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Common man, uncommon auteur

Fans remember him as the awkward, sweet young man who finally wins his love. But today, Amol Palekar wants to make his mark as a director who strives to be different.

Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Amol Palekar: shaking off a nostalgia

IF ONE were looking to get a glimpse of the affable, stumbling, tentative, and a diffident Amol Palekar of Chit Chor, Gharonda, Chotisi Baat, or Baaton Baaton Mein, one would be disappointed. Amol is not keen to relive his days as the man who brought the frailties of the middle class to the screen. In the little time one spent with him during the Suchitra Film Festival, it became clear that Amol is negotiating a difficult moment: to disown not only the nostalgia about him as the romantic actor of the '70s, but the very fact of having been an actor, and to reposition himself as a man who now makes films.

It was a shock when he said: "Why talk about me as an actor? I have stopped acting for more than 18 years. I know that I am a damn good actor. I have not given even one bad performance. Very few actors can claim that. That would suffice talking about myself as an actor..."

Amol wasn't too happy when asked how he made it as a Bollywood actor. After all, he wasn't the quintessential hero, the larger-than-life Amitabh. "Why single out Amitabh? Why not Raajkumar? He did the same thing successfully. Anyway, Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee, and Rishikesh Mukherjee co-existed with Manmohan Desai."

Amol was seen as the man who gave voice to the subdued Bombay middle class, But he doesn't agree. "I was more than just the middle-class man. I was a villain in Bhumika, looking into murder in Khamosh, and a multimillionaire industrialist who travels in a Mercedes and wears three-piece suits in Tarang. I was totally believable and credible in each of these."

The larger point about Amol Palekar's success, however, is also the force of parallel cinema. Amol started his career with Rajnigandha, a classic Basu Chatterjee film that set precedent for middle-of-the road films. "These films were made on low budgets, but were credible. The characters were not larger-than-life. There was no melodrama. Yet people loved them. Experience was made believable."

By the early 1980s, Amol began exploring characters that surprised many. Aakriet, in which he plays the role of a corrupt character, Ankahee, where he explores superstition in an urban milieu, Tarang, in which he is an industrialist, and a detective in Khamosh were the first signs of the breakaway.

At the same time he began making films that were well researched and very different from those he had acted in. Akriet, his first film as director, was about superstition and blind faith in rural Maharashtra, based on the Manwad mass murders, was no longer the Basu Chatterjee genre. Ankahee, about superstition again, in an urban setting, Daayra, about male sexuality, Anaahat, slated for release soon, about female sexuality, Dhyaas Parva, one among his many Marathi films, a biographical one, outlining the life of Raghunath Karve who first initiated a movement on birth control in the country, were confirmations of the new man.

If Amol survived the Amitabh times "owing to reasons of co-existence", how would that same Amol figure in the '90s when commercial cinema, unlike middle-of-the-road ones, makes it big at the box office?

Amol is a bit contradictory on this: he believes there is insecurity in mainstream cinema that it is not entirely successful, and doesn't make money. He also holds the kind of cinema he makes is successful and makes for sound commerce, but acknowledges that it faces serious problems.

"Today, we insist that only one kind of cinema must exist — mainstream cinema. But 90 per cent of mainstream cinema fails, whether Hindi or regional language. Why? The film industry incurred a Rs. 300 crore loss in 2002. Is this an indication of faith in mainstream cinema? Audience does not see other cinema because the option is not given. Cinema in earlier times coexisted. When Guru Dutt made Kagaz Ke Pool, do you mean to say that it was mainstream cinema being made then? And why high investments? If Devdas is Rs. 50 crore, I have to talk of Rs. 70 crore. Otherwise, I feel insecure."

Amol also holds that rushing to a New Zealand or an Egypt for a song sequence is a sure sign of insecurity to hold on to an audience.

"A dance in Egypt with aerobics makes no sense to the texture of the cinema. Songs have just become items. There is a certain kind of cinema I also enjoy. I admire Lagaan, its songs too. I love Satya for the bold statement it makes on dying a rat's death and that too in mainstream cinema format. Or even Dil Chaata Hai. I love songs which are not items, but part of the entire treatment. There is too much inconsistency in mainstream cinema."

Amol doesn't believe cinema other than mainstream is failing. "My faith in audience is reiterated every time I make a film. I made Dyaas Parva in Marathi with no star cast, songs, or fights. A biographical film, it ran for 100 days. How many mainstream cinemas can claim this? Yet we say audience doesn't want this cinema."

"Also, we talk of Sholay or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai as commercial successes. They were successful all right, but a big success story of all times has been Jai Santoshi Ma. It was made with a Rs. 5 lakh budget and earned all its money back in Bombay territory alone. There was an overflow of over Rs. 5 crore. But we still don't talk of Jai Santoshi Ma."

Amol also believes small budget films are a better commercial proposition. "All my films have brought back returns and marginal profits. But if I make a film within a crore and Bhansali does it with Rs. 50 crore, we are bracketed together. I have to buy the raw stock at the same rate as Bhansali does. It is only in the film industry that we are all taxed at the same level. Is this fair?"

If one points to the relative success of commercial cinema, he is quick to point out to history. "I have gown up on Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Amiya Chakravarthy, and the like. I even admire Balu Mahendra. I would love to see the song picturisation of a Guru Dutt's Jalte hain jiske liye. Is it possible today? Why has mainstream cinema shunned the strength of our cinema?"

In the midst of this, Amol has a new production on hand. Anaahat in Marathi, that has Anant Nag, Deepti Naval, and Sonali Bendre. The film, set in the 10th Century, is about female sexuality, the first of a trilogy. Completed in 18 days, it is perhaps the quickest he has made. "The recreation of the period has been done by none other than Nitin Desai, who did the sets of Devdas and Lagaan. I can't even afford to pay his fees, but he loves to do it because it gives him satisfaction. The costumes were designed by Jayu Patwardhan, ones which are period authentic."

PRASHANTH G.N.

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