Vasan Bala on Cinema Marte Dum Tak, His Favourite Pulpy Films and the Documentation of Art Forms

The six-part docuseries is streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Vasan Bala on Cinema Marte Dum Tak, His Favourite Pulpy Films and the Documentation of Art Forms

Vasan Bala’s Cinema Marte Dum Tak (CMDT) begins with what would be considered the money shot in pulpy Hindi films of the Nineties: A voluptuous woman runs towards the camera in a two-piece bikini that struggles to hold together her swinging, jiggling excesses. Over the course of the docuseries, it becomes clear that this is a trap. Bala depends on your expectation of gallivanting through the distinct pleasures of what is disparagingly referred to as “B- or C-grade cinema”. You expect the colourful, rhyming dialogue; the low-budget horror; the outlandish stunts and the naked male gaze. What you don’t expect is Bala’s honest eye, revealing the deep regrets that mark this “badnaam industry”, even as he prods unflinchingly at the truths about its legend. Through its four heroes – yesteryear directors J. Neelam, Dilip Gulati, Vinod Talwar and Kishan Shah – CMDT weaves a portrait of humanity, highlighting the filmmakers’ existential battles with insignificance, fraught familial relationships and a complex repute. In the opportunity to create a film once again, the filmmakers realise the opportunity to speak their truth, a truth Bala captures with impartial grace. We speak to Bala about his relationship with pulpy cinema and why he picked these four directors. 

Cinema Marte Dum Tak is a love letter to pulpy cinema. What was your introduction to this subculture like? Do you go way back?

Oh yes, absolutely. Those days we used to rent a lot of VHS and we saw films on cable as well as in cinema halls. But when, say, Ramsay's Veerana (1988) or Purana Mandir (1984) would be very busy, they used to hand out alternate cassettes to us. So that is how you understand that there is a Dracula but then this Dracula is different from Ramsay's Dracula. So that was like first conscious thing that [I realised] but they’re always there in the peripheral right? You always see these posters, you always see the cinema hall but have probably never had the courage to enter these cinema halls and [see] first-hand what these films are. So they have always been in your consciousness but always on the peripheral and slightly off the radar. I've seen them on the VHS, I've seen them on the local cable as well sometimes. I've seen them spread out as VCDs and DVDs by roadside sellers. Then once Orkut came in, it brought Gunda to the forefront. Everyone started discussing Gunda in 2006, 2007, 2008. That was a second coming wherein people started discussing these films all over again. Kanti Shah became like this cultish name that people at least knew about. Conversations began again but by that time the industry had sadly folded and shut down.

What are some of your favourites?

I think Khooni Dracula (1992) from Harinam Singh has to be top because it's pretty incredible how he's made the film, he's acted in the film, directed the film – he's done everything. So, that has to be the top from this genre. Also Raat Ke Andhere Mein (1987) is an interesting one, by Vinod Talwar. Maybe these two.

A still from Khooni Dracula.
A still from Khooni Dracula.Film Companion.

What about these films fascinates you most as a filmmaker?

I think the sheer ambition [they have], no matter what the resources. A lot of times I meet young filmmakers who are like, “We've written a film that is in one room with two people talking.” I'm like that is not the story, that is a setting and one does that so that production is easy. It is so disheartening to see the lack of ambition. But these filmmakers would just write their stories and make them with whatever resources they had.  It is very inspiring to not diminish your ambition just because you don't have the resources. And it could seem foolhardy but that is probably the love for the medium or the passion [for it], and that is probably how one achieves magic. Like Dilip Gulati keeps talking about (Akira) Kurosawa and David Lean, which is great – your palette could be anything, your ambitions could be anything, your resources could be anything but the fact is that you still want to go on set, write a story, create characters, shoot those characters, edit them and try and find an audience for your expression. That's incredibly inspiring.

This isn’t just a documentary of talking heads. It gives these filmmakers a chance to make a film and follows their journey of making it. How did this idea come to you?

I think a filmmaker is most excited when they’re working. Otherwise, the conversations are boring, mundane and I don't know whether the filmmaker finds his or her own life exciting. But once they are in their elements, once they have purpose, that is when filmmakers are most charged and that is when the story starts flowing. So we wanted them to be in their most primal element. Make something, create something and have a conversation with them through that. That is when we had the most meaningful conversations or if nothing else, just happy conversations. 

You’ve used Hemant Chaturvedi’s pictures for dilapidated single-screen theatres. While following these directors on their journey, was the preservation of this art form and the way it is created on your mind at all? 

A picture of a single-screen theatre in ruins, clicked by cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi.
A picture of a single-screen theatre in ruins, clicked by cinematographer Hemant Chaturvedi. Film Companion.

