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December 10, 2001
Sensational or subtle?
It is a question that doesn't have easy answers.
If a filmmaker takes up a shocking or sensational subject, can he avoid making the film lurid? Should the truth be shown with brutal directness at the risk of titillating audiences, or should a director tone it down and portray it symbolically at the risk of being accused of tampering with reality?
When she tries to seek justice, she is insulted, abused and humiliated at every step, all of which the director recreates in great detail.
The result is a film, which gets mixed reactions -- some viewers claim to be shaken and disturbed by it, while a well-known actor went on record to call it third rate.
Meanwhile, Bhanwari (called Sanwari in the film), who in no way collaborated on the project, is facing a storm of disapproval in her home state. She is forced through the nightmare once again, as audiences who don't give a damn about her or the injustice done to her (the rapists were acquitted due to political pressure) watch her tragic story on screen as 'entertainment'.
However, the alternative is that the film is not made and her story is prevented from reaching those who are unaware of Bhanwari's heroism. Hard to say, which is the better option.
A group of young women went to see Chandni Bar, after hearing and reading all the hype about it. Half an hour later, they walked out of the cinema hall in disgust. The hall was full of men who made lewd and vulgar comments non-stop, forcing the young women to make an early exit.
This film, as everyone knows by now, is about the life of a bar dancer and the terrors she (and the other girls who work there) face -- rape, forced prostitution and exploitation. There are quite a few crude scenes in the film and the dialogues are liberally sprinkled with profanity. (The Adults Only certificate is of no use, children can be spotted in every theatre showing 'A' films.)
Director Madhur Bhandarkar has a valid excuse. The film is realistic he says, and the girls actually go through far worse. He used to be an assistant to Ramgopal Varma and obviously goes by the Satya style of filmmaking. Real, gritty, ugly.
Which brings us to the question: what is the purpose of showing this kind of reality in films, except sensationalism and quick fame for the people involved? (Had it not been for Tabu, Chandni Bar would have been looked upon as a cheap exploitative sex film, the kind with atrocious titles that are screened in seedy theatres.)
You don't come out of Satya, Chandni Bar, Split Wide Open, Snip or any of these 'dark' films feeling that you have been put through the wringer of reality -- just that you have somehow been sullied by their mindless voyeurism.
There is also the matter of directorial restraint and subtlety that works better than the in-your-face graphic style. The latter may give a momentary thrill or shock, the former has a longer lasting effect.
Half a century ago, Satyajit Ray had been accused of pandering to the Western eye by peddling Indian poverty with Pather Panchali. But anyone who sees that film with its bleak, unrelenting picture of poverty and despair, put forth with gentle lyricism and flashes of joy, comes away with a feeling of serenity that follows catharsis. Ray churns your mind and heart, then leaves you with images that haunt you for years.
If one is talking of violence, films like Nishant, Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Saaransh, Dahan, Uttara disturb and deeply affect the viewer but do not use sordidness as a selling point. Their violence provokes the viewer, the explicit sex and sadism of today's 'knee-jerk reality' films do nothing but amuse the audience.
Of course, not making films about squalid reality is not a solution. But sensitive subjects need writers and filmmakers who can handle them in such a way that while the message is conveyed undiluted, there is no crude sensationalism used. Obviously, a tough balance to achieve.
Which is why most of today's filmmakers opt for the easier leave-nothing-to-the-imagination approach. It also gets them more media mileage for their 'boldness'.
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