DIAL M FOR FILMS
INSIDE THE MIND OF A GENRE FILMMAKER
BY VASAN BALA
DEMYSTIFYING THE TERM ‘GENRE’
We begin by establishing the right pronunciation of the word. In fact, I come from a place where I began with pronouncing it as gen-ray. SoI had a lot of catching up to do. This is obviously for the vocabulary, and then comes the film which evokes a feeling.
So I think that would be an ideal place to start the chat, which is from (a) the term given to a film, and (b) the feeling that the film evokes.
“The first primal experience cinema gave wasn’t beauty, poetry or drama or an intellectual discussion. It was of the fear of death.”
I think therein lie the problems, the coolness of being associated or being disassociated with certain kinds of films. Movies obviously touch you emotionally, and once you’ve seen enough of it, your brain takes over your heart and you now want to decode things and start labelling and putting them in different compartments.
The word ‘genre’ becomes very relevant to this scenario. Because over the years it has lost what it really meant. It has become much cooler than it is supposed to be. Hopefully, in due course, I should either be corrected or I should be proven right that the word genre is actually an uncool term; which, because of pop culture and the way we started perceiving it, has become a much cooler term than what it really is.
THE ORIGIN STORY/THE ROOTS OF GENRE
When cinema emerged, it obviously started with the camera, prior to which there was literature, there was drama, there was painting, poems and so many ways of expression which have been mastered over thousands of years.
Then suddenly the camera came in. So, when it came in, although it was a sophisticated scientific discovery, it really did not start off as an articulate person’s medium of expression. The first few things that the camera recorded were what it is recording to this day: bodybuilders, dancers, jugglers, and, obviously, nude women.
One guy, whom we all know as Thomas Edison, known for his other discoveries, patented movie cameras and did the same thing. He, too, started recording bodybuilders, attractive women without clothes, jugglers and people with skills or whatever it is that can be described as a very primal experience.
Often without using words, engaging you with something very primal. Some kind of urges would be fulfilled through those films. Being a thug, he actually wanted to patent movies itself so that everyone used only his technology and he himself became movies. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Movie-making became a much more democratic process and taken away from Edison.
But then there were two things that happened in 1902 and 1903, that set the precedent for movie making, this also ties up to why we associate genre to a particular kind of filmmaking.
Obviously, the first time when people saw movies or moving images, as everyone would know, it was of the train coming towards them in a nickelodeon. (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1986)).
It freaked the hell out of them because they thought the train was going to jump out of the screen. That was the first primal experience cinema gave which wasn’t beauty, poetry or drama or an intellectual discussion. It was of the fear of death.
The first movie, according to me, was a horror/thriller movie.
Soon, the technology spread all over, and everybody did it. But what was common was that even the French didn’t start with filming an intellectual discourse or a beautiful montage which spoke about life and death.
Their first shot was a fireman trying to douse a fire in a building The first shot was that of a building on fire and it cut to a fire engine travelling on the road. (Fire!, 1901).
Subsequently, from this everyone discovered that in movies they can stitch time and space. Movies could be shot at separate locations, one happening in America and the other in France. But when the two images are put together they create a context, and the people kind of understand the context, even without sound. That was a great discovery which the French made.
There were two very particular images – one is A Trip to the Moon, the trip to the moon where the moon is hit by the bullet which is now a part of our pop culture, and a film called The Great Train Robbery which was made by Edison’s cinematographer, Edwin S. Porter.
In this we see a cowboy taking a gun and shooting directly at the screen. That kind of jolted the audience, wherein first they had the train coming towards them, and now this. This was a kind of shot that was never used before: a mid-close, where a particular guy is breaking the fourth wall, looking into the audience and then shooting at them.
That became another primal, thrilling experience for the audience, which later on became the ‘Western genre’. But, I think, these two events were largely responsible for movies to facilitate understanding of its impact and the way that we went ahead.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD
Now, from 1902-03, we directly jump into the Hollywood Golden Age in the 1950s.
Obviously, this is much after Cecil B. Demille, D.W. Griffith and the likes. This is more during the fifties of Hollywood where Paramount, Sony and Warner Brothers were thriving.
The word ‘genre’ was never really a cool term. It was actually just meant for the studios to understand what they’re doing all around the year. They largely thought along the lines of ‘We make gangster films with James Cagney, and we can make more gangster films with people like James Cagney. This will be a roster. Then we have a Gene Kelly, so we’ll be making musicals. Then Humphrey Bogart for the noirs and John Wayne, for Westerns.”
Broadly, there were these categories, and then, there was sci-fi and horror, which didn’t need a hero (however, by default, Christopher Lee became one over a period of time). It generally didn’t need one, and even today, it doesn’t need one.
These five categories were created for the studio. The studio really didn’t call them genre, but the genre was a necessity for a film to be marketed. What we call clickbait now was genre then. It is not really the cool word that we associate it with today. It was just for specifying what a film was about, on the poster in one word, so that it could come to watch the film and gauge what they are in for.
THE EMERGENCE OF B-MOVIES
Thus, they started creating B-movies.
They weren’t really bad movies, but they were double bill features. So, I go to the theatre and I need to be engaged for three hours or so, and there is a big film made with Bogart or with any of the biggest stars of that era, which has high production value and all the resources of filmmaking going in.
And, there is a very tight 70 to 80 minutes film that is a B-movie feature, which doesn’t have the stars, but it has the ambitions of an A-movie. That cheaply made film would be attached to the A-movie, and that’s how you sold a double bill ticket. But after the war, I think after 1948 or 50, this practice was discontinued and was later adopted in the seventies, which we’ll come to later, this is also where we started associating with genres a little more.
So, genre was a title or a necessity, or a marketing tool that was created by the Golden Age of Hollywood studio system; so that they could sell movies. Since the cheaper movies were called B-movies, it stayed back later on. We associated everything made cheap, on a tight budget, with no stars as a B-movie. Even with innovative storytelling which had the very primal instincts of evoking thrill, lust, horror or fear. It was really given birth by the big studios. Post the fifties and sixties, it was thriving, and everybody was belting out films after films, and there were copies of copies, and this led to 20 years of similar kinds of films.
