Definitions of a fiasco, as opposed to a more simple disaster or a more drawn-out series of less-than-ideal decisions, are hard to pin down. To me, it's almost a "I know it when I see it" sort of thing. Descriptors of a fiasco that these two podcasts discuss include:
• "When fumble leads to error leads to mishap, and before you know it you have left the realm of ordinary mistake and chaos and you have moved into the more ethereal, specialized realm of fiasco." "It's an altered state...the normal rules are off." (TAL)
• "Ambition exceeds competency or reality." (PCHH)
• And because I was curious about its etymology, I looked it up in the OED: it's from the Italian phrase "to make a bottle" but scholars are not clear why that phrase is applied to "a failure or breakdown in a dramatic or musical performance.... An ignominious failure."
The gist is similar. There is something spectacular about a fiasco, probably because it is the dark side of the brink of greatness. And on that point, it seems to me that a fiasco can be subjective: what to me is a disaster of epic proportions might for you be a successfully groundbreaking experiment—or at least a noble attempt that has merit for, and thus draws achievement from, its efforts. It is a dynamic system that takes some time to unravel but also exists within a particular, defined duration (which might only be discernible in hindsight—I'm thinking of a political administration, for example). Decisions interact with and compound on each other in fascinating and unexpected and always worsening ways. There is probably some unintended drama and certainly some accidents. The empathy, forgiveness, and/or decorum of the audience/bystanders/subject/victims gives way and they may actively turn against the principal participants.
Moving to our particular context of Hindi films, I tentatively posit that a filmi fiasco involves two basic phenomena, which are basically elaborate ways of saying "failure" and "scale":
1) The film wildly or catastrophically fails to meet its own goals, whether these are known because filmmakers or cast have stated them publicly or inferred by the audience through experience with similar films, other works by people involved, whatever was emphasized by promotional materials, etc. Audiences have every right to make these inferences—not being able to control how people understand and judge their work is one of the prices paid when a creator releases their work into the world—but of course they might not be what the creator intends or want. A goal can be as straightforward as the beloved concept "timepass" or as deceptively simple as "tell the story of ____."
2) The film violates the generally accepted concept of what a movie is without a good reason. That last part is critical to the definition because it helps distinguish between experiment and ambition on one hand and laziness and incompetence on the other. Failing to be a complete, coherent work might be a very purposeful statement by a filmmaker who is experimenting with conventions, and to me if that's done in service of making a bigger point about film history, culture, audience expectations, narrative, whatever, that's fine. Similarly, a tiny budget that cannot support the filmmakers' ambitions is not an automatic condemnation to fiasco. No one should be criticized for having dreams bigger than their pockets, though perhaps this situation leads more often to "A for effort" than impressive results.
Note that "box office" in isolation is not entering into it. Not all flops are fiascos.
A few films popped into my head as I was listening to the podcast. First on my list is Kamal R. Khan's Deshdrohi, which is a very easy choice and comes to mind whenever I think of spectacular failures and deluded filmmakers, which I do more frequently than you might guess.
I also nominate Harinam Singh's Shaitani Dracula. I am fascinated by this film, and no doubt I have whined at some of you sufficiently over the last four years that you've broken down and watched it—a true testament of your affection and/or morbid curiosity.
As esteemed MOSS colleague Keith says at Teleport City, says:
Rarely, however, have I encountered a film that so closely resembles the scrawling on a padded cell wall done by a paranoid delusional. In no frame of mind and in no sense comprehensible by sane humans can you even call Shaitani Dracula a film. That it ever saw the light of day is testament to the fact that strange and inexplicable things still happen in this modern world. Even judged against the standards of cut-rate Indian horror cinema from outside the Bollywood mainstream—a genre that has never valued competence or coherence in its headlong rush toward another scene of a pizza-faced ghoul or a woman taking a shower while wearing cycling shorts and a bra—Shaitani Dracula stands out as something wholly more advanced than anything else yet witnessed. To watch it is an experience not unlike the final bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloq alternates between screaming in abject terror and rapturously yelling “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes.MOSS agents Ninja Dixon ("...so extremely incompetent it actually feels unreal"), Tars Tarkas ("This is one of the most ridiculous films I have ever seen"), and Die Danger Die Die Kill ("I have been forever altered by the experience...I have been far too profligate in my use of the word 'incoherent'") have also written about it. In fact, much of MOSS got together earlier this year for a tweetalong, and so mighty was our ink-spilling that we got "#ShaitaniDracula" to trend.
Like Deshdrohi and The Room, Shaitani Dracula is primarily the child of one...artist. It's a peril of a one-person show: there's no one else as invested as you are who will protect their own interests/sanity by making you rein things in or helping refine your vision with their critical thought. But I'm not sure that it fits my definition of a fiasco because I have no (un)earthly clue what the goals of this project are and thus cannot say with certainty that the film doesn't meet them. In fact, I am fairly confident one of the goals for the director is to wear fake teeth and grope young women, and he does these things frequently, so...success? And far from turning against Harinam Singh because of this film, I have sought out several of his other movies and would gladly watch more.
I went to twitter to see what else you would deem a fiasco, and here are the answers I got. I would not classify all of these as fiascos—and some of them I think are quite successful on their own terms (or mine, since success can be subjective)—but I include them here for the sake of discussion and the fun of remembering "Ohhhhhhhh right."
• the SFF entrants: Ajooba, Drona, Joker, Love Story 2050, Ra.One. These, I think, fall under the wisdom that when you swing big with the hopes of knocking it out of the park, sometimes you miss by a mile.
• high-profile, less genre-y, mainstream projects by people who should know better: Besharam (speaking of ignominious), My Name Is Khan post-interval, RGV Ki Aag, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, Tees Maar Khan, Veer.
• And some other films I know nothing about so will not classify: Abdullah (though the debut film of Bob Christo has served some purpose in the world), Galiyon Ka Badshah, Majhdhaar, Mera Naam Joker, Oh Darling Yeh Hai India.
What are your nominations for filmi fiascos? Remember, we're not necessarily talking about films that don't make back their costs or are hated by critics and/or audiences. To paraphrase Seinfeld, these movies are a mess—and they're spectacular.