Over the last few years the Hindi cinema produced by Bombay, Bollywood for short, seems to have come of age. With a far greater slickness in production values, with a visible presence in metros of the West, with talk of crossover films and crossover stars being the rage, and with the injection of unprecedented numbers of young directors and producers, Bollywood would seem set to conquer the world.
There is also celebration of a new kind of cinema, a neo-real cinema that feels confident of breaking away from the old formula, from old song-and-dance routines to newer films like Black, Rang de Basanti and Bunty Aur Babli, new both in their themes and treatment. But in this turning away from formula, Bollywood is also rejecting something that had once made it so universally popular, from Bombay to Padrauna, from Kathmandu to Indonesia, from Egypt to China. By eschewing the underdog and celebrating the ‘real Indian’, it is also creating – as well as pandering to – a new kind of India, one that celebrates itself, its money and its greatness.
Over the last half-decade, Bombay cinema has discovered a new sense of professionalism. Producers are turning into conglomerates with multiple productions – witness the way that director Subhash Ghai has transformed Mukta Arts from being the provider of occasional mega movies into a company that turns out a number of smaller productions. The most successful examples of this trend are producer Ram Gopal Verma’s ‘The Factory’ and Yash Chopra’s ‘Yash Raj Films’. In the case of the latter, film production has now been subsumed under a whole variety of ancillary activities, such as distribution, music production and publicity. The industry greats have consolidated their holdings, and the older stars are now a part of a conglomeration where their families play a greater role than ever. Indeed, with ten or so families commanding 80 percent of the Bollywood industry, the family matters to Bollywood as never before (see box).
Along with the greater family-based control, there is also a new corporatisation, as an incipient studio system emerges. Producers are now venturing into film distribution and music production; exhibitors such as IMax and Adlabs are moving into production; and music companies and television-software makers such as UTV are making films (they produced Rang de Basanti). Producers are hiring whole teams of writers, directors and technicians, and in-house studios and production facilities are creating a one-stop shop for the entire filmmaking process. Market surveys, research and payments by cheques are becoming the norm in the industry. Even as this consolidation bars outsiders, however, the success of the new ‘small film’ opens doors for new entrants. In particular, the multiplex phenomenon has created the space for ‘niche’ films – those made for a targeted audience in the metros – which allows many more first-timers to essay their luck. To an inordinate extent, the industry is now dominated by Delhi-wallahs – products of a convent education, trained at mass-communication or film institutes, managers, technicians and writers who understand and speak the language of business, who talk about dividends and returns and product placement.
Hindi cinema also pervades Indian lives as never before. Some elements of this booming industry include: five Hindi channels devoted to cinema in India alone, and many more in other parts of the world; an ancillary DVD and music industry; a marketing and advertising machine that hogs a major share of news space; a host of music channels that broadcast Hindi songs, remixes and promos; an advertising industry that feeds on cinema, both for ideas as well as for brand ambassadors; and growth of event-managed stage shows, by stars, on and around films. Bollywood stares at us from the front pages; it is a part of our leadership – every single political party contains film stars as members of one of the houses of Parliament; it fundamentally influences the national society’s self-image.
But all of this transformation – the arrival of the corporate-types, the smaller films, the multiplexes, et al – has not affected one simple equation: the power of the stars. The fact is that the entire film business still rests overwhelmingly on the stars you have in your film. And the quality of stars is always dependent on their paucity. So, as ever, there are still less than a dozen saleable, A-grade stars. Make a film with them, if you can, for otherwise you are condemned to struggle, no matter how good your story or clever your treatment. The mode of business may have changed, but the most important asset remains the same – so how much change can there really have been?
Not a mass medium
Time was when one had to learn Urdu to survive in the Hindi film industry. Now, if one does not know English, one would find it difficult to find work of any sort. Most of today’s stars can speak only English fluently. Hindi film posters and promos rely increasingly on English. Scenarios, screenplays and scripts are written originally in English, and even the dialogues tend to be translations from English, but the actors’ and the makers’ lack of command over written or spoken Hindi seems of no consequence.
