The economics of Hindi cinema was turned on its head while we were not watching, and scripts, sets, locations, language, heroes and heroines are all no longer what they were. That is because the demograpic profile of the audience has changed and with it a reorientation of values which makes Bombay cinema less and less representative of the people as a whole.
The more things remain the same, the more they change. Hindi cinema is no longer what some of us grew up on. The last ten years, the decade of economic liberalisation, has transformed Hindi cinema quite thoroughly, though not beyond recognition. As a result, what seems to us to be the same old fare, merely suitably repackaged for our globalised times, is actually quite new stuff. So what has changed?
The financial foundations of the film industry, for one. Consider this: in the 1960s, Rajendra Kumar, star of films like Mere Mehboob, Arzoo, Goonj Uthi She’mai, Dil Ek Mandir, etc, was called Jubilee Kumar. The legend goes that several of his films did a silver jubilee run-25 consecutive weeks—while some went on to a golden jubilee (50), and a few platinum (75). Old timers talk of films like Azvaara, Mughal-e-Azam, or Mother India, all with incredible runs. About one such film, it was said the touts who sold tickets in black outside the theatres could save enough for their daughters’ or sisters’ dowry. That may be hyperbole, but one based on some element of truth. I remember, quite distinctly, as a boy of eight or 10, when I saw Sholay for the first time, the film was already in its 23rd week, and was simultaneously running in half a dozen or more theatres in Bombay.
You do not get those sorts of runs any more. Now, posters are put out to celebrate a film’s run of 100 days. That is just two days over 14 weeks. In fact, in June this year, Satish Kaushik’s eminently forgettable Mujhe Kuchh Kehna Hai, the launch pad for former hero Jeetendra’s son Tusshar Kapoor (pairing him with Kareena Kapoor), in its third week, was running in nine theatres in Delhi. Later the same month, in the week that saw the simultaneous release of an Aamir Khan and a Sunny Deol starrer (Lagaan and Gadar, respectively), the number of theatres screening Mujhe Kuchh Kehna Hai was already down to three. But who cares? Certainly not producer Vashu Bhagnani. The film, trade magazines tell us, has already been declared a hit. Which is very good news, because the industry has not really seen a proper hit so far this year. So young Tusshar Kapoor has brought cheer to the industry, and is reportedly flooded with offers. No one can say how long he will last, whether five years down the line anyone will even remember his name (one barely remembers even yesteryear’s Jeetendra these days), but no one is asking either. As the industry cliché goes, you are as good as your last hit.
The new celluloid economy
In the old days, it was relatively simple. You made a film after raising money from film financiers and merchants, and you sold it to distributors. Once the film was released, masses of people flocked the film halls, and over several weeks, their money found its way into the pockets of distributors, producers, and sundry other elements. Or it did not, and led to lost empires, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism, even suicides. The financially disastrous performance of Kagaz ke Root reportedly drove Guru Dutt to suicide. The essential point, however, is that the success or failure of a film was directly dependent upon how many people bought tickets in cinema halls. In other words, numbers mattered. Numbers still matter, of course. But not of people who buy tickets. You can, and do, have films that would have been considered flops by earlier yardsticks, actually raking in profits, sometimes of huge magnitude. Or even more bizarrely, films today can start making profits even before the shooting begins. Here are some examples.
J.P. Dutta’s Refugee, which launched star kids Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor, reportedly grossed much less through ticket sales in India than the 90 million Indian rupees that went into its making. Dutta was unruffled. He bundled the film with his earlier hit Border, and sold their telecast rights for INR 100 million. Or take super-showman Subhash Ghai’s forthcoming Yaadein, with the hottest young stars going, Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor. The film, long before its release, is reported to have grossed upwards of INR 200 million. Ghai is also said to have sold limited telecast rights for eight of his earlier films and earned a cool INR 140 million in the bargain. Even more amazing is the case with Karan Johar’s still-under-production Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Otani, with the most spectacular casting coup since Sholay: Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, Hrithik Roshan and (you guessed it) Kareena Kapoor. The film, through the sale of its music rights, overseas distribution rights, and telecast rights, had mopped up a staggering Rs 35 crore even before a single shot was canned.
