Calling Sholay and Gunda a cult Bollywood film is flimsy

Cult films vis-à-vis Hindi cinema might largely be seen as ones that enjoy a dedicated repeated viewing.

 |  7-minute read |   10-06-2015
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What makes any film a cult? While on the face it may seem very straightforward - as long as the film went under the radar or neglected upon its arrival and was discovered, embraced, ritualistically celebrated by a community that follows it like any religious group, ergo cult. But things are often not that simple and especially when it comes to defining cult in the context of popular Hindi cinema.

gogo_060915054953.jpg                                                                        Andaz Apna Apna (1994)

In the West, film scholars and commentators often look at cult films by the same parameters used to define counter or subcultures and therefore, largely films that were "opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm" are seen as cult films. But in Bollywood any film that is rediscovered or revisited regularly or whose lines are quoted frequently as the parlance of times is capable of being viewed as cult. It’s not like Bollywood doesn’t have its fair share of cult films. Between the thousand odd Hindi films released every year there some great ones, some good films and many just about average.

While every film has, or ought to have something good in it, a handful amongst these have something special about them that get sidetracked or crushed under the tsunami of the year’s big releases or some such before the audience gets chance to discover it. It’s the legacy of these films that befalls upon a dedicated bunch of fans, film lovers, and observers and end up making them into cult films.

kkp_060915050329.jpg                                                                       Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)

Perhaps that’s why it was odd to see films like Teesri Manzil (1966), Pakeezah (1972), Sholay (1975), Gol Maal (1979), Mr India (1987), and Satya (1998) not only being considered cult films but as much cult as a Gunda (1988) or a Paanch (2003) in "The great Brunch checklist of #CultMovies". The list made this writer wonder if there were, in fact, different parameters for ascertaining cult films in the context of popular Hindi cinema?

In defining cult movies Jeffery Sconce, a media scholar, believes that they exist outside critical and cultural acceptance and, therefore, could include just about everything from exploitation to beach parties to pornography. In Sconce’s view cult films aren’t unified by any single feature yet stand united in their subculture ideology. Seen in this light an Andaz Apna Apna (1994) falls brilliantly in the purview of cult cinema as does Kanti Shah’s Gunda (1998), a wonderful example of metafilm in Indian milieu if ever there were one, but a Himmatwala (1983) doesn’t. Why? For the simple reason that Andaz Apna Apna saw the hero or more specifically heroes unlike the way mainstream did and everything right from plot devices to the dialogues were a departure from the norm. By comparison, there is nothing about Himmatwala that doesn’t adhere to the period’s mainstream elements.

A mainstream film is ideally considered cult when irrespective of alienating critics and audiences upon its initial release manages to develop a dedicated following such as The Big Lebowski or in Hindi cinema an Agneepath (1990), a Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), a Karz (1980) to name a few.

Traditionally limited access also enhanced the following of films that went on to become a cult. The limited availability of a film that was taken off the theaters following a lacklustre initial release or never got a wide release and ended up on video in the late 1970s or 1980s or VCDs in the mid to late 1990s made films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), Peechha Karro (1986), a great comic gem, or Kaal Chakra (1988), rumoured to be a favorite of Ram Gopal Varma, and RGV’s own Raat (1992) prized possessions. This explains viewing films being seen as an annual pilgrimage of sorts, but that feeling is long dead in this age of torrents and file sharing.

Some like Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (1988), which was released 26 years after it was made, are considered the mother lode of cult films and remain a favourite of many filmmakers themselves. An entire generation of filmmakers has their own go-to cult films such Silsila (1981), one of the best examples of mainstream attempting cult and initially failing only to be later hailed as brilliance, Hathyar (1989), a urban crime gem, Kabzaa (1988), a precursor to Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam (1998) about urban land grab besides being the "original" remake of On the Waterfront (1954) and also writer-director Atul Sabharwal’s (Aurangzeb (2013) cult favourite. Besides films and filmmakers there are certain actors whose calling cards somewhat inspires a feeling of cult such as Steve Buscemi, Jess Franco, Tilda Swinton, Michael Shannon and closer home Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak and post-Aankhon Dekhi Sanjay Mishra. Although Irrfan has long transcended not just art-house or indie cinema but also Bollywood he continues to evoke a cult-like feeling that had helped him stand apart. Even a later day Govinda with films like Aunty No 1 (1998), Dulhe Raja (1998) and Sandwich (2006), a performance that Aamir Khan watches every now and then, has transformed into a cult icon.

In India films some films manage to become cult favourites even after getting a mainstream acknowledgment that in turn retrospectively enhances the film such as Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003) or Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004). Considered one of the best films to capture the restlessness of the urban Indian youth in the 1970s, Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi was an uphill task for Mishra in every sense of the word and while it garnered rave reviews along with a decent box-office run, the film’s cult following cemented its reputation. On the other hand Black Friday, which was stuck in censor hell for years, transformed into one of India’s biggest Indian cult films thanks to bootleg copies that were viewed across the country. An important aspect of cult films that ensure a frenzied following is also the manner in which their rejection by mainstream allows them to be more creative and even political. This is best displayed by Kashyap’s debut Paanch (2003). The indie-spirited film was never officially released and the very elements that proved to be a trouble with censors - mainstream yardstick that the film’s narrative refused to adhere to - helped it become the most celebrated contemporary cult films.

Some films such as Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) and Johnny Gaddaar (2007) going beyond their box-office performance, which incidentally hovered between average and above average for both, and assume a longer shelf life due to a cult like essence they inspire. Both films are excellent odes to genres, themes and pop culture that ranged far beyond cinema and their very mention stirs impassioned discussions.

Besides being breakaway from mainstream the fascination for cult films also ranges from adoration to contempt and according to Mark Jancovich, Professor of Film Studies, University of East Anglia, at times, end up reinforcing a certain type of bourgeois and masculine taste. This is probably the best explanation why a film such as Gunda enjoys a massive cult following beside a solid 8.2 rating on IMDb.com in spite of its ribaldry that irked the Censor Board enough to initially refuse certification. It’s these components that make a film like Red Rose (1980) one of the best examples of a cult film. The film had a mainstream cast, a regular theatrical release and still everything about it was a breakaway from the mainstream. While it might not be as celebrated by cult groups in India but according to websites commemorating off the beaten track cinema Red Rose has a dedicated following in Japan where it was rumored to have been remade as a standard pink film.

Perhaps cult films vis-à-vis Hindi cinema might largely be seen as ones that enjoy a dedicated repeated viewing. And, maybe that is the reason that the popularity of any kind is translated into a cult, which while confusing might be the best way forward for Indian cult films. After all, how else would films ranging from Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi (1974), Kishore Kumar’s "khayalon ki bhelpuri", Loha (1987), a bizarre desi interpretation of Henri-Georges Clouzot Wages of Fear (1953) and oft quoted by Anurag Kashyap, or Manoj Kumar’s Clerk (1989), a film hammered into our collective cult conscious by funnyman Sajid Khan and Drohkaal (1994), said to be cult favorite of Aditya Chopra, be admired and rejoiced, and yes, passed on.

Writer

Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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