“We need to make sure that our film is not just boiled down to a one-word definition. There is nothing called a genre.”
Once ‘65 set in, a new age was ushered in where all the studio bosses who had made all the genre films, categorized these films as such and sold them successfully were getting old. The audience, too, got into the cycle of what a film is, and the world changed. It was close to 20 years since World War II, and people were getting into a new phase or era of humanity which could be called the LSD era, the rock and roll era, or the flower power era.
There was a producer called Roger Corman who had made close to a hundred films on shoestring budgets. He even made films on a wager where he has been claimed to say that he can shoot a film in two days, and he made a film called Little Shop of Horrors.
Roger Corman made a hundred other films because he could make films in five or ten days, and sell them. But he observed that mainstream Hollywood wasn’t respecting him and that it wasn’t noticing him.
Although his films had similar ambitions, he made films that were slightly trashy, he primarily made films so that he could sell them either to drive-ins or to cheap cinema halls where he could make money. So, by the sixties, his ambitions outgrew what he could do all alone.
“When a businessman knows his art, he ends up being Roger Corman. But when an artist understands his calling, it becomes Easy Rider.”
He changed the whole landscape of cinema by employing film school students. His first intern, in that sense, was Francis Ford Coppola. Corman would obviously earn by shooting his own films, but at the same time, he would also travel to other major filmmaking countries such as France and Russia, buy science fiction films from there, cut and repackage them, dub them in English and sell them as fresh films. He had employed Coppola to re-cut them and to make fresh films out of them with fresh storylines that Coppola would rewrite, fill them with shots or B-reels as second unit shots and make a completely new film. In two days of shoot, he would have an entirely fresh film to sell. That’s how Coppola came in and made his first film Dementia 13 which was produced by Roger Corman. That’s how Coppola became a filmmaker.
Coppola was friends with Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Ron Howard and George Lucas, and all these guys hung out together. Even Spielberg hung out with them, but he was spotted by Hollywood earlier on as compared to these guys. He was evading the Roger Corman offer because he thought that was beneath his calling because he was making slicker films. George Lucas hated Spielberg because Lucas thought of himself as the purer filmmaker who was making a new wave kind of films with neo-realism, whereas Spielberg was still more Hollywood in his style, even when they were sharing
hort films amongst each other.
Scorsese’s sophomore feature was Boxcar Bertha. It has all the B-movie elements in it. It looks like an exploitation film, clearly from its poster, and had David Carradine, who was incidentally Bill in Kill Bill. So, this was a B-movie fest in itself including the characters. You can see the poster, the fonts, everything. Scorsese had to do it himself. Because that’s how you make your ends meet.
So, this whole generation of filmmakers found employment, worked on their craft with Roger Corman because he gave them cheap films to make. They moved on to Hollywood after that because the studio structure was changing then, and the old management was retiring. There were new people coming in and they understood that people wanted exciting new content.
But the studio heads weren’t trying to change Hollywood. They were trying to do what their fathers were doing, which was making genre films. But the problem was westerns were out of fashion by the time that John Wayne starred in The Searchers; no one was making westerns anymore. Barring that, there were other films that were still being made and they needed filmmakers to make exactly those films. What changed was that the new crop of filmmakers, unfortunately for the studios, were well educated and had their own singular voice, which they didn’t allow the studio to meddle with. The big example of that is The Godfather.
The Godfather was supposed to be a really cheap novel, trying to do a James Cagney kind of a mobster film wherein you take a cheap paperback novel, hire a director, put in action, put in sex, and you have a gangster film ready.
Coppola at the time was going through a domestic dispute. He wasn’t earning money. He had children, and his wife was really angry. He told her about his decision to reject The Godfather. She yelled at him for doing so and told him that he needed the money at least to feed his family. That’s how Coppola grudgingly took over and agreed to direct the film, which he really didn’t believe in.
This is where Hollywood, and world cinema at large, have changed; this is what happens when you present any material to a great director. Even when it’s not really auteur-driven, the film that came out was eventually all Coppola. Also, during the making of the film, he insisted Marlon Brando should be cast. Brando was, at the time, in the Hollywood blacklist, and he somehow had to come in.
Midway into the filming, Coppola was fired. But before word reached him, he had fired the entire crew. With only the director left, and no crew, the studio had no other option but to continue with him. The Godfather was finally made, and it changed everything – that a studio-backed film can have an auteur’s voice, can have a voice that is also socially relevant, a voice that jumps beyond genre tropes and is also so relevant to its own times that it harboured radical change.
There were a couple of other filmmakers such as the Coen brothers. They went to the studio and said, “We’re making a B-movie”. And once you say that you’re making a B-movie, that means you’re selling violence and sex. In those times, the producers would be happy because they knew there were going to be some nude scenes and some action. So, let’s give them very little money to make films. They ended up making Blood Simple.
I think B-movies became a promise for the primal experience to the audience and became like the con game that all these great directors played with the studio system to come up with their gems.
And in all of this, again, we have to remember Roger Corman because he was this producer who actually understood art. Though he was a B-movie producer, and made extremely cheap films, even until five years ago, at the age of 90 and it would invariably be a girl in a bikini, in a pool, and a shark attacking her. What was amazing about this guy was that he could spot talent. From Coppola to De Palma to Scorsese to Ron Howard to Peter Fonda to Dennis Hopper and to Jack Nicholson. In fact, he supported Jack Nicholson for 10 years before he got a proper break. You could say that Nicholson was, in fact, Rajkummar Rao before Gangs of Wasseypur. Because he would just land up at his favourite director’s place, and say, “Give me a role”. He would plead for them to give him any role even after being told that there weren’t any. But whatever he was given, he would ace it. That’s how Jack Nicholson ended up being in all of the films which Roger Corman had produced.
Roger Corman made an LSD film called The Trip, then a biker film called Hell’s Angels. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda got together and made an amalgamation of the two, which we now know as Easy Rider.
