All across the globe, the cinematic brilliance of Asian films is being celebrated like never before. The genre ‘crossover films’, which has been quite a coveted genre of filmmaking for the new breed of Asian filmmakers, specially those of the Indian origin, has seen colossal growth in all these years starting from the early ’90s when Mira Nair came up with her Mississippi Masala, the reason of which can be largely attributed to the growing immigrant Indian population in various countries. Coupled with it is the fact that such films portray a world of the ever-expanding Desi’s, especially in the US and UK, which is quite close to reality and stimulates the brain cells.
With the spurt in crossover multi-lingual films, comes the concern for intellectual entertainment by addressing the reality in which the new generation of Indian immigrants, their relatives, friends and family find themselves. Thus, the need for spoofing, hamming and slapstick comedy we find in the history of Indian films is being eliminated gradually. “The audience wants to see films that reflect them, their lifestyle, their problems, their joys”—says an upcoming film director dabbling with multi-lingual projects.
In the 1990s, when filmmaker Mira Nair came up with a string of her international projects like Mississippi Masala (1991), The Perez Family (1995) and My Own Country (1998), themes relating to international people such as immigration, followed by a significant element of emotional quotient was quite absent in typical Indian commercial cinema. That was precisely the reason why the films could capture the imagination of international audiences to some extent. Though Nair rose to prominence with Salaam Bombay (1998), the tragic, hard-hitting film based on the lives of the underprivileged kids in the Mumbai slums, her crossover films based on the overarching themes of immigration, displacement and assimilation in an alien land went on to become her trademark films.
In the year 2000, Mira Nair again hit the headlines with her crossover film Monsoon Wedding which was basically a Punjabi wedding soiree, a congregation of elite north-Indian families, some of the members of the family showcased in the film being NRI’s settled in the US. The film received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, besides doing good business at the box office. In 2007, she again came into news for creating the groundbreaking film Namesake, adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel of the same name, depicting the universal, heart-wrenching tale of Ashima, Ashok and Gogol, who represent millions of us who’ve left one home for another. The film went on to achieve cult status, winning at several international film festivals and featuring on the Top 10 lists of several notable critics globally. Recently, Nair’s film adaptation of Vikram Seth’s bestselling novel ‘A Suitable Boy’ is yet another initiative of a crossover film where the landmark novel by Seth with 1,349 pages is adapted as BBC’s first prime-time drama with an almost entirely Indian cast starring Tabu, Ishan Khattar, Rasika Duggal, Shahana Goswami in lead roles.
Close to Mira Nair, there are two other North-Indian filmmakers Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadda who have seen success with their international projects like Earth 1947, Water, Bend It Like Beckham among others. Interestingly enough, all these three filmmakers unanimously say that they hate the tag of “crossover cinema” to the films they make. Instead, they perceive themselves as the directors of international films that have cross over appeal. In 2002, filmmaker Revathi Menon came up with Mitr, my friend, which was a roaring success in South Africa, London and in parts of the United States. Dealing with the theme of loneliness, despair and desolation of a middle-aged Indian housewife settled in the suburbs of San Francisco for the past 18 years, the film delves deep into the mental world of a traditional Indian mother and the emotional consequences of a teenage girl growing up without a firm cultural identity.
Some years back, a string of crossover multi-lingual films like Wings of Hope, ABCD, Anita & Me, American Chai had again attracted the attention of the urban Indian audiences as well as the immigrant Indian population abroad. However, not much of these films have been attempting to delve into subjects deep-rooted in India. One of the exceptions, in this regard, has been the film “Sringaram” by Sarada Ramanathan, which depicts the tale of a devdasi, a temple dancer of the 19th century. A story that exemplifies the critical themes of feminism, womanhood and emancipation, which was present even 100 years ago, “Sringaram” explores the world of the dancer and her mental struggles in an age when she was considered a lower caste in the social space. “Her quintessential expression became sringaram (layers of poetic love), whether in oppression or liberation”—says Ramanathan, the debutante director. The film went on to win amazing accolades including three national awards in music, cinematography and choreography and 2 state awards in the categories of art direction and costume design.
Recently, there have been films like ‘Lion’ (2016, adapted from Saroo Brierly’s award-winning memoir ‘A Long Way Home’) and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008) where the gripping realities of life in the fringes in India have come to the fore, with true-to-life protagonists and the harrowing incidents of their lives which lead to self-realization. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was an astounding success, winning the 81st Academy Awards, becoming the highest-grossing crossover film ever. ‘Lion’, the Australian biographical drama on Saroo Brierly’s life, had Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel in lead roles, and went on to be a big success, receiving six Oscar Nomination at the 89th Academy Awards, and also winning two BAFTA Awards (for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay). Films like these have won the much-needed critical acclaim internationally, proving that quintessentially Indian themes can have long-lasting appeal in the global filmmaking arena.
In our current era of cross-cultural diffusion and globalization, when the internet, online streaming and social media have made incredible inroads in our lives with profound impact, crossover Indian films will continue their route to success, defying geographical, as well as cultural, financial and technological barriers. The new age directors of crossover films today have realized that it is not only the question of being invited for international film festivals and coming back with a clutch of awards. They unanimously agree that films being produced with a clear, national identity and rooted in one’s own cultural soil are definitely the ones those stay in the hearts of the audience. After all, India is poised for bigger things, as far as cinema, culture and entertainment is concerned, and there is no dearth of either fresh talent or unique subject matter in the Indian soil, from which such cult films might emerge in the near future. Keeping in mind the recent developments Indian crossover films have made in respect of distribution in the world market, we can hope for things to only get better in the coming years.