(This is an essay from our print quarterly ‘Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree’. See more from the issue here.)
The BMW boys and their Gucci girlfriends don’t go to Moti Cinema, but it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when the Old Delhi elite – men in impeccably tailored suits and sherwanis, and women in brocade saris – queued up outside its ticket counters in Chandi Chowk for over 50 weeks to watch Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964). But then, sometime in the 1980s when soaps and television serials first seduced India, and when video piracy lured the middle class away from theatres, Moti fell on hard times. When the multiplexes arrived in the 1990s, the cinema hall was on the wrong side of history. Like so many other single-screens in Delhi, it was headed for curtains.
Then in 2004, a cinema hall employee came up with a strange suggestion, recalls Moti’s co-owner Kirit Desai. “Sir, we must screen Sasura Bada Paisewala. It’s a Bhojpuri film running to packed houses in Benaras,” he said. Desai, whose family had taken the theatre on lease 75 years ago, was barely aware of Bhojpuri cinema. Several decades back he had heard of Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo (1962), the first Bhojpuri film, which was released in the nearby Golcha cinema and had attracted the nation’s top politicos, including future Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. But he wasn’t sure if there were any prospective takers for Bhojpuri films in the Walled City. “Don’t you know, sir,” the employee continued almost admonishingly, “the bylanes here are full of coolies and other daily wage workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They will love watching a movie in their own language.”
Chandni Chowk swarms with migrant labourers – hardscrabble men who spend their entire adult lives hauling goods on their head from wholesale outlets to vans and carts. They are probably an audience in search of a cinema, Desai thought, and decided to take the plunge. The shot in the dark hit the bull’s eye: Sasura Bada Paisewala grossed INR 3.4 lakh in two weeks, much more than any other film had collected in recent weeks.
That a section of the city’s vast underclass – daily wage workers, street vendors and rickshaw-pullers, whose own life stories are everyday essays in survival – rescued a cinema hall from certain death is almost urban working-class Mills and Boon. But there’s more to the narrative. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the audience for Bhojpuri films was largely confined to eastern Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar, where the language is widely spoken. During the 2001 census, about 33 million Indians recorded Bhojpuri as their mother tongue. It is estimated the number has climbed up to around 40 million since then.
Now, due to sustained labour migration over several decades, the genre’s footprint has expanded far and wide to cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, and towns in Punjab (Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Amritsar), Gujarat (Ahmedabad, Surat), Maharashtra (Malegaon, Bhiwandi) and Rajasthan (Jaipur, Sri Ganganagar). Like Moti Cinema, where Bhojpuri films are shown almost every second week, many run-down theatres came out of financial depression and were re-energised by regional cinema and its underclass patrons. A distributor in Punjab once said that Bhojpuri films were like oxygen for some cinema halls in Ludhiana. Distributors estimate that about 30 percent of the Bhojpuri film market is located outside Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. However, its potential market abroad in countries like Fiji, Mauritius and Suriname remains largely untapped. Incidentally, Nepal is an exception; Bhojpuri films are screened along the Indian border in places like Birgunj, Bhairawa, Janakpur and Sarlahi.
There’s been a buzz about Bhojpuri cinema for nearly a decade now. No concrete figures about its net worth are available, but between 2004 and 2008, about 285 films were produced. In 2011, the Central Board for Film Certification censored 74 Bhojpuri films, a number higher than the combined films produced by Punjabi, Assamese, Rajasthani, Haryanvi and Oriya film industries. The films quite often have colourful names: Sasura Bada Paisewala (Father-in-law has pots of money), Panditji Bataeen Na Biyah Kab Hoee (Tell me, o priest, when will I get married?) and Devra Bada Satavela (My brother-in-law keeps teasing me), to name a few. Furthermore, flops far outnumber hits. Some films lie in the cans for months hoping to find a distributor. Occasionally, films are even directly released to the VCD circuit. Yet, much like big brother Bollywood, the regional cinema has its own stars, film magazines and awards. A major star like Dinesh Lal Yadav ‘Nirahua’ is said to charge Rs 40-50 lakhs per movie.
The success of Bhojpuri films even prompted a violent backlash in 2007 and 2008. Cinema halls screening Bhojpuri films in Mumbai, Nasik and Ludhiana were attacked, and the audience, mostly migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, assaulted. The militant group Babbar Khalsa was suspected to be involved in a bomb blast in Ludhiana’s Shingar cinema hall that left six dead. In Mumbai, the attacks were seen as the handiwork of Raj Thackeray, the founder of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a political outfit known for its anti-migrant stand.
