The white desert area of Kutch, in India’s Gujarat, the country’s westernmost state, which sticks like an elbow into the Arabian Sea, is unforgiving in its barrenness — rocked by earthquakes and endless famines in the past, its blinding whiteness is swamped with scores of salt pans, the visual monotony broken occasionally with men and women glowing in colourful traditional finery. In Abhishek Shah’s 2019 film Hellaro which became the first Gujarati film to win India’s National Award for Best Feature Film, Kutch provides the setting for liberation in the truest sense — a group of rural women, suppressed and abused in their homes by their drunk and patriarchal husbands, find their freedom in dancing secretly when they accidentally come across a drum beater, parched in the desert.
“We didn’t [feel the need to] over-explain the film to [an international] audience,” Shah, the 39-year-old co-writer-director and producer of Hellaro, told VICE. “And yet, it’s not enough to make a good film – a filmmaker must also ensure that it reaches its intended audience.”Three years after the critical and commercial success of Hellaro, this year, another Gujarati film, Chhello Show (translates to Last Film Show), has been selected as India’s official entry to the 95th Academy Awards to be held in March, next year. After Gyan Correa’s The Good Road (2013) about three distinct stories intersecting on a highway in India’s state of Gujarat, Chhello Show – a coming-of-age drama about a nine-year-old boy’s passion for the movies, written and directed by Pan Nalin – is only the second Gujarati-language film to make the cut. Apart from the sudden burst of talks around Chhello Show, the popularity of Gujarati cinema’s Pratik Gandhi, seen in the series Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story and Modern Love Mumbai (the Indian adaptation of the American series Modern Love), on the national stage, has been heartening for those in the Gujarati film industry. But is it still too early to imagine that Gujarati cinema is carving an identity of its own among movie-going audiences around the world?
Does it have the potential to be a national force, much like Tamil and Telugu cinema from India’s south? What are Gujarati filmmakers missing and what’s working in their favour?Shah explained that with Hellaro, he wanted to make a film that won awards but also one that won “the hearts of audiences.” From the way the songs have been shot to the world it is located in, the film stays loyal to the filmmaker’s own roots.“As an industry, the kind of films we were making were not appealing to Gujaratis,” Shah told VICE. “People just didn’t want to see the same kind of films, all of them set against a rural background.”
According to Shah, the release of the film The Better Half (2010), written and directed by the late Ashish Kakkad, marked a shift in the way Gujarati language films were being consumed. The film tells the story of a couple who move to the city and must learn new ways to navigate not just their new home but also their relationship. “When I met Kakkad in 2010 as a graduate student, in 2010, he unequivocally told me that my first film after graduation needed to be in Gujarati, even though there was hardly an audience then,” said Shah. “[With The Better Half], he wished to bring Gujarati audiences back to the multiplexes. The tag of ‘urban Gujarati film’ originated with that film.”
According to Gujarati film critic and journalist Jayesh Adhyaru, few Gujarati-language films have tasted commercial success He believes that it is too soon to say whether there has been a substantial rise in the popularity of Gujarati cinema, and considers the success of Hellaro, the submission of Chhello Show to the Oscars, and even the welcoming of Gujarati actor Prateek Gandhi into the mainstream as happy coincidences. His main grouse with filmmakers working in Gujarati cinema is the lack of originality. “When you watch a Gujarati film, it feels like watching a televised commercial play. I have mixed feelings. Most are blatant copies of international films. Except for Hellaro, which was commercially successful, [hardly anyone] watched The Good Road and the same might be true of Chhello Show.”
Copy of a copy
In 2013, India submitted the Gujarati film The Good Road to the Oscars amidst much criticism from other filmmakers and critics who believed that the Hindi film The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan, should’ve been sent instead, as it had already won numerous accolades. “The Good Road was directed by a Goan filmmaker and starred a Marathi actor, so it didn’t seem that authentic,” said Adhyaru. “Even recently, the 2022 film Maja Ma, starring [Hindi film actress] Madhuri Dixit, had just one Gujarati actor in it: Malhar Thakar, who’s a popular actor. You can easily [tell] that an outsider has made the film.”However, a film like The Good Road should also be viewed as a powerful manifestation of India’s diverse cinematic appetite and the many possibilities it affords – that a Goan filmmaker can work with a Marathi actor to highlight the scourge of child prostitution along the drab highways of Gujarat. Whether it counts as an authentic Gujarati film, however, is not the point of this piece.Adhyaru, for his part, added that the race among Gujarati filmmakers to imitate Bollywood takes an ugly turn with every new release, further diluting opportunities to tell stories that are about and made by Gujaratis. “You will find that Gujarati films now have item numbers and actors delivering English dialogues, which clearly looks forced and artificial.”
