Madhur Bhandarkar: A different kind of Bollywood director

A look at the perceptions, the stereotypes and the realities of Indian cinema through the lens of one particularly prolific director, honored at this year's Syracuse International Film Festival.

The concept of Bollywood has often been confused with romance. It is assumed that every Bollywood movie is a chapter from a mushy Danielle Steel novel or a whole lot of dance and sparkle.

Indian director Madhur Bhandarkar’s films are a great example to prove these assumptions wrong. His films are everything but mushy and sweet; they are dark and real. Bhandarkar was the recipient of the Sophia Award at the Syracuse International Film Festival that wrapped up last weekend. As a part of the festival, two of his movies, Heroine and Fashion, were screened.

Heroine peeks into the life of star Mahi Arora (Kareena Kapoor) and her quickly failing career as an actress in the Indian film industry. Fashion is behind-the-scenes look at the life of a small-town girl-turned-showstopper model, Meghna Mathur (Priyanka Chopra), and her obstacles of overcoming the monster called success.

Both films aim to expose the realties of glitz and glamour.

“I am not judgmental. I am a good storyteller,” Bhandarkar said at Syracuse's Landmark Theatre on Saturday. “My films are real.”

Bhandarkar’s early association with Bollywood was that he worked in a video cassette library in Mumbai. He always had access to a huge collection of movies and hence is a self-taught filmmaker. His directorial debut was in 1999 with Trishakti. The film is not counted among his hits. 2001 saw his first hit movie, Chandni Bar, which highlighted the life of Mumtaz (played by Tabu), a girl forced into bar dancing and prostitution. The film had received massive critical acclaim and won four national awards.

Thereon, the filmmaker marched onto the path of “real” cinema. Bhandarkar made 10 more movies, most of which fell into the category of realism cinema. While Page 3 looked at the lives of journalists in the entertainment and crime beats. Corporate highlighted power games in the world of business.

Like most successful filmmakers, Bhandarkar has a trademark element of having his main protagonist as a strong leading lady who is independent and fights for her rights 'til the end. Like in Page 3, journalist Madhvi Sharma gets tired of the fake world of celebrity reporting and switches to the crime beat.

Bhandarkar is also known to stereotype his characters and ideas. All male fashion designers in Fashion are gay; the models are all about wine and cigarettes, and sleeping your way to the top is the one and only success mantra.

Although Bhandarkar is in the league of some of the best directors in Indian cinema, his films do have noticeable flaws.While the casting is spot on, his production design often lacks the finesse one would associate with a top-notch director. For instance, there is a stark resemblance in the sort of parties shown in Heroine and Fashion. The costumes look similar, as does the makeup. But this has not stopped him from bagging numerous national awards in India.

“India is the land of cricket and film and hence it is very important for me, as a filmmaker, to make my films a brand,” Bhandarkar said after Saturday's screening of Fashion. “People have realistic expectations from my films, and it is my duty to give them that."

And it's true. A Madhur Bhandarkar movie will either be about rich and famous socialites, models and stars or those living below the poverty line. His films are the extreme ends of the spectrum, nothing midway. Page 3 and Traffic Signal are two such examples. While the former is a frenzy of fancy wine and dinner parties, the latter shows the lives of beggars, prostitutes and eunuchs living around a traffic signal in Mumbai. Then again, the Indian audiences enjoy that kind of high energy and drama-associated wit.

Rumors have it that Bhandarkar’s next movie, Calendar Girls, focuses models that step into the spotlight after being featured on various calendars. While the film will be yet again another one showing rich socialites with a glimpse of the entertainment and glamour industry, the current question is around the cast and the protagonists.

With Bhandarkar screening his realism films in Syracuse, the American audience got a taste of a different kind of Bollywood movie, the one devoid of constant dancing and clichéd love stories. Here’s hoping that the film-loving audience explore the various other kinds of cinema after this exposure.

I would recommend you start with Chandni Bar and move on to Page 3.

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