The nascent industry
The origin of Bhojpuri cinema is distinctly rooted in the desire to enjoy popular entertainment in one’s own mother tongue. In the late 1950s, India’s first president Rajendra Prasad gave encouragement and blessings to Nazir Hussain, a prolific character actor in Bombay cinema at the time, to make the first Bhojpuri film. Hussain, who wrote the story for Ganga Maiyya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo was also instrumental in getting producer Bishwanath Prasad Shahabadi and director Kundan Kumar involved. The movie, with Ashim Kumar and Kumkum in lead roles, was a super success and prompted a wave of films, notably Bidesiya (1963) and Laagi Nahi Chhute Rama (1964). But then the industry began to fade. Only one film was produced between 1969 and 1976.
The second wave of Bhojpuri films came with Dangal (1977), also the regional cinema’s first film in colour. Bachubhai Shah, a Gujarati who had earlier made Bidesiya, mustered the courage to produce another Bhojpuri film when most had given up on the regional cinema. Balam Pardesiya (1979), Ganga Kinare Mora Gaon (1983) and Naihar Ke Chunri (1985) were other super hits of this period.
The groundwork for the third phase began in the late 1990s, on the heels of a boom in regional music videos. The enterprise soon translated into major cinematic success with Sasura Bada Paisewala (2004), starring singer-actor Manoj Tiwari and Rani Chatterjee. Made on a shoestring budget of INR 30 lakhs, the film grossed an estimated INR 9 crore, and is known as the Sholay of Bhojpuri films. With two more hits the next year – Bandhan Toote Na (2005) and Daroga Babu I Love You (2005) – Tiwari became the industry’s number one hero. However, his career has hit a trough in recent years. In 2009, he contested the Lok Sabha election from Gorakhpur on a Samajwadi Party ticket, and finished third.
Another prolific actor, Ravi Kishan, made a name and career for himself with the blockbuster Panditji Bataeen Na Biyah Kab Hoee (2005), and has since received regular parts in mainstream Bollywood flicks and primetime entertainment television. He has kept churning out the occasional hit film including the sensational success Devra Bada Satavela (2010), in which he co-starred with another new star Pawan Singh.
But the actor with the most box-office success is Dinesh Lal Yadav ‘Nirahua’, a singer-actor of slight build known for his dance steps, action scenes and a kiss that was endlessly discussed in the industry. His liplock with co-star Pakhi Hegde was one of the reasons why Nirahua Rickshawala (2007) became a superhit. The scene is considered a watershed in Bhojpuri films. For all the genre’s titillating dances and comic ribalding, kissing was always taboo for the regional cinema. The kissing scene demonstrated that the audience was willing to embrace a new era. Among Nirahua’s several smash hits are Nirahua Chalal Sasural (2008) and Daag (2010).
Currently, singer-actor Khesarilal Yadav is the most popular up-and-coming star. His Saajan Chale Sasural was one of the industry’s biggest hits of 2011, and he continues to enjoy success. Nepal-born Viraj Bhatt, who grew up in Dehradun, has also earned audience approval with his supporting roles in films like Deewana and Diljale.
Significantly, two of the top stars in current Bhojpuri cinema – Nirahua and Khesarilal – belong to an Other Backward Caste (OBC) community. Stars of the 1960s and 1980s such as Ashim Kumar, Sujit Kumar, Rakesh Pandey and Kunal Singh all came from upper castes. The changing caste hierarchy of stardom is a barometer of political change. Both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have OBC Chief Ministers (Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav, respectively). Even Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, two prominent political leaders from these states during the last couple of decades, are OBCs. Dalits too have made their presence felt in recent times. Virender Paswan, a Dalit, wrote the dialogues of Ego Chumma De Da Rajaji (2008).
