For a country obsessed with Bollywood productions usually studded with Khan or Kapoor royalty, regional cinema has to regularly negotiate with this national and international popularity to establish its status of cinematic delight, linguistic difference, and contextual validity. Superstar Rajnikanth’s divine worship in Tamil Nadu and the Hindi dubbing of almost all of his films, is perhaps the most successful example of this negotiation. As a result, his attempt to problematize caste and class politics in Kaala through Ambedkarite and to a certain extent leftist revolutionary politics, has catapulted the stories of the marginalized to the mainstream of the ‘national popular’. Similarly, Baahubali and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion became mega-blockbusters performing better than many mainstream Hindi films, creating a highly thrilling and confusing myth about Kattappa’s moral culpability. This interest in regional cinema, briefly touched upon during National Film Awards ceremonies, only delves into the beauty of alternative narratives when the likes of Sairat get Bollywood make-overs. But, this is a very hopeful time for regional cinema and indie films, and they are not synonymous terms by any means. The film industry is now evolving from a multiplex cinema viewing audience to one that equally interestedly watches TV series on YouTube and films on the internet.
With respect to the star status of Punjabi singers, many of whom permanently rest in the public imagination as creators of hit party songs, films created by Punjabi producers and media houses almost entirely rested on the shoulders of their leading singer-actors. Film-maker Gurbir Singh Grewal and film critic Mike McCahill reflect on the dependence of films on cult fan followings of singers for the film to sell. This also sparked off a reliance on comedy as the only genre of ‘hit’ film production. Grewal explains that “Some films released recently were really good and enjoyable, whereas others forced you to believe that Punjab has no literature, history, culture or social issues. For overall growth of regional cinema, one needs films of different genres that thematically belong to the region. The main reason for this qualitative degeneration is a lack of governmental or for that matter any institutional support to alternative cinema.” However, recent films like Sajjan Singh Rangroot, Subedar Joginder Singh, Punjab 1984, Anhe Ghode Da Daan, Angrej, Bambookat, Harjita, Rabb Da Radio etc. have explored diverse genres like historical personalities fashioned in a biographical frame, the exploration of the Sikh faith through religious metaphor, the period of Operation Blue Star and militancy in the state, the plight of farmers and their relationship with landlords, love stories set in the past evoking the love ballads sung in Punjabi folk song etc. and have met with good success, on an average. Even though slapstick comedies like Carry on Jatta 2 continue to do big business, these forays into story-telling deal with sociological portraiture, burning political topics, and questions of identity through forms of tragedy, drama, melodrama, thriller etc.
This evolution of film-making, which many can also view as a parallel with famous Punjabi singer Diljit Dosanjh’s mainstream acting ventures in the likes of Udta Punjab, can be said to have taken place with the rousing success of the animated historical film Chaar Sahibzaade, which spread through word of mouth of audiences exiting theatres in tears. However, despite significant metamorphosis in film-making, Punjabi cinema continues to hold Bollywood productions as standards of excellence and comparison. They have found success in foreign markets in Canada, UK, Australia etc. because of their appeal to NRI populations. Even with respect to slapstick comedy without logical plotting, the usage of pithy sayings, witty comebacks, situational humour and exaggerated expressions are a uniquely regional experience—this revelation in farce is carefully packaged in clever script-writing which trounces comic insults with impossible situations.
However, realizing the legacy of late Jaspal Bhatti, the famed comic popular for his social caricature and witty wisdom, seems to require the addition of many different nuances into our conception of comedy. The comic films produced in Punjabi cinema have perfected comic timing and brilliant dialogue delivery, but they fall short of achieving a balance between delivering heavy-handed moral lectures as shoddy film conclusions and creating belly laughs. If significant progress in ‘serious’ films has been witnessed, the emergence of this reality is also not far off.
Picture Credits: Filmfare.com