Several hopefuls raised their hands, including small-time producer Manees Singh and adult cinema specialist Kanti Shah. But everybody knows that there is only one filmmaker who really has the ability to shake the foundations of middle-class living homes and remind us of the amoral world we are forced to inhabit: Madhur Bhandarkar.
Bhandarkar has made morality his business, and all his movies, whether about politics, cinema, fashion or celebrity culture, have peddled exactly one idea: the world is a rotten place filled with sleaze, dishonesty, corruption, manipulation and exploitation, and the few good men and women who think otherwise either die or end up remorseful and bitter.
He has staged his sensationalist visions of Sodom and Gomorrah in Mumbai, which is portrayed in all his films as a hotbed of ambition and a graveyard of dreams and hope. (Perhaps no other filmmaker has dissuaded potential migrants from moving to the metropolis as effectively as Bhandarkar has.) His movies are poorly acted, tackily produced and as subtle as tabloid headlines. But they undeniably contain grains of truth about the sordidness that characterises the intersecting worlds of money, glamour and power, earning the director a reputation as an expose artist.
Not just wall flowers
In Calendar Girls, the scandal mongerer recycles ideas previously explored in his sharpest movie Page 3 and its lesser follow-ups Fashion and Heroine. Five models chosen for a Kingfisher calendar-style campaign learn quickly that their newfound fame hangs by a delicate thread. Each of the women goes in different directions. Nazneen (Satarupa Pyne) becomes an escort girl when her Pakistani origins deny her work in Mumbai. Nandita (Akanksha Puri) is swept off her feet by a philandering magnate. Mayuri (Ruhi Singh) dexterously graduates from pin-up to screen heroine. Paroma (Avani Modi) gets roped into a betting racket involving cricketers playing for an Indian Premier League-type tournament. Only Sharon (Kyra Dutt) has the good sense to use her presentation skills as a television anchor.
None of the characters appears to have ever watched a Madhur Bhandarkar production, but anyone who has knows that enthusiasm will soon be replaced by cynicism, happiness will be fleeting, declarations of love will be hollow, and morals will prove to be shakier than a rotten tooth.
The Bhandarkar parade of degenerates, touts, fixers, madams, crooked politicians, gossip hounds, unscrupulous lovers and at least one honourable police officer fetch up in Calendar Girls too, as also does the notion that silver linings blind us to dark clouds. But Bhandarkar makes his case only after treating us to ample proof of the ability of his heroines to carry off the skimpiest clothes available in the stories. Like Fashion, Calendar Girls drags us to the keyhole to witness the horrors that lie beyond, but ensures first that we have had our eyeful of female flesh.
The five young women cast as the leads appear to have been chosen purely for their ability to pass off as models. They are required to carry off cocktail dresses and stilettos rather than display complex emotions, and it is hard not to feel for them when they ruin their make-up with glycerin. On the plus side, there isn’t a single limp-wristed and campy gay stereotype in Calendar Girls – no flamboyant hair-dresser with the thin voice or closeted stud.
Bhandkar’s unique selling proposition since his 2001 breakthrough, Chandni Bar, has been shock value. His films are aimed at an easily persuaded middle class and a working class ready to believe the worst of their masters. Chandni Bar exposes the abuse suffered by bar girls in Mumbai. Satta, Jail and Corporate remind audiences, as if they didn’t already know, that the political party, the prison and the boardroom are dens of iniquity. Page 3 skewers the media obsession with celebrity parties. Fashion reveals the hypocrisy that rules runways, while Heroine is an insider look at the fleetingness of fame and influence in Bollywood.
Bhandarkar’s solo attempt at romantic comedy, 2011’s Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji, fell flat because he could not resist sermonising while supposedly exploring the love lives of three male friends.
Calendar Girls indicates that the voyeuristic pleasure of watching innocent flowers being crushed into the dirt has finally worn thin. The 131-minute saga says little that is not already known about the seamier side of modeling and cricket. Its shocks are as weak as its performances, and perhaps its most scandalous aspect is Bhandarkar’s meta-moment. He appears in the movie as himself ‒ a conscientious, honest and bold filmmaker who goes where few others dare to.
When a director feels compelled to include a self-aggrandising press release in his own movie, it’s perhaps time to turn the page.
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