The equations have changed dramatically. According to producer Tutu Sharma, the overseas distribution rights for a big budget film are roughly double that for the largest Indian ‘territory’, Bombay. In other words, if a distributor forks out INR 35 million to buy the rights for the Bombay territory, he will pay about INR 70 million for the overseas market. In a case like this, the price for all-India rights (including Bombay) will be about 120 million; that is, the financial returns to the producer from distribution in an overseas market of about 20 million people is roughly 60 percent of the volume realised from distribution in the entire Indian market of one billion people. Just music rights alone are big business. Yash Chopra sold the music rights of his son’s Mohabattein to HMV for INR 75 million, while Sanjay Leela Bhansali has given his Devdas, which is still under production, to Universal for INR 95 million. It was not always so. In the mid-1990s, music rights of a big film could be had for a mere INR 10 million. Today, there are the additional revenues to be had from the sale of DVD and telecast rights.
Then there is the more recent trend of selling advertising space in the movie. Remember Daler Mehndi and Amitabh Bachchan dancing in front of Liberty shoes billboard in the latter’s comeback flop Mrityudaata? The logic of corporate sponsorship for films was taken to a new level a few years later by Shah Rukh Khan. When Dreamz Unlimited (a company he floated along with Juhi Chawla and Azeez Mirza) produced Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (with the first two starring and the third directing), the company raised a fair amount of money from corporations, which in the bargain got entire scenes devoted to their products. So Shah Rukh Khan woos Juhi Chawla in front of a Swatch kiosk and drives around in a Santro car, and so on. This takeover of space by corporations is called ‘synergy’ between industry and entertainment. While such synergy is still in fairly low key compared to Hollywood, where entire films have been produced by corporations (You’ve Got Mail is a recent example), it seems set to grow in Bombay.
Aggregate the revenues from all these sources and the returns from the domestic viewing public (which we always think of as the primary market) as a proportion of total revenues shrink pretty drastically. According to one estimate, only about 35 percent of the revenue earned by a film is from the sale of tickets in the domestic market. Little wonder that producers are buoyant. “Raising money is not an issue any more,” exults Subhash Ghai. The CEO of Reliance Entertainment is even more forthright: “We are talking big money. Traditional cinema is in its terminal stage”.
What is big only gets bigger. Arthur Andersen’s study on the entertainment industry commissioned by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry comes up with figures sure to gladden the hearts of those with stakes in the film business. The study cites a figure of INR 13 billion for the total yearly business conducted by the film industry in 2000, which is expected to grow to 40 billion by 2005. Ghai’s figures are even more dramatic: INR 60 billion in 1999, which will go up to 330 billion by 2003.
The chavanni audience
If you thought that the money dished out by the rickshaw puller, the industrial worker, the vegetable vendor, the domestic servant, the urban unemployed, is what accounts for the turnover of the Hindi film industry, you could not be more wrong. “What matters today are ‘A’ grade centres—about 15-20 big cities—and the overseas centres,” points out director Azeez Mirza. “Who cares about the rest? Even Pune is now a ‘B’ grade centre. When the overseas centres gross 15-16 crores (150-160 million), why would a town like Bathinda be important? The time is past when people made films for the chavanni (25 paise) audience.” Hindi cinema is funded today in overwhelmingly large proportions by the rich, whether in India or abroad.
The rise of multiplexes is part of this development. Multiplexes have numerous benefits for the few: exhibitors and distributors earn more per film because of higher ticket prices; by breaking the one-film-per-week model, and shuffling the number and timings of shows of particular films, investment is made to yield the highest possible revenue; a certain kind of niche film (such as Hyderabad Blues) now becomes commercially viable; by exhibiting six or seven films per week, the chances of a flop resulting in a big loss to individual exhibitors is minimised; and socially, by targetting and catering to a niche audience, the multiplex becomes an extension of the home theatre, where the rich can watch films in the company of their own class.
