The heartland values of Bhojpuri cinema

As Bollywood's Hindi productions spin away to cater to the upper classes and NRIs, Bhojpuri films take the audiences back to an era of family values — where the underdog becomes victorious, and where the 'masses' rediscover respect.

It is an early monsoon day at Sheetal, a single-screen theatre in Kurla, in central Bombay. An animated audience, part of Bombay's growing population of migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, overflows the theatre's seats at a weekend screening of the Bhojpuri film Ravi Kissen. Dancing to catchy songs, clapping at snappy dialogue, whistling and joking, the crowd shows its appreciation for the nice and naughty versions of star Ravi Kishan in the first ever double-role in a Bhojpuri film.

In Bombay's territorial local politics, the bhaiyya, unschooled in the ways of modernity, is seen as either a rustic bumpkin or a hired thug, unwelcome but unavoidable. In theatre after run-down theatre showing Bhojpuri films in cities with sizeable migrant populations, one can witness the delirious reclamation of space by people who do not feel entirely at home outside of the theatre's walls. A guard at such an establishment smiles in amusement, saying, "This is nothing. Most of the bhaiyyas have gone home to harvest the crops now. You should have seen what it was like last month."

Going by such-scenes – and the profusion of Bhojpuri films playing not just in Bihar and UP, but also in Delhi, Bombay, Punjab, Rajasthan, Hyderabad and even across the border in Nepal – it is easy to understand the current buzz about Bhojpuri cinema. The phenomenon is not easy to quantify, given years of elitist neglect by the trade journals and film magazines, but unofficial estimates put the number of Bhojpuri films currently under production at about 250, up from absolutely nothing during the preceding decade. Film trade analysts are declaring it a symptom of Hindi cinema's historic turn away from the 'masses', while Hindi- and English-language newsmagazines note with surprise the sudden flowering of this new North Indian cinema.

In fact, Bhojpuri cinema is not new – it has been around since 1962, when Kundan Kumar directed the blockbuster Ganga Maiyya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo. Hits like Maaeen, Ganga Ki Beti, Hamaar Bhowji and Bhaiyya Dooj appeared in the 1980s, but then this was followed by a shutdown of the industry in the 1990s, when new productions ceased altogether. In 2001, Saiyyan Hamaar made a star out of drama-school graduate Ravi Kishan, and jumpstarted the industry once again. In 2005, Sasura Bada Paisa Wala earned about fifty times its production budget of INR 4.5 million, working a similar alchemy on popular folksinger Manoj Tiwari, who now vies with Ravi Kishan as the most in-demand Bhojpuri film star.

A string of hits have followed, including Daroga Babu I Love You, Panditji Batai Na Biyah Kab Hoi, Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, and Bandhan Toote Na. At one point, Bombay film trade analyst Taran Adarsh was prompted to observe that it seemed simple to make back ten times one's original investment on a Bhojpuri film. Many subsequently jumped into the fray of Bhojpuri film production – from Amitabh Bachchan's makeup man Deepak Sawant (who managed to get Bachchan to star for free in the forthcoming Ganga), to established Hindi film producers like Subhash Ghai.

Bombay v Bihar

Sunil Bobbna, a distributor in Bihar until he became a producer last year with Sailourgan Bane L)a Sa :Too Hamaar, points out that the hype surrounding Bhojpuri cinema obscures the fact that 90 percent of Bhojpuri films fail to earn hack their money. But the failures, say Bobbna and others, are typically the work of people from the Hindi film industry who are out to make a quick buck – churning out ersatz, movie-derived depictions of village life. According to veteran director Mohanji Prasad (Saiya Hamaar), the Bhojpuri industry died following the 1980s boom because it was swamped by bad films made by outsiders unfamiliar with the culture of the Bhojpuri region – which generally takes in western Bihar, Purvanchal, northern Jharkhand and the central part of the Nepali tarai. Despite the current boom, there is a palpable fear that history is about to repeal itself, and that the bust is not far off.