When a businessman knows his art, he ends up being Roger Corman. But when an artist understands his calling, it becomes Easy Rider.
That is what happened with Roger Corman being around. I think he empowered people to find that in them. When he made 400 B-movies, he also brought in Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Kurosawa, at the American drive-ins, which were only showing B-movies. He introduced the American audience to everything. He took the risk of distributing all these films.
He is single-handedly responsible for changing the entire culture of movies in Hollywood, and it is because of him that what was actually a studio tool to label films on their roster became the cool thing to do. So, actually, genre films became films that were about destroying every label attached to that film. A genre filmmaker would be a filmmaker who would be fighting to kill the genre of the film itself, or fighting to kill the labelling of the film itself. If one is adhering to a certain kind of a label, then he’s not really being a filmmaker, but he’s being a studio guy who’s trying to market a film; he’s not really making a film.
In one of Kevin Smith’s interviews, he says that he had an associate producer called Bob Hawks who made a statement once saying, “Please don’t make genre films, just make passion films. Just passionately tell your stories.”
1970-80s: THE TERM ‘GENRE’ BECOMES POPULAR
The ’70s is when the labelling of films as genres actually started. It was a time when film criticism became a thing in Hollywood. The studio-led films didn’t have a great culture of criticism because films were looked down upon as not great art and cinema was just 40-50 years old. 70 years was a decent enough time to elevate cinema to high art. Also, the thinking, working-class man was making films, if you include Scorsese, Coppola, Ron Howard and Dennis Hopper. Film criticism also got an upgrade in their light. It is then that they started looking back at movies, and everyone understood that there was a time when similar movies were made, where there were the same arc and hero, and the same actor who played this same hero in many films.
That is how genres started being discovered as labels. But in the ‘70s, it became an intellectual discourse. From the ‘80s onwards, the intellectual discourse went into not just understanding and analyzing A-movies but also B-movies. What started off as labelling for a studio in our minds, (even today) has ended up being something associated with B-movies, which wasn’t the case.
TWO FILMS THAT INFLUENCED ME THE MOST
What I liked about the ’70s and the ’80s, in a way, is that none of the films were appropriate. When I grew up, my first experience of films was extremely violent. You could go to a VHS library, come back home and see the most inappropriate film for a kid. For me, those two films happen to be Django (by Sergio Corbucci), the 1966 Franco Nero film, and the second was The NeverEnding Story (by Wolfgang Petersen).
There was a video-parlour man called Gunjal who would eat a lot of zarda, and had an Alsatian too. He had a small video library on his balcony. I would go there and he would look at me and ask me what I wanted. I would always say, “anything with a lot of action”. And so he gave me Django. My parents were at work and I told my father that I was watching Django. My father out of excitement said, ‘Oh, Django is a fantastic film!’, without understanding the brutal violence that was depicted in the film. He would have probably watched it when he was older. I was probably even below eight when I watched it, but I have vivid memories of that film. The opening sequence has one of the most entertaining scores I’ve ever heard, and there is a mysterious man who’s pulling a coffin. It’s the Wild West, and it’s dirty. It gets into spaces where people haven’t taken a bath, they have a beard and people are chewing and spitting, drinking alcohol, and they have guns. There is a sequence where we find out that there is no dead body in the coffin, but a great machine gun. That is probably still one of the greatest movie moments in my life.
But I wasn’t really prepared for what would happen later when a character captures a man, cuts his ear off and feeds it to another character (which is also what (Quentin) Tarantino did in Reservoir Dogs). I was shocked. I hadn’t experienced fear; it wasn’t disgusting, but it was fear. I see a man who’s not dropped dead because I didn’t understand mortality then, but at least when one just drops dead, then he’s feeling no more pain; at least, in an eight-year-old’s perspective. To top it all, in the end, the hero loses all his fingers, and he can’t shoot. By that time, I know that this hero has to avenge himself because he’s doing such bad things to people, and he’s also killed his wife. How is he going to get out?
That leads to one of the greatest scenes in a graveyard, during a shootout where he uses a locket, which has a crucifix, given to him by his wife, a motif that I’ve also used in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, that he ties to the trigger and kills the guy. It’s all mixed up, but it comes together only in a film.
This is one film that I’ll never forget. Even though when we talk about cinema being irresponsible, I think it is the personality type, the kind of family background that one comes up with and the kind of neighbourhood that you grew up in that comes into the picture to make a claim like that.
All the Harrison Ford films that I loved then, I now understand that they are so problematic because every film Harrison Ford is in, he’s twisting the girl’s arm and really forcing himself on her. These images are always around you, But I think if you go beyond that, and if you understand the joys of filmmaking in that sense, you can still come out unscathed; whether you watch violent films or Disney films, which are equally problematic. When I’m narrating stories to my daughter, it is the most painful experience because half the time there is a damsel in distress to be rescued by someone, and the progression is not really fun.
The other film that shaped my idea of film viewing and understanding genre films was The NeverEnding Story. This is the story of a boy who is being bullied, which is an archetype. Running away from his bullies, he hides in a bookshop, and the bookshop introduces him to a book. He doesn’t realise that eventually, he will be a part of the book. To rescue the characters in the book, he has to believe in imagination and go into the book and save them all.
The hero, Atreyu, who is the young warrior, is going from point A to point B to point C, very similar to The Lord of the Rings, trying to save Fantasia (the world) and the empress who is dying. Every point that he’s going to is leading to more pointlessness. Every obstacle that he is overcoming, he has to lose even more. The end is seemingly endless. There is no way he’s going to save Fantasia and fails eventually. This is one film that I still repeatedly revisit because of the pointlessness that we all go through. When we start as filmmakers, we think we know certain things. We make a film, achieve some degree of success, heaps of failures. After multiple obstacles, we become completely different people at the end of a decade, and feel if all the suffering was pointless? We come to realise that we have to go through all that suffering, and in the end believe in imagination, in stories, in fantasies, in what we’re trying to do. In that sense, the film sums up filmmaking for me.