This pattern of financing leaves its imprint on the content of the film. Ghai, whose Pardus was a big hit abroad, plans to premiere Yaadein in London: “Yaadein targets an NRI audience and as the film is about NRIs in London, they’ll be able to connect [with it] better”. In other words, the gracious people who wear Nike sneakers, sip Coke, and stay connected via trendy cell phones and smart PCs, are the very people who consume Hrithik Roshan and Kareena Kapoor. Or, to rephrase it: the consumers who matter are the gracious people; the rest of us are voyeurs.
It is a party of the rich, and we are invited to watch, from a distance. The trajectory of these big-budget, high-profile, large-revenue films aimed at the hyper-consumerist audience is very different from that of the more modest productions, made by the residual segment of the industry, which are geared towards a “lesser audience” with limited disposable incomes. The Hindi film industry has never been one homogeneous entity, with ‘A’ grade, ‘B’ grade, ‘C’ grade, and even ‘D’ grade films, each category having its own class defined market, and hence its own aesthetic assumptions—or to put it the other way, the varying degrees of the lack of aesthetics in all these follow from somewhat different commercial compulsions.
One way to capture this difference is to chart the career of Mithun Chakraborty. He started out with director Mrinal Sen (Mrigaya), and then came to Bombay. Here, he became a star with a large following among the lower middle class and the urban poor. This was in the 1980s, when he had assumed a screen persona that was a mix of Amitabh Bachchan, James Bond and John Travolta. In the late 1980s he starred in a few Amitabh Bachchan films as well (Agnipath, Ganga Jainuna Saraswati). By now, however, his days of glory were over, or so everyone thought. Mithun Chakraborty thought otherwise, and all through the early to mid-1990s, he became more prolific than ever. Between 1990 and 1995, he starred in at least 51 films-8.5 films a year, or a film every 42 days! None of these, however, was a hit in the way we know it. But even today he is among the more prolific heroes going.
Without a single hit, how has Mithun Chakraborty managed to get so many films over so long a period? Very simply, he shifted to Ooty, and built a hotel in the southern hillstation. So, if you are a producer, you go to Ooty, stay with your crew in his hotel at concessional rates, shoot a film with him and an aspiring or failed starlet, finish shooting in three weeks, do post-production in Bombay over the next fortnight or so, and inside two months, a film is ready with six songs, fight sequences, one rape, fiery dialogues, and a weepy mother. Release the film in the less classy theatres in the big cities and in smaller centres like Patna, lndore, Benaras and Bathinda. The actor’s loyal front-stall fan following will ensure a decent run for a couple of weeks. Low investment, short gestation, moderate returns, and guaranteed break-even is what it is all about.
In a sense, Mithun Chakraborty is the most popular star of the 1990s, more popular than the big B, the three Khans, Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol, Govinda, Akshay Kumar, or anyone else. The combined audience of all Mithun films would outstrip the viewership commanded by any one of the others. And lest one appear disparaging, let it also be said that, on average, Mithun Chakraborty does one non-commercial film a year. One such, Budhadev Dasgupta’s Tahader Katha, won him the National Award for acting in 1992.
Economics behind us, it is possible now to offer a few stray observations, not necessarily tied together with the string of theory, on the new hero of contemporary films. For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, the natural, though not exclusive, point of reference in a comparative exercise are the films of those decades. And, to the extent that Amitabh Bachchan dominated those decades, his towering angry-youngman presence is the one which naturally comes to mind as the contrast to the new ‘consumable’ hero who has taken over.
Typically, this new hero in the Hindi film tends to be Punjabi, rich and conformist. It was not so earlier. Erstwhile heroes were rarely given an explicit regional and linguistic affiliation. Even if the actors were not all Hindu, their roles were implicitly so, and one could guess that they were not Dalit, but beyond that the film did not tell you much. Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, they all spent a lifetime playing characters who got introduced, a trifle ludicrously, as ‘Mr Amar’, or ‘Mr Anand’, or ‘Mr Raj’. Even Amitabh Bachchan was normally just Vijay, or, if he was a UP kayasth, then perhaps he would be Vijay Kumar Shrivastava. But this fact was never really stressed. True, in some films he played the Muslim, or at least carried a Muslim name: Mukkadar ka Sikandar and Coolie spring to mind. His famous Christian role is of course the appealing street-smart guy in Amar Akbar Anthony. Carrying the logic of this hit further, Manmohan Desai, in Naseeb, gave him simultaneously three names, Hindu, Muslim, Christian: John Jaani Janardan. But the context in such cases is clearly benign.