Authentic, inside knowledge of Bhojpuri culture is an element whose value is emphasised by key players from Bihar and UP. In the cutthroat and increasingly corporate high-budget environment of the Bombay film industry, cultural knowledge may be the only shot at survival for producers and directors who missed the corporate boat. Director Dhananjay, from Bihar, who in his days as a journalist had begun writing a book on Bhojpuri cinema, says that Bhojpuri films "provide a space for those left behind in the Indian elite's embrace of modernity and Westernisation."

This segment of the populace includes not just the Bhojpuri peasantry, but also merchant capitalists used to an older style of doing business. The archetypal Bombay film financier bras once the pan-chewing man in a silk kurta, who brought in cloth-wrapped bundles of money from the kattha (a medicinal herb) and lumber trade, hoping to obtain a dash of glamour by financing a film. Today's Bollywood Hindi films are far more likely to be funded by conglomerate and corporate finance, even public offerings, with written contracts and sophisticated marketing calculations. Says Benaras director Amit Singh: "Independent financiers have been pushed out of Hindi cinema. they cannot match the high budgets that have resulted from corporate financing and overseas joint ventures. So they turn to Bhojpuri film, where a film can be made for INR 45 lakh."

Yet the talk at Bhojpuri cultural events and among film artistes is not focused on economics and industry structure, but on culture and values. Surrounding the phenomenon of Bhojpuri film, after all, is the matter of Bhojpuri cultural revival. Interested players are on a mission to fashion a worthy identity around this culture, as a favourable contrast to what they see as the decaying values of elite metropolitan Indians, Benaras producer Mahendra Nath Pandey, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the culture and society of the region, emphasises that the real story behind the Bhojpuri film boom is not about money, industry structure or financiers' class profiles. Rather, he says, it is about values. "Bhojpuri films are about the web of social relations, the extended family, friendship, neighbourliness, respect for women, and hospitality – all that the urban, Westernised Indian seems to have lost."

There is something of a consensus between trade analysts, audiences and producers that Hindi films have indeed lost touch with large sections of the North Indian population. "There is a cultural gap which makes these high-society, Hollywood-imitation Hindi films incomprehensible to those in rural districts and small towns," says Vinod Mirani, editor of the trade journal Box Office. Audiences and filmmakers alike cite the prevalence of Western-style gender relations, scantily-clad women, urban settings, English dialogue and an absence of the extended family as alienating factors in Hindi film. The point is brought home in the views of 'Chotte', a security guard who hails from Faizabad in UP: "These films cannot be watched with family and elders. I don't understand the language. They don't even look like they are about Hindustan."

Director Dhananjay notes the sense of relief and affirmation that rural and small-town audiences feel when they once again see images that have otherwise largely vanished from Hindi films and advertisements – village scenes, livestock, stacks of hay, the village pond, the riverside ghat, rippling fields of grain. "They see these images and say yes, this is our world, our society," he says.

This folk allure is significant, Amit Singh concurs: "Bhojpuri films address a world of fairs and festivals, the nautanki [drama], acrobats' performances, traveling musicians, courtesans and drama troupes." Although most Bhojpuri films do contain a bawdy song or two, double-entendre and some saucy rustic clothing, some industry leaders are now keen to make this a 'respectable' genre, one that can draw in a middleclass audience. Director Mohanji Prasad explains: "Rich and middle-class people in Bihar and UP look down on Bhojpuri, and think the films are low-class. This is why these films will never enter the multiplex market."

Folksinger Manoj Tiwari's 'high-culture' view of the heartland may help to change this. "I have always believed Bhojpuri culture to be comparable in variety, richness and genius to any of the great cultures of the world," he says. "Everything worthy in Hindustani classical music derives from Bhojpuri melodies that every village child knows." Bhojpuri screenwriter and lyricist Vinay Bihari grew up in a village without electricity in Bihar's Champaran District, in a Rajput household that did attend song and dance performances but ostracised him for performing them. He sees some vindication in ensuring that the dazzling variety of Bhojpuri song, dance and drama is accorded respect via the film-driven promotion of this culture.

