Alongside working on his third feature Monica, O My Darling for Netflix, Vasan Bala created a six-part series for Amazon Prime Video on Hindi cinema’s notorious pulp directors. Cinema Marte Dum Tak revisits an underground scene characterised by low budgets and high shock value that thrived between the 1990s and 2000s. Four representatives – J Neelam, Dilip Gulati, Vinod Talwar and Kishan Shah – walk down memory lane. They also return to the sets to make a new short film each.

The show shines a torch on territory that is considered the Bollywood netherworld. Rather than interrogate or judge the chosen filmmakers, Cinema Marte Dum Tak seeks to understand their back stories and motivations. It also explores a little-known division of the Bollywood dream factory. The idea was to “accommodate” the directors, rather than “reprimand” them, Bala told

What were the thoughts that went into a series about pulp directors?
In 2019, Samira [Kanwar] from Vice Studio reached out with the idea for the series. When we think of B-moves, a spoof kind of trigger happens in the mind. The instinct is to always laugh at them. But we were all very sure that this wasn’t the intent. Obviously, the filmmakers could be characters in real life, they could make you laugh with what they said. But they have led real, and hard lives. More so when you go into the underbelly and the politics of it all, everything affects you in a more brutal and primal way.

We had to strike a balance between the series being extremely dark or about them being as they are. We decided not to enforce our perspective onto the scene. We needed to have a perspective to bring it all together, but that perspective needed to accommodate them, rather than show them as per our gaze on them.

How did you hit upon the device of the directors making a comeback with new films?
We decided that we would neither brush everything under the carpet nor have another voice putting out a moral layer of what we think about it. The discourse needed to come from the viewer, rather than from us. Our story is of the director making a film after years and coming to a multiplex that never welcomed them.

Filmmakers are in their element only when they are working. So we wanted to put them in a work environment and talk to them through their filmmaking. Through this approach, other stories can come out. So there is a certain energy at least, which leads to their unfiltered personalities. That became a better medium to talk to them and communicate with them.

Kishan Shah in Cinema Marte Dum Tak (2023). Courtesy Vice Studio/Amazon Prime Video.

How did you select the filmmakers we see on the show?
This is a completely unorganised sector. There is no paper work, they dealt only in cash. There is no record of who owns what. We had to filter all this for a corporate show and make it viable.

Some people had also sold their life rights to other people, so they couldn’t be included. We opted for a healthy balance of people dabbling in various genres of their own.

How did they respond when you approached them?
It took a lot of time to build trust. They are survivors – their antennae is really sharp since they are always on the edge. They were calculating the benefits for them, why these two worlds were coming together after all these years. Once we met and spoke in a common language, they understood that I too, as a filmmaker, come with the same perspective.

We assured them that the series was not a spoof. The idea wasn’t to make fun, but to understand. What they needed to do was talk about themselves and make a film. They were also people talking behind the scenes talking to them and reassuring them. If the behind the scenes of the behind the scenes happens, that will be a different film altogether.

We lucked out on having a healthy mix. J Neelam is totally alpha, the way she walks into a room and conducts herself. Kishan Shah doesn’t have anything to lose, at least that’s how he projects himself.

Vinod Talwar is the most productive working member and has moved on from direction, but in his heart, he is a throbbing artist and wants to put himself out there as a storyteller. Dilip Gulati is like a showman on his own. Because he comes from a certain legacy, it was difficult to associate himself with the B movie, in a sense.

Dilip Gulati in Cinema Marte Dum Tak (2023). Courtesy Vice Studio/Amazon Prime Video.

The show also features cult favourite Kanti Shah, who rarely gives interviews. How did you persuade him?
He isn’t just reclusive, he also doesn’t trust anyone. That’s the only he survives. That’s very gangster in thought – to be very sharp and keep everything at bay so that you don’t invite any sort of trouble.

He was very reluctant. It took over a year to convince him. He wanted to come solo – which I loved. That personality is probably how he made his films.

You have been an indie filmmaker for years, starting with your unreleased debut Peddlers in 2012. What did this pulp scene tell you about the Hindi film industry?
We kind of understood this way of working. We are all in the same boat.

I remember talking to Anurag Kashyap. Most of Black Friday [directed by Kashyap] had been shot. But a lot of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s scenes were left to be shot and there was no money. We took black tea water and threw it on a wall in our office to age the wall. That is supposed to the opening of what a grand docu-drama, but it happened with zero resources.

Cinema is the deception that happens within the frame, and this is across the board, whether it is the biggest filmmaker or the person who has no resources. That is what I learnt from these filmmakers. They used the same walls painted again and again for different scenes.

As Roger Corman, the greatest B-filmmaker, said, you take driving shots of cars while they are running and when they stop working, blow them up and capture it on the screen. Everything has utility until it burns to ashes.

The downfall for these filmmakers happened when some of them became lazy and developed an over-dependence on sex. They started disrobing people. Until then, you could see a certain craft, an application of an editing mind.

Vasan Bala.

The series avoids a critical analysis of this strain of cinema. There is also no debate on the manner in which the filmmakers depicted women, especially in rape scenes.
It was a conscious decision. We didn’t want to impose our analysis, otherwise it would have become too intrusive. Whose voice is it then? Their story is also about all the wrongs they did. You understand the conditioning, in that sense, from the offhand remarks about women.

This is the world they live in. The purpose of the show wasn’t to start lecturing them on what they ought to be or reprimand them. Besides, it would have been hypocritical since we were, after all, doing a six-part series.

The idea was to let audiences be uncomfortable and understand that the series is not about entertainment. You come in expecting kitsch, colour, the madness, the silly scenes. But the third and fourth episodes should make you uncomfortable about this world.

We see only portions of the films that the four directors end up making.
We have an ongoing conversation with Amazon Prime Video to maybe include the films as an extra feature on the platform. I really want people to watch these films to see what their voice was like.

Cinema Marte Dum Tak (2023).

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‘Cinema Marte Dum Tak’ review: Love is all around in show about Hindi cinema’s pulp directors