TALKING FILMS

What movies about the movies tell us about the gap between dreams and reality

From ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’ to ‘Rangoon’, Indian cinema has been turning the lens on itself with varying degrees of honesty and self-deprecation.

The trailer of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon offers snapshots of Indian cinema in the 1940s. Cracking a whip and singing profanities while wearing a hunting costume and a mischievous smile, Kangana Ranaut plays an actress who closely resembles Fearless Nadia.

Indian actresses are a mutable and paradoxical species. Even as their onscreen avatars are consistently loved, their status as sex symbols means that their morality and principles are always viewed as dubious. Rangoon, harking back to the time when filmmakers and actors were universally loved but rarely respected, is one among many Indian films that sketch compelling portraits of diverse aspects of the cinematic world.

Indian cinema has been consistently turning the lens on itself with varying degrees of insight, honesty and self-deprecation. In Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), film director Suresh (Guru Dutt) is disdainful of actresses habituated to primping and posturing. He is looking for a “seedhi saadhi Hindustani ladik” for his next film. A chance encounter leads him to orphan Shanti (Wahhda Rehman). Unhappily married and estranged from his wife, Suresh is inexorably drawn to Shanti and they struggle against a growing mutual attraction.

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Waqt Ne Kiya from Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959).

Kaagaz Ke Phool is an accurate study of artistic obsession and the contrary motivations of people who pursue careers in cinema. Suresh looks at the world through a cinematic lens (he recognises Shanti’s potential only after she is accidentally captured on camera). Suresh’s self-worth is inextricably tied to his work as a director. Shanti, on the other hand, is a reluctant actress, drawn to the profession because of monetary compulsions and her fascination for Suresh.

With a haunting combination of chiaroscuro frames and lilting melodies, Kaagaz Ke Phool chronicles a director’s angst-ridden journey from fame to ignominy. Even as it depicts the massive machinery required to construct a movie and exposes the caprices of public adoration, Kaagaz Ke Phool is more about human fallibility and creative frustration than the cinematic world itself.

Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal in Bombay Talkie (1970). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.
Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal in Bombay Talkie (1970). Courtesy Merchant Ivory Productions.

The Merchant-Ivory production Bombay Talkie (1970) is a more acerbic and sexually unapologetic examination of the film world. Married actor Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) is attempting to cement his status as a film star when his writer friend Hari (Zia Mohyeddin) introduces him to novelist Lucia (Jennifer Kendal). Although Hari falls in love with Lucia, Vikram pursues her with a restless determination to posses.

Bombay Talkie is replete with pithy observations about the film world. Vikram’s conversations with Hari offer a tongue-in-cheek reminder of cinema’s status as the less erudite cousin of the novel. When Vikram prances on the keys of a giant typewriter while shooting a typically asinine film song, he is dancing to the tune of his producer who wishes to make the film commercially viable. The strangeness of the set is explained away with a vacuous allegory, demonstrating Indian cinema’s endless tussle between credibility and commerce and its inability to logically and intelligently reconcile the two.

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Typewriter Tip Tip from Bombay Talkie (1970).

Even as it succumbs to western stereotypes about Indian society, Bombay Talkie insightfully depicts the social significance of cinema in India. Its opening sequence, for instance, features hand painted movie-style posters of cast and crew displayed against the streets and skylines of Mumbai, illustrating the deep and complex relationship of the city with cinema.

In Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977), Usha (Smita Patil) is cajoled into becoming an actress by an older family friend, Keshav (Amol Palekar). Since her mother disapproves of her profession and the lower-caste Keshav, Usha marries him in an impetuous act of defiance. When she is compelled to work after her marriage and Keshav continues to manage her business, Usha rebels against his constant jealousy and authority.

Although sexual relationships between famous women and their male managers or jealous husbands have been explored in several films, Bhumika asks pertinent questions about sexual freedom and the balance of power. In attempting to escape her controlling husband, Usha enters into sexual relationships with other men, but remains dissatisfied with the skewed balance of power.

Smita Patil and Amrish Puri in Bhumika. Courtesy Blaze Film Entreprises.
Smita Patil and Amrish Puri in Bhumika. Courtesy Blaze Film Entreprises.

Bhumika uses the film-within-a-film device to perfection, and Usha’s personal life uncannily mirrors the story arc of her film Agnipariksha. As Usha dances and hams her way through Agnipariksha, Benegal exposes the dispassionate choreography and manipulation involved in the construction of the highly stylised imagery that dominates commercial cinema.

Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) is inspired by the political landscape of 1950s Tamil Nadu, and is loosely based on actor and politician M G Ramanchandran, his political rival M Karunanidhi, and protégé and frequent co-star Jayalalithaa. Anandan (Mohanlal) ascends to superstardom with the assistance of his writer friend Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj). Anandan absorbs his friend’s politics along with his poetry and leverages his tremendous social capital to further his party’s political future. As Anandan’s popularity threatens to surpass Tamizhselvan’s, an acrimonious rivalry develops between the former friends.

Much like Usha in Bhumika, Anandan’s personal life imitates the characters that he plays in his movies. The meta-film sequences in Iruvar are mostly song-and-dance routines. Although they are too neatly shot to replicate 1950s cinematography, they capture the costume and dialogue integral to Tamil films of that era.

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Narumugaiye from Iruvar (1997).

Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) is a satirical but non-judgmental look at the Hindi film industry. Sona (Konkona Sensharma), a talented actor appearing second-grade films, meets Vikram (Farhan Akhtar), an aspiring actor looking to get his first break. When Sona is duped by a producer and hits a slump, Vikram bags a role in a commercial film aided by a combination of serendipity, guile and burning ambition. Vikram continues to pursue superstardom with selfish unscrupulousness, but a disillusioned Sona breaks up with him to eventually become a popular television actress.

Luck By Chance deftly peels back several layers of the cinematic world, often hilariously exposing its nepotism, occasional cruelty and precarious relationship with Hollywood. The devilry of the film world is the small details: an anecdote about an unfairly treated stuntman, a wealthy superstar clowning around with impoverished children from behind a closed car window, and a bitterly furious heroine recalling how she was forced to relinquish control over her body to become an actress.

The film is also scattered with actors like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan playing themselves. This adds a layer of authenticity to the film that is deliciously ironic, considering that their parts are as carefully constructed as that of any other character.

The opening sequence of Luck By Chance is a montage of activities involved in making a film, featuring the weathered faces over-worked film technicians and extras. Even as the sequence highlights the banality of the tasks that add up to create the dreamy and gripping illusion of cinema, it gently humanises the process, exposing its warts and embracing its allure.

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The opening credits of Luck By Chance (2009).
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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

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In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

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Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

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The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

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The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.