The return of the rustic

In the prelude to the Rowdy Rathore number Tera ishq bada teekha, Akshay Kumar (as part of an inside joke) asks Sonakshi Sinha whether they should go abroad to sing and dance to the song. Sonakshi thumbs down the idea, preferring instead to celebrate in India, amidst local bucolic splendour. 

Actor Richa Chhada in a still from Anurag Kashyap’s recently-released Gangs of Wasseypur, in which she played actor Manoj Bajpai’s wife

She could be echoing the sentiments of several Hindi filmmakers these days. After almost two decades of NRI-aimed cinema largely populated by outfits in designer duds and metropolitan missies, Hindi films are slowly but significantly shifting the spotlight to Tier III towns and mofussil villages and their denizens. 

Small places, big stories
This year’s biggest blockbuster Rowdy Rathore takes the action to a lawless village named Devgarh (cleverly reminiscent of Sholay’s besieged village, Ramgarh), which is terrorised by a local politician, Baapji, who owns tabelas and granaries and spends his days raping and pillaging. All until the Robin Hood-like cop hero arrives to play the demolition man.

The big-trouble-in-small-town theme stands Gangs of Wasseypur in good stead too. Revealing that gang warfare is not necessarily a phenomenon belonging to the urban badlands, Anurag Kashyap examines multi-generational enmities that simmer like embers before blazing into infernos in this saga about the titular coal town.

The year’s sleeper hit Ishaqzaade is also about long-nursed grudges; this time in a small fictional town called Almore in the Hindi heartland, where the legacy of hate crushes a love story that dares to blossom in its midst.

Manoj Bajpai in a still from Gangs of Wasseypur

The biographical Paan Singh Tomar talks about another non-metro city, Morena, Madhya Pradesh, where a gold medallist at international sports events becomes a bandit in the ravines of the Chambal. This successful film revisits the dacoit drama — a one-time staple at the Indian box office.

From urban to rustic
Evidently, of late, filmmakers are repeatedly choosing to venture out of the big cities. They look for gripping narratives in Shanghai’s ubiquitous Bharat Nagar with its small town air and nondescript airport; or they seek to weave some homespun whimsy into stories such as the Rajasthan-based Chaar Din Ki Chandni. And thundering law enforcers who safeguard a town — be it Dabangg’s Lalganj or Singham’s Shiv Garh — have become legend.

“India lives in its villages,” said Mahatma Gandhi. However, while Hindi cinema has made some seminal classics on rural life (Do Bigha Zameen, Mother India, Ganga Jamuna, Upkaar), B-town is peopled by urbanised professionals, and has always paid more attention to the cities. This preoccupation with the metros reached a crescendo in the nineties and the noughties. But the tide is turning once again, and cinema is increasingly heeding the call of the heartland. Actor Sonakshi Sinha, who has benefitted tremendously as a result, enthuses, “Everyone is coming back to their roots.”

Back to the basics
For many, this revival of interest in the heartland is seen as a call for a return to the way we were. Analyses Sonakshi, “For a long time, our cinema lacked our country’s earthiness. Foreign locales, fashion, and sensibilities took over. At the end of the day, we all have the same basic values and want to feel connected to our roots, and a vast medium like cinema helps us do that.”

Rural issues and non-metro characters resonate with city people also because urban audiences find the village settings exotic. Audiences are perhaps enraptured by the sheer novelty value of films such as Rowdy Rathore, Gangs of Wasseypur and Dabangg after the long pile-up of metro-centric stories.

Director Tigmanshu Dhulia (Paan Singh Tomar) feels that such films are not just cinematically novel but also culturally new for the multiplex audience. He posits, “The new generation of urban kids have not seen the real India and they watch it with a lot of interest — these films are like a walk in a zoo for them.”

Dabangg director Abhinav Kashyap opines, “These films may hold novelty value for people who live in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru who don’t step out of their comfort zones. But people around the country are still there, waiting for somebody to make films for them and about them. The problem is that some filmmakers do not go and spend time with them and so don’t have relevant stories. I travel so I have stories about them. Filmmakers have started moving back to villages.” Dhulia is happy being an agent of this change. He says, “We had forgotten about our real audience.”

