A game of light and shadows will soon play at a theatre near you. Director Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, which delves into the realm of crime where nothing is black and white and nothing is what it seems to be, is all set to bring back a genre that’s been forgotten by the Hindi film industry. Well, almost. It’s the visually rich, soothing-yet-thrilling journey that makes for noir in cinema. Not many would have imagined that when Nino Frank coined the term ‘noir’ in the Forties for certain Hollywood films, it would spawn a much-loved genre many years future. Though the spectrum of such films has extended vastly and the meaning of noir has been reshaped in every decade, it still encapsulates the framework of a basic crime drama in the backdrop of a certain milieu where the protagonists are mainly cops, criminals and detectives. These are films which are defined more by their mood, style and tone.
Monsoon Shootout tells the story of a rookie cop and a killer, and is set against the background of the monsoon in the Maximum City. The release of this Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer also raises a pertinent question: Why have filmmakers adopted an unconcerned, step-motherly treatment towards this genre?
Noir was a much-loved during the 50s and 60s in Hollywood and thus Bollywood, true to its promise of relying on imitation over originality, made scores of such films in the same era. As a result of the 50s’ noir movement in the West, films like Baazi, Bees Saal Baad, Kohraa, Madhumati and others were made in India. In a nutshell, there were filmmakers and writers who sought inspiration from overseas and served up something similar to Indian audiences. One must not forget that the 50s and 60s were also eras which witnessed much innovation in terms of film making. These were progressive times when Guru Dutt delivered both Baazi and Kaagaz Ke Phool with equal aplomb, and Bimal Roy offered Madhumati and Devdas within a span of three years.
With changes in story telling patterns, the subsequent years also saw a massive reduction in the appetite for noir films on the part of the Indian audience. A form of story telling which demanded nuance and skill when it came to the play on light and shadows now hardly had any takers. Thus while the 60s had Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla and Bimal Roy, in the contemporary era one simply can’t think of directors beyond Sriram Raghavan who have mastered the art of making noir films. His Johnny Gaddar and Badlapur could be best described as films which adhere to the rules of this genre. Even a seasoned filmmaker like Vishal Bhardwaj faltered in his craft when it came to Saat Khoon Maaf. Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet has now become a lesson in how such films should not be made. Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under was praised as being a faithful adaptation of Chinatown, which is in itself a fine example of noir. The bottom-line is there aren’t too many filmmakers who are equipped to narrating their crime story using a visually appealing treatment of imagery.
One of the prerequisites of a noir film is that it demands that the protagonist is not a straightforward character but rather has shades of both good and evil. The plots involving such protagonists explore the circumstances which force him or her to take a stand and the ways through which redemption is achieved by them, which could be well-intentioned or not. And this is precisely where Hindi cinema falters. Indian cinegoers’ fascination with anything that has a touch of heroism is known the world over. They cheer at their favourite stars and fervently pray that the villain will meet a tragic end. The audience years for stories where characters are either black or white, and there is no ambiguity or shades of grey. Everyone remembers Gabbar or Vijay or Prem, but Varun Dhawan’s Raghav in Badlapur is less memorable.
In Bollywood, there is also a compulsion to mandatorily piggyback on the stardom of popular actors in order to ensure the success of any film. But the noir genre never catered to “public tastes”. The ambiguous nature of the protagonists in such films does not go down well with mainstream audiences. Thus it is sad but unsurprising that the most of the leading stars, including Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan, do not explore the noir space. To make the genre popular, it is important that the stars of the film industry lend a helping hand to such films.
Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout and Sriram Raghavan’s film, which is tentatively titled Shoot The Piano Player, and starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Tabu, could re-define how Bollywood has treated the genre and even ensure its comeback. Perhaps a more diverse approach to film noir will even help Hindi cinema to evolve beyond the dry storytelling that seems to have plagued it.