Home and the street

Urban theatre managers and distributors are not thinking about classical music when they discuss the Bhojpuri film boom. The granting of industry status to just the Hindi film world in 1998 set in motion a gradual up-scaling. With multiplexes being provided 10-year tax holidays, they began to spring up everywhere, with ticket prices shooting up to average INR 100. With the prospect of massive revenues from multiplexes, Hindi films bypassed single-screen theatres, with their taxed ticket prices of INR 20-30. It was the arrival of Bhojpuri films that saved many such theatres, pulling in people who had abandoned film-going due to the price and the intimidatingly glitzy atmosphere of the multiplexes.

In early June, while prowling around rundown theatres in Bombay, this writer was suddenly surprised at a viewing of Hamaar Gharwaali by a dramatic visit to the theatre by the film's female lead, Rinku Ghosh, accompanied by the director and supporting actors. The audience cheered wildly, to which the management responded by banging on the floor with stout lathis. The overwhelmingly male, working-class audience suddenly turned remarkably shy up close to the stars, doing little more than asking for autographs. The lead actress urged them to bring their gharwaalis, or wives, to the next screening – to which the largely migrant audience giggled coyly, with some wisecracking, "Can't bring what we don't have!"

Later, the artistes, director and distributor dissected the event for clues about the fate of Hamaar Garwaali, and about the Bhojpuri film industry in general. The discussion encapsulated the contradictions within this industry, the growth of which is driven in large part by male labourers who migrate to the large metropolises from the agrarian belts of Purvanchal (Eastern UP) and Bihar. In Hamaar Gharwaali, for instance, the female lead rejects her suitor because he has not passed high school. After being molested by alcoholics with college degrees, however, she sees his innate goodness and changes her mind. The hero uses violence only reluctantly (partly due to the expense of filming fights); instead, quick wit and gentle decency are his main selling points.

However, the distributor of the film said that what sells in Bombay is fighting, chest-thumping and action. The director, on the other hand, pointed out that only a quarter of the revenue of a Bhojpuri film actually comes from Bombay, while Bihar accounts for 40 percent. Industry representatives and audiences often speak of the extra-large extended families, including children and grandmothers, who go to watch Bhojpuri films in Bihar – and in both this state and in UP, it is social and family dramas that sell.

Some film industry analysts maintain that the male migrant audience of Bhojpuri films is necessary, but not typical. Indeed, the migrant may develop 'suspect' tastes in harsh city environs, away from the morally salubrious influence of women and elders. And Manoj Tiwari says he is often asked to do bawdy songs, but refuses because "60 percent of my people are in the home, and I will not cater to the 40 percent on the streets." Film distributors refer to the overall Bhojpuri audience as "the masses", but define the migrant audience as "third-class" and "C-grade" – both morally inflected descriptors of economic status. The anxious crowd control efforts of the Bombay theatre managers betray a view of rural migrants as an unknown and disordering threat.

The stars themselves take a more positive view of their audiences' bodily exuberance. Ravi Kishan recalls the ecstatic reception he received while shooting in the Nepali town of Birganj, as well as in rural locations in Bihar. "Village people don't have the unfortunate shame that urban viewers do," he says. "They touch me, hug me, fall at my feet, bless me. I'm the rebel hero – I do both romance and rifles. To them, I am a son of the soil."

The physical behaviour of audiences within the theatre space also communicates vital facts to the Bhojpuri film industry. One distributor explains: "Where do they clap? Which songs do they dance to? What comments are they making? How many sit in the balcony, and how many in the stalls? We look at all this, and then get an idea of what kind of film will run."

Cheering is certainly a valuable barometer of audience sentiment, as this writer witnessed during Aslam Sheikh's Pyaar Ke Bandhan, which starred Manoj Tiwari. Like Mohanji Prasad, Sheikh is one of the few Bhojpuri film directors who made films during the 1980s, and appears to have a reform-minded sensibility akin to that of the old socialist filmmakers of Hindi films. In a key scene in Pyaar Ke Bandhan, the heroine – the spoiled daughter of a landowner – insults the cobbler (played by Tiwari) in English, while throwing money at him. The cobbler then stands up and lectures her in Bhojpuri-accented English about the value of education in improving one's character – not in degrading it, as has happened in her case. The audience erupted deafeningly at this scene, with applause and whistles lasting several minutes. It later turned out that this same sequence was to be found in many of Tiwari's films, beginning with his first, the 2005 blockbuster Sasura Bada Paisawala. Explains Aslam Sheikh: "The point is to show an image of what can happen when the cobbler learns English. Many Scheduled Castes are now educated."