The wave of liberalisation
The ascent and swell of Bhojpuri cinema is one of several outcomes of India’s 1991 economic liberalisation. The impact of liberalisation has remained a matter of furious debate, yet what is undeniable is that it created a substantial, cash-rich urban middle class eager to enjoy the ‘good life’. Satellite television, which arrived the same year, further whetted that desire. And demand creates supply. With malls and multiplexes becoming temples of entertainment by the turn of the new millennium, Bollywood needed the right content for an increasingly epicurean audience. This consequently led to an upsurge of ‘feel good’ cinema typified by Karan Johar (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 1998). With a multiplex ticket almost five times more expensive than a single-screen theatre rear stall seat, there was little need to create content for the ‘frontbencher’. A new Bollywood cinema with reoriented content and sensibility – best illustrated by Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) – was born out of this new affluent audience, including Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). With this, rural India vanished from the frame. So did other insignias of traditional Bollywood – hysterical mothers, angry mill workers, sisters pining for brothers during rakhi, the impoverished widow in a white sari raising her kids, the bucolic hero’s friend who slips on banana peels to win the heart of the attractive typist. In the era of liberalisation, the stereotypes that typified commercial Hindi cinema were rendered passé.
Bollywood’s appeal created a social faultline. Not everybody has ended up on the shining side of India Shining. For those people, life has not changed much, and if it has at all, it is for the worse. Those whose cinema aesthetics centred around raging melodrama were now ignored. In a sense, the third coming of Bhojpuri cinema is a revenge of the regional underclass.
However, the industry’s resurgence is far more complex than being caused by liberalisation; it also needs to be viewed as a continuous process where various interweaving strands complement and contrast with each other. Simply put, Bhojpuri cinema offers a collection of ingredients – sights, sounds, aesthetics, language and above all, a sensibility that separates it from mainstream Bollywood. Where else would you get a song on litti-chokha, the most recognisable dish of the Bhojpuri-speaking belt that even fine-dining restaurants in south Delhi peddle these days? A song in Pyaar Ke Bandhan (2006) goes “duniya ke number ek cycle sawari, eker aage phel ba Bolero-Safari, the cycle is the number one vehicle in the world, it’s better than SUVs like Bolero and Safari.” Numbers like these, which indulged the fantasies of the public transport class, were common in 1970s Bombay cinema and earlier. But in the new millennium, such working class anthems have become rare. For its core viewers, Bhojpuri films filled this vacuum between what Bollywood offered and what the audience wanted.
This, however, does not mean that Bhojpuri films are always radically different from mainstream Bollywood. While Bhojpuri films are popular partly because they offer something different from Hindi cinema, they also seek to imitate Bollywood in several ways, most noticeably in the storylines. Indeed, until the 1990s, family dramas dominated Bhojpuri films. In the new millennium, the percentage of action films has increased dramatically. In the 1980s and earlier, films were shot in 16mm and blown to 35mm. Now big-budget films, costing around INR 1 crore or a little more, are shot in cinemascope. Some are even shot in London, Mauritius and West Asia.
The regional cinema’s upward mobility is further underlined by the fact that top Bollywood stars have also flirted with the occasional Bhojpuri film. In 1984, Amitabh Bachchan made a special appearance in Sujit Kumar’s film, Pan Khaye Saiyaan Hamar. In recent years, he has played substantial roles in three films: Ganga (2006), Gangotri (2007) and Ganga Devi (2012). Even Ajay Devgan (Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, 2006), Hema Malini (Ganga, 2006), Jeetendra (Gabbar Singh, 2008), Mithun Chakraborty (Bhole Shankar, 2008), Jackie Shroff (Hum Hayeen Khalnayak, 2009) – have all, on occasion, ventured into Bhojpuri cinema.
A majority of Bhojpuri films have predictable plots with equally stereotypical treatment. Uncomfortable issues like Naxalism, and the problems of migrant labourers and peasants are largely ignored. Yet within the matrix of commercial cinema, some films do try to deal with social issues. Two such examples are Kanyadaan (2003), which looked at female foeticide, and Dulha Babu (2006) which examined the phenomenon of shotgun weddings. For many years in parts of rural north Bihar, kidnapping potential grooms and forcing them to get married to a particular girl was something of a cottage industry.
The changing tide
Over time, the industry has evolved. Unlike in the past, when the heroine was a village girl, the female leads today are often fashionable city girls, as evident in superhits such as Sasura Bada Paisewala, Daroga Babu I Love You and Nirahua Rickshawala. In Pandit, heroine Nagma was cast as a journalist. Interestingly, in the 1960s, Bhojpuri films were more heroine-centric. That’s because women formed an important component of the audience. A good samajik (social) film was a rare and special occasion that drew women out of courtyards and into the theatres. Kumkum charged more than hero Ashim Kumar in Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo; in the opening credit she even got the highest billing. In the 1980s, Padma Khanna was a star in her own right with stories written around her. But now male stars – Nirahua, Pawan Singh, Khesari Lal Yadav, Kishan – are the lords and masters of the industry.
