Alternative Bollywood: Part 1.

With a film industry that produces one of the largest quantity of films globally, Bollywood creates global commercial success with all-singing, all-dancing, emotional movies. But what about the unsung heroes of Bollywood?

America has Pulp Fiction, Britain has Trainspotting and cinephiles will indulge in quality foreign films from Mexico, China, Russia such as Y Tu Mama Tambien, IP Man and House of Fools, respectively. Indian cinema apart from it’s successful cheesy and often homogeneous love stories, fails to entertain the same cinephiles who want alternative indie style movies as the aforementioned.

Of course the Bollywood film industry, like any other industry fuelled by capitalism has to ultimately make as much money as possible; but what about those that make movies for art rather than money? Well, in a sea of money-making love triangles, generic comedies as well as the odd gangster and semi-erotic tale of lust; there is a wave of qualitative, thought-provoking, hard-hitting movies that don’t fit the generic code of Bollywood including a few that do. Yes, there is a side to South Asian cinema that will satisfy perhaps even the most ardent and pretentious film buff; sentiment to this will be a multiple part series by McAbsent.

One thing you will notice is the lack of reoccurring names that pop up, for example Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher will usually get a mention when discussing alternative film as will their ‘pet’ actors such as Brad Pitt or Gael Garcia Bernal. There doesn’t appear to be a consistent director or actor that appears in the list.

The only special mention would be for Rani Mukerji, one of the few actresses in Bollywood that boast of having a talent in acting. Bollywood has a habit of casting women not based on acting ability, but based on superficial qualities such as sex appeal and family connections (the latter also applies to Mukerji to some extents). Sure, sex appeal and the look of a person can give screen presence but there is more to acting than just looking pretty on screen. I’m a firm believer that it’s often easier to express ones acting ability if the roles you choose require you to do so. Mukerji has embraced challenging roles, whether it’s a village girl turned high-level escort (Laaga Chunari Mein Daag) or a blind mute that excels in social development and academia (Black). Not only have these roles been embraced, they’ve been portrayed to a very good standard, she can unarguably be considered a great accomplished actor. So it would only be fitting to begin the run-down of the most notable alternative Bollywood films with this accomplished actress.

Black (2005)

Directed by Sanjay Leela Bansali.

Michelle McNally (Ayesha Kapoor/Rani Mukerji) is deaf, she’s blind and a mute. In addition to that, she’s become somewhat uncontrollable and volatile, resulting in a free reign by her wealthy parents. The absence of discipline and manners could send her down a path were her existence is not only futile, but a  troubling burden, so much so that her own father is considering sending her to a mental asylum. Their last throw of the dice is Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan), hired to mentor & teach her thus taking on the challenge to integrate her into society and education.

The story starts with Michelle at an early age, played by Ayesha Kapoor. The acting ability by this young actress sets the tone for this masterpiece of a movie, the hardhitting emotion filled journey is of the highest standard. It’s hard to imagine how such a young actress could portray such a character but Ayesha Kapoor does the role justice with a spellbinding performance. In Rani Mukerji and even moreso Amitabh Bachchan, we have without doubt two of the best actors Bollywood has produced, it would be difficult to imagine anyone other than Rani Mukerji playing a mature Michelle. Amitabh is Amitabh, every role he plays turns to gold, he makes every role his own and that’s not just based on his incredible method acting (think De Niro). Thankfully it’s the perfect foil for Rani Mukerji and they share the required chemistry for what would have been otherwise a difficult movie to portray. Despite this the young Ayesha Kapoor may steal the show for you.

The emotional coming of age of Michelle and the downward spiral of Debraj allows for a screenplay that gets you completely involved. Once you’ve watched it there’s a good chance it’ll play on your mind. Black is a pretty much head-on look at the experiences of disabled people and how they’re stigmatized as well as embraced, a subject that the mainstream media sadly ignores. The notion of ethics in dealing with people with certain disabilities and the options available to them is questioned. Everything this movie captures regarding a subject often overlooked makes this movie unmissable and one of the greatest. What it certainly isn’t is a conventional Bollywood movie.

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Ramadan: Abstinence.

Ramadan for me is a month of self-discipline. To build willpower via fasting, being punctual and abstaining from bad habits such as cursing (which I currently do a f… you get the idea). Some make a concerted effort to stop lying, as overzealous as I may sound, deceiving someone of any aspect of reality is one of my pet hates. I find many Islamic practises support character building and the month of Ramadan offers a period of 30 days whereby we are encouraged, more so than usual, to practise our religion thus developing oneself.

I find I’m actually a calmer and more composed person in Ramadan, perhaps the assertion of control over my habits and metabolism is the cause of such deliverance. I guess it goes without saying that fasting makes you a more patient person. Despite paling in comparison to the starving in 3rd world countries, fasting certainly gives you a taster of more difficult times.

Although it is not commonplace, I find it strange when I hear of Muslims desiring and requesting people to not eat within distance of them during the month of Ramadan; surely one of the major benefits of Ramadan is to build willpower so without the temptation where is the willpower? Additionally I refuse to expect people to change their daily routine and norms due to my beliefs.

The more difficult Ramadan is, the more one gains. I don’t understand people that spend more time sleeping during the month or Ramadan, you’re cheating your way out of benefiting from it’s trials.

Another minor gripe is the rushing around I see of other Muslims, it seems like needlessly adding pressure, having said that it looks as if they revel in it and could be there way of gaining willpower. I’m generally a nonchalant person hence the lack of appeal.

Fasting as a whole provides you with a means of scrutinizing your diet, since you’re eating at very specific times (before sunrise which is known as sehri and upon sunset which is known as iftaari). With this in mind I look for healthier foods that provide a slow release of energy and help maintain a balanced digestive system. Yoghurt based foods, little or no fried foods, porridge and fruit salads are the norm in Ramadan for me as is a proportionate rotation of meats, fish and pulses. As a self-proclaimed foodie this isn’t too difficult as I like to try new meal ideas. Islam encourages moderation so I make sure my hunger is satisfied but not to become bloated when eating outside the times of fasting.

Due to the aforementioned scheduled timings, you find yourself acknowledging the passing of time and find spaces in the day that were otherwise absent. With this new found time I’ve recently found space to exercise and with the knowledge I’m eating healthier, I’m in the frame of mind that every rep, crunch and curl is not being offset by an over-indulgent diet. Gone are the fried brunches and toasted carbs with a spread of “it’s not really butter, but it’s still fat”, gone are the high-levels of sugar in the coffee machine (which I’m sure is the sugar rush not caffeine kick that gives me that added “perk”).

The concern that is raised the most is  that we go through daylight hours without drinking water. I rarely drink water on a normal day sadly, the lure of the coffee machine always supersedes the water cooler. Due to the added awareness of my dietary habits I tend to consume more water outside daylights during Ramadan, than I would usually drink throughout a full day outside of Ramadan.

Ramadan is a time for self reflection. Abstaining can lead to self-consciousness but with a degree of fulfillness. The self-discipline gained seems to increase the desire to better oneself and the 30 days of fasting certainly gives you the momentum to stay healthy and increase productivity post-Ramadan.

All in all it is a time for abstaining, which ultimately results in gaining.