Most of the film is bad, the VFX, practical effects and cuts are pathetic. But in the last 10 minutes, I just end up crying because it just spits out the biggest truth that we need to embrace, which is that we have to go through the pointlessness, the suffering and still retain imagination and hope. In that sense, genre films should probably be that, where we start with loving genre films, but eventually, the artist in us should be fighting that very label that we’re trying to create.
Because if we are really making a genre film according to the template, then we are defeating ourselves. We’re just pandering to a set of rules. If we go ahead and create something that can’t be described in one word for the marketing team, then we have done our job. If the marketing team hates us more than usual, we should know that we are on the right path.
“Django and The NeverEnding Story shaped my idea of film viewing and understanding genre films.”
The seventies or the eighties became a time when filmmakers were really fighting to beat genre because it was only a studio tool and not their tool. The way that Sairat elevated and killed the Marathi film industry at the same time, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg similarly came together, and killed this movement with their blockbusters, which also led to the downfall of Coppola because he was struggling to make conversations, to make the kind of films that he wanted to make. Scorsese was struggling because he had to give the thrill. He couldn’t easily make his films. The only films that he could make were gangster films because that is what the studio was going to bankroll. But what Spielberg and Lucas did was something that people weren’t doing at the time.
They spoke about family and fantasy in a very relatable kind of way because of the things that were happening to people, among everyday relationships, which are very relatable emotions that a storyteller can tell to an audience. But the duo took it a notch ahead. They took a fantasy and gave it primal as well as relatable emotions.
Spielberg took kids and usually placed them in broken families, which was quite relatable at the time in Hollywood. Lucas took stalwarts such as Kurosawa, Ozu, fantasy, German expressionism, French new wave, Italian neorealism, and blended it into a Star Wars, which was unheard of. Both of them created a genre which we all hate, which has led to every filmmaker struggling to make anything post that, one that is really the death knell for every kind of creativity: the blockbuster. Once that came in, everyone was in tatters because the studio suddenly found out that a credible amount of money could be made. This is exactly what happened to Sairat – a Marathi film with a love story at its core grossing over 80 crores.
That, in a sense, was the death of the film industry itself.
Post that, the great revolution of artists conning the system into making the studios believe that they’re making B-movies died in 1977-78 or the ‘80s. Because the studios got back into power, they understood that much money can be made all over again by following the same principles that the Golden Age of Hollywood did.
You’ll remember George Lucas, you’ll remember [Martin] Scorsese, you’ll remember [Francis Ford] Coppola. But if I ask you, ‘Who is the director of Die Hard?’, only a select few people would know because Die Hard is blockbuster cinema. It is one of my greatest films, it is one of my greatest memories of childhood. I don’t associate Die Hard with the director, I associate Die Hard with the studio and more with the star. This killed the genre industry. It shifted space and went to Hong Kong, where it started thriving with directors like John Woo taking their native martial arts knowledge, which was again going back to the primal way of how you film. It was bodybuilders with skill, and here it was bodybuilders with a skill that was martial arts.
They thrived because they created their own language. There was a great period of 10 years in Hong Kong cinema which was marked by similar kinds of films being produced, which was led by John Woo and Chow Yun-fat as a tag team. This is what I remember from that particular time.
It started spreading all out where Hollywood became more profitable. But the ‘80s was also a bad time because ‘80s is when everyone discovered everything can be profitable. Significantly, in Bollywood, this is the time when Amitabh Bachchan happened.
GENRE FILMS AND BOLLYWOOD
Before Bachchan, Bollywood did have a studio system, but it didn’t employ people the way Hollywood used to employ people or have thousands of people. We had Prabhat Studio. But no matter what a filmmaker did, no matter what a studio did, it all ended up being a musical. Everything was one genre. Be it a drama, horror or a thriller, everything was a musical. Hence, it became the director’s stamp; that is, a Raj Kapoor musical, which is a socialist musical, or a Vijay Anand musical, which is a noir-detective-thriller musical, Guru Dutt, which is a drama musical and so on. It was a filmmaker-led revolution. We never really got into the trap of the studio led revolution. It was one director who made many films. Those were the days where people had huge filmographies, almost 50-100 films. Here we’re struggling at four, we’ve all become Terrence Malick – one film in 10 years. Not out of choice, but this is how it is. By the time a good filmmaker has made his fourth film, you’ve already started dissing the filmmaker. I think the only two filmmakers who have the respect or who have escaped that dissing is Sriram [Raghavan] and Zoya [Akhtar]. Both have made 4-5 films respectively. We still love them and haven’t started dissing them. I hope we don’t do that.
“B-movies empowered filmmakers to even think that female-led films can be as exciting and can be a big draw at the box office.”
Coming back to the ‘80s, it was Amitabh Bachchan; he was all over. He was ruling. Amitabh Bachchan was a genre in himself, catering to other genres. If Yash Chopra made an Amitabh Bachchan film, it was a romantic film, which is why he’s a superstar. He wasn’t John Wayne or James Cagney. He was everything. You put Amitabh Bachchan in a genre and he became the genre with the filmmaker.
The rural industry, then, couldn’t afford to showcase Amitabh Bachchan’s films. They didn’t have the money. There were cheaper films instead being made with stars like Mithun [Chakraborty], and B. Subhash made those films; that became a B-movie industry wherein, Mithun film plays first-day-first-show, say in Meerut, and then two weeks later an Amitabh Bachchan film comes. That’s how Mithun became an A-list star for a lot of people in rural areas. That became a genre unto itself, which had grittier themes. The production value was lower and would showcase more violence. Mithun didn’t have the added responsibility of Bachchan to cater to the elite or front-bencher audience, because being proficient in all languages, being born and brought up in Indira Gandhi’s garden, and being a film star, there was too much baggage to take care of.
Even though he was doing films that are catering to the masses, there was an indelible Bachchan stamp to them. Mithun didn’t have that. Him and B. Subhash belted out a lot of films in the ‘80s.
An unprecedented event also took place in the ‘80s when filmmaker Joginder [Shelly] came in.
