Imagine this. R Balki arrives with his second film after Cheeni Kum (2007), starring Abhishek Bachchan, Vidya Balan, Paresh Rawal and introducing a twelve-year old child actor. We do not know this kid, although it is possible that he impresses us all after we see him perform. But does this essentially guarantee a bumper opening for the movie? Can we safely assume that the audience will come into the theatres?
Now, take this. The entire cast and crew remains the same. And although it is indeed possible to find an immensely talented child artist and create the desired character using prosthetic make-up and voice modulation, the director decides to cast Amitabh Bachchan as the child. And he calls the film Paa. The result is for us to see, in the form of one of the most smartly promoted films of our time. This is what we call star power. This is what I admire about the phenomenon of a superstar. And this is what this film uses in the best possible way.
The film also uses the personality, and not the acting, of Abhishek Bachchan to create a gen-next politician, and we connect. It uses Vidya Balan to portray a strong, independent, modern Indian woman, and most importantly – a mother; and we connect. And it utilizes the human curiosity for the weird, our tendency to look at ‘freaks’ with wide eyes and held breaths, and converts that ‘freak’ into a warm, lovable and memorable character called Auro, and takes us into his world. It uses songs, melodrama and the Bollywood cliché to tell a story. It relies on the time-tested formula of emotional manipulation and succeeds in making the audience cry. It has decent production values, is marketed smartly and sold at cheap rates. The result is not a great, timeless, flawless piece of art. The result is a film that knows how to use the illusion of the medium. The result is a movie that moves.
The best thing about Paa is that it knows what it is doing. It does not claim to be ‘socially relevant’, and does not ask us to leave our brains home before coming to the theatres. Instead it asks us to bring our brains, our hearts, our entire selves, not excluding the ‘curiosity for the weird’ that we all have but fail to accept. It treats itself as a film for everyone, and successfully creates an entertaining cinema experience. In its attempt, it often gets inconsistent, but it never seems uncertain. It is an innovation, and yes, that it is, which is sure of itself, including how to sell itself. It is an innovation that does not go wasted, and that is indeed an achievement in the Hindi film scenario of today.
It has been a few decades now and Hindi cinema is desperately in the need for revival. For that to happen, if it ever happens, we need socially relevant cinema, we need cinema as works of art, we even need cinema with an international appeal, and with the guts to experiment . But what we need most is innovative ideas, true to Hindi cinema sensibility and tradition, not necessarily great in the absolute cinema-sense, but films which make people come, watch and connect. We need more films like Paa. I have no idea about how it is going to fare at the box-office. If it is a commercial success, my point would be proved beyond doubt. If it fails, well, I will try my best not to lose hope.