15 February 2015

Roy and the Bankruptcy of Bollywood

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Vikramjit Gupta's glamorous designer debut wants to be a profound meditation on the crisis of creativity. It ends up being the most depressing evidence of how deep the crisis actually is.

Two films I saw this week happened to be about the crisis of creativity. The first is a firang film: Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's scathing Oscar-nominated satire about artistic ambition and fame, starring Michael Keaton as a has-been actor who once played a superhero, now trying to revive his career (and his life) with a Raymond Carver adaptation for Broadway that he's writing, directing and acting in. 

The second is this week's Hindi release, Roy, which is really a firang film with Indians playing all the parts. Roy is also about artistic ambition and fame, starring Arjun Rampal as a Bollywood superstar who writes and directs his own films (yup, how many of those do you know?) but is currently suffering from writer's block. 

As I recently wrote in my column 'Have you been sound tripping?', there was apparently a time, the first twenty or so years of Bombay cinema, during which it shied away from being self-referential: choosing to show radio broadcasts and stage shows, but not the film screen or the camera.

Now, it seems, we can't get enough of Bollywood on Bollywood. But while the grand parade of this cannibalising imperative, from
Om Shanti Om to Luck By Chance, is always at least entertaining, nothing so far has prepared us for the pontificatory faux-philosophising of something like Roy. Writer-director Vikramjit Singh has his characters -- and the characters made up by those characters -- suspended in a milky morass, dangling somewhere between fact and fiction. 

, too, is full of moments when the 'fiction' takes centre stage, where the 'real' impacts the fictional -- or the other way around. But Iñárritu is too cool to let us walk away with the idea that merely having achieved that interpenetration is something to crow about. The film mercilessly mocks the actor who takes his stage 'reality' so seriously that he wants to drink real gin, get really drunk and have real sex in front of an audience. And mocks, too, the hard-nosed critic who reluctantly abandons her long-laid plans of trashing a play because 'real blood' is spilt on the stage. 

This is New York, and this is the theatre: there may be pretentiousness in spades, but there's always a bucketload of cynicism to throw over it.
Roy, in stark contrast, is so blown away by its own idea of the film-as-dream that it doesn't ever stop pushing it down your throat. Granted, there's a flicker of interest when you first realise that Roy is only a figment of Kabeer's imagination, his alter ego, whose life takes turns for the better or worse based on what Kabeer decides to do with him. But a film is not a book, where the visual imagination stays in the mind (first the writer's, then the reader's).

So when we see Ranbir Kapoor in Arjun Rampal's film, the niggling question remains: is Ranbir just a character that Kabeer made up? Because clearly he is also the actor playing Roy in Kabeer's film. Especially because we're told that the second Jacqueline Fernandes, Roy's love interest, is an actress who looks like the first one, Kabeer's love interest.

Between the boho filmmaker Fernandes and the red-lipsticked heiress Fernandes, we get a tour of Malaysia that switches between contemporary designer vacuousness and an Orientalist colonial-era fantasy that seems to have come out of reading too much Somerset Maugham. Meanwhile Rampal's Kabeer, when he's not scowling at media versions of his love life, matches his artistically arranged hangdog expression with a jazz soundtrack, an array of hats, and wait for this — a typewriter. What's worse is that our uber-cool writer-director doesn't need to have written a single word of his script to get a producer, or even to start shooting. He arrives in Malaysia with a large crew, and begins shooting, seemingly without briefing his actors or his long-suffering AD-cum-shrink (Shernaz Patel).

Then he meets a girl and magically, a third of his story gets written. And when this day-by-day inspiration runs dry (i.e. girl leaves), he abandons the shoot without a word. That's not inefficiency, laziness or plain insanity, people, nope — this is creativity! The best part is that the film he's wrenching so laboriously out of his dreams is called
Guns 3, a sequel to his previous two thrillers called Guns 1 and Guns 2. Nothing wrong with that, except that from what we're shown of the eventual movie, it has precisely one moment with a gun in it. And not one moment with a thrill in it.

And after all that endless conversation about life and stories and art and being true to oneself, how are we told that Kabeer has achieved success? When his producer drinks to the fact that "
Is saal ki sabse badi opening lagi hai humein". A Birdman understands the power of money, too: the lure of it, the need for it, as well as the devastation of having squandered it. But it also understands that money cannot be the only measure of artistic success; that the yo-yo must perpetually swing between selling tickets and telling a measure of truth.

I'm usually the absolute last person to sit around comparing Hollywood with Hindi cinema: the American culture industry produces more than its quota of big-budget tripe, and our films often aim for something larger and mushier and madder than Hollywood. But then a film like
Roy comes along, and all you can think is, if this is what Bollywood can offer as a meditation on creative fatigue, maybe it really is time for it to just lie down and die.

No comments: