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Pritish Nandy

Big is Stupid, Good is What We Want

Big has always been associated with clumsiness and stupidity. Its brand ambassador is Goliath. While David represents Small, the challenger, young, swift, clever, always ready to outwit his huge adversary. As Schumacher, one of our greatest contemporary thinkers, has said, Small is Beautiful.

Why? Why is Big never admired? The answer is simple: Big embodies the power of money, not the power of imagination, creativity. So if you look at the ten great films of all time, whether it’s rated by Sight and Sound or Hollywood Reporter, you are unlikely to find a big film there. You will find the classics instead. No one cares if these classics are small. What matters is they showcase the magnificence of our imagination, the true genius of great film makers. Much as Hollywood may like to push forward its monstrous big budget epics into this list, they are always spurned. Money is no substitute for excellence. Huge dollops of cash spawn embarrassment, not success.

From New Theatres to YRF, the perennial quest has been for a great script, a sensitive film maker, an actor who can set the screen ablaze with his performance and a producer who can bring all these together to make cinema come alive. You cannot predict hits. Sometimes films work. Often they don’t. No one till today has been able to crack the mystery of why good films flop at times or bad films bust the box office. Yet producers strive to make movies they can be proud of. Every film is but one more effort to seduce posterity.

It’s only in recent times that we are seeing producers who are no longer interested in making history. They see movies purely as a business and believe that big money is a substitute for creativity. So they have crafted an entirely new genre of mindless, soulless, brainless movies that they believe can be promotion-driven (like soap or toothpaste) to box office success. They hire clever writers, directors and actors ready to mortgage their soul to Mephisto, put them together and try to create The Blockbuster Movie. It’s a manufactured product, supported by big stars, big money, big sets, big locations, big promotional budgets and big gigs in the belief that these together can create the alchemy of a big hit.

They do at times. But more often, they fall flat on their faces and people lose lots of money. These losses are cleverly covered up by smart, overpaid accountants who have mastered the art of transforming real life duds into imaginary hits. One illusion leads to another. It starts with the assumption that you can manufacture a hit film if you put lots of money behind it. The second illusion is that even if the film doesn’t score at the box office, you can make it look like a hit through huge boastful ads, the third is that with a little bit of creative accounting you can keep your investors happy. And, voila, you are a big, successful producer schmoozing with the stars, with investors falling over each other to fund your next poop film. This is what’s usually described as a Ponzi scheme. A scam, in short.

The truth is: Movies can’t be made this way. Beware of the guy who promises you The Big Hit if you part with big money. Movies are about The Big Idea. They are about great scripts, good performances, inspired directors and, above all, producers ready to risk everything to make a good film. Bollywood’s best have gone belly up again and again. Yet, they have fought back, against formidable odds, to pursue their dream of making the movie that can survive time. Think Bimal Roy. Think Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt. Think Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Did any of them chase big money? Or did they pursue the dream of making a film that would ensure their place in history? I am not even discussing filmmakers like Ray and Ritwick Ghatak because, in today’s times, they have been written off as art house. Yet, as a schoolboy, I braved long ticket queues and Houseful boards to watch Ray films.

Till recently, we only recognised good movies and bad movies. Good movies endured. They won critical acclaim, awards, and usually did well at the box office. When they didn’t, audiences sighed and went back to watch the filmmaker’s next work with greater anticipation, greater hope. Think of Raj Kapoor’s career graph and you will know what I mean. Bad movies, on the other hand, even when they worked in the box office, were an embarrassment. Think Padmalaya. Though it produced so many hits, can you remember any of them? Raj Kapoor’s failures, movies that almost broke him, remain iconic. Just as Guru Dutt’s best will never be forgotten, however hard they may have fallen at the box office. Like Dev Anand’s Guide. Even though it bombed, we remember it as one of Bollywood’s best. That’s why companies acquire old libraries. Some box office disasters live on for decades (earning money for their producers) while most of today’s blockbusters die in less than a month.

In fact, today’s blockbusters are as memorable as last night’s stale pizza. They come in with great flourish, declare themselves as great hits, vanish in three weeks, are never heard of again. So short is their life span that broadcasters want to air them in the first month and home video companies release their DVDs even before they go off the screen. The slightest delay and no one wants them. These monster movies need monster budgets to coax people into the theatres whereas all it requires for a good film to succeed is word of mouth.

Will we ever return to good, interesting, watchable cinema? I am sure we will. Amidst all this nonsense, good cinema is still being made. Maybe it’s not getting the attention it deserves. Or the box office. But public tastes, like fashions, are fickle and, after all this madness is over, I am confident we will once again return to cinema that makes us proud. Maybe Rocket Singh... will then give better box office returns than Singh is Kinng and A Wednesday will make more news than Kurbaan.

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