Yes, they're beautiful pictures. We as a country aren't really into documentation. So many silent-era films, so many films from the Seventies and Eighties might have been lost. We don't take much care in preserving for future generations to have a reference point or a library to access. It’s a sad reality. But, yes, through this [CMDT], there is at least second-hand information on them. All these people have, for survival, sold a lot of negatives, a lot of their own films – even they don't know who their owners are or who eventually has the rights. They don't own the original prints – sometimes you have these 480p or 360p YouTube uploads but no one has the original prints of all that so documentation and preservation are not something we’re great at. But hopefully, the coming generation will somehow find a way to preserve things better, at least for future students of cinema to reference them, to learn from them. Because I think art can be learnt from various art forms, not just those that are perceived to be the best. Art can be learnt from anywhere, inspiration can be taken from anywhere. So I think it's only fair that people should have a palette from which they can decide. Which is why documentation of every kind of art form or expression is important.

How did you pick these four directors? Was it a conscious effort to bring in different schools of thought regarding how they view the business? 

Absolutely, there were some 50 names that were given by our research head, Prithesh, but a lot of people were reluctant to talk. A lot of people didn't want to come in maybe because they were afraid that their past might catch up with them or they have probably lost complete interest [in the industry]. A  lot of filtration happened that way. Then we chanced upon these four who were willing and were such unique personalities unto themselves. They really wanted to push themselves and be a part of this show. These four directors come from different eras of pulpy films as well, which was a conscious choice to understand the evolution [of this subculture]. That era of filmmaking was dictated by the distributors. So certain creative choices were made from distributors who booked their films in advance and not (from) the producers and directors. It was a very different time when the distributors were the most powerful and sometimes they could ask you to make 50% of it erotica and you would have to do it. It was a very different power structure and that was interesting to know about that era and how it dictated art or how it dictated the way they made their films.

So it was interesting to have the directors work on their films, come together for the roundtable and reminisce about their time. I'm really grateful to the direction and the production team who relentlessly kept in touch with them, convinced them to be a part of this show through the pandemic, through all the uncertainties. All the directors Disha (Rindani), Xulfee, Kulish (Kant Thakur); the production team – Harshita (Sabnis), Pritika (Behrawala), Ria (Dhanda), Vatsala (Aron), Bhuvana, Sneha (Menon), of course Samira (Kanwar) and Niharika (Kotwal) – everyone just pouring their heart. All the cameramen and the editors Chandy (Chandrashekhar Parab), Rohan (Kapoor), Zia (Ziaser Mohamedappa), Gaurav, who carried the incredible task of having persisted through this and put it out.

Is there any element of the series that surprised you? From an audience perspective, I wasn’t expecting it to be this humorous or moving or I wasn’t expecting people to break down or share their regrets.

Exactly what you said. We knew that when the trailer came out it would seem like a fun, pulpy show but we knew there was a lot of heart in it. We were so happy that the people also felt the same and reacted in a very empathetic way to all these characters. We wanted to present them without any judgement and people also accepted them without any judgement. I think that's probably where the victory of the team in putting this show together [lies].

Dilip Gulati in Cinema Marte Dum Tak.
Dilip Gulati in Cinema Marte Dum Tak. Film Companion.

What did it mean to provide a platform that allows this virtually shunned community to talk about their experiences? Especially as someone who is very much a part of the mainstream Hindi film industry. 

I think we all come from a space of not being the centre of anything. We are all people who come from a certain peripheral and not having the confidence to take centre stage ever. So then the people on the periphery get together. Especially when I entered, Anurag Kashyap was trying to build his Indie cred and we joined the movement that he was trying to build. He gave us a sense of space and a sense of purpose. The mainstream was very different back then. Today we [are] probably accepted, but not back then and even now a  lot of celebrity managers will dissuade their actors saying, “Oh, he's too Indie”. It's not like we are proper mainstream and that always will be there. “Nahi ye acha hai but yaar you know ye log Indie hai (No, this is nice but you know these people are Indie (filmmakers)”. So “Indie hai (the label of being Indie) is almost like slang that is made to put you down. All that still happens.

Did the four directors reach out to you for feedback after they had watched the show? How did they feel about it?

I really hope that they felt happy that the promise made was delivered – that they were shown in an honest light. [The show has some] uncomfortable truths as well and it does make you squirm [at] the questionable decisions, but that is what made them and it shouldn't be whitewashed completely. I think they felt that honesty and they are getting great feedback in their community. People are noticing them, even congratulating them on being part of this, on expressing themselves so honestly and being so forthright and candid with it. So I think they are also getting that feedback from all across. 

Arjun Kapoor in a roundtable with the four directors.
Arjun Kapoor in a roundtable with the four directors. Film Companion.

Talk to me about having that roundtable with Arjun Kapoor at the end. 

Arjun's a genuine cinema lover. He really loves movies, he loves the business of movies and is just a genuine guy with a lot of empathy. It comes across that he's a good guy. We were discussing a lot of names but I thought of Arjun and when we approached him also he, without batting an eye said yes. Because he also gets trolled for a lot of his decisions – and this could also be added to that – but he wasn't really afraid. He came there as an equal and wasn't coming as a mainstream actor or anything. He was just coming there as a student of cinema and trying to understand where other filmmakers are coming from and I think that genuineness worked, our instinct worked. I think that likability, that warmth came through and he let the directors be really comfortable with him; he spoke as an equal, he understands their pain of filmmaking and all this was coming from a genuine place. Those are fond memories and I think it will always be great for him to be that kind of a person.

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