This neo-real cinema, then, is also a neo-liberal one. It is made by English-speaking middle classes, for the English-speaking middle classes, for people who also watch Hollywood and regard it as ‘world cinema’, for people who live in flats and aspire to a universal, Americanised lifestyle. As such, Bollywood today produces two kinds of films, fantasies of the old sort and a new socially relevant film. Whereas earlier masala films pitted their relevance on certain universal truths about Indian society – love between social unequals, poor vs rich, badmash vs sharif – this cinema tries instead to recreate an expanding and self-referential middle-class habitus, where the poor and the marginalised do not even find the token representation they did earlier. Films that have been big hits in recent years treat relationships either as a matrix between two adults who do not occupy a social space – Chalte Chalte, Hum Tum, Fanaa, Salaam Namaste – or as a story of families where emotions (the Karan Johar films) and not their social location provides the main conflict.
The social, which is thus outcast, returns in a different shade: as the story of the nation, a middle-class nation, where the state and its activities are seen to be harming the ordinary and self-contented middle class. This realism exhibits a great impatience with ‘the system’, and bandies its progressivism as a call to action for a generality, not merely as an avenging hero. So in this year’s Rang de Basanti, two politicians are murdered at the end, but that ending is presented not as justice for the individuals concerned (as it was in Inquilab or Aakhri Rasta) but as a possible solution for all social ills. In this case, the speech of the dying hero – a very old trope – is converted into ‘an address to the nation’ from a captured radio station, by teenagers who have just committed these murders. Like the teenagers themselves, director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra seems to believe that he has done something radically new, whereas all that he has really accomplished is to situate the oldest storyline of Hindi cinema – the revenge murder – differently.
The other kind of the neo-real is represented by inordinately expensive films about individual destinies (Devdas, Black, Veer Zaara, Parineeta), which rehash old films and the question of fate in the most self-indulgent ways possible. These offer the pure individual, whose social locale, where specified, is again a comfortable middle or upper class that is done in by the distant state. As such, you can have films about India-Pakistan relations, or Kashmir, or a dumb, deaf and mute girl, without any visual reference to the actual contemporary sites. In this neo-liberal cinema, solutions to social problems do not exist because the conflicts faced by the protagonists are either not social, or the ‘social’ simply does not exist. Then, there are the ‘niche’ films. What the vamp used to do in the 1970s cinema – a provocative and titillating dance number – has now been taken over by the heroines. The ‘item’ number has found a new lease on life by re-inventing itself, abandoning the classy cabaret of old, and introducing a risqué element where lewd sexual gestures are wholly acceptable. Even while we decry Fashion TV and pornography, it has invaded us by the backdoor, as the filmic item number or its equivalent in music videos. It is as if the old style C-grade films – of the Pyaasi Jawaani, Bhookhi Aurat variety – restricted until now to the morning shows, have returned as genre films, made by respectable people, released in A-grade halls.
Marginalising the marginalised
So the whole familiarly variegated social space of Bollywood, where stars, junior artists, extras and runaways from small towns interacted together in what became a small microcosm of the country, has been replaced by a flattened, middle-class world where English acts as the lingua franca. Since cinema dominates the entertainment industry of India, and since the entertainment industry now commands a much larger quotient of society, the people who produce this content can no longer be the truly deprived or the poor. There is no room for the poor even when they have to play the poor. And extras – poorly educated, living in slums – can no longer appear dark or ill-fed; dancing boys and girls must be natty and fair. In this brand of ‘feel-good’ cinema, the mofussil (the country or the suburbs) is dreamt of as a place that must be left behind in order to arrive – as in Bunty Aur Babli. In truth, it is so in the real world too, but at least in the real world it is not possible to amass huge amounts of money doing con tricks that would shame a child of five. Better the Amitabh Bachchan of Don or Adalat or Deewar, whose rags-to-riches stories were equally fantastical but whose realism derived from a metaphoric reality, not imitation. So the real must be fantastical and vice-versa, for it to appeal to the new middle class. For the majority of cinema being produced in Bombay, a lack of money no longer matters to the storyline. Watch last year’s three big Bollywood blockbusters: Fanaa, Rang de Basanti and Salaam Namaste. Money is not a problem here; unlike in some of Aamir Khan’s past hits, like Rangeela or Raja Hindustani, where its lack or differentiation provided the main conflict in the story. Imagine Amitabh Bachchan without poverty. Imagine Amitabh Bachchan without the frontbenchers, without the rickshawallahs, coolies and urban proletariat.