He was an outlandish guy who claimed that Ramesh Sippy stole Sholay from him. He understood exploitation. He would make dacoit films. Since he had relationships with both the A- and B-list of Bollywood, he somehow found a footing wherein he could make films with women protagonists, which would usually involve the modesty of the protagonist being taken away, and then she avenging herself.
This was the most fascinating phase, not the Joginder films, but what happened later on. Someone like Kanti Shah who came in much later, Hari Ram Singh or Dilip Gulati or, during the ’80s, Vindo Talwar were making B-movies with female leads. When A-movie filmmakers understood that our hero-heroines have reached a certain stature, they need not fight for the dates of Amitabh Bachchan but can directly go to Sridevi, or go to Rekha and ask them to be the hero of their films.
B-movies, in that sense, empowered filmmakers to even think that female-led films can be as exciting and can be a big draw at the box office. Unfortunately, the storytelling sophistication journey didn’t happen. We got Khoon Bhari Maang, ChaalBaaz, Seeta Aur Geeta (when Hema Malini became a big hit), where they actually replaced Hema Malini with the remake of a Dilip Kumar story. I think that was a huge thing to have happened. In the ’80s, therefore, female-led films with B-movie themes started to lead the way, and a B-movie explosion happened.
Genre films are hard to sum up for the marketing teams. I know this through personal experiences, and also when I learnt about the torrid time that Sriram Raghavan had with the studio during Andhadhun. When you come to that, what really is Andhadhun? It’s a very Bombay word. Is it a comedy, tragedy, murder mystery or a thriller? Therein lies the success of a filmmaker whom we all love and look up to because he’s broken every label that will be put on him by the marketing team.
“If we are making a genre film according to the template, then we are defeating ourselves. We’re just pandering to a set of rules. If we go ahead and create something that can’t be described in one word then we have done our job”
No one loves genre more than him. No one would know the kind of trivia about filmmaking associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Bollywood and probably every other industry but him. Sriram Raghavan and Bong Joon-ho would be constantly striving to remove the labels and to make it so difficult for the marketing team to pin the film down to just one thing.
As genre filmmakers, and as people who love genre: (a) everything is a genre and (b) we need to make sure that our film is just not boiled down to that one-word definition of it. What cinema has taught us after years of watching, being a part of the industry and trying to make films is that there is nothing called a genre. It’s a cool thing that we need to embrace, but also really not to try and do anything genre.
Q&A with Dial M For Film Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook
Umaima Khanam: Since we’re trying so hard to move away from labels and do something unconventional, there’s always the threat that people won’t understand the cryptics that you’ve tried to show with your art. How do you do away with the need to underline whatever you’ve crafted or to not overdo it or to show them your art without showing too much?
Vasan Bala: This is something that I struggle with in my everyday life. Communication with my wife and daughter is mostly them asking me to be clear about what I’m trying to say.
Obviously, that bleeds into my films as well. Anyone who has underlined or understood how communication works in the popular sense and can also retain one’s individuality at the same time is the best space to be in. Which is why Bong Joon-ho and Sriram Raghavan are so important to me because they’ve made their very esoteric beams of being very complex in real life not hinder them. They translate their complex understanding of things in a very linear way. So, one is the constant study of filmmaking, and the other, I think, is a personality type, and there is luck, because if whatever you make suddenly becomes film studies, then you’re done. Then you’re sorted in life. You can be a Michael Haneke where you can keep telling your stories, slow-moving, then suddenly one shocking thing happens and you’re done.
If people really get your films, you’re done.
Then there are the Rajkumar Hirani kind of films. That is the most surprising because the more I hate it, the more I can rewatch it.
In the first viewing, obviously, because it is a public viewing, you usually watch his films with friends, you love it because everyone is loving it. Then you go back home and your mind starts to target the conceits that the film sold you. Things just don’t happen out of thin air in real life, for example when a father is suddenly convinced of his son’s decision to become something other than what he wanted him to be. But whenever it is on TV, you watch it. That’s the filmmaking which you grudgingly and lovingly accept. Grudgingly because the more I’m into the film, the more I am expected to convey my feelings as clearly as that.
It is constant strife because if you like visuals more or if you like being cryptic, or if your sarcasm is not cutting through, then God help you.
Even for the third film, I’m psychoanalyzing myself to my producer saying that I am indeed making a hit film. It is not even how it was back in the 70s where I can promise sex and violence and get away with it as the Coen brothers did.
This is something that even I am trying to understand. Because that one blockbuster will enable me to produce films of my friends who might have amazing ideas. And then you dangle a big carrot where a hit or flop doesn’t matter but I know that I am doing good work otherwise in the middle of it.
Nikhil Mhaisne: How important is morality in filmmaking and does it matter? Can I divorce my morality from what I present as an artist in the stories that I tell?
Vasan Bala: A couple of things – one, it is very hard to disassociate yourself completely from the story that you’re telling. You’d have to be a completely cold-blooded director on hire, where you take the material, knowing the technique, shoot the film and hand it over. I don’t know how often that happens.
Two, it is very difficult to disassociate yourself completely because making films is a taxing process. Once you have an opportunity to say something, you really don’t want to miss putting in everything, which is usually why in the beginning films look messed up and dense, filled with a hundred things because the filmmaker feels that they aren’t about to get more opportunities to make any other films.
Three, there are different kinds of morality. One is your morality to judge other people, one is the morality where you’re looking internally at yourself, analyzing yourself and putting yourself in the line of fire. In popular discourse, it is morality that judges what will find popular affection because it is talking to the masses and marking the distinction between good and bad.
This is also where the creator is reflecting on his own morality, but he could also be something else. He could be making a film on mythology claiming that everyone should do the right thing, but he could personally be the exact opposite. You’re still in the blind about that. You still can’t say that people shouldn’t be doing that because that view also needs to exist. This becomes a problem because this counter-culture becomes very difficult to get into the mainstream. The discourse remains within us. The discourse remains within English Twitter, remains within people who are on Letterboxd, or the people who are within a community or a cult. The resistance comes when you want to go mainstream with all this. That is where the fun is as well. I don’t think there are any films that should not be made because it is only when they are made that enough voices can be raised for and against it, and at least it will echo for some time.
