The story of new Punjabi cinema — where the jatt hero is no longer a farmer but a city slicker — tells of the decline of agriculture and a cinema fuelled by real estate money
It’s about time Romeo met a Punjabi jatti or Juliet met a jatt. Punjabi ballads are so full of doomed love, heartbreaking ironies, feuding clans and ruinous fate that Shakespeare can surely find a home away from home in a Punjabi cover of his most famous tragedy.
But Jatt and Juliet, the biggest blockbuster of Punjabi cinema, is actually a romantic comedy. Juliet in the title hints at love in a foreign country, an altogether charming prospect for the Punjabi youth ever looking for a way out of the country. The 2012 smash hit launched a wave of clone comedies: Carry on Jatta, Jatt Airways, Jatt Boys, Jatts in Golmaal and Jatt in Mood, to name a few. Himesh Reshammiya is producing its Hindi remake with Akshay Kumar in the lead. It triggered a boom in Punjabi cinema which had faded due to terrorism over the ’80s and ’90s . Last year, almost every Friday a new movie was released.
The jatt genre in Punjabi cinema goes back to the ’80s . The jatt hero was at the centre of the moral universe of the village. Whenever it faced a threat, he restored order. A common way to establish the hero in those movies was to show him saving a girl from being raped. He was a simpleton but never the laughing stock. He was a family man but not one to flinch from gory fights as was evident from his blood-splattered gandassa (axe) on the movie poster. The verbal exchange between the hero and the villain oozed with an exaggerated sense of pride and honour and was all the rage with the viewers. The jatt virtue came from the land. He wrestled with his land for a living, which taught him hard work, patience and simplicity. Land was the cause of conflict in many movies. His love of land extended to the village, the community and the country. Jatt was rooted in his world and defended its order to death.
The jatt in the new movies is alienated from his land. Away from the wellspring of his virtue, he is confused. He rarely fights. Pride and honour are no big issues. From a jovial hero, he has turned into a comedian, and often he is himself the butt of the joke. He has a gym-crafted body and not the weather-beaten physique shaped by working the fields. In the metropolis, he is quite ill at ease. Most of the humour in these movies comes from the juxtaposition of the rural and the urban. As the jatt virtue attenuates in the new films, he is no longer willing to die for his land but can gladly sell a few acres for a pile of cash. With its plush, gleaming sets, luxury cars and stylish girls in skimpy dresses, it is hardly the real Punjab. It is the cinema of the shopping mall, not an unlikely phenomenon in a State flush with money from the property boom.
The decline of the jatt from a proud hero to a bumbling comedian is tragic, if we consider the new world behind this cinema: The Green Revolution gone wrong and the advent of the new economy. The prosperity shown in the movies is the result of a liquidity surge due to skyrocketing land prices and not because the State economy is improving. In a cruel irony, the glut of glitzy films is itself fuelled by real-estate money. The story of new Punjabi cinema, where the jatt hero is in the city shorn of his rustic virtue, can be seen as an allegory of how the State ruined a flourishing agricultural sector and left the peasant at the mercy of the market. The land is being sold, agriculture is declining and there is little industrial development. The new films where the jatt negotiates love triangles, cracks jokes and is generally living it up, is a make-believe world as inauthentic as the seemingly prospering Punjab economy. It looks as if it is one of those drug rackets, so rampant in Punjab these days, which lulls the youth into a false sense of comfort. The State has failed its hardworking farmer, and now it is failing its ambitious youth.
JS Cheema, who runs a post-production house in Chandigarh, likens the new cinema to rustled up fast food. That’s so true if we compare it to his own 1981 cult classic Chann Pardesi featuring Om Puri, Amrish Puri and Raj Babbar. It had the flavour of the saag that had simmered in an earthen pot on a smouldering chulha for hours. “Sometimes, the editing is so poor, dubbing becomes a struggle for me. Many of these guys are wedding photographers-turned-music-video-makers-turned film directors,” he says.
Anurag Singh, the 36-year-old director of Jatt and Juliet, is one of the few exceptions. From a small Kapurthala village, he went to Australia to learn filmmaking. After a stint in Bollywood, he came back to make Punjabi films. Most of his fellow filmmakers are also young, so it’s cinema of the youth. “In some ways, these films also have parts of our own experience of migrating from a rural to urban setting and the resultant culture shock,” he says. He admits the gleaming Punjab in the movies is a reflection of prosperity that has come from selling land.
It takes just ₹1 crore to produce a decent movie. With big stars, the cost can go up to ₹5 crore. Jatt and Juliet made ₹35 crore, and its success has been pulling money from a flattened real estate market. But Anurag warns that the boom in cinema could be as fragile as the real estate bubble. “Let me tell you, very few property dealers who finance movies are making profits. Ninety per cent never return to make another movie.” he says. “Yet, few can resist the lure of overnight fame, mixing with girls and holding press conferences,” says independent film writer Navleen Lakhi. “Investors are not deterred. A veritable industry has sprung up all over the State, providing employment to a wide range of people.”
Property czars are funding a cinema as cut off from reality as the islands of luxury they construct in the middle of nowhere. These movies will tell you little about Punjab’s loudest issues: the drugs, pollution, cancer and, of course, female infanticide. Jatinder Mauhar, 34, who whips up nervous energy to create a starkly realist cinema, believes people cannot keep on watching romantic comedies alone. His Mitti and Sikandar tell bleak stories of youth embroiled in politics and crime. He is now making a film on terrorism, the current flavour of Punjabi cinema. “Films on terrorism, Operation Bluestar or the 1984 riots made so far, don’t create a dialogue around these issues or ask tough questions,” he says. Though Punjabi arthouse cinema is flourishing (Rajiv Sharma’s National Award-winner Nabar, Gurvinder Singh’s Anhe Ghore Da Daan and Navtej Sandhu’s short film Nooran, the first Punjabi film to enter Cannes, have all made waves), Mauhar says he would rather make good movies within the mainstream.
He must find his voice amid the scrambled noise of jatts, Juliets and jameen to create meaningful cinema. Punjabi poet Pash had said that being the son of the fields, he would not sing of “your decadent tastes”. Maybe, after the decline of the jatt in Punjabi cinema, directors like Mauhar can retrieve that son of the soil.
Dharminder Kumar is a freelance journalist in Delhi