Songs are the soul of Bhojpuri films, and they too have changed rather dramatically in recent years. Melody was king in the 1960s. After the mega success of Sasura Bada Paisawala, rhythm has taken primacy. There is also a proliferation of risqué songs. Lyrics with double entendres are common and leave little to the imagination, for instance: “daalin, kahwan daali, ihwan daali, uhwan daali, hum daalein ke baani taiyyar, when should I put it in, where, here or there, I am ready to put it in” (Dhartiputra, 2005), and “mamla garam ba, kahe ke saram ba, loha garam ba chala da na hathoda? everything is hot, why are you shy, the iron is hot, why don’t you just bang the hammer?” (Bambai Ke Laila, Chhapra ke Chhaila, 2006). Such tracks are often filmed with suggestive dance movements, and have adversely affected the image of Bhojpuri films.
In an interview, Bhojpuri film star Ravi Kishan once explained the reason for this change. He said, “Dehat dehat nahi raha, The village is no longer the same old village. The farmers still own the fields, but they have mobile phones, electricity converters and DVDs too. More people are reading newspapers and watching satellite TV. Awareness levels are much higher. Earlier popular music reached the small towns and villages after a long time. Today’s village boys dance to the same music as a Mumbai teenager.”
In the 1960s, and even in the 1980s, the social elite of small towns in eastern UP and Bihar – doctors, engineers, police officers, corporate executives, teachers, government officials, traders, businessmen and others – formed an important component of the audience. That’s generally no longer the case because neither new Bhojpuri movies nor the run-down theatres where they are shown are in tune with their upwardly-mobile cinematic sensibilities.
As a result, the new target audience is the underclass youth and migrant labour. Kishan further points out, “The core ticket-buying audience ranges from the age 10 to 35-40. They want to see the fields, a village, Gangaji, ma ka sindoor (mother’s vermillion) and the hero touching his father’s feet. But they also want a lot of entertainment. Today, the hero can wear jeans. But to provide the flavour and smell of Bhojpuri, I also wear kurtas and keep a gamcha (an all-purpose cloth generally kept on the shoulder). I wear a tilak. Even when I am driving a bike or a tractor, this is my dress.” In other words, the audience needs a coating of regional sensibilities in a Bollywood-style, modern masala framework.
Traditionalists bemoan the death of innocence in the regional cinema, the slow vanishing of the flavour that could be roughly described as ‘Bhojpuriyat’. The first woman director of Bhojpuri films, Arti Bhattacharya, sums up what she believes is the sentiment of millions of Bhojpuri film lovers: “People say, ‘Jab Hindi film dekhne jaate hain to lagta hai, ki angrezi film dekh rahe hain. Jab Bhojpuri film dekhne jaate hain to lagta hai ki Hindi film dekh rahe hain. Hamari film kahan hai?’ When we watch a Hindi film, it feels like a Hollywood film. When we go for a Bhojpuri film, it is like watching a Hindi film. Where’s our film?” That’s perhaps the irony of the times: the Bhojpuri film industry is flourishing, but the distinctiveness of its identity is diminishing.
Of course, it needs to be pointed out that while Bollywood has had an impact on regional cinema, the opposite is also true. Once the mainstream Hindi film producers realised that too many ‘feel good’, urban movies were alienating the vast hinterland, there was a course correction of sorts in recent years with films like Dabangg (2010) and, to a lesser extent, Rowdy Rathore (2012). These movies married star power and technical finesse with a smell similar to Bhojpuri movies. It has been said before, and there is no harm in repeating it: Dabangg is essentially a Bhojpuri film made in Hindi.
The underclass loved Dabangg and its 2012 sequel. But they also enjoy whistling their hearts out as Ravi Kishan and Rani Chatterjee shake and shimmy to a raunchy foot-stomping number at Chandi Chowk’s dingy Moti Cinema. Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.
Note: Most interviews quoted in this article were conducted between 2008 and 2009 for Ghosh’s book, Cinema Bhojpuri.
~Avijit Ghosh works as a senior editor for the Times of India. His published works include Cinema Bhojpuri and Bandicoots in the Moonlight.