The action cinema loved by the frontbenchers has been shunted either to small cities or to rundown cinemas in the larger ones. On the other hand, technology is facilitating a localisation of cinema. A small town in western Uttar Pradesh like Meerut has its own CD-based local film industry, where it refashions Bollywood hits or recreates a more authentic local idiom in its own right. Same in Malegaon, in Maharashtra, and often these films are better written and funnier than the originals.
In a stunning change, then, the frontbenchers are out of the reckoning for the A-grade Hindi films, perhaps because the all-India hit film is out. The changes in the revenue structure mean that, in addition to the box office, there is now the overseas market, the music rights, the DVD and satellite rights to compensate in its lieu. Hindi cinema is no longer a mass medium.
All the achievements of Bollywood – its success among the diaspora, its popularity in America and England, its standing up to Hollywood and its increasing self-confidence in the last decade – cannot conceal the fact that in the internationally respected festival circuit its achievements have been nil. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the Art Cinema movement was at its peak, it would have been a rare year when an Indian film did not win an international award. Since the decline of that movement, however, it has been a rare year when an Indian film has won any awards, let alone a film produced by Bombay.
The bankruptcy of ideas in Bollywood, particularly in the choice of plots, is evident in the recent trend of ‘remakes’. It is an idea that is not entirely unwelcome, for at least the scripts will be better than are the present. So Devdas and Parineeta, two classics from the 1950s, both based on Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterji’s works, have been recently remade in lavish productions, replacing the simplicity of the originals with the opulence of new money. It is almost as if this country of billions, this country ‘on the move’ to its destiny, where millions are moving into cities and on the highways to international prosperity, does not inspire our filmmakers enough. It is astounding how they are simply not capable of finding stories from the here and now. Forget the falling, the rising also have interesting stories, indeed a million stories to be told, but all we get is adultery or narcissistic individualism.
The reason Hindi cinema used to be a mass medium, and was once as popular as it was across South, West and Southeast Asia and Africa, was because it told stories that resonated with the lives of the have-nots and the deprived everywhere. They were fantasies alright, but fantasies that rested on ancient and transnational sagas, myths, symbols and metaphors. These narrated the triumph of good over evil, the success of love over all other impediments, which depicted a city that could always make space for the newly arrived poor, or a village that could always be imagined to be a repository of a community, throbbing with a sense of belonging. As the village is edged out, as the poor are cast out, as the social is eradicated, this cinema still entertains – it still has song and dance, but it now speaks the specific language of the English-speaking middle-class of India. Bollywood no longer turns to old myths; it does not rework old formulas; it does not speak a universal language. It is, therefore, no longer a mass medium. It is popular entertainment and popular culture alright, but one that finds the masses a huge bore.
Bollywood is the only cinema industry in the world that has stood up to the invasion of Hollywood, but in the process it is simply becoming Hollywood in another language. That it bores this writer and excites the film critics and the neo-intelligentsia is a reflection of a deeper misalliance between me and my country, and a new bonhomie between a specific class and the entertainers it craves – more of the same, more of the same…
~ Mahmood Farooqui is a writer and performer in Delhi.