By Asim Shaan:
A man is assaulted at an air strip and is stabbed in the stomach. He needs to deliver a message to his ‘master’ who does ‘illegal work’ at city sea port. He runs with the knife, still intact in his stomach, all the way from the strip to the port, crossing a patch of forest. Another person shoots down a member of the legislative assembly, right in front of the assembly on the road, and is chased down by the police. Surprisingly, the police, in spite of being more than 20 in number and carrying firearms, decide to chase the sword-wielding thug rather than trying to shoot him down. He starts running and eventually outruns the police and reaches the air strip, where he is stopped by a porter, who is the hero of the film but works at the railway station!
These two instances are not a part of the stories cooked up at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or thought about by someone under some narcotic influence. Rather, these are two instances from ‘C-grade Bollywood films’, and they, more or less, show how the concept of the ‘city’, as we traditionally know it, is blurred in this genre. The term ‘C-Grade Bollywood Films’ is itself quite difficult to define, but for the sake of convenience, we are going to refer to the films discussed in this piece as such.
You know a C-movie when you see one. An excerpt from a dissertation by Kshitij Pipaleshwar, describes them the best:
“Relentless hamming, cringe-worthy direction, cheap thrills, continuity glitches, assistant directors ambling in and out of the frame on occasion are some of their rather noticeable markers.” The stories are simple, the location is mostly indoors and sets are made alike for most of the movies of this genre.
One can simply take the same location and superimpose the characters and voila, you have a new film! Filmmakers like the Ramsays, Kanti Shah, Mohan Bhakri, T. L. V.Prasad, N. A. Ansari, Harinam Singh, Vinod Talwar, Gyanendra Choudhary and S. R. Pratap are seen as torchbearers of this genre.
Another comment on eCharcha.com describes this genre really well:
“Indian C-grade films are made for a niche market. Spread all across India along railway tracks, in small cities and towns, are certain cinema halls. In the big cities like Delhi and Bombay, the same purpose is served by single screen theaters, around areas that have a prominent migrant population.”
The city and a film’s engagement with it to create a cinematic city, forms an integral part of a movie. Every film genre, every auteur, has their own ways of engaging with the city. Recent Indian cinema has provided an archive of urban spaces and of the trauma of a deep social disillusionment.
Furthermore, the ‘monument city’ can be found in a number of films where the landmarks of a city are shown, which establish a city’s identity. In the Indian context, any film featuring the India Gate, Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort or Qutub Minar, result in the easy inference that the city where the film is located is Delhi. Similarly, the Gateway of India, Marine Drive, Nariman Point, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the recent Bandra-Worli Sealink establish Mumbai (Bombay) as the city of action.
The mobile urban city, with its shifting population and the steel and glass buildings is also featured a lot in today’s films. Showing the unexplored parts of a city, or showing the familiar in an unfamiliar way or the seedy corners of a city are also a few ways in which the city is portrayed in popular cinema.
However, nothing of this sort is present in the C-Grade Bollywood films. The ‘city’ can be any small town or a village that can be placed anywhere in the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar-Madhya Pradesh belt. Before exploring any further, the representation and the engagement with the city in these movies, it is important to explore and define the audience and the stories of these films.
Though they may span genres ranging from sex and erotica to violence and horror (often unwittingly), the story quite often involves revenge drama with a dash of sexuality and item songs and dance. The ‘zamindar’ too is still relevant in these movies, and quite a few of them are still stuck in the time warp of the 1970’s and ’80’s. Here, one can also have the experience of modernity in its most distinctly urban form: the illicit and fleeting pleasures and dangers, the gigantic posters with half-naked female bodies (usually with white women), the titillating but absurdly repetitive titles, uncomfortably translated or more often than not, just completely fabricated plots.
There are also quite a few familiar faces from the mainstream Bollywood films in these films too, that become the film’s USP like Mithun Chakraborty (a legend of the C-Grade cinema), Dharmendra, Raza Murad, Kiran Kumar, Mukesh Rishi, Shakti Kapoor, Gulshan Grover, and a number of other artistes.
According to Kanti Shah (a noted C-grade film director and the recipient of the dubious Honorary Platinum Kela Award), in an interview on Rediff about his films, said, “The budget depends entirely on the cast and the location. On an average, it can be anywhere between Rs 70 lakh to Rs 1.5 crore. Most of the recovery happens from small towns in the North. The films also do well in the interiors of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Also, I recover some amount from DVD sales and some films also make it to overseas. Most of the time, I make double the amount that I invest in making the film.”
