Cinema Marte Dum Tak (2023) Review: Before 2022, there was another era in the late 90s and early 00s when mainstream Bollywood faced a crisis with sustaining huge Box Office numbers. Surprisingly, the competitors to mainstream Bollywood were not large-scale Marvel films or technically sounded South Indian blockbusters but rather the so-called “C-grade movie” industry, which was attracting large audiences.
Amazon and Vice Studios brought the bad-shahs of those C-grade movies together for their newly released Six-episode documentary series Cinema Marte Dum Tak. This riveting documentary is made in a hybrid format, combining interviews, actual film footage, and behind-the-scenes footage to provide an uninformed audience with a comprehensive view of the era and industry.
Four stalwarts from the C-Grade industry, J, Neelam, Vinod Talwar, Dilip Gulati, and Kishan Shah, are assigned to make their one short film as they get a chance to shoot and talk, revisiting their glory days.
Ashim Ahluwalia, credited as the creative consultant of the series, made the critically acclaimed movie Miss Lovely (2012). It fictionalized and exploited the fascinating world of C-Grade movies and its impact on those working in that industry. He has written, “C-grade cinema is authentically marginal, a cinema of the gutter, and the missing link between Bollywood and pornography, documentary and narrative, tradition and modernity.”
These movies used to do huge business back in the day. However, they soon succumbed to the censor board pressure and the rising corporate studio filmmaking structure. Later, movies like Gunda, Loha, and Qatil Churail gained popularity in IIT circles, and several Buzzfeed and Scoopwhoop articles and memes contributed to its mass hysteria.
Ashim, Vasan Bala (creator of the series), or Asheem Chandaver (who did research on this show and regularly posted absurd clips from such movies via his IG and Twitter handle @babajogeshwari) are surely fanboys of this sub-genre. It shows in their earnest attempt to provide utmost respect and space to the stories of those who worked in the industry.
Cinema Marte Dum Tak anticipates this documentary series reaching a wider, unfamiliar audience. Thus, it never aspires to become a nostalgia vehicle. In the first episode, we see the introduction of the world, and prime players shot with a modern cinematic lens. All four directors get a stylistic and almost surreal treatment to their introductions.
As soon as the series progresses, we see the style gradually shifting from the language of the documentary directors to the language of the directors they are shooting. The tone becomes absurd to funny to emotional, but this comes across as emotionally manipulative or cheesy at no point. The creative call to not skip through the shards of information only a hard-core fan of the genre will know is commendable.
These movies had a distinct aesthetic – low-budget, fragmentary, and disjointed narrative elements, poor-quality equipment, and skills, stock images and characters, etc. Such non-A-circuit films then often become lumped into the category of ‘low genres,’ ‘trash cinemas’ ‘or para cinemas or become labeled as ‘body genres’ that include soft-pornography, horror, melodrama, and exploitation.
As a result, these films impacted the social lives of these directors and actors. The series interviewed many actors and technicians who worked in the industry and explained the association with make-shift shooting schedules, locations of seedy hotels and flats in Lokhandwala, use of sex, gore, violence, and sleaze, and controversial exhibition practices that reduced C-grade cinema to a marginal industrial practice.
The series is strung together by many such interviews from a bunch of known faces from Pahlaj Nihalani to Mukesh Rishi, Raja Murad to Shiva Rindani (whom we recently saw in Monica, O My Darling). As those films themselves worked with certain tropes – the female Daku (bandit) sub-genre, the tribal exploitation film, the domestic lesbian film, and the impotent husband melodrama- these four directors choose scripts according to their expertise, and all these tropes, have been covered in the movies they undertake.
We see how different these directors are in their taste and approach to filmmaking and what they think of themselves in hindsight. While Kishan Shah stuck to his gun in terms of his ideology, we see Neelam changing with the woke generation. In E4, she questions why the women in those movies only turn dacoits once they are raped- a statement that is very reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s scathing essay on Bandit Queen-“The Great Indian Rape Trick.”
There is no dearth of intriguing characters in the series. A subplot revolving around the rift between Ramsay-style horror movies and those with more sexual, sleazy scenes kept me engaged. I had a ball looking for references. In one scene, an assistant reminds an animated Kishan Shah about continuity, to which he replies, “Bhansali Mat Baan.”
Sapna, also known as the “Sridevi of C-Grade movies,” in another scene, defends against the accusations of vulgarity in her scene by mocking the nude scene performed by Rajshri Deshpande in Sacred Games (Amazon has beeped the dialogue, but it is still in the subtitles *wink*). In my favorite scene of the series, Sapna is flaunting her cleavage and teasing the person holding the boom mic for the documentary.
The camera pans to the man standing awkwardly in the middle of the frame, blending the medium. The series chooses to tell the story of India’s long struggle with film censorship through the accounts of film distributors Kumar Chautaramani and Hyder Gola. (the latter gets the best intro scene). Cinema Marte Dum Tak cleverly plays with the cult of Kanti Shah. He is referenced in every episode since the start but appears only in E4 and E5 to completely steal the show. He is shown as this guy who everyone is envious of but lives aloof, disconnected from the industry at large. His emotional tussle with his far less accomplished elder brother Kishan Shah and constant struggle with loneliness provide much-needed humanist impetus to the narration.
He also has the most bizarre anecdotes on the series though he completely denied the industry claim that he was once beaten up by goons sent by Dharmendra (hardcore fans will know this urban legend).
The series succeeds in the technical aspects with stellar editing, cinematography, and an introductory title card that grabs your attention every time it plays. Karan Malhotra did a great job with the background score, and Sneha Khanwalkar’s track “Pseudo Saiyaan” will surely find its listeners.
Cinema Marte Dum Tak is a triumph in giving all the people associated with the C-Grade film industry a much-needed platform to tell their stories and demand the respect they deserve for entertaining the audience for decades. At the same time, Cinema Marte Dum Tak is also a loving ode to all the fans who adore these small films despite their abounding ineptitude, fractured continuities, and abysmally low production values.