Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mumbai in Mokum (Amsterdam)

Some of Mumbai's most notable names appeared in a small auditorium in Amsterdam, which sometimes goes by the Yiddishe nickname of 'Mokum'. A few passionate Dutch fans of Hindu descent tried to talk their way in, but the meeting was strictly aimed at Dutch film professionals. Co-organised by the Dutch screenwriter's guild, the Netwerk Scenarioschrijvers, the idea was to bring Indian industry professionals in touch with their Dutch counterparts, as part of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) which had descended on Holland as part of their goal to celebrate Indian Cinema around the globe.

That's right, Indian (or Hindi) Cinema. No 'Bollywood' please, we're Indian. Early into the seminar it was established clearly by director Karan Johar that Bollywood is seen as a derivative term, suggesting that Mumbai intends to emulate Hollywood. "Why call us anything that mirrors something else? Our movies have a soul of their own. Why not call it Sholay?" Too bad the term has already been embraced the world over and that non-Hindi cities like Kolkata and Lahore are calling themselves K- and Lollywood respectively.

Also present was veteran screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar, responsible for some of the 70's groundbreaking classics like Sholay and Deewaar launching Amitabh Bachchan's acting career as 'angry young man'. Faced with a Dutch audience reared on the Calvinist model of 'less is more', he went on to explain the inner workings of a typical Indian film, which mostly operates on the basis of 'more is more'.

Javed Akthar: "European films tends to deal with one emotion, or one problem. You can see them as short stories. Whereas an Indian film is more like a novel. If you would make a film in India called It Happened One Night, people would feel cheated! They want larger than life stories. Indian sagas have to have every emotion in the book. We took movie cameras from the West, but our epics are thousands of years old. Other influences are Urdu poetry and Parsi theatre, which used songs and Victorian novels. It's a strange synthesis of East and West. In our first talkie from 1933 there were fifty songs! There was never any doubt that we wouldn't use songs. As a lyricist, I write to an existing tune and I try to solve a narrative problem in the content of the lyrics. But I'm always dependent on whether a story is conducive to writing a song, whether it has certain sensibilities. Language is becoming more urban. Life is speeded up by technology. The tempo increases and the words become less important." Akhtar went on to pick up the award for best lyrics for the film Swades at the IIFA awards ceremony three days later.

The evening was moderated by Dutch film scholar Marijke de Vos, who co-edited the book Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema that was launched simultaneously. Indian critic/screenwriter Deepa Gahlot describes the role of the Indian screenwriter as follows: "In Hollywood, the writer is an important part of the filmmaking process: a novelist may receive millions of dollars for the movie rights to a book, and a scriptwriter is paid to develop an original or adapted screenplay. The Bombay film industry treats the writer as a lowly hack. More often that not, the producer wants to copy a foreign film, in which case the writer simply 'Indianises' the names and situations, and passes the work off as his own. Frequently, scenes and lines are written on the set, and often changed to suit a star's mood. [...] This disrespect for intellectual property is apparent in the poor quality of most commercial films. Scriptwriters who have made names for themselves are Wajahat Mirza, Akhtar Mirza, KA Abbas, Sachin Bhowmik, Prayag Raj and Salim-Javed (=Javed Akhtar)."

Yes, a handful of writers in Hollywood might be making big bucks, but unfortunately greenbacks alone do not prevent one from getting treated like a lowly hack, which is a more universal phenomenon than Deepa Gahlot might think. There were a few Dutch writers in the audience that night who could have confirmed that statement. But the night ended on an exuberant note with the screening of the Karan Johar-written smash hit Kal Hoo No Ho, which is so visually dazzling and drawing tears to the max, that even Dutch screenwriters forgot their troubles such as bad meetings, unenthusiastic script editors and late payments.

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