No more. The ‘Rahuls’ and ‘Prems’ of the 1990s are very much Malhotra and Khanna, and the Anjalis and the Simrans they fall for are Oberoi and Grewal. Earlier heroes were either poor and had the rich girl fall for them—Lazvaaris—or were rich and fell for the poor girl—Sharabi. Or, sometimes, they were poor, and unsuccessfully coveted the rich girl—Mukkadar ka Sikandar. In any case, usually there was a threat—or promise, depending on how you look at it—of violating or transgressing social and economic boundaries. Not that such boundaries were really transgressed. Far from it. A variety of tricks were devised for this purpose. Either the hero just died, as in Mukkadar ka Sikandar, or it was revealed (to the hero, that is; the audience knew all along) that he is in fact the long-lost son of a rich man, as in Lawaaris. This made matters simple—through the film, you could have the poor hero mouthing populist rhetoric against wealth, and in the end, when it really mattered, he ended up with oodles of it.
Even when the hero was not poor himself, he needed to identify with the poor in a variety of ways. There are several films of earlier times (particularly of the 1950s and 1960s) where the hero is a qualified professional, an engineer or a doctor, who fights, or at least speaks, for the poor. Or if he is rich, then he often has a poor friend who he looks upon as a brother. Sometimes, he is the son of a rich industrialist or landlord who doles out largesse to poor workers or peasants, much to the chagrin of the father and the old and irritating munshi. Or, if he is Amitabh Bachchan, he realises utopia by simply leading the poor into the rich man’s house and asking them to occupy it—Lawaaris and Coolie.
This need to identify with the masses was most endearingly encapsulated in a now-extinct convention of the Hindi film: the male solo number early in the film which introduced the hero. Typically, the song would establish the hero as a hopeless romantic, on the lookout for the right one to give his heart to, and one would see a Shammi Kapoor or a Rajesh Khanna driving in an opentop down idyllic hillsides and lush fields where doll-like peasant girls would coyly wave at him. Hindi cinema has never been naturalistic, so there is no point complaining that the girls look anything but peasant. But today, the heroes do not have any peasantry watching their passage. As a matter of fact, song picturisation itself has undergone a pretty dramatic change. The satellite boom has resulted songs looking more and more like music videos, and having an increasingly autonomous space in the narrative of the film (though of late, context-specific songs have started making a limited comeback and both these changes have been obvious to most film-goers.
But along with these, another, less noted change has taken place. Of the films from an earlier time, from Ramaiya Vasta Vaiya to Khaike Paan Banaras Wallah, any body would be able to come up with a ready list of hit songs that have rural or urban labouring classes dancing and singing with the hero(ine). Of the films of the 1990s, you will notice that films have banished labouring classes from song picturisations altogether. Forget about the rich boy teeny-bopper romance films of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, this is even true of Aamir Khan films like Rangeela, Ghulam and Raja Hindustani, where he plays the poor boy. The exception has perhaps been Govinda, the only truly comic hero since Kishore Kumar: in Coolie No. 1, he is, well, a coolie. But after the delightful Dulhe Raja, where he is the intransigent youth who refuses to move his roadside dhaba from in front of Kader Khan’s five-star hotel, even Govinda seems to have pretty much shed his proletarian image.
This is why Aamir Khan ‘s home production, Lngaan, is so refreshing. But does the film mark the return of the peasant to the Hindi screen? It is difficult to hazard a guess, but the answer is probably no. The simple fact is that, as shown above, the economics of film production has altered dramatically, and those who now account for the profits of the industry are simply not interested in watching sweaty peasantry. Why then, has Lagaan succeeded? It must have been the cricket theme which, as in real life, manage to unite passions across classes and international borders.
