India’s bustling small towns have emerged as big draws for a new breed of Bollywood filmmakers.
Indian cinema’s location and exoticness have always added to the dreamscape of their escapist "masala" formula. This has been driven by the aspirational fixation of its audiences for the foreign.
Not any more. Hindi cinema, long in thrall of the neon-lit skylines of foreign hotspots, is increasingly embracing the heat and dust of India’s rapidly urbanising hinterland.
Plots are getting real, as are the locations, which now almost constitute a character in these films.
Furthering the trend, this year’s first big-ticket Bollywood release, Dedh Ishqiya, has put the Urdu-imbued cultural inflections of Lucknow in north India and its environs back under the showbiz spotlight.
"I feel Dedh Ishqiya will benefit Uttar Pradesh (UP) Tourism a great deal," said producer Vishal Bhardwaj, explaining why his film has been granted entertainment tax exemption in India’s largest province.
Large portions of Dedh Ishqiya, director Abhishek Chaubey’s sophomore effort, were shot in Mahmudabad palace near Barabanki, UP in north India.
"For me, in visual terms, urban films are as good as dead," said Soumik Sen, writer-director of Gulaab Gang, scheduled for release on International Women’s Day (March 7).
Starring Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, Gulaab Gang, about a commune of feisty women in pink battling social injustice in a rural outpost, is set in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
"I was looking for a wide open landscape and a beautiful natural backdrop for the film," said Sen. "The vast vistas of central India provide Gulaab Gang its visual sweep."
Small town tales
The critical and commercial success of ‘small town’ tales in recent years has fuelled this palpable change in Bollywood’s narrative palette.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, an intense coming-of-age drama filmed in Jamshedpur, premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, before making it to the multiplexes.
Motwane followed it up with last year’s acclaimed Lootera, a tragedy-tinged period saga that unfolded in rural Bengal and Dalhousie in eastern India.
Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade, a reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet, played out in a fictional UP town. It was filmed in Hardoi and locations in and around Lucknow.
|Hindi cinema is increasingly embracing the heat and dust of India’s rapidly urbanising hinterland [-]
Anand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa (2013), a robust story of star-crossed lovers, was set in Varanasi.
The director’s previous film, Tanu Weds Manu (2011), was a romantic comedy shot in Kanpur in north India.
Abhishek Kapoor’s buddy film Kai Po Che (2013) was an out and out Ahmedabad story set in the western state of Gujarat.
In 2012, Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur transported audiences to Dhanbad in eastern India, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai to the fictional small town of Bharat Nagar and Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar to the ravines of Chambal and the barracks of Roorkee.
Last year, Maneesh Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance, a frisky love triangle, was set in Jaipur, while Dhulia’s Bullett Raja, a crime drama, was shot primarily in UP.
The trend is clearly here to stay. Besides Gulaab Gang, numerous ready-for-release or under-production Hindi films are also rooted in places that are both physically and culturally miles away from Delhi and Mumbai.
Among them is Imtiaz Ali’s much anticipated road trip movie Highway.
It has been filmed in seldom exposed north Indian locations like Kashmir’s Aru Valley, Punjab’s Nur Mahal, and Himachal Pradesh’s Kaza.
The plot of another Hindi film in the works, Kaun Hai Kitne Paani Mein, in a significant first, is set entirely in drought-hit Kalahandi district of Odisha.
It is directed by Delhi-based Nila Madhab Panda, whose previous credits are the critically acclaimed activist films, I Am Kalam and Jalpari – The Desert Mermaid.
"It is a water-themed satire that has a smattering of Odia dialogues as well as music steeped in Odisha’s folk traditions," said Panda.
A different sensibility
Sanjay Chauhan, writer of Paan Singh Tomar and I Am Kalam, isn’t surprised at Bollywood’s shift away from urban locales.
He said, "Like Imtiaz Ali, who is from Jamshedpur, many contemporary Mumbai directors and screenwriters arrived in the industry from small towns via Delhi."
"These people," added Chauhan, "were raised in real social milieus. Their sensibilities and stories are, therefore, different from those of filmmakers who grew up surrounded by Bollywood alone."
Kashyap spent his formative years in Varanasi; Dhulia in Allahabad; Bhardwaj in Meerut; and Chaubey in Jamshedpur, Patna and Ranchi.
"Gangs of Wasseypur would never have happened without screenwriter Zeishan Quadri (born about three decades ago in Wasseypur, Dhanbad)," said Chauhan, who grew up in Bhopal in central India.
"Producers now see enormous potential in mofussil (small town) stories because there is a raw edginess and power in regional flavours," said actor and director Ananth Mahadevan.
Mahadevan’s next directorial venture is Gour Hari Dastaan, the real-life story of an octogenarian Odia freedom fighter’s struggle to secure a government certificate to prove his credentials.
Cinema and travel
While the tourism boards of Spain, Austria, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, among others, continue to woo Bollywood producers with tax breaks and subsidies, several Indian states, too, have jumped into the fray.
The fact that there is a growing and dynamic nexus between travel and cinema is well established.
The latest issue of Conde Nast Traveller’s Indian edition is devoted to the theme of ‘Film & Travel’.
Big cities have been all but exhausted as a source of stories and visual inspiration
In November last, Lonely Planet India launched a unique guide titled Filmi Escapes: Travel with the Movies.
At the launch of the handy travel guide, Sesh Seshadri, director, Lonely Planet India, said, "Our research shows that 60 per cent of Indian travellers are influenced by Indian cinema, aspiring to travel to specific locations shown in the movies."
How important a film shoot could be for a state was brought home last year when Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah took to Twitter to berate the makers of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani for passing off Gulmarg and Pahalgam as Manali.
"It is irritating that we roll out the red carpet and facilitate the shoot only to have people believe it’s Manali," he had angrily tweeted the day after the film’s release on May 30.
Kashmir is back in the news with at least two new Bollywood productions, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider and Kabir Khan’s Phantom being filmed in the Valley.
Khan, after wrapping up a two-week long shoot, made it a point to assert that "there is no outdoor location more beautiful than Kashmir".
Toronto-based travel blogger Mariellen Ward said, "Just about every Bollywood film that I see makes me want to visit India."
Ward, whose blog (breathedreamgo.com) is primarily India-focused, added, "Paheli (a 2005 Shahrukh Khan starrer directed by Amol Palekar) makes me want to immerse myself in Rajasthan."
"There are lots, like the Munnabhai films, that make me want to spend more time exploring Mumbai," she said. "And recently, I saw Jolly LLB on a plane and was straining to see Delhi in the background."
Ward, however, feels that Indian films "could actually be more scenic and take advantage of the beauty of the country’s architecture and landscapes".
Seeking new inspiration
For Mahadevan, tangible stories drawn from real locations are not a new phenomenon. "In the 1950s and 1960s, it was quite common for Hindi films to be set in the villages," he said, drawing attention to titles like Do Bigha Zameen and Naya Daur.
"It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that the balance tilted towards larger-than-life fantasies," he argued. "As a result, first London and New York, and then Bangkok, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, emerged as cosmetic backdrops for our cinema."
Foreign locations inevitably continue to pop up in Bollywood films but, in Chauhan’s words, "big cities have been all but exhausted as a source of stories and visual inspiration".