Cinema Marte Dum Tak: Vasan Bala’s Love Letter To Smutty, Pulpy Hindi Cinema

This six-part documentary series is streaming on Prime Video
Cinema Marte Dum Tak: Vasan Bala’s Love Letter To Smutty, Pulpy Hindi Cinema

Someone give Arjun Kapoor his own talk show. After his two recent (and regrettable) outings in Ek Villain Returns (2022) and Kuttey (2023), Kapoor appears as himself in the final episode of Cinema Marte Dum Tak and shines as the host of the roundtable with the four filmmakers who are the stars of director Vasan Bala’s documentary series. Outspoken, passionate and irrepressible, J. Neelam, Dilip Gulati, Vinod Talwar and Kishan Shah were once big names in the modest world of B- and C-grade cinema. They may no longer be heavyweights, but as personalities, they remain formidable and charismatic. Sitting between them, Kapoor comes across as an attentive and intelligent interviewer who listens closely and respectfully. He pacifies bruised egos with little gestures, laughs with earnest amusement when Neelam describes her own films as “fultoo sex”; and we even get a moment when Kapoor struggles to hold back tears. It’s a charming cameo which brings together two parts of the Hindi film industry that are usually kept apart.

In our cultural hierarchy, Bollywood has been the privileged and glossy face of the Hindi film industry while B-grade and C-grade films — Kapoor, rightly, urges us to drop these derogatory terms — were disreputable but mass favourites. Cheaply-made but turning impressive profits, these films gave audiences the trashy pleasure they sought within the safe space of a cinema theatre. Pulpy, inventive and prolific, the films were mostly either smutty dramas or horror, and they made up the bulk of the Hindi film industry’s volume between the late Eighties to the early Noughties. These were films that sought to entertain, delighting in their flamboyant tastelessness, and catered to the audience’s sleazier side. A projectionist recounts how the sweeper in a single-screen theatre hated having to clean up after these films’ shows because the rows would be strewn with ‘used’ handkerchiefs. While cinema as a mass (and male) masturbation event is discomfiting as an idea, it’s worth keeping in mind that one of the reasons festival films have drawn crowds around the world is because they promise no-holds-barred, graphic representations of sex and other taboo topics. If nudity and sex acts are packaged in elegance and intellectualism in festival films, massy Hindi movies wrapped them in irreverence and tacky aesthetics. The latter may be clumsier in its artistry, but there’s not a film industry in the world that can say it hasn’t resorted to titillation in the hope of finding audiences and holding their attention.     

Created by Bala, Samira Kanwar and Niharika Kotwal, Cinema Marte Dum Tak turns the spotlight on four directors who were once considered legendary by their peers: J. Neelam, whose filmography includes Kunwari Chudail (The Unmarried Witch, 2002); Dilip Gulati, maker of Jungle Beauty (1991); Vinod Talwar, a master of trashy horror films with tantalising titles like Raat Ke Andhere Mein (1987); and Kishan Shah, who is haunted by the success of his estranged younger brother and pulp movie legend Kanti Shah (he directed the 1998 pulp classic Gunda, starring Mithun Chakraborty). The four directors are given the budget to make a short film and their return to the world of filmmaking is documented over six episodes. The net result is nostalgia at its whackiest as talking heads like actors Raza Murad, Kiran Kumar and Rakhi Sawant recount how B- and C-grade films were made in the past while in the present, the four shoots cover everything from mud-wrestling women to vampires. 

If you’re interested in the history of Indian cinema, this documentary series looks at a period and genres that cinephiles and researchers often gloss over. Charting the rise and fall of B- and C-grade Hindi cinema, Cinema Marte Dum Tak reminds audiences that these films were their own subculture, complete with a distinct storytelling style and vocabulary. “Glamour” is a euphemism for sexy scenes. “Makaan” (an apartment) is code for big breasts and ass. “Extra portions” and “bits” refer to graphic scenes that wouldn’t be in the version of the film sent to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), but which would later be added when the film was being screened in theatres. (Among the people interviewed for the series is Pahlaj Nihalani, the controversial former head of the CBFC.) 

Superbly edited by Chandrashekhar Parab and well-researched, there’s not one dull moment in Cinema Marte Dum Tak. From Sawant dropping truth bombs as she talks about how inexperienced young women actors were exploited by directors and producers to stories of Kanti Shah morphing Dharmendra’s head on another actor’s body and Harish Patel rattling out choice dialogues, the series is teeming with stories and characters. Practically every talking head looks and sounds like they deserve their own documentary. Some, like distributor Hyder Gola, look like they’ve walked off a film set to be interviewed for this series. The four directors are fascinating enough to stand out in this crowd and their delight at being able to make a film again is utterly adorable and frequently hilarious. For instance, when Neelam excitedly calls a former colleague to tell him she’s working on a new film and wants his help, he asks her about the film’s budget. Neelam clocks the camera that’s recording her, and says into the phone, “Beta, subha subha gaali sunnewala kaam nahin karo (Son, don’t make me curse you out first thing in the morning)” before proceeding to unleash some choice abuses upon the man.

