The Fault, Dear Audience, Is Not In Our Stars: Why MAMI Needs Bollywood
Soon after the conversation between Aamir Khan and Ian McKellen began on Monday, May 23 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, you knew the press would be awash with snarky reactions the following day. Buzzfeed, Scroll and Bollywood Life all had something (not so nice) to say about the event, which launched a new film club by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI), also known as the organiser of the annual Mumbai Film Festival. Khan, who is regarded among the Hindi film industry’s smarter actors, wasn’t up to speed on McKellen’s filmography aside from Lord of the Rings and X-Men; was unsure of the legal status of homosexuality in India (even though he did an episode on the LGBT community on his TV show Satyamev Jayate); called Peter Dinklage “the midget” when he couldn’t recall the Game of Thrones actor’s name; and astonished everybody by taking a pee break.
Now we have no way of knowing what McKellen thought of the evening or his interlocutor. But even though Khan did a spoof-worthy job, the ‘masterclass’ will also be remembered for some good reasons, namely McKellen’s erudite and often cheeky comments on acting and being openly gay. If any other actor said you had to suffer with Macbeth in order to do the character effectively, you’d think he was being precious.
The obvious question though is why Aamir Khan? Aside from his debut movie Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and studying Julius Caesar in school, the actor’s engagement with Shakespeare seems to have been minimal. MAMI’s creative director Smriti Kiran said the idea was to have “two actors talk to each other”. Was there no one else better suited to interview McKellen?
There was a surprising number of Bollywood celebrities in the audience: Kangana Ranaut, Imran Khan, Sonam Kapoor (who asked why Shakespeare didn’t write many great parts for women) and Rajkummar Rao. Yes, McKellen is a major star and that could have been a draw, but the conversation was about Shakespeare. And few in the Hindi film industry, aside from Vishal Bhardwaj, Gulzar, Rajat Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah (who’ve all either performed Shakespeare on stage or made movies based on his plays), seem to have much interest in the Bard.
On the other hand, perhaps the celebrity turnout was not so surprising. MAMI is after all helmed by Kiran Rao and Anupama Chopra, who are both capable of mustering Bollywood stars. At the 2015 edition of MAMI’s annual Mumbai Film Festival, which was dragged out of crippling debt, celebrities were more involved than they had been in any of the previous years. Occasionally however, the presence of actors with unproven cred (but belonging to cinematic lineages) at certain events was puzzling. Like, for instance, Varun Dhawan, whose entry to Bollywood was greased by his star kid status (he’s David Dhawan’s son), talking about his career at the MAMI Mela last year even though he’s just a few movies old.
As part of its film club, MAMI plans to hold events the whole year around. Perhaps launching with a big star, even if he may not have made the desired impression, was something of a drumroll. It also indicates the organisers’ agenda of engaging with Bollywood to promote the very worthwhile cause of giving the public access to great cinema. “At one point of time MAMI was very far removed from the mainstream,” said Kiran. “At the end of the day, Mumbai is the epicentre of cinema. To not involve a full-fledged industry in what happens at MAMI is shortsighted. Stars are great enablers, they’re big-time influencers. If you want to create awareness and amplify interest, Bollywood is the best way to do it. The key is that your content should not get disturbed.”
The biggest reason to get stars to add shine to events is sponsorship. MAMI might not have snagged Reliance Jio and Star TV to sponsor the festival had there not been an armada of celebrities posing on red carpets and issuing sound bites beamed on millions of TVs and splashed across entertainment glossies. As Shakespeare might have put it, organisers of big cultural events must needs pander to populist devices. “Creating a world-class film festival takes money,” said Kiran. “How do you get somebody to invest if it’s not going to have scale or create the right kind of noise?”
Khan might not have been the wisest choice, but in our collective amusement over the evening’s comedy, let’s not forget to give a hat tip to MAMI, which in the larger scheme of things, is doing the city’s cultural scene a mighty lot of good. Even if this means suffering movie star pratfalls.