Of a piece with the banished peasant is the way the very look of the heroes has changed. The joke about Salman Khan is that he is the only Gandhian star we have: he has vowed not to wear a shirt so long as the hungry millions in India go shirtless. Indian heroes have not had physiques like his. Remember Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, or Rajesh Khanna? Or even angry young man Amitabh Bachchan? You had to be a real washout, like Dara Singh, if you had to survive by showing off your muscles. No more. If Jackie Shroff and Sunny Deol compensated for their limited acting talent with macho looks in the 1980s, Sanjay Dutt discarded drugs and his mother’s delicate looks to reinvent himself as a hunk in the early 1990s. just in time, too. For the 1990s was the decade of the biceps-Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Sunil Shetty, Akshay Khanna and the many others who came and went. Even Aamir Khan, the best actor amongst the 90s stars, has a good enough physique to look a convincing small-time boxer in Ghulam.
The exceptions to this macho brigade, of course, are Shah Rukh Khan and Govinda, the one wiry and the other, thank god, paunchy. But even they are feeling the pressure, and in films like Duplicate and Bndshah, Shah Rukh Khan shows more muscle than one thought he had. And the new century has brought forth Hrithik Roshan, with a physique so perfect it seems plastic.
Welcome to the age of the consumable hero who does what Helen did earlier—he dances like a dream, and his body itself, rather than his persona, is the object of consumption, much to the delight of the advertising world. It is only fitting, then, that this new, consumable hero wears Gap shirts and Nike sneakers, and when he dances, it is in front of McDonald’s outlets in white man’s land, or Hollywood studios, or swanky trains, and has white girls dancing with him.
Much, then, has changed. Some of it has been noted and commented upon, such as the celebration of the Hindu undivided family. Hum Apke Hain Kaun (HANK) is of course the best and the most analysed example. Anyone who has been watching films in the second half of the 1990s will have become impatient with those countless marriage sequences full of suited and turbaned men, and heavily bejewelled and made-up women, not to mention the mandatory karva chauth sequence. But the point of the formula that HAHK put in place went beyond mere repetition of marriage sequences and songs. It was almost as if the family—often expatriate— becomes a family only through the observance of ritual. And once filmmakers ran out of ritual from the real world, they began inventing their own. A recent example is the Abhishek Bachchan-Aishwarya Rai film Dhai Akshar Prem Ka. The hero, mistakenly assumed to be the heroine’s husband by her family (and why neither of them speaks up to dispel this confusion is not considered necessary to discuss) is made to go through the ritual of being turbaned while a priest chants incoherently. This ritual, which takes place sometime after their presumed marriage, marks his entry into the family. No sociologist and other experts approached by this writer have been able to identify such a ritual anywhere in India.
While the various evolutionary trends in Hindi films are merely the interesting upshot of audience demography, the increasing ‘communalisation’ of the Hindi film is a dangerous new direction that has been taken. The most obvious index of this is the change in the depiction of the Muslim: from being the hero’s friend, the Muslim metamorphosised in the late 1980s and early 90s, to serve as the villain in an increasing number of productions. This happened, of course, as the Ram Janambhoomi movement gathered strength, and the Shiv Sena became stronger not just in the city of Bombay, but also in the film industry. Tezaab (famous for the scintillating Ek do teen number by Madhuri Dixit) was an early film that depicted the Muslim as villain. Since then, there have been many. In Ghatak, Sunny Deol, a Brahman from Benaras, appropriately named Kashi, takes on and defeats a very Muslimlooking villain and his many brothers. Shool has a Thakur-Brahmin alliance taking on a Muslim-Dalit combine in small town Bihar. Pukar, a jingoistic film made right after Kargil, plays on the easy association of Muslim with Pakistan, and thus got for its hero, Anil Kapoor, the National Award for acting conferred by a jury which included the editor of Panchajanya, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece. Gadar, currently running to packed houses all over India, uses the backdrop of the Subcontinent’s partition to say some very vicious things about Muslims.
All these are important developments, and need careful study and analysis because of the sheer power of the Hindi movie on the elites and masses of South Asia. However, there are two other maters that stand out, which have escaped critical and political attention. One is how the new hero has redefined the meaning of the love triangle, and the other is that for the first time in Hindi cinema, the hero is someone without a past, and consequently without a memory. The first is essentially a matter of plot whereas the latter is rife with social connotations.
