One million original films

I’m a cinema nomad in search of at least one million original stories, not re-makes or sequels of past films, or beating what used to be an original story idea such as twins separated at birth, to death. One of the reasons why I parted ways with Hollywood, were stories around the FBI and the witness protection programme. It is like gum that has lost its sweetness and I refuse to chew it. That is how I ended up being a student of Indian cinema and Hindi films in particular.

I periodically endure amusement painted on faces of men and women who are supposed to sell me cinema tickets. ‘It’s a Bollywood movie,’ they warn me. This does not deter me from my resolve to find just a million original stories, to learn a little bit about other people, find something in common with them like ancestor worship and lunar mythology and enjoy the waterfalls and mountains of India seen in films such as Taal, directed by Aarif Shaikh.

Just when I was just about to bid Indian cinema au dieu, because scripts became familiar i.e. gangsters especially ‘the don’ character, good and bad men in khakee, reincarnation in films such as Mehbooba and Neel Kamal, and the son returns from America stories, then comes two films, Kurbaan directed by Rensil D’Silva and produced by Karan Johar, and My Name is Khan directed by Karan Johar.

I hope lovers of Indian cinema will indulge this African for the take on these two films. I stopped going to the movies because of the same script fatigue, whether the actor was Richard Burton, Bruce Willis, Danny Glover, Will Smith, Ice Cube, Jet Lee, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan or Queen Latifah. That surely broke my mother’s heart in her grave because she introduced me to cinema via Dr. Zhivhago and A Sound of Music to mention but a few.

You all know the script. Brush your teeth in the film’s opening scene. Display women’s underwear, especially the bra, an intimate garment that houses parts of the body that nurture mankind, but is an object of ridicule in Hollywood and black films. The same script includes night club scenes, sex scenes that come after the trail of underwear on the floor, the same suitcase full of money, films portraying all Italians as mafia dons, prison films full of African American men and American families with two children a boy and a girl, where boys are extremely intelligent and have to cope with their dumb sisters.

I left and went looking for the African American story. I found it because I lived in Canada, a country where Hollywood camera crews in Toronto and Vancouver are common place and one of the reasons why the Canadian government invests a lot of money into the development of its own film industry. Indeed, the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a must for film producers and directors.

This national obsession with film led me to black cinema produced by African American directors such as Oscar Micheaux. The Toronto Library had his films and those of Indian directors such as Satyajit Ray. What I found first though was Spike Lee and his five for five films: She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues, and Malcolm X. Canadian theatres also screened films by Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, St. Claire Bourne and Haile Gerima. It was also a joy to go to the cinema to see films such as Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got her Groove Back, which were based on Terry McMillan’s books.

Then came Tyler Perry who crossed the street from stage to cinema with films such a Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea Goes to Jail. The Atlanta-based filmmaker is a writer first. Calling ‘action’ and ‘cut’ is secondary, that is why he was able to make successful films such as Daddy’s Little Girls and Why Did I Get Married which did not have his signature character Madea, aka Mabel Simmons. The subject matter in these two films is not new, but it is a point of view of an African American.

Waiting for Tyler Perry in Africa is frustrating because we are the last to see American projects if they come our way at all, so I went to Nigeria to kill time. I was pleasantly surprised that Nigerian directors listened to the criticism levelled against their earlier films which they shot on VHS i.e. poor lighting. It is quite improved now, but their urban stories have Hollywood dialogue and scenes, and that turned me off.

I did find some gems though. I became a fan of Osita Iheme and Chineidu Ikedieze, the parents’ nightmare, through films such as Nwa Teacher, which was a comedy about adult education. I discovered actors such as Liz Benson and Desmond Elliot in films such as Now and Forever. I also enjoyed films about the tug of war between village values and city living governed by the naira, the Nigerian currency.

I left Nigeria and went to Mumbai, India. The film Jodhaa Akbar, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and produced by Gowariker and UTV’s Ronnie Screwvala is the reason why my search for Indian cinema’s contribution to the one million original stories is at its peak. The DVD package I bought for R340 is a collector’s item, with three green CD’s and postcards made from movie scenes. It is right there, in my film library, next to the box set of Tyler Perry’s four original film projects released by Lionsgate.

Jodhaa Akbar’s crew and cast interviews in one of the CD’s have very poor sound, especially Sunita A. Gowariker’s interview, which is such a pity because she was the Executive Director. I don’t have any superlatives to describe what she did to ensure that diaries of the cast were synchronised, period costumes sourced, animals, music, weapons, desert scenes secured etc. so that the director could do his job.

Jodhaa Akbar! That is where I discovered actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who played Princess Jodhaa and Hrithik Roshan as Emperor Akbar. I found the rest of Hindi cinema because I went looking for her. ‘There are other actors you know,’ said the owner of the video store in Mayfair, here in Johannesburg.

It was like being in a candy store. I discovered more good actors such as Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Rhekha, Naseeruddin Shah, Reema Lagoo, Vikram Gokhale, Smita Jaykar, Kirron Kher, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Sushmita Sen, Jackie Shroff, Paresh Rawal, Rajesh Khanna, Madhuri Dixit, Ajay Devgan, Amitach Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee, Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Mohnish Bell, Akshay Kumar, Shilpa Shetty, Alok Nath, the list is endless. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) also helped because they have Indian cinema Saturday afternoons.

I digressed didn’t I? This introduction was necessary and it will all make sense next week when I present my humble take on Kurbaan and My Name is Khan.

Nonqaba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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