Thanks to Salman
Now that the hinterland is making its cinematic presence felt, filmmakers are rushing to fill in the void and cash in. Director Sameer Karnik (Yamla Pagla Deewana, Chaar Din Ki Chaandni) cites, “Dabangg and Salman Khan’s stature has been the biggest trendsetter for such films.” He adds, “A very high percentage of India is still rural, and films about the hinterland benefit by generating business from various parts of the country.”

Salman Khan plays a lovable, corrupt cop in Dabangg

Veteran distributor Balakrishna Shroff of Shringar Films agrees that hinterland themes better target the single-screen masses. “As a result, the film’s audience increases exponentially. The hinterland audience does not like to see Hindi films based on modern themes or those copied from English movies. They reject them totally.”

Even city slickers like Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan are likely to extend their range. Kashyap feels “It is just a matter of time before Ranbir and the others take up these roles. Imran is doing Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, which is set in Haryana.”

Something for everyone
But the film industry refuses to view this resurgence as the death of the aspirational, NRI-targeted cinema of films such as Dil Chahta Hai, Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham, Salaam Namaste and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which centred around slick urban youth and addressed their themes and dreams. Says Kashyap, “Too much of any one thing is bad.

A still from Paan Singh Tomar, which stars Irrfan Khan as a dacoit in the Chambal Valley

There is enough space for diversity in scripts. I think NRIs will still get to see films set in their countries.”  Filmmakers obviously don’t want to please the rest of India at the risk of losing a huge segment of business that comes from abroad. But Shroff says sagely, “To cater to the hinterland audience, some sacrifice can be made from overseas business. Overall, the producers will still make a profit.”

Actress Richa Chaddha, who has scored rave reviews for playing Manoj Bajpai’s rustic wife in Gangs Of Wasseypur, feels there is no collateral risk. She debunks the very idea that NRIs cannot relate to certain stories. “Look at Gangs Of Wasseypur. It is not true to say that it excludes the NRI audience. My friends in New York and Australia have watched the film, it has been released commercially in UAE and Dubai, and has been featured around the world.

The French have understood it without subtitles and without understanding the language. I think you can tell a beautiful story, no matter where you set
it.” Several filmmakers have tried to expand their film’s appeal by setting half the film in an urban scenario and another in the hinterland (Rowdy Rathore). Or the plotline showcases city characters coming to the hinterland (Tees Maar Khan, Ishqiya, Raajneeti, Billu) or vice versa (Mausam, Veer, Singh Is King).

Local music
Rustic music too has been increasingly finding favour, as is evidenced by the popularity of songs like Kajrare, Beedi jalaide, and Chikni Chameli, as well as non-dance numbers such as Peepli (Live)’s Mehangai and Gangs of Wasseypur’s Womaniya. Music director Sneha Khanwalkar, who has been much appreciated for her catchy compositions for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, feels there is a demand for music with folk and rustic flavour.

Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra play warring lovers in Ishaqzaade, set in the fictional small town of Almore

If Kashyap has left no stone unturned to make his film look authentic, Sneha also followed suit by travelling to Bihar-Jharkhand. “I had to arrive at the kind of understanding Anurag had about the place,” she says. “So I thought it would be worthwhile to go there.”  Excited about the diverse opportunities composing for films set in the heartland offers her, Sneha says, “I had a very shallow understanding of the state and its music.

I had known Bhojpuri music as tadak bhadak and full of naach gaana. I hadn’t understood the tone and lingo. Once I got there, I realised that there are many dimensions to the music. I figured that there are five kinds of lingo and the music was very sweet, very intricate, delicate and graceful.”

Here to stay?
Shroff is confident that this upsurge of cinematic interest in the hinterland will not lose steam anytime soon. “When the multiplexes came in, producers stopped making hinterland-based films without realising that they were cutting off a major section of the audience. With the success of Dabangg and Rowdy Rathore, they have realised their mistake.”

While the emphasis on commerce is a given in B-town, the need of the hour is for more films that also look beyond free archetypes like the hapless leading lady and the all-conquering, weakness-free hero.

Predicting a juggling act for filmmakers in the days to come, Shroff pronounces, “In the future, producers will have to make a serious attempt to make a film which can appeal to both NRIs and city audiences and the rural audience.”

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