As the series progresses, you realise there were tensions within the pulp movie business. Talwar, who looks like a teddy bear, and Gulati describe themselves as commercial auteurs, or “makers”. They set themselves apart from the likes of Neelam and Shah, and accuse the latter of making cheap, smut movies that destroyed the subculture of low-budget films. Neelam and Shah, on the other hand, maintain they did what the market demanded. When audiences lapped up “extra portions” and distributors demanded smut, they made what was commercially viable. At one point in the final episode, Neelam points out that it was because their films made money that an entire community of professionals was able to make a living and live with dignity. As Kanti Shah — who is given a fantastic entry scene and who gets the literal last word  — puts it, “If someone says they didn’t do it [add bits], then it’s because they weren’t making any films at the time.”  

In the course of their interviews, Gulati and Talwar talk about the dreams they once had of being respected directors. We see photographs of a young Gulati with an equally youthful Javed Akhtar. Talwar is director and producer O.P. Ralhan’s nephew — Ralhan’s notable films include the Phool Aur Patthar (1966) which established Dharmendra as a star — and had dreams of making films with A-listers of the time. Both wound up in the world of less reputable cinema and the doors to Bollywood closed for them. The stigma associated with B-and C-grade cinema is difficult to shake off, which makes you see actors like Kiran Kumar and Raza Murad, who have straddled both worlds, and their labour in a new light. Another talking head who commands respect for both her honesty and the way she’s used technology to command respect from audiences is pop icon Rakhi Sawant.       

It’s interesting to see what each filmmaker chooses to make when given the freedom and budget for a modest comeback. Shah and Talwar stick to what they’ve done before and what they know best. Shah’s film — Sautan Bani Chudail (The Mistress Becomes a Witch) — is, in his own words, “the same old horror film”. Similarly Talwar’s Blood Suckers is also classic horror, with vampires and blood spatter. On the other hand, Gulati says his film, Jungle Girl, is about the rights of tribal communities who live in forests while Neelam’s film is, according to her, about “an obedient woman who turns into a badass”. Yet both Gulati and Neelam shoot their stories with the tropes and caricatures you’d expect from C-grade cinema. Gulati has tribals dressed in exotic-looking two-piece outfits (look out for actor Hemant Birje’s cameo) while Neelam has titillating scenes of same-sex romance. Even while resorting to stereotypes, both seem to want to give their films a patina of idealism and respectability.     

As entertaining as these musketeers of massy movies are, what makes Cinema Marte Dum Tak special is Bala’s direction. It’s his storytelling that makes the series both entertaining and insightful. Aided by Sukesh Vishwanath’s elegant cinematography, Bala showers dignity upon people who have been dismissed and disrespected. He brings the sensibility and glamour of mainstream Bollywood into the way he films the other world of low-budget films, giving the series the spirit of a tribute. For example,  the directors are given throne-like chairs to sit on and they’re filmed against grand backdrops. Yet Cinema Marte Dum Tak doesn’t miss any chance to be irreverent. For example, when Gulati says he was impressed with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Bala cuts to a talking head who giggles and talks about how Gulati loves name-dropping. In one shot, we hear Shah yelling “Shot taking!” and in the next, we see another director grin and tell the viewer that although Shah has made umpteen films, he still doesn’t know the meaning of either the word “shot” or “taking” so he just says the two together. 

Cinema Marte Dum Tak is a loving but unforgiving look at a subculture that was as ugly as it was charming. Alongside uncomfortable montages of gratuitous sexual violence are awe-inspiring stories of people like actor Sapna Sappu, who was able to survive terrible reversals of fortune because of the adult film industry. Bala doesn’t whitewash how directors exploited young talent or pretend that the films were meaningful or subversive. Instead, with this series, he reminds the viewer of the importance of the gaze. Instead of showing the mass movie practitioners as sleazy or contemptible, Bala focuses on how striking they are, and their indefatigable spirit. Hard work and grit deserve respect, and Cinema Marte Dum Tak gives the pulpy Hindi movie its due.  

Now let’s all say a prayer that someone will commission Bala to make a documentary that will both document the achievements and exploits of Kanti and Kishan Shah, while also revealing what happened to tear apart the Shah brothers who were the one-time sultans of C-grade cinema.

This article was edited to include the correct meaning of "makaan" in C-grade lingo. Thanks to Xulfee, co-director of Cinema Marte Dam Tak, for pointing out what we lost in translation.

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