India may be the only country where skin flicks don’t actually show skin. We may have seedy theatres — theatres that, according to the fascinating docuseries Cinema Marte Dum Tak (Amazon Prime Video), were left covered in sticky handkerchiefs — but there was no nudity. This was an industry of raunch, one of titillation and scandal, and one eventually felled by the internet and pornography. The series focuses on four distinctive directors: Vinod Talwar, J Neelam, Kishen Shah and Dilip Gulati. Through the 90s and early 2000s, they shot movies on tiny budgets that allowed dwindling theatres to flourish again.
Executive produced by Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota director Vasan Bala and co-directed by Disha Rindani, Xulfee and Kulish Kant Thakur — and featuring an absolute banger of a title track, ‘Pseudo Saiyyaan’ by Sneha Khanwalkar — Cinema Marte Dam Tak takes the smart approach of not only talking to these filmmakers, but giving them a budget (and film stock!) to make a film again, to let us watch them bring monsters and vampires to life, accompanied by cleavage and bad prosthetics.
The series works because of the filmmakers in focus. J Neelam, one of the only women directors who made “fultoo sex” pictures like Kunwari Dulhan, approaches her work with pragmatism and sensitivity: she wants scenes to have a point, women to be in charge. Talwar reassures an auditioning actress that she’ll be in a “full gown.” (His next line is that he hopes she owns one.) Gulati, who wears a cowboy hat and sports long hair, quotes Raj Kapoor as saying that “Every scene in a film should touch either your head, your heart… or below the belt.”
“Bhansali mat bann, gaandu.” Most memorable is Kishen Shah, who somehow looks like both Prakash Jha and Jackie Shroff. With excessive swagger and flamboyant trousers, Kishen — the less-successful older brother of sleaze supremo Kanti Shah — is an absolute character. Known for shooting entire movies in 5-7 days, the director proudly wears black-tie for the glamorous premiere of his Amazon film, then walks out and hails an autorickshaw to take him to a dive bar. To celebrate properly.
Harish Patel, who has acted for directors as wide ranging as Kanti Shah (on Gunda) and Academy Award winner Chloe Zhao (on Eternals), says that when starting out in cheaper films, he was told not to judge the movie by what is on screen. It’s about the effect it has on the people watching. Speaking of Kanti — who appears later in the series as an unforgettably lonely icon — the first thing Patel learnt was that the director paid cash, and paid it daily. This allowed the director not only to get recognisable actors but even stars who could use a quick buck. This is why we see Mithun Chakraborty in Gunda, hiding from bullets behind a bicycle.
Director and visual-effects pioneer B Gupta (who made his own Superman, in 1987, starring Puneet Issar and Dharmendra) once told me about how, when working on the 1957 invisible-man film Mr X, the film needed a big name. Therefore they hired legitimate superstar Ashok Kumar on a daily basis. Now, obviously unable to afford Kumar for long, they cannily shot the actor’s ‘visible’ scenes over 2-3 days, and, because he wasn’t on screen for the rest of the film, got a dubbing artist to mimic his voice. What an epic workaround.
Similarly audacious is the way the Cinema Marte Dum Tak gang circumvented India’s arbitrary and ridiculous censor board. Because censors would come down hard on steamy scenes, producers started filming additional hot sequences — known in the trade as “bits” — which would not be submitted to the censors at all, and instead be added to a film later. This worked wonderfully till a projectionist, mistaking a brother and sister entering a room on screen for a couple, inserted a “bit” and sent the audience into a furore. Cue police raids, arrests and the end of an era.
Stretched over six episodes, Cinema Marte Dam Tak feels repetitive, especially when various interviewees take turns making the same point. The series also overdoes the video-clips of cleavage, to a sometimes gratuitous degree, as if that is the only way to get a larger audience to pay attention. (Perhaps it is.) The biggest issue, however, is lack of payoff. We see the making of four films, but in the end, aren’t shown the films themselves. Even if the results are trashy, an audience — especially one now armed with context — should have been allowed to watch and make up its own mind.
Interspersed with Hemant Chaturvedi’s evocative photographs of single-screen theatres, the show strikes an odd balance between aesthetics and the defiant lack of them. The stories are obviously hilarious — Kanti Shah was reportedly beaten up by Dharmendra after he had shot the actor doing push-ups and intercut it with footage of a moaning girl — as are the innuendo-laden dialogues, most of them rhyming. A key takeaway for me is that these directors, for all their brazen attempts at seduction, never went fully explicit. Current OTT shows are more graphic, and when trailblazing adult actress Sapna Sappu points to the toplessness in Netflix’s Sacred Games, we must question why some nudity is considered tasteful. It is vital to remove the stigma from these sensationalists.
There is nothing wrong with dirty pictures. Francis Ford Coppola began his career with “nudie” films before being taken on by B-movie icon Roger Corman, the producer who gave breaks to struggling geniuses-to-be as Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich and James Cameron. Cinema Marte Dum Tak affectionately introduces us to four directors most of us might never have met. I’m touched most by Talwar, who hadn’t made a film since 1996 but continued to write scripts, in longhand, because he is a storyteller. Raise a toast. Say no to smut-shaming.
Streaming Tip Of The Week:
Everything Everywhere All At Once (streaming on BookMyShow Stream) is one of 2022’s hardest-to-describe films. A science-fiction comedy about a Chinese-American immigrant and her very own multiverse, the film has been nominated for 11 Oscars and deserves them all. It’s mad cool.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.