Video Killed the Video Star
In order to survive, uttarakhand's film industry made the switch from celluloid to video, which has nearly led to its own undoing.
Rajesh Malgudi has never heard of Anurag Kashyap.
You’d think he would have. Malgudi is an Indian actor known for his wide range of villainous roles, and Kashyap, the patron saint of Bollywood’s New Wave, has been all over the news these past months for his latest hit film, Gangs of Wasseypur.
Such ‘new wave’ films, set in smalltown India, or at least the world outside the cinematic vortex of Bollywood, are now de rigeur. Gangs, which dealt with the coal fields of Dhanbad, was preceded earlier this year by Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, which focused on rural land acquisition. 2010’s Paan Singh Tomar, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, a friend of Kashyap, was situated in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh. Rajesh Malgudi was considered for a part in the film, but in the end, he didn’t get it.
And he couldn’t care less.
Malgudi says he’s more into Bhojpuri films than he is Bollywood anyway, and he owes his reputation to starring in movies from his native Uttarakhand. If you don’t follow Uttarakhand cinema, or haven’t heard of Rajesh Malgudi, you’re not alone, and today, if you meet him, Malgudi likely won’t be signing an autograph for you, he’ll be serving you food.
I first heard of Malgudi after reading an article about him in the Indian Express earlier this year. Reporter Priyanka Kotamraju had written the piece after realising that the proprietor of a small Chinese eatery where she was having lunch near the Income Tax Office, Delhi, was the man portrayed on the movie posters plastered around the shop’s walls.
I was curious, so I went to check it out. Malgudi wasn’t there, but a shopkeeper next door who sells Uttarakhandi CDs and VCDs confirmed that Malgudi was in fact an Uttarkhandi film star and gave me his number. I thanked the man, and before I left, I noticed two more such shops adjacent to his, also in the specific trade of music and movies from Uttarakhand. These shopowners also vouched for Malgudi’s fame.
So, in an India of Shahrukhs, Aamirs, Amitabhs, and even Rajnikanths: how is it that Uttarakhand’s biggest movie bad guy is slinging plates of noodles for lunch-going office workers in central Delhi?
Uttarakhand is a bit of a late bloomer when compared to the much more well-known Indian film industries like Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, and even Sandalwood; some of which have been producing features since before Independence. The Bhojpuri film industry – the next rung up the ladder from Uttarakhand’s – may cover a liguistic area that spreads from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar to the plains of Nepal, but Bhojpuri-language films only began to appear in 1962.
In what is now the state of Uttarakhand, the first Garhwali-language film, Jagwal, wasn’t released until 1983, and the first Kumaoni-language film, Megha Aaa, hit theatres in 1987. Uttarakhand’s state film department was only separated from the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board in 2002: two years after Uttarakhand severed itself from Uttar Pradesh.
To date, there have been 23 feature films in Garhwali and two in Kumaoni, the two predominant languages in Uttarakhand. Although some, like 1986’s Ghar Jawain, have done relatively well, the rest have been underperformers. The last theatrical release was 2007’s Sipai Jee, one of the state’s most expensive ever. It bombed. Badly.
The film industry as it currently exists in Uttarakhand has taken its cue from their next-tier Bhojpuri, in that now, the films are not really films. They’re videos – shot on cheap digital cameras and copied not onto DVDs, but lower quality VCDs. In Uttarakand, video is the film industry, played on computer drives and digital disc players in the homes of approximately one crore Uttarkhandis, not to mention a migrant population of over 60 lakh people, who mostly buy them in the markets of Mumbai and Delhi, from little shops like the ones near Delhi’s ITO, where many may not even know that one shop away from their Uttarakhandi VCD seller, one of the industry’s biggest stars is manning the wok at the Adarsh Chinese Food Centre.