BOL­LY­WOOD'S MISSED OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES

ONE MONTH AF­TER THE RE­LEASE OF HIS FIRST IN­DIAN MOVIE, AC­CLAIMED IRA­NIAN FILM­MAKER MAJID MAJIDI PROFFERS SOME AD­VICE

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - Text by Ananya Ghosh // Pho­tos shot ex­clu­sively for HT Brunch by Prab­hat Shetty

“In­dia needs to tell sto­ries that don’t only talk about a make-be­lieve world… I’ve seen many [Bol­ly­wood movies] re­cently... I liked none!” #Ma­jidiLikesNone

A lthough Ma­jid Ma­jidi needs no in­tro­duc­tion to the cinephiles across the globe, his name is sud­denly res­onat­ing across In­dia thanks to his re­cent re­lease, Be­yond The Clouds. That’s not only be­cause the film is set in the un­der­belly of Mum­bai, but also be­cause this is es­sen­tially an In­dian film, made partly in Hindi.

In­ter­view­ing Ma­jidi is dif­fi­cult: he speaks nei­ther English nor Hindi. I have his trans­la­tor, Mr Mirser­aji aka Surya, to help me. But pho­to­jour­nal­ist Prab­hat Shetty was not as lucky. He’d started shooting be­fore Surya and I en­tered the room, and with­out sub­ti­tles, many of his in­struc­tions were lost in trans­la­tion. Still, when Ma­jidi ex­am­ines the photos, he flashes that elu­sive smile, points out his favourites, and pats Prab­hat on his back. Clearly, art and hu­man emo­tions can tran­scend the bound­aries of lan­guage, a mes­sage that Ma­jidi’s films also con­vey.

THE SONG OF SPAR­ROWS

The ti­tle of Ma­jidi’s 2008 film, The Song of Spar­rows, sums up the entire oeu­vre of his films. Just like spar­rows, the char­ac­ters of his films are small, or­di­nary peo­ple who live hum­drum lives in con­crete jun­gles. Only if you stop and re­ally look and lis­ten can you hear their in­di­vid­ual life songs and see the beauty in the mun­dane. Ma­jidi can cre­ate clas­sics out of themes as sim­ple as a lit­tle girl los­ing her shoes, or a fa­ther go­ing to the city to buy a hear­ing aid for his daugh­ter.

“There are so many sto­ries around us,” Ma­jidi says. “Yes­ter­day, I saw a man tak­ing a bath on the road. He had a tiny

“IN­DIA NEEDS TO TELL STO­RIES THAT TALK NOT ABOUT A MAKE­BE­LIEVE WORLD. IT NEEDS TO DO IT IN AN ARTIS­TIC WAY, ARMED WITH MORE NU­ANCED SCRIPTS”

bucket of water. I had just en­joyed a lav­ish shower in the ho­tel, and was feel­ing rather guilty about my priv­i­lege. Then I saw how much he was en­joy­ing his bath; he seemed happy with what he had. He is prob­a­bly liv­ing a more ful­fill­ing life than me.”

The search for these real sto­ries had brought the Ira­nian au­teur to In­dia. “I am fas­ci­nated how hu­man life plays out in the streets of this city,” he says. “You see a woman mak­ing ro­tis on the side of the pave­ment while the stream of hu­man­ity walks past her. She is un­per­turbed. I have al­ways been keenly in­ter­ested in watch­ing peo­ple in their in­ti­mate spa­ces, I am cu­ri­ous to know how life un­folds be­hind the walls. In the streets of Bom­bay, there are no walls to ob­struct your view. These are sto­ries un­fold­ing right in front of you. I want to trans­late these on cel­lu­loid.”

The sim­i­lar­i­ties in cul­ture and lan­guage be­tween In­dia and Iran also drew Ma­jidi to Mum­bai. “I was in­tro­duced to In­dia and In­dian cin­ema through the films of Satya­jit Ray. My vi­sion is deeply in­flu­enced by his slice-oflife cin­ema. But we don’t usu­ally see this life re­flected in Bol­ly­wood cin­ema. How you see life and how you project it on screen are very im­por­tant. In­dia needs to tell sto­ries that talk about the real In­dia and not of a make-be­lieve world, and needs to do it in a far more artis­tic way, armed with more nu­anced scripts.”

Ma­jidi’s films often ex­plore the beauty of Is­lamic tra­di­tion while ex­pos­ing its neg­a­tive as­pects, es­pe­cially the po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated ver­sion of ‘Is­lam’. But he uses sym­bol­ism to smoothen the rough edges of re­al­ism, a con­cept rooted in the coun­try’s lit­er­ary her­itage.