Case in point: Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh. It completely reflects what Sandeep Vanga Reddy wants to do. He has put it out there because of which there has been a discourse which has raised a voice against it. Till date, I am thankful for the voices had been the loudest because they’re still echoing. We put too much responsibility on ourselves for changing things. I think even if we can raise our voice loud enough for it to echo, that would still keep the momentum going. So, we shouldn’t be disheartened when things don’t change because major changes create a very specific kind of atmosphere.
There is Frank Underwood, and then there is Arthur, the Joker. These are two people who aren’t really taking the right decisions. The difference is that one is clearly somebody who has a mind, and one is somebody who has a very weak heart. In both cases, morality can be differentiated.
One is a super-smart manipulator. So, even though you’re enjoying his antics, you are not emotionally driven to do anything like Frank Underwood because you don’t have the capacity to be him. But the problem is that everyone has the capacity to follow their heart and do something idiotic. This is where it becomes dangerous, when Joker talks about being bullied and beaten, about disownment, he finally picks up the gun and instigates a riot. All these are matters of the heart, and give destructive power in the hands of someone who is not a manipulator.
Therein lies the difference. I think you can debate on that because if you have a high IQ criminal, which is like Dexter or American Psycho, you enjoy it but also dissociate yourself from it.
But when the EQ is higher, it has the ability to transform people and reach the wrong places. We have seen the disastrous effects of politicians’ EQs being higher than their IQs. EQ is a dangerous thing like that, intertwining morality with EQ, even more. If you can effectively pass it out, it’s like a bomb.
IQ is different, you can have fun with it. There is a cold barrier between IQ and us.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: What are the obstacles that you faced while collaborating with actors who lacked knowledge about genre filmmaking, what can actors bring to the table when exploring it?
Vasan Bala: No one needs to know anything about filmmaking, because the best actor collaboration I’ve had has been the most naive. It is all heart, all about EQ upping the IQ since the questions asked are not about logic but about feelings.
That becomes easier because I’m treading such a tricky path about people understanding or not understanding. So, If I have an actor who can bring ready empathy to the audience., it makes my job easier.
Case in point: Having someone like Radhika Madan for Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (MKDNH), who, leave alone martial arts, has been so protected in the sense that it’s only Karan Johar or Yash Chopra kind of films that she has done. Yet here she’s doing martial arts, practically started from scratch. The amount of emotions that she brought in, especially when you’re a young actor, the amount of things that you can absorb and forget is great. I always look at her as an ideal collaborator.
Everyone knew I had a lovely time talking to Abhimanyu [Dassani], in fact, tripping on genre films. But with Radhika, I had a very different experience. She has the incredible ability to take everything in and forget it in a jiffy. Then, giving whatever is needed for the film. The journey becomes richer when one doesn’t need to know about a genre.
Also, you’re trying to break the labelling of the genres that you really love. and you’re trying to tell your story within a format that has inspired you. The format remains the same, but within that, everything is broken. I think the fun discovery is talking about genre films, exchanging notes and watching movies.
Instead of knowing it, I think an actor will always have the advantage to move onto other richer experiences, whereas I’ll be stuck in whatever I like for the moment and for whatever number of years the next film takes to make. So, actors should just take it and spit it out and move on. It’s amazing to be in that space of collecting fresh experiences and moving on. Just bring in your emotions to us, which is so valuable.
Saurabh Nair: Do you think you need to necessarily stick to the conventions of a genre? Say, if it’s over-the-top, would you also want your films to conform? Does this merit the inclusion of sub-plots, no matter how far they may be from the overall tone and conventions of the genre?
Vasan Bala: While writing Supri in MKDNH, I think I was very clear that she would be the only real component. In a way, I was also making a statement that even in fantasy films, women have to go through reality. That is the one thing that I was extremely sure of; irrespective of how the movie pans out. All the guys are having their own fantasies but Supri would have to deal with reality. That’s how the world is. Within reality, she empowers her
fantasy by being real and grounded. Unfortunately, since the woman is burdened with real-world responsibilities, the guy is allowed to be the daydreamer. I was certain about this whenever the tonal shift was to come.
Those were also my favourite days of shoot, because of Radhika and Lovleen. They were such amazing actors to collaborate with. I was sure that the film would go through that transformation. It is only in the end that everyone has an opportunity to reclaim their fantasy, which is why, if you look at the action choreography when Abhimanyu is in his fantasy world, the frame rates are about 250 FPS, reaching 500. When he’s in the real world, it is always 24 FPS. In his romantic world, it is 48 FPS because Bollywood has a history of shooting those kinds of montages at 48 FPS.
Even within the film, you feel Supri’s reality to be stark because she has real-world problems. Although the rest have real-world problems, they still escape from it within their own reality, but Supri can’t. It was a conscious decision on my part to move the story in that direction.
Prasad Borkar: How do you use the framework of a genre to tell your personal which the audience can enjoy as a blockbuster?
Vasan Bala: I clearly didn’t think of it that way. If I was thinking that way, I would have had an easier life. We all want to generally make our films, and if it falls into the blockbuster template, amazing. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice about that.
All one can do as a filmmaker is do what you love. Obviously, there will be learnings from the film, but nevertheless, you will have to go back to making what you love, without being an idiot, of course. Hopefully, the learnings have become second nature rather than enforcing them.
Ishitaa Saxena: When you say that all great filmmakers break away from genre, isn’t it a challenge to think of your own perspective as a filmmaker and align it with the audience you have in mind?
Vasan Bala: There are only two audiences when you’re making a film – you and the producer you’re trying to con or convince. If he’s a good producer, you’re convincing that producer, or conning if he’s bad. Other than that no other audience exists. Outguessing the audience is a naive thing to do because it is an entity composed of people with free will and their own individual thoughts.