The new love triangle
The love triangle is the classic formula, with countless variations. At its most basic, however, the triangle traditionally had either one man and two women (Devdas), or two men and one woman (Sangam). The history of the love triangle is so dense with associations and allusions, that it tends to be rather complex. The first sort of triangle, the Devdas model if you will, is basically a story of the feudal aristocracy’s inability to cope with the transition to capitalism. The two women, then, represent the unattainable aspirations of this class contrasted with its sordid and decadent reality. Devdas was made into at least two very famous versions: one by P.C. Barua in Bangla (starring himself) and one in Hindi (starring K.L. Saigal) in 1935. The latter version was remade by Barua’s former assistant Bimal Roy (starring Dilip Kumar) in 1955. Apart from the Hindi/Bangla versions, there was a silent one in 1928, and two in Telugu (1953, 1974). Cutrently, there is another version being shot by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, starring Shah Rukh Khan. Clearly the novel as well as the film (Barua’s version, of course) have became a reference point of nearly mythological proportions, and this surely has something to do with it capturing the drama and the pathos of this great social transformation that destroyed the future of the feudal aristocracy. On the other hand, the other kind of triangle is far less interesting: at best, it represents a romance between two men (with or without homoerotic allusions) interrupted by a woman.
The love triangle of the 1990s and later, however, follows neither of these models. Think of some of the scenarios:
Girl 1 is in love with Boy, but Boy loves Girl 2, who loves him in return. They marry, have a child, and Girl 2 dies, but not before realising that Boy was actually made for Girl 1. So the spirit of Girl 2, using the child as mediator between the worlds of the dead and the living, brings about union of Boy and Girl 1. (Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.) Boy and Girl 1 are married, though not happily, because Girl 1 nags him incessantly about their lack of wealth. Girl 2, fabulously rich, makes the indecent proposal: husband in exchange for wealth. Girl 1 accepts. With wealth, Girl 1 becomes ever more insufferable, but Girl 2 turns sati savitri. In the end, though, the sanctity of the marriage is maintained, and Girl 2 walks away carrying Boy’s baby in her womb. (Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Urmila Matondkar in Judaai.)
Boy and Girl 1 are married, happily this time, and have much cash as well. But Girl 1 suffers an
accident during pregnancy, loses the child, and cannot conceive again. The couple and the extended family are desperate for a child, so adoption is suggested by the Boy, but ruled out by Girl 1. She forces him, instead, to look for Girl 2, who will bear his child. They live together as a happy threesome during pregnancy, and even though Girl 2 for a while contemplates not giving up the child, eventually she goes away with a beatific halo, leaving baby and cash behind. (Salman Khan, Rani- Mukherjee, Preity Zinta in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke.)
Boy and Girl 1 meet in New Zealand, fall in love, but become separated. Boy comes back to India, saves (abandoned) pregnant Girl 2 from committing suicide. He agrees to masquerade as her husband in front of her family, but Girl 2 turns out to be Girl l’s sister. So Boy lives in their house, pretending to be Girl 2’s husband, but loving Girl 1. Does it matter how it ends? (Govinda, Urmila Matondkar, Naghma in Kunwara)
An interesting case is Shyam Benegal’s recent film Zubeida, in which Karisma Kapoor plays a divorced woman who marries a prince (Manoj Bajpai), who already has a wife (Rekha). While the film dwells on Zubeida’s emotional insecurities in this triangular relationship, it does not condemn bigamy per se. Even more surprising is the nostalgic, almost heroic, treatment of the prince. This, from the maker of Bhuntika, a film which was a radical departure in the late 1970s for its depiction of the independent woman.
How is this version of the triangle very different from earlier ones? Well, what you have now is two women wanting one man—and he gets them both! This development is basically a post-Hum Aapke Hain Kaun phenomenon. HAHK is the landmark film which, by playing out the desires of unbridled consumerism, ritualism, and religiosity through the fantasy of the contradiction- free Hindu undivided family, became a massive blockbuster.
