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India sees emergence of the 'Hindie'

Bollywood films still dominate, but low-budget, ambitious projects are gaining attention. Director Dibakar Banerjee calls it 'new middle-class cinema.'

January 23, 2011|By Anupama Chopra, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mumbai — — Intermission is the most sacred part of the moviegoing ritual in India. The films are usually more than two hours long, which makes the break for the restroom and samosas critical. Filmmakers are mindful that their narrative leads to a pre-interval cliffhanger, and some throw in a song right after so that viewers who are late to return don't miss any plot. The habit is so ingrained that even Hollywood films are screened with a break.

So when first-time director Kiran Rao decided that her film "Dhobi Ghat" (Mumbai Diaries) did not have a natural interval point, her husband, lead actor and producer Aamir Khan, met with multiplex owners to explain the logic of running the 95-minute film without a break. Khan is Bollywood's biggest superstar — his last film, "3 Idiots," made close to $100 million worldwide. Not surprisingly, the owners understood, and "Dhobi Ghat," released worldwide on Friday, became the first Hindi film in recent history to run without intermission.

But that's not the only thing that makes "Dhobi Ghat" unique. The film is an intimate exploration of the different layers of the city and the dynamic between classes. It was shot guerrilla style in some of the most densely populated areas of Mumbai. "The idea," says Rao, "was to scour the deep, dark depths of the city." The only way to do this with Khan was to sneak him into location (a one-room tenement in a claustrophobically crowded market) in the middle of the night and then have him live there, hidden, for three weeks. The result is a Hindi film that feels nothing like a Hindi film. In fact, when "Dhobi Ghat" had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the Hollywood Reporter described it as "a fully realized art film with European sensibilities."

In other words, a "Hindie" movie. The label, coined by Toronto festival co-director Cameron Bailey, is shorthand for the "un-Bollywood" Hindi movie: films that are low on budget, production values and stars but big on originality and ambition. Such films in general don't reaffirm the status quo or Bollywood formula but instead address the contradictions of a country that lives simultaneously in different centuries — films that are dark, open-ended and subversive. These films have made sporadic waves, but in 2010, a year in which many of Bollywood's biggest names tanked, a slew of small, scrappy films broke through, gathering media attention, viewers and awards.

The most critically acclaimed was "Udaan" (Flight), a beautifully rendered, nuanced story of a 17-year-old whose aspirations to be a poet are crushed by his abusive father. The most provocative was "Love Sex aur Dhoka" (Love, Sex and Betrayal), a grim, unsettling portrait of urban India. Director Dibakar Banerjee constructed three interconnected stories, which illustrated how money, modern technology and feudal beliefs have created a dangerously combustible society.

The most successful was "Peepli Live," made by first-time director Anusha Rizvi and also produced by Khan. A delightfully funny and disturbing satire, "Peepli Live" tells the story of two hapless farmer brothers who decide that the only way out of starvation is by partaking in a government scheme that aids the families of farmers who have committed suicide. Which of course means that one of them has to die.

The critical and commercial success of these films is redefining what constitutes Hindi cinema. Bereft of stars and overblown emotion, they have what Bailey calls "an internationalism." "They feel like they spring from the same stream that produced Wong Kar-Wai or Pablo Trapero," he says. "Although the stories and themes are completely Indian, there's a new cosmopolitan style in how these stories are told."

Last January, "Peepli Live" became the first Indian film to make the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. In May, "Udaan" competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival — the first Indian film to be selected in seven years. Next month, "7 Khoon Maaf" (Seven Murders Forgiven), starring A-list actress Priyanka Chopra as a seductress who marries and murders many husbands, will play at the Berlin International Film Festival.

These films are also finding a local audience, mostly among the urban affluent Indians willing to pay higher ticket prices to see films in plush multiplexes as opposed to the more threadbare traditional single-screen theaters. According to one study, there were 800 multiplexes nationwide in 2009 and the number is expected to reach 1,600 by 2013.

"Peepli Live," made for $1.5 million, grossed $9.2 million in India. "Tere Bin Laden" (Your Bin Laden), a comedy about a fake Osama, was also a sleeper hit, taking in $2.6 million.

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