Although there have been films that have received universal love and acclaim, it still doesn’t mean that there can be a template. That is what makes filmmaking so exciting – no one really has a template. It boils down to two entities – you and your writing and the studio that you’re pitching to. There should be a synergy between the two. These are the only people that you’re trying to convince.
Through these two, you are trying to outguess whether something can be made into a film. Obviously, as a filmmaker, you’re always convinced that your film needs to be made. The only impediment is the other guy with the money. That is the person you’re putting in all your energy to convince.
It is also an interesting process because as you keep convincing, either your conviction keeps dwindling or your conviction keeps growing and you attain an amazing amount of clarity about the work that you’re doing, which is why it is always so dangerous when a filmmaker is making another film after a blockbuster because no questions are asked of them. So, it is the filmmaker’s discipline or the questioning that one submits oneself to which will prove why some people are able or unable to do it all over again. It is you, the producer and a feedback group that you listen to; but the audience at large doesn’t figure.
But when you’re rolling in success, you can claim to know the audience.
Koustabh Mukherjee: Can we also bend the imagery of a film while bending a genre?
Vasan Bala: This is what was exactly happening in the ‘60s, where Batman had an Adam West outlook that couldn’t be taken seriously. In the ‘80s, Tim Burton and Jerry Bruckheimer came in and gave it a fantasy feel which also looks like a comic book. Eventually, you had Nolan break everything and say that these characters exist. He put them into an undeniable reality. This changed superhero movie-making forever, alongside several other things. For example, once the Bourne series came in, it changed [James] Bond forever because he could no longer be a man in a tuxedo. He needs to be broken and beaten. There needs to be scars and bruises. There needs to be realism. So, I think [Christopher] Nolan and [Paul] Greengrass made it very clear to the audience that beloved characters from fiction or comic books can get into a realm which starts looking a lot like reality and very much, unlike comic books.
Consequently, an overkill of it also makes it boring. You need to balance it out with someone going back to the original template. We have reached an interesting space with Marvel which has neither gone back to the template nor made it Nolan-like but instead made it resembling a Spielberg film.
Tony Stark can be an eccentric billionaire but he’s suffering from not being loved enough by his father. That’s the main theme. 10 years of Marvel films ends with the son telling the father that it’s all going to be okay. Similarly, Black Panther.
Marvel has gone back to Speilberg’s blockbusters which is why even films in their canon are proving to be blockbusters. Captain America is the only one in the franchise that looks the most different with even the action choreography being the most different, in fact, Civil War is probably the best choreographed in the whole lot. I hate most of the choreography in Marvel films, but that one was incredible. That became a buddy film.
There is a genre even there which is actually Bad Boys, where Cap and Bucky are buddies and have each other’s backs even against Ironman. So, they have taken the buddy movie genre and have made something as spectacular as Civil War which, according to me, is the only tentpole film other than Thor: Ragnarok.
Within the Marvel universe itself, the Russo brothers were the book endings; they had to give the finale. They powered it up in between with films that spiced up the universe on the whole. But the overall arc is that of a Spielberg film: relationships, friends telling they have each other’s backs and a father telling a six-year-old daughter that even if he isn’t alive, he did well.
Other than Civil War, you won’t remember a single action choreography moment in any of the Marvel films in the past 11 years because they don’t matter. They are just CGI spectacles. There is zero emotional investment in those wars. You believe and remember the buildup about friends coming together. Once the portal opens, and everything has been reversed, the heroes return.
You remember a line from a billion-dollar film. I remember the action in Civil War because I think I never expected Marvel to do a Hong Kong kind of choreography, and I think that was spectacular.
But, one filmmaker who gives you emotions, who also gives you the spectacle after Spielberg is James Cameron, who also started with Roger Corman. Avatar was the last film where he created his own space, a space where what you thought was possible. He pulled out the relevant technology to make it happen and you remember everything about it.
All of this definitely had a progression. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, for example, is so unbelievable because it highlights the importance of writing. In no way could Snyder have delivered poorly since the original story was written by an erudite Alan Moore. The writing was so strong that Snyder could just concentrate on creating great images. He didn’t have the pressure of creating Justice League where he also had to build the story, which he can’t do, but it looks like a graphic novel.
I think you can find a middle ground. We have gone ahead of anything being a comic book; it’s either reality or it’s hyper-real like in a graphic novel. It again goes back to the German expressionism from the forties that we are adapting in different ways today.
Shreya Rawat: What would you say about sub-genres? The mixing and revival of certain genres, for example, horror and horror-comedy?
Vasan Bala: The change happened when Jordan Peele entered the scene. However, horror-comedies were always present. If you go down South [India], everyone minted money making horror comedies. There is also the element of laughing at people who are getting scared, which is a very Indian kind of filmmaking.
Get Out changed the game because it led you in by enabling the marketing guys enough to tell you what genre it is, and giving you click baits. But when you enter, you’re in for a completely different ride. I think that changed a lot of things such as driving in your politics (which genre films have been doing for ages).
To illustrate, one genre that I didn’t touch upon is war films. In every generation war films always start off as pro-war films. It is always propaganda and justifies killing. But then Oliver Stone came along and started making anti-war films starting from Born on the Fourth of July. What I would call a sub-genre of the war film is the aftermath-of-the-war film. For example, Rambo: First Blood. It is a terribly underrated film. It makes a poignant comment on war that one thing that the country really doesn’t need is the patriot, only his patriotism. They are troublesome since they come back with the trauma that the state itself has inflicted on them. That is an incredible commentary on the system. It’s a pity that no one reads it as a film that achieved this certain level of penetration into the government’s psyche.
So, sub-genres could also be among the richer genres out there because you have essentially taken the best of all genres and made statements that are completely contradictory, or have negated its initial use. I hope we have more filmmakers who enter filmmaking by conning people, saying that it’s a pro-war film, and then, spinning it around and making it into the complete opposite. That would be a good use of getting into a sub-genre because it is the one thing that we desperately need.
Nisha Latika: How relevant and important are costumes from a filmmaker’s perspective?