HAHK’s formula was picked up with lightning speed by the industry, and a whole avalanche of feel-good happy family films followed. Film scholars and sociologists have showered attention on HAHK, but an unremarked fact is that at precisely the time that the new hero was becoming conformist and seemingly upholding family values, he was also turning bigamous! The consumerism of the new hero extends as much to the sexual realm as it does to the economic.
‘Angry’ no more
The other question, that of history and memory, is more complex. Manmohan Desai was the original postmod- Small-town hero Mithun and ernist Bombay director, with a thorough (and often de- (above) a small-town theatre. lightful) contempt for logic and meaning. He made a fortune by casting Amitabh Bachchan in lost-and-found potboilers: Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish, Suhaag, Naseeb, Mard. It is tempting to think that the brothers-separated- at-birth theme was in some ways perhaps a subconscious response to the trauma of a nation partitioned at birth. What is interesting is that this particular formula has completely disappeared from Hindi films of the 90s. It is not clear why this has happened, but what is certain is that the hero’s past itself has disappeared, and there is no memory. This may seem like a baffling disappearance. Because in the past memory had always been memory which has driven the Hindi film hero to aggrandisement, revenge, vigilantism, crime, murder, or all of the above. The examples are many and wellknown; so let us just stick to Amitabh Bachchan. If one were to ask what makes the angry young man angry, the answer will surely be memory: the memory of his parents’ murder in Zanjeer; of his being an illegitimate child in Trishul and Lawaaris; of his childhood sweetheart in Mukkadar ka Sikandar; of his own betrayal under trying circumstances in Kaala Patthar; and, most famously, of his being branded as a thief’s son in Deewar. Memory, after all, was what gave that high voltage intensity to the stunning screen persona of Amitabh Bachchan.
Think now of the Rahuls and the Prems of today’s Hindi films. One of the things that is immediately striking is of course that these young men are no longer ‘angry’. Forget about being moved by social injustice, they do not even run away with their beloved in the face of parental opposition. On the contrary, like the hero of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, they celebrate their conformism as valour. But more striking still is the fact that they do not have childhoods any longer. Recall the films that have defined the consumable hero: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai, Dil to Pagal Hai, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Pardes, Kaho Na Pyar Hai, etc. In all these films, you never see the hero’s past, his childhood, the circumstances of his birth and upbringing.
The consumable hero is the creation of the liberalised market. To the extent that liberalisation itself is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been set in place exactly a decade ago, in 1991, the consumable hero has no history. His class acquired high disposable incomes, a jet-setting lifestyle, shopping holidays overseas, and the rest of the works, only from the mid-1990s or so. He has no history so he has no memory. Or rather, he has no history that he cares to recall. A generation before liberalisation, his father was solidly middle class, the type Amol Palekar excelled at playing in Basu Chatterjee films. This is a past the new liberalised yuppie, whether in India or abroad, disdains rather intensely.
One can imagine that there exists a strong connection between the bigamous consumable hero with neither memory and anger, liberalisation and the rise of new markets (NRIs, DVD sales, telecast rights, merchandising), and the celebration of family values and ritual. The average NRI (non-resident Indian) carries a great nostalgia for an imagined home that is governed by familiar and secure family ties and ritual observances that emphasise as well as enforce those ties. In having to cope with a system that grants greater prosperity while taking away family ties, servants, grandma-babysitters, the servile office-boy, and all the other cushy paraphernalia of middle class life in India, the NRI starts treasuring that imagination, embellishing it to the point where it becomes totally fetishised. With the rise in the NRI population (and their ability to pay hard currency, which grows by a factor of 50 when converted to the Indian rupee), Hindi cinema has become an active manufacturer of such fetishes.
The Bollywood scriptwriter Javed Akhtar has somewhere likened Hindi cinema to a state of India, whose language is not the language of India, but different, yet not alien. Indians understood that language, and understood that culture. In the last decade, however, much has changed. That state called Hindi cinema is seceding, and it has already started speaking a language that seems more and more alien. The party of the rich shows no signs of winding up; on the contrary, as it swings with greater abandon, the keyhole of our voyeurism gets only narrower. No happy endings here.