The allegorising of social conflict as romantic and familial drama is inherent to melodrama, and a common feature of popular culture in societies with feudal remnants. Yet something more is at work in the many Bhojpuri stories where class and status alike become curiously gendered, with an educated and empowered – but somehow lost – heroine being won over by a less privileged, more vernacular and often less educated hero. With large numbers of single men migrating to far-off cities, women in the agrarian belts of Bihar and UP often venture into previously male spheres, whether in terms of agricultural wage labour or negotiating with local officials. Men too encounter a world of unaccustomed gender relations in the metropolitan hubs. Indian metros teem with women in Western clothes, who speak sharply to rickshaw drivers in English – the very women that Manoj Tiwari is so well-loved for lecturing in his films.

Javed and Zia, young zari workers from Jehanabad in Bihar, say they like Manoj Tiwari "because he has a village voice, and because he criticises scantily clad women." The anxiety around the new gender relations coming into play is reflected in Bhojpuri film posters and images. While these often show spirited female characters posing like avenging deities, they sometimes hold domestic implements in place of weapons – a broom, for instance, or a rolling pin.

Whose culture?

Many of those participating in the Bhojpuri film boom believe that the rural culture of Bihar and UP has values worthy of emulation, values lost to the loud minority that constitutes metropolitan India being catered to by the new crop of Hindi films. Nevertheless, this culture is also recognised as feudal. This entails a certain balancing act on the part of the filmmakers, keeping in mind that the 'masses' who currently view these films are at the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy. Bihari producer Sunil Bobbna sums it up by noting simply, "The poor man likes to hit at the rich man, in any way".

In fact, economic status is part of the story, but not all of it. Studies of migration patterns Out of Bihar note that upper-caste migrants can he found in large numbers in urban locations, willing to do the kind of work in cities that they would consider humiliating back home. Thakur village, a migrant locality in Kandivali, Bombay, has slums inhabited largely by Thakurs, with the most recent migrants claiming that they prefer to follow caste-segregated living in the slum. While they may be united in class and culture with other Bhojpuri-speaking migrants, within that world they try to preserve the hierarchy from back home.

The sensibilities of filmmakers vary as much as those of the 'masses'. There is a certain type of Bhojpuri film, such as Sanjay Sinha's Maiyya Rakhia Senurva Abaad, that centres on the vicissitudes of land division and internal disintegration in landowning families – a story that resonates with many Thakur youth. The film ejects out of history, reverting to the timeless structure of myth – the Ramavana, in this case: there is a scheming sister-in-law, a loyal servant, a pure wife, exile and devotion to the mother goddess. While dissolute landlords – who drink, wield guns and watch dancing girls – are portrayed with censure, the religious and united landowning family is seen as a bulwark against chaos.

Aslam Sheikh's films, on the other hand, tend to adopt a perspective located outside the feudal structures of the landowning and patriarchal joint family. He says he has been accused of harbouring a grudge against Thakurs. Some distributors derisively note the "improbability" of a cobbler sending his son to a good private school, as in Sheikh's Pyaar Ke Bandhan. But others have come specifically to look for this element. Sanjay, a student from Faizabad, had come to a theatre to watch Pyaar Ke Bandhan along with his extended family, including delivery men, carpenters, tile salesmen and flour-mill operators. The youngest member of the family, someone pointed out, attended an English-medium school.

"Bhojpuri films," said Sanjay, "are in the end about the difference between poor people and rich people." Kamlesh Gupta, a carpenter, touched his heart and elaborated on this sentiment: "Poor people understand respect. They understand respect because they always have to bow down." The ambiguity inherent in that statement, with its ironic recognition of the way necessity becomes virtue, signals that a part of this film-going public is thinking, even as it dances.

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