Vasan Bala: Most of the costumes for MKDNH were on paper. I was sure that Abhimanyu’s character would be wearing the maroon tracksuit, even Supri’s costume would be very similar to what the Hammer Girl was wearing in The Raid 2. Those things were already present in the script. Costume creates a huge impact. Study of colours, of using stripes and blocks can help define a character.
Vasan Bala: We are not making films about people who will have a costume change every three minutes. The characters we write are, hopefully, going to be living in those costumes. The first feedback that I received from the focus screenings was that Radhika had only three pairs of clothes. So, they hated the film. That’s heat that I am ready to take.
Once you know that a character is going to live in those clothes, a lot of thought needs to go into making that choice. Is it fashion, work-related, utility, personality, or all of it? There is also the danger of over styling. It’s a very thin line at times. The styling of Irrfan Khan in Qarib Qarib Singlle is a great example to help define the thin line between over-styling a character and what they should be dressed like in real life. And, as it is, you have a stellar performer in Irrfan Khan who can take it on as a boss and do his own spin. It’s the perfect example of letting your imagination go wild and landing on a very peculiar style. Even while writing you’re so conscious of it because costumes eventually become personalities.
Also, when we look back to the films that we love, we remember the clothes in equal measure. Mr. India had the advantage of Anil Kapoor wearing only one set of clothes. At a time when Bollywood was into blingy costumes, Yash Chopra gave just a monotone saree. It was, no doubt, sensual; but that choice of aesthetic changed things drastically. At a time when actresses were inundated with love stories, they could change their style just as Karishma Kapoor did in Raja Hindustani. Even Piku was a great example of how realistic clothing can play an important role in films.
Gangsters shown having accessories, other such things, was art and a leeway. Satya became such an important film because it completely inverted what we thought gangsters would wear. Not high polo necks or jackets, but everyday costumes. Either you make it extremely specific or you make it common. That’s where we can find what the team wants to do with the film. Securing that palette becomes extremely important.
I remember on the first day of the shoot we had to put amber powder on Radhika which is used to create dust. The moment it fell on Radhika’s hand, she started shivering. She hated dirt on her hands because she’s so used to being called the Fairchild. That one speck of dirt was making her lose her mind. On the last day of the shoot, she, in fact, applied dirt on her clothes from the streets. That was the arc that she went through. From the sets of Pataakha, she called me and said, “Are you happy now that I am covered in cow dung?” It’s refreshing to take your costume and own it.
We were shooting at a slaughterhouse for Gangs of Wasseypur with several actors who were vegetarians. The costume designer, in a hurry, took real blood from the floor and wiped it over them. After the shot, everyone started throwing up. Entrails were all around us inside. Akin to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.
I hope we don’t lose this spirit post-COVID amidst excess sanitisation, hopefully, we can keep its sanctity intact.
Dwani Guru: What are the merits in moving away from the term genre, and how do you envision that happening in the Bollywood film industry?
Vasan Bala: Moving away from a particular genre is reclaiming your space in the film. It is only when you move away will you make room for your story to come in. You would anyway include what you like about the genre in your film, and that won’t be forced on you because you love it. You’ll be living it, and a certain filmmaking fantasy is fulfilled. But a film doesn’t become yours if you’re not embracing that.
In Bollywood, the perfect example of it would be Rohit Shetty. Having seen masala filmmakers such as SS Rajamouli and Shankar, we can observe that there is a certain formula. But it’s only Shetty who can replicate that formula in Bollywood. To me, it means that he has embraced something that is his own and put it into the film. He successfully put in the Tamil & Telugu genre trope in his films and set them in Goa for some reason.
WWe often hear that if you set your film in Delhi, you would easily earn 15 crores more. In fact, Suresh Triveni was told by Karan Johar that if Tumhari Sulu was set in Delhi, it would have earned 20-25 crores more. There’s an aversion to Bombay, or Bombay lingo. Unfortunately, for Hindi films, there are certain diktats that have fallen in place. For example, if it is a middle-of-the-road, slice-of-life film, what Ayushmann Khurrana is doing, he becomes a genre of his own.
What has completely died out is the NRI trope. It is a good thing to have happened because good or bad storytelling, Indians were demanding that their own stories o be told here.
One of the greatest moments for me to break my myths regarding Hindi films was Dil Chahta Hai. Until then, the rich were far out of my purview. However, this film made me feel bad. There were these people talking about Australia, driving a Mercedes to Goa, and it was so real that I lamented about it not being my life. It was the first film that showed us real rich people.
Yes, there was Govind Nihalani’s Party. But they were intellectual people, and we didn’t associate with them, anyway.
I feel that we have achieved a surface level sophistication in storytelling. We are still going through a churning; regional voices are doing much better now since they are catering to people who know each other. Filmmaking voices are coming from similar places, telling stories to people who know them.
We shouldn’t, however, replicate the Hollywood franchise model. Those are done with 80 years of experience on the technical forefront and vast experience of comic books and their impact and trying to capitalise on 10-20 years vision of filmmaking. I don’t think we have the resources for that. Increasingly, every studio is trying to replicate that model at a fraction of the budget and vision.
I think there will be some disruptor in Bollywood who will change certain things for a short period of time. Alternatively, I deem that regional cinema is where we should be looking for better films. Bollywood is not going to beat regional cinema in the near future.
Aadish Keluskar: The way that the counterculture movements created an audience for New Hollywood to emerge, do you think the same can happen in India; considering the recession and its repercussions approaching? Are there aspiring producers around India to materialize such opportunities?
Vasan Bala: It seems very difficult because in the seventies, for example, there was a huge anti-war sentiment and the studio system was changing. It’s far too lopsidedly divided now. Producers are present but the financers aren’t. A decent producer might lend you their ear, even suppose that they’d make the film with you, but eventually, financing and distribution becomes a problem.
You’re still able to sneak in certain things in OTT as they did during the Renaissance. I think it will be difficult to hammer things in. But you’d have to sneak in things and have the mainstream point out your conceits. The only way to take it on is to play around the system. It has become too rigid and divided. There is no scope for real discourse anymore.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Vasan Bala click here.