Nitin Kakkar’s debut film Filmistaan, from a technical standpoint, is the opposite of Imtiaz Ali’s Highway. It is not concerned at all with how ‘good’ it looks. Most of the cinematography and editing that went into Filmistaan is routine, cuts are where they are supposed to be, and the camera shifts from tripod to handheld when the situation aptly calls for it. There is no attention that is given to scenery or detail, no stylistic editing aside from the credit sequence (which is now practically a cliche) and no shot really distinguishes itself as ‘beautiful’ or ‘cinematic’. That’s just as well because unlike Ali’s film which is so obsessed with the idea that it takes place near the beautiful mountains that it loses us completely on the relationship between the two characters, Kakkar’s film doesn’t give a flying you-know-what that the movie takes place in the desert of Pakistan’s border with Rajasthan, but in turn focuses on the captive Indian’s (Sunny is his name) relationship with the Muslim extremists who have locked him up, as well as the Pakistani locals who’s sympathy for him is essentially useless in the face of the extremists.
As a movie, there is nothing particularly wrong with Filmistaan. It’s a nice story with decent acting, good characterizations and overall it’s comparable to your typical Hollywood “feel good” dramedy in the way it handles itself. Of course, the melodrama and slow-motion sequences meant to evoke empathy for the Indian’s plight goes a bit too far over the line and reminds us that this is after all, a Bollywood film about the love of Bollywood films. Can cinema really change the world? Can it really bring a mutual understanding between Indians and Muslim extremists in Pakistan? This “amaan ki aasha” film makes the case that yes, it can. Of course this is complete hogwash, because the term ‘extremist’ itself implies that the individual is beyond the measure of normal morals, and is self-consumed in his ideology so much that it is almost impossible to flip it. Certainly ones passion of Bollywood cinema won’t do the trick.
Kakkar manages to alleviate a bit of this ridiculousness in the film’s moral fiber by making the Muslim terrorists themselves a bit soft in addition to having the main character Sunny be a complete eccentric and a hopeless romantic (he is obsessed with Bollywood films after all). In a sequence where the village folk gather to watch a pirated DVD of Maine Pyaar Kiya, our Indian captive gets extremely excited because this is his all-time favorite movie. He pleads over and over to the Taliban leader to let him out of his cage just this once to watch the film. As the Taliban leader tries to sleep and shrugs off Sunny’s begging, Sunny begins to recite the dialogue by heart, word for word, with vociferousness, even striving for the various accents of the characters. Soon enough the Taliban leader gets fed up of this and lets Sunny go. Such instances are littered throughout the film, where we can’t really begin to take these “terrorists” seriously. As they fuddle to create a threat video and use Sunny as ransom to the Indian government, we start to figure these Pakistani’s are just a bunch of desperate souls looking to sustain themselves. This in turn actually helps Kakkar’s case that these guys can be turned and that Bollywood cinema can be a binding thread between India and Pakistan. In the vacuum of Filmistaan, it’s acceptable to some degree that this optimism play to the protagonists favor, I mean, more ridiculous claims have been made in cinema and the way Kakkar goes about showing it is far from ‘insulting’, it’s just routine. But this melodramatic “amaan ki aasha” kitsch should never be taken seriously in the real world… and going by how whimsical a way Filmistaan carries itself, I don’t think Kakkar expects us to.
In the end, Filmistaan is a treat for the optimists, a time-pass for the neutrals, and a pile of nonsensical kitsch for the pessimists. Whatever side you may fall on you’ll have a different take on the film’s message. From a standpoint of purely film-making, leaving alone the border politics and moral dilemmas, it is still the type of feel-good movie I wish would constitute a larger percentage of Bollywood’s output, at least instead of the garbage it mass-produces now.