Hindi cinema is now ‘Bollywood’ cinema, although many in the Bombay film industry find the term derogatory. After all, Bombay cinema is the only film culture in the world that has been able to withstand, and even thwart, the global juggernaut called Hollywood. Working in a manner that hardly befits its so-called industry status (never mind the recent efforts at corporatisation), Bombay cinema has achieved what even the proud French have failed at — prevent Hollywood from bringing the national film industry to its knees.
But the same Bombay cinema — often described as the opiate of the masses in the Hindi-speaking world, and increasingly an addiction even in the non-Hindi regions of the globe — is doing to India itself exactly what Hollywood has so effectively done to so many countries. Aided by an ever-willing and ever-expanding media, Bollywood has emerged as a threat to the entirety of India’s venerable ‘regional’ film industries.
In a country as diverse as India, cinema has long been a tool to tell the stories of different peoples across the vastly diverse regions. Hindi cinema has been the fulcrum of this phenomenon. However, the regional cinema has also had a powerful role as an entertainment medium that chronicles the concerns, cultural richness and contradictions of India’s many societies. In fact, it was regional cinema that initially catapulted Indian film to the global stage.
As Bollywood now becomes a familiar term across the world — associated with colourful songs and dances even while telling the most conscientious stories in parallel — the space for regional film, including even the non-Bollywood Hindi cinema, is rapidly shrinking. But it is cinema in the various parts and languages that have been hit the hardest in the widely applauded rise of Hindi Bollywood. This could sound like a paradox when regional-language films, such as Amol Palekar’s Marathi Anahat, Rituparno Ghose’s Bengali Chokher Bali and Rajeev Menon’s Tamil Kandukondain Kandukondai, are being released in multiplexes even in a hardcore Bollywood film market such as Delhi. But these are exceptions, which do not reflect the broader trend.
The Indian government, particularly since the time of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, has given legitimacy to the term ‘Bollywood’, heavily promoting its brand at major film festivals throughout the world. The entertainment committees of the leading but rival industry bodies — the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), packed with filmmakers from Bombay — are playing the willing conspirators, organising regular conferences that discuss the dynamics of only the Bollywood industry, and rarely allowing space for discussion of regional cinema cultures. These groups also collaborate with the government in setting up stalls about Indian cinema (read: ‘commercial Hindi movies’) at global film festivals. With Bollywood cinema being relentlessly promoted as ‘Indian’ cinema, many new converts abroad have come to believe that it is only the former that comprises the latter.
Even the state-owned television broadcaster, Doordarshan, the only terrestrial TV channel in India, has turned away from the ‘language cinema’. It has drastically reduced screening regional cinema, a role it used to perform quite well. Understandably, in this era of globalisation and the resultant mushrooming of private TV channels, it does not make business sense for Doordarshan to devote so much time to regional cinema. But then, it is the country’s public-service broadcaster whose mandated duty it is to reflect the country’s diversity, and regional cinema is undoubtedly a powerful platform for such depictions.
It is not only government patronage that has given a boost to Bombay cinema. The rise of the Bollywood phenomenon internationally coincides with the ushering in of economic liberalisation in India in the early 1990s. Multinationals were quick to see Bollywood for what it is — an unmatched marketing platform to reach the ‘masses’ in the best sense of the term. The increasing product placements and brandings in Bollywood films, and the cosy nexus between corporate leaders and Bombay film producers, are only reflections of this strategy.
Even the multiplex boom in the larger metros of India, which many had hoped would create space for cinema beyond Bollywood, has largely failed to aid regional films, barring a few exceptions. Undoubtedly, the multiplexes have helped to create a genre of low-budget Hindi films that deal with subjects outside of the usual Bollywood formula. These movies are released in multiplexes, but are pushed out the minute big-budget Hindi ‘masala’ movies require the space.
The lack of awareness, and interest, in the rich repository of celluloid treasure that lies beyond Bombay is also due to the role of the mainstream media. Rarely giving space to regional cinema, the media ceaselessly reviews standard and mediocre Bollywood fare alike. Stoking the constant gossip about the film stars of Bombay, the press and television keep the focus on Bollywood and help it consolidate the grip on the film industry as a whole. Last year a prominent Hindi news channel even invited the film characters (not the actors, mind you, but the characters) of a popular Hindi film, Bunty Aur Bubli, to ‘present’ the news. There have also been repeated instances when national newspapers and channels have misled readers and viewers by reporting that particular Hindi films have won the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film — when in reality, those films had won in less-prestigious categories, while regional-language films have taken the top honours.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the attention and support Bollywood receives. Nor can its popularity be contested. The Bombay film industry has attained humongous proportions, and its prospects seem to be staggering. Some forecasts speculate that Bollywood could grow three-fold in less than a decade, to become a INR 60,000 crore behemoth. Obviously, it makes good sense to do business in a field that is growing beyond the domestic and even regional markets. Hindi films are being dubbed into European languages, attracting newer audiences and greater revenue. But then, cinema has proven itself over the years to be more than mere business. It is first and foremost an art form, but one that by its nature has to involve huge sums of money. Cinema has perforce a role to play much beyond just its commercial aspects, and this is where the importance of regional-language cinema is so obvious — other than to those who are so glamorised by Bollywood as to be blind to reality.
Indeed, does Bollywood reflect the real India? Its literary and cultural heritage, its vastly diverse cultures and societies, its repertoire of over 2500 languages and dialects, the political and social conflicts inevitable in the world’s largest democracy?
Rather than the fast-globalising Hindi films, it is, in fact, regional productions that have been able to bring out the essence and contradictions of India. It is the other cinema, this ‘independent’ cinema, in Hindi and in a huge variety of regional languages (more recently including English) that gives true voice to India’s Li billion population. Arid let us not forget that it is these regional film cultures that first gave face to Indian cinema globally. Be it Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Senegal, or Jahnu Barua, Girish Kasaravalli and Shaji N Karun, regional filmmakers have long earned accolades for being uniquely able to capture distinct Indian social and cultural realities.
Contemporary Bollywood cinema is actually very different from the cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, when directors like Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt had been able to marry commercial needs with aesthetic sensibilities, to great effect. But while modern Bollywood has attracted attention for its fantasy-like nature, regional films have brought to light the diversities of the ‘real’ India. This cinema comes from a band of filmmakers whose creativity is driven by sheer zeal and love for the mesmeric images of the big screen, and despite the fact that they live a life mostly shorn of glamour and money.
In the last decade or so, it has become increasingly difficult for regional filmmakers to market their films — not only on a pan-Indian scale, but even in their own regions, where imitations of the standard Bollywood fare have become extremely popular. The South Indian film industries have been able to combat the Bombay bandwagon only because they have learnt to produce equally escapist fare — more of the same stuff in their own languages. The small-moneyed producers and directors of regional film, out to present a realistic cinematic paradigm, are unable to challenge the Bombay behemoth.
As Hindi films witness an unprecedented wave of popularity, some have been euphoric with expectation as to how this will boost all ‘Indian’ cinema. Unfortunately, the growing hegemony of the Bombay film industry has only diminished prospects for the various regional-language industries. A severe resource crunch, lack of government support, and an audience grown fat and lethargic on the Bollywood diet has meant that quality regional cinema — portraying the diversity of India with hard-hitting, at times difficult social realism — is struggling to find space. To preserve this diversity, and for the sake of cinema itself, it is crucial that a ‘new wave’ of cinema from Calcutta, Madras, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram and Patna steps up to the challenge from Bombay.