A Short History of ‘Dark’ Indian Cinema

In India they don’t make too many ‘dark’ movies. Well, you could argue that the likes of Govind Nihalni, Shyam Benegal and Mani Kaul did realistic (and hence dark) cinema. But I am not quite well-versed with their body of work.

The indian cinema – or more precisely the Bombay film industry – I usually refer to, begins with the 90s, a time dubbed as ‘tasteless’ when it came to films and (quite obviously) fashion. I do not quite disagree. I can’t stress enough on the melodramatic and absolutely farcical plots, weird hairdos, creepily hideous villains, horrendous dance moves, not to mention the over the top leading ladies and lads. But I digress.

So I was talking about the lack of dark (and hitherto realistic) films. But behold. There was once a man named Ram who would make and (kind of curate) hard-hitting Gangster movies and that’s about as dark as you could get in the Indian context. Sometimes he would intersperse his own pet theme with half-decent films like Kaun, Ek Hasina Thi, Bhoot and perhaps even Road, in an era more or less devoid of arthouse and Indie. Then he completely lost his grip on reality (or maybe overdosed on it?) and we all know the string of horrendous films and the final nail in the coffin called Aag ( It’s a different matter altogether that he continues to hammer in more nails to make his coffin all the more secure).

So who took over from RGV? Anurag Kashyap ofcourse! The father of ‘postmodernist’ cum ‘Indie’ cum ‘new wave’ Indian cinema. Wiki tells me, Anurag and RGV go a long way. Our plump arthouse favourite was the dialogue churner for some of the gaunt filmmaker’s best offerings such as Satya and Kaun. But he has come a long way from those days. He directs, produces and curates films, is a fixture at Cannes and has even been honoured by the effusive French for his contribution towards cinema. Not for nothing, he is a darling of the critics and the ‘educated cinema lover’ alike.

His films are ‘certified dark’! Do I sound mockish? Not that I intend to, but I can’t help it. Make no mistake, I like Kashyap films. At least most of them. To be more precise, over the years I have increasingly found myself being fascinated by the ones he curates rather than directs. I don’t mean to be blasphemous but I didn’t quite find the Wasseypur saga to be as praise-worthy as it was made out to be. I mean, just because an Indian director adopts the Tarantino school of filmmaking doesn’t make him all that exquisite. In fact, I harbour pretty much the same feelings for Tarantino’s most recent offering as I do about Kashyap’s. It seems both are trying way too hard to become distinguished and something beyond themselves.

Django, as I see it, is an indulgent bloodbath to please the cinemagoer without ruffling the critics’ feathers. At least, in that part of the world critics can call a spade a spade. There were many who declared Django to be in bad taste for obvious and not so obvious reasons. Whatever happened to QT’s unpretentious filmmaking which gave us Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, or even Inglorious Basterds?

Ditto with homeboy Kashyap. I hardly get to see the sensibilities which were at play in Black Friday, Dev D., Gulaal and most recently That Girl in Yellow Boots. And yes, all these movies were decidedly ‘dark’. And then I watch Ugly (Oh yes, it’s gonna crop up like a sore thumb for a while now) and all the ‘dark quotient’ critics have associated with it and I ask: ‘Do they (or Kashyap himself) really believe it to be ‘his finest’ ever? It looks like a relentless effort to portray urban decadence but has no logic. And given it’s happening in the ‘real’ world, you can’t discount the happenings as ‘surreal’, a liberty you could take with drug infused world of Dev.D (i am just saying, there was nothing forced or illogical about Abhay Deol and the rest). The characters are not junkies (ok, I am gonna discount the depressed-alcoholic housewife) so how do you explain the lack of simplest of logic in the entire narrative. And seriously, if you have to make movies about immoral and decadent characters, then go all the way and give us something like Requiem for a Dream or a Dogville maybe?  Or go the Kubrick way with something utopian like A Clockwork Orange? I read but one review (a not too ‘well-known’ platform) which didn’t go gaga over the film. Every other reviewer stressed on ‘Ugly will make you think about the reality in modern-day urban India’. It certainly made me think this: Are ‘dark’ movies bereft of common sense?

When I think ‘dark’ I am reminded of B.A. Pass. That is indeed one Dark, Dark movie to have come out of India (nothing to do with Kashyap though). Every frame reeks of the exploitative and ruthless underbelly of Urban India and those who get sucked into it. As for Kashyap curated films, I liked Shaitan (produced by Kashyap). An unapologetic look at the uber rich, irresponsible and unrepentant urban kids in a sleek Indian city. Dark, funny and such taut storytelling! Why, even the cheesy Hunterrr made for a good watch (I must say, the oh-so-liberated Indian feminist critic somehow can’t take an objective take on films like this). Whether dark or not, I like quite a few films ‘curated’ by Kashyap; Udaan, Chittagong, Lootera, Queen and even the lesser known Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. As for The Lunchbox, I found it to be good film but again, not as extraordinaire as it was projected in the ‘educated cinema circle’.

Anyway, I have someone else in mind who I personally believe is the master of dark themed films in Indian cinema. He’s given us authentic soul-stirring movies which shakes you out of your indifferent reverie. His films actually make you think. He hails from the Hindi heartland too (for the uninitiated, Kashyap’s from Gorakhpur, UP). He’s eternal inspiration is none other than the Bard.  Need I say more? Vishal Bharadwaj anyone?

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