Getting real

Bollywood, long known for its glossy fantasies, is giving its pictures a more natural edge -- and audiences are embracing the change.

Bollywood, famed for fantasy tales in which characters live in improbable mansions, dance and sing like they’re in “West Side Story” and fight dozens of villains with their bare hands, is exploring a more realistic style.

Helmers cite recent hits such as UTV’s “Rang de basanti” (Spring Colors) as examples of films with a realistic tone. “Basanti,” starring Aamir Khan (“Lagaan”), cuts back and forth in time between the Indian independence movement and apathetic present-day Delhi college students. Pic, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, grossed $17 million worldwide at the beginning of May since its January release, per UTV.

Kunal Kohli, helmer of “Fanaa” (Destroyed in Love) says, “As an audience, we like exaggeration in our cinema, but the process toward more naturalism has started. ‘Rang de basanti’ is a pathbreaker. That is a start. It has made desi (being Indian) cool. The impact of ‘Rang de’ is huge.”

“Fanaa,” a love story involving a terrorist, will be at the Cannes market and is set for a May 26 release. Pic is similarly based in reality.

Kohli is based at Yash Raj Films, and his first pic, “Mujhe dosti karoge” (2002), had the Yash Raj signature of splashy love stories set in Switzerland with broad drama and comedy, but it was a box office disappointment. His next film, “Hum tum,” while also a romantic comedy, was no fantasy, and audiences responded to it.

Besides “Basanti,” pics such as “Parineeta” and “Salaam namaste” have drawn auds with more realistic love stories and unforced songs.

In contrast, films such as “Hum ko deewani kar gaye,” a love story set in Canada, has done middling biz since its release earlier this year.Helmer Nikhil Advani, who assisted directors Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra through such Bollywood hits as “Kuch kuch hota hai,” “Kabhie khushi kabhi gham” and “Mohabbatein,” knows a thing or two about fantasy tales. His first film, “Kal ho naa ho” (Tomorrow May Not Come), a big-budget, glossy Bollywood film set in New York, was a B.O. success.

Still, he says, younger filmmakers have learned audiences disdain films that reek too much of artifice.

“The more you calculate, the more your picture will sink,” Advani says.

His next pic, “Salaam e-ishq,” which is set for a June release, “is about love, but it’s not bubble gum.”

Bhavani Iyer, who scripted 2005’s “Black,” applauds the current trend toward more realism. “Black,” directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji, had no songs. It grossed about $3.3 million worldwide, which is considered pretty good business for a Bollywood film.

Now Iyer is writing a trio of scripts, including a gay love story.

“Meaningless fare such as ‘Shaadi No. 1’ (and) ‘Shaadi se pehle’ is being rejected, which is very heartening,” Iyer says. “I think cinema is gradually being infused with more substance.”

The day-and-date release of Hollywood fare is one reason why Indian audiences expect more of Hindi-language cinema, she says. “I think the audience is more educated and more demanding.”

Helmer Madhur Bhandarkar, who has directed arthouse fare such as “Page 3” and the upcoming “Corporate,” expects more changes in Hindi-language cinema.

“Those gaudy, glossy formula pictures are out,” Bhandarkar says. “The perspective has changed completely. In the last 10 years, there are multiplexes in small towns and cable television in villages. There is so much competition. So people want a change. Look at ‘Rang de basanti.’ The characters are not plastic at all. It is within the parameters of reality.”

“Basanti” director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra says there has been a hunger for films such as his for a while, but it probably has been ignored by filmmakers.

“This means there will be a departure from the conventional grammar of storytelling,” Mehra says. “We can have stories that reflect the social reality of the country.”

Not everyone agrees that realism is really the wave of the future, though. One dissenter is Rohan Sippy, who went from 2003’s singing-and-dancing “Kuch na kaho” to directing “Bluffmaster” and producing “Taxi 9211,” which did reasonably well in the urban multiplex circuit in the past year.

“The reason why ‘real’ films — more focused, less sprawling narratives — are working isn’t because the fantastical films are too outrageous, wild and extravagant. It is that they aren’t outrageous, wild and extravagant enough.

“I am sure the day a director with the talent of Baz Luhrmann or Manmohan Desai makes a film here, we will be completely enthralled by its capriciousness, absurdity and irrationality. Because that is always what cinema does best — make us dream. That’s our only break from reality.”

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