When VICE spoke to actor Malhar Thakar, he seemed to agree with Adhyaru’s assessment that Gujarati films could benefit from making films that are less formulaic. “We can do so much better,” he said. “I’d like to believe the world of Gujarati film is still virgin territory. The time has come for films that are as original as Vikram Vedha (the OG Tamil film, not the new Bollywood remake) or the Hindi-language Andhadhun. Many Gujarati films are not working because they are simply not connecting with audiences. Why are they still being made? No one knows. Most of our films lack heart.”
Need for original stories
According to Thakkar, Gujarati filmmakers also need to understand how to market their films. On the digital front, aggressive marketing strategies seem to be working for platforms such as ShemarooMe, a streaming platform, that has the largest collection of Gujarati films and TV shows. “We plan the release of every film with as much planning as would go into a real film release,” said Zubin Dubash, the chief operating officer at ShemarooMe. “From pre-buzz with trailers, media push across print and TV, and using our own social media handles to create buzz, we want to give the content wings.”Dubash believes that every regional cinema industry needs a turning point in the form of a successful film that changes the game for good. In the case of Gujarati cinema, he believes it’s the recently released Fakt Mahilao Maate that has one of the most popular actors from the Hindi film industry, Amitabh Bachchan, making a cameo.
When it comes to movies such as Maja Ma, starring the iconic Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit, or Fakt Mahilao Maate, does it help when the film has a big Bollywood name attached to it? Director of Fakt Mahilao Maate Jay Bodas said that it’s the story that matters and if it has enough warmth and relativity, everything else is a bonus. Even though he said that he was fortunate to have Bachchan in his film, he was clear that the actor’s dialogue couldn’t be in Hindi.“I can’t deny that his presence will help push the film on social media, but the larger audience is not on social media,” he said. “My mother, for instance, wouldn’t know what Mr Bachchan has posted on Instagram. I’d like to believe the story sells.”
Dubash from ShemarooMe added that the popularity of any regional cinema starts with contemporary storytelling and the infrastructure to back it up. “The fact that Gujaratis love their stories comes from TV’s biggest shows that were and are still running such as Anupamaa or Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah. Both are set in a Gujarati household to make the stories palatable to the viewer.” Anupamaa is an ongoing series that premiered in mid-2020, while Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, now in its 15th year, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running Indian daily sitcom on TV by episode count.
Dharmesh Mehta, a filmmaker who has also directed a few episodes of Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah said that the average Gujarati cinemagoer doesn’t want to spend on Gujarati films. “We are always limited by budgets, creating stories even after the budget has been decided,” he said. “We can’t shoot our films for months on end like Bollywood. We need to wrap everything in less than two or three weeks because it doesn’t make sense to spend so much money on a film that will barely [recover costs].”
Lack of loyalty
Mehta said that the way audiences in south India throng to watch films in the theatres is something completely alien to Gujarati audiences, who have barely any loyalty towards Gujarati actors and directors. The reason might be rooted in the language itself.“Hindi is similar to Gujarati [both are Indo-Aryan languages] and most of the people here [in Gujarat] follow it. So when they failed to get quality films in their own language, they had the option of Hindi films,” Deepak Antani, a director and writer whose three films garnered critical acclaim but failed to make money, told DNA. “By the time they [Gujarati cinema and television] decided to pull their act together, it was terribly late.”Mehta blames the slow crawl to the top on successful Gujarati actors, too. “There are so many Gujarati actors working in Bollywood who have simply stopped acting in Gujarati films,” he said. “This is not the case with Marathi or Tamil actors because they will still do at least one regional film despite their major projects. How will our industry rise if our own actors won’t promote it?”Abhishek Jain, whose 2012 film Kevi Rite Jaish told a nuanced story of a family’s desperate attempt to immigrate to the United States, was one of the first Gujarati films to have seen success in the multiplexes. Jain told VICE that even the Gujratis’ love for their language is “toning down”, particularly with the younger generation. In such a context, films dealing with heavy social issues – a genre Gujarati cinema has indulged in heavily apart from slapstick humour – hardly make a mark. “An average Gujarati, who works hard on the weekdays, doesn’t want to engage with the deep, dark corners of the society on weekends. They want to come out of it happy and satisfied. But Gujaratis also believe in endorsing good content. So, you can attempt all marketing techniques but nothing sells like a good story.” Follow Arman on Twitter and Instagram.