

If at all we are raising the ethical question, it has to be that as a viewer we are most often lulled into believing that violent crimes are for a certain class, a certain mindset, a vicarious pleasure in the fact that while we peep into lives of others, that life can never touch us. Popular media is just shaking us out of this misplaced idea and projecting the criminal mindset as lurking everywhere. As a creative says, “Keeping the blinkers on isn’t fair or ethical either.”

Kala, nevertheless, talks about the need for caution, “Drama is an integral aspect of storytelling, nobody wants to read an accident report or a FIR. One has to populate it, dare I say manipulate it or use the convenient ‘creative licence’ to engage the viewer. But it can’t be ridiculous, and it often is.” The need for a creative balance is further highlighted by the fact that, as Kala says, “nobody is writing good crime thrillers. And there is enough crime in our everyday lives unfortunately, we are not easily surprised anymore by excesses.” The oddball mind is the new superhero, a product of its time, engaging and entertaining in equal measure. Kala should know.

Vidya Balan may have avenged her loss with the help of clerical cops in Kahaani but it is the potbellied, mulish Bob Biswas with an outdated gun and a menacing push, whom advertisers are lapping up. He may be making his money as a hired assassin but he also owns real estate and could be your next landlord or neighbour. Hey, he is now online too.

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