“We take a lot of in­spi­ra­tion from our rich lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially from the mys­tic poets. Although In­dia has an equally rich lit­er­ary her­itage, I have not seen many In­dian film­mak­ers tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from that,” says Ma­jidi.

THE BOL­LY­WOOD TRAP

He points out that In­dia has no dearth of tal­ent. “I have met many in­ter­est­ing and tal­ented direc­tors in the last year,” says Ma­jidi. “They think that ini­tially they will make movies that will bring them money, and then they will in­dulge in cre­ative and artis­tic cin­ema that suits their sen­si­bil­i­ties. But that post in­ter­val twist never hap­pens. Once you fall into the quick­sand of Bol­ly­wood, the more you strug­gle, the deeper you get into it.”

The box of­fice im­per­a­tive that rules pro­duc­ers is why the sup­port of gov­ern­ment and its cul­ture min­istry is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary for any kind of in­no­va­tion, ex­plains Ma­jidi. “In Iran we have or­gan­i­sa­tions fund­ing artis­tic cin­ema. That en­ables us to do the kind of cin­ema we truly be­lieve in. Ab­bas Kiarostami got sup­port from a lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion that works for the de­vel­op­ment of chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. Not all his films made money, but he could keep on mak­ing his kind of cin­ema be­cause he had fi­nan­cial aid. Even a Kiarostami couldn’t have be­come a Kiarostami if he had to al­ways think about the com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity of his films.”

“IN IRAN, WE HAVE OR­GAN­I­SA­TIONS FUND­ING ARTIS­TIC CIN­EMA. THAT EN­ABLES US TO DO THE KIND OF CIN­EMA WE TRULY BE­LIEVE IN” “I’VE WATCHED MANY [BOL­LY­WOOD FILMS] RE­CENTLY… LIKED NONE!” JOIN IN THE CON­VER­SA­TION US­ING #Ma­jidiLikesNone

“THE FIRST CON­DI­TION FOR AN ARTIST IS TO RE­SPECT EV­ERY CUL­TURE. YOU CAN QUES­TION THINGS, BUT YOU NEED TO RE­SPECT THEM FIRST”

Since he is so well ac­quainted with Bol­ly­wood movies, what is the last Bol­ly­wood film Ma­jidi watched and liked? “Watched many, liked none,” he says with sur­pris­ing hon­esty.

TO SHOW OR NOT TO SHOW

Cen­sor­ship is an is­sue Ma­jidi and his fel­low film­mak­ers have been fight­ing back home for a long time now. But the au­teur is not find­ing things much eas­ier in In­dia ei­ther. “The CBFC had asked me to mute cer­tain words,” he laughs. “I don’t know how any­one can make real­is­tic cin­ema if you can’t use the lan­guage spo­ken by real peo­ple!”

What pains him most is that there is sel­dom any logic be­hind gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ships. “A few years ago, I was part of an in­ter­na­tional film direc­tors’ con­tin­gent that was in­vited by the Bei­jing gov­ern­ment to cre­ate a doc­u­men­tary short film to in- tro­duce the city,” he re­counts. “I wanted to shoot at the Tianan­men Square. As I set up my cam­eras, the state rep­re­sen­ta­tive who ac­com­pa­nied us for the entire du­ra­tion of film­ing told me that I can’t shoot the build­ings from the left, but can do so from the right. Those were the rules in the doc­u­ments he car­ried. Later I learned that dur­ing the 1989 protests, the ag­i­ta­tors had marched from the left and so they don’t want to show the square from that an­gle. I find this ab­surd and whim­si­cal. If you must put down re­stric­tions, at least do it sen­si­bly.”

Still, this cham­pion of artis­tic free­dom once pulled out of Den­mark’s largest film festival to protest car­toons satiris­ing Prophet Muham­mad in a Dan­ish pub­li­ca­tion. “The first con­di­tion for any artist is to re­spect ev­ery cul­ture. You can ques­tion things, but you need to re­spect them first. Be­ing hurt­ful or mock­ing doesn’t make any­one a big­ger artist, although it can make you a talk­ing point,” says Ma­jidi. “At the same time, it is not for the gov­ern­ment to im­pose re­stric­tions on cre­ative free­dom. It has to come from within. That is ba­sic. I have a moral struc­ture. Even when I have the free­dom to ex­press my­self, I will not be hurt­ful just to cel­e­brate that free­dom.”

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