In Kanti Shah’s ‘Gunda’ (1998), the city space is mostly limited to an air strip (and just that)! Everyone enters, exits and fights there itself. No iota of an airport or security is visible anywhere. With a generic shipyard, brothel, police station, and housing colony belonging to the lower strata of the society. This could be any city. It has never been established in which city the film is located.
The housing colony, where the gory scene of rape and murder of Bulla’s (the antagonist) sister and subsequently the murder of Lambu Atta (the man who rapes and kills Bulla’s sister) takes place can be seen in a number of popular Bollywood mainstream cinema too, where it is always shown as a housing colony of the working class.
There are no fancy foreign locales or malls or a ‘modern’ steel and glass building here. The ‘fanciest’ place in the city is a very peculiar ‘hanging’ brothel of Lucky Chikna where the beds are actually hanging from the ceiling of the brothel hall! It’s the stuff of small town fantasies and what’s popularly found in Hindi pulp fiction. There are occasional views of meadows and forests and agricultural lands, reminding one of the village and its close proximity. Now this city is designed keeping the core audience in mind. The viewers like to see the places they can relate to on- screen, and this reminds them of home and takes them to familiar places.
Similarly, in T.L.V.Prasad’s ‘Shera’ (1999), the city is again limited to a police station (where every time the staff keeps changing!) Similar generic scenes of the city are seen in the film, including small market places selling basic items, the roads leading out of the city and to the village and hills, the chawl and a hospital, with just the basic necessities and no modern medical gadgets in sight.
Another landmark of the film is a huge haveli, a fortress-like building belonging to the antagonist, Blacky – the big boss. Again, the people belonging to the economically weaker section of the society are shown as the real heroes of the film and the villain is a rich man who plays a kind-hearted philanthropist by day. And again, the city looks like one straight out of a mainstream Bollywood formula flick of the 1980’s, with the good guys, the bad guys, the pimps and the hustlers and the police, occupying their separate climes in the city.
However, in spite of the familiarity of the city and the surroundings, the ‘realism’ of the places is absent. This is not the Dharavi of Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Black Friday’ or his Paharganj from ‘Dev D’. The city is not shown here like the Delhi of Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’ or ‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye!’ There is always the element of artificiality, the thought that the walls and the barriers will break any moment someone falls on them! The cinematic city is like a recreation of the small towns, and yet there is a distance that is maintained to stop it from being too real.
However, the film ‘Free Entry’ (2006), made by the maverick director Kanti Shah, presents a new picture of the new age C-grade films. ‘Gunda’ and ‘Shera’ belonged to the late 1990’s, while ‘Free Entry’ was released in the latter half of the last decade when globalisation had reached even the remotest parts of India and was touching upon every strata of society.
With ‘Free Entry’, the C-grade films moved to locations outside India, maybe a reflection of the aspirations of the rising young population and the increased mobility within the social and economic order. This film was shot in parts of Bangkok. However, since there was a paucity of funds, only a few scenes were shot there, as the filmmakers claimed. These shots have been taken from the same building’s terrace and are alike, showing the roads, buildings and the traffic in a wide angle shot. Apart from this, the only other outdoor location is the beach where the main characters of the film meet. The rest of the film is shot indoors in the apartment of the female actor. However, in spite of the sparse outdoor locations used in the film, it marked a huge leap ahead for this genre of the film, which are mostly made at shoestring budgets and where, at times, to save money and time, members of the crew and the technical team are also used as actors. Contrast this with a Johar or a Chopra production where the actors frolic in Switzerland during the day, take an evening walk in Hyde Park and have dinner along the Seine. Not for ‘Free Entry’ is the monumental London of ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ with the Big Ben, the oh-so-familiar New York of ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’; only a ‘foreign skyline’ and a foreign beach will do.
One can assume that these movies are made strictly for the masses. This reflects heavily in their interaction and representation of the city as well. For example, a Karan Johar will digitally alter the Mumbai skyline in his movie ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ to remove the ‘jhopadpatti’ area of the city. But a filmmaker like Kanti Shah or Rajiv Babar will either shoot their outdoor scenes mostly in those ‘deleted’ parts of the city from the sanitised cinema discussed above, or recreate it in their sets. The rich and the famous are mostly shown as the ‘bad people’ and the hero almost always belongs to the working class, has a very Spartan-like house and surroundings, mostly things with which quite a lot of the audience can relate to.
The above are just a few examples of how the city is shown in C-grade movies. This is merely an effort to try and study something that has not been given its due moment under the sun, and there are innumerable gems, that are still unexplored in this genre. But one thing is for sure that the sights and sounds presented in these movies are fascinating to say the least. It can be as phantasmagoric as any cinematic genius can imagine, and is changing now with the changing face of the country and its aspirations.