Once thought to be only meant for the silly ones, Hindi masalas now have fans worldwide not all of them silly.
The global popularity of Hindi cinema crept up and hit the Bombay film industry in the eye last year when Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se made it to the UK Top 10 in its first week. Then in August this year, Amitabh Bachchan topped a BBC online poll on the most popular star of the millennium, beating Hollywood demi-gods by a long shot; what’s more, Govinda finished tenth on the list.
More recently, Subhash Ghai’s Taal broke box-office records in the US, mainly because he thought it worth releasing an unheard-of 44 prints in the overseas circuit. The oddest success story is, of course, of Rajnikant’s Tamil films bowling over Japanese filmgoers.
Indian audiences used to treat the indigenous film—whether in Hindi or in any regional language, the popular film’s form remains the same—as an acquired taste peculiar to Indian culture, a “vice” to be admitted to sheepishly, something to be slightly ashamed of, like paan stains on the teeth and coconut oil in the hair. In spite of a comfortably receptive overseas market, the Hindi film industry was smugly content with the vast audiences it had at its command within the Subcontinent. So unlike Hollywood, Indian filmmakers did not feel the need to expand internationally beyond a few known and fairly lucrative territories that went under the omnibus label of “Overseas”. A clear example of ghar ka murgi daal barabar—a piquant Hindi saying which means that people often ignore what is right under their noses. In this case, a unique product and an eminently exportable commodity.
There was always a small and steady market for Hindi cinema abroad, or wherever there was a sizeable South Asian immigrant population. And their popularity also extended to the native population of the Gulf, some African countries, and, oddly enough, Russia and some East European countries, plus a minute cult following in campuses across the US, the UK and rest of Europe. Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty are hugely popular in Russia, Amitabh Bachchan’s name can open doors in Egypt, and shopkeepers in Singapore are known to have declined payment from anyone who knows the words to the latest Hindi hit film song.
It is only in the last few years that Hindi cinema—with films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, Dil To Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai—has come out from its closet of tiny suburban movie halls, video parlours and smuggled pirated VCDs, right into the mainstream. They have got a large-enough audience to figure in the top charts, bag impressive theatre chains and get noticed by critics of upmarket publications. (Till recently, the only Indian filmmaker known abroad was Satyajit Ray.)
The media worldwide has started doing features, photo-essays, TV series and documentaries on popular Indian cinema. It’s no longer disgraceful to admit to a passion for the masala movie—even film scholars, researchers and historians now find it worth analysing it as a powerful form of popular culture.
This interest abroad has perhaps coincided with the emergence of a strong Asian subculture in the West, which, as usual, has exported our own Indianness back to us, apparent in the way Hindi cinema has caught on with the hip, urban teen set who earlier used to think that the Hindi masala movie was infra dig, only meant for lumpens and bored housewives. Like the dominance of Black culture some years ago, it is the turn of Indian/South Asian culture now—Indian food, yoga, ayurveda, spirituality, are all in vogue. There’s bhangra rap in the discos, salwar kameez and saris being accepted as haute couture, henna tattoos as fashion; Madonna singing shlokas and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan composing for major Hollywood films. Now, Indian films are shown regularly on television all over the world to a multiplying flock of multi-cultural audiences, and not just on ethnic channels.
Bollywood is no longer ghetto territory, but a world to be fancied—not a Hollywood rip-off but an equal; and a means of running around the cultural hegemony of Hollywood. The fact that the big Hollywood studios and entertainment conglomerates are fighting for an entry into the Indian market proves that there is something they still have to learn about audience tastes.
“As a result of exposure to quality Hindi films, Indian cinema is no more obscure in the West,” says Nasreen Munni Kabir who made Movie Mahal, Channel 4’s first major series on Hindi cinema, in the early 80s. “The best example of the acceptance of Hindi films in the West is an ad for Powergen that shows a group of Indian villagers watching a song and dance scene when the power goes off. The Powergen is switched on and the film is resumed. This ad would never have happened three years ago. Now India is fashionable in the West, like Black culture was some years ago.”
Kabir feels that the Asian sub-culture is seeping into the mainstream with the rise of Asians into positions of influence, while their younger generation is more accepting of other cultures. “Far from repudiating their Asianness, young Asians are more confident and proud of their bi-culturalism,” says the producer.
Interestingly, this upsurge of Indian culture abroad has coincided with a back-to-roots traditionalism in Indian society, reflected in the phenomenal popularity of religious and mythological serials on television and films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge and Pardes, which focus on the traditional Indian family, ancient rituals and patriarchal values. There is doubtless a commercial element involved—everything ultimately turns into a marketing tool—but the Hindi movie is fulfilling a need to cling on to something familiar in a fast-changing world which is sweeping away cultural contrasts and demanding uniformity (and conformity) in the name of globalisation. It has perhaps become imperative for Indian films to depict what is in the Indian mind—an urgency to accept the global, but retain the traditional.
Fortunately for filmmakers, this trend in India goes very well with the nostalgia of the non-resident Indian (NRI) for what has been left behind. While first-generation immigrants yearn for their homeland, the second or third generation does not want to assimilate completely into a foreign culture, and craves to preserve a vestige of their Indian identity. The Indian filmmaker capitalises on this homesickness and nostalgia by making films that give the NRI as well as the disconcerted desis a glimpse of their ‘glorious’ past. Successful films thus are the ones that depict rituals like weddings, Holi, Diwali, and even the outdated Karva Chauth (the fast wives observe for the longevity of their husbands), with a loud splash of colour, custom and music, which is enough to reassure the post-liberalisation Indian as well as the nostalgic NRI that Indian culture is not all lost.
A Hum Aapke Hain Kaun or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam celebrates the Indianness of the joint family, religious rituals, cherished virtues of unselfishness and sacrifice, to cover up for the blatant consumerism, self-indulgence and short-cut spiritualism of real life. It’s not all that surprising then, that the trend of violence in Indian mainstream cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s has made way for romance, fidelity, family values and the cuteness of heroes like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Govinda, who in spite of their gym-pumped muscles, come as close to an internationally approved androgyny as a patriarchal society will allow.
The spectacle of ritual, song, dance, sentiment, romance, is obviously as attractive to the non-Indian film viewer, as it is to the escapism-seeking, often poverty-stricken Indian. In an increasingly mechanised, impersonal, troubled and splintering world, the emotionalism, filial and marital loyalty, fantasy and constancy, as portrayed in Hindi/Indian films, is a fleeting source of comfort. One of the biggest Hollywood hits in recent times—Titanic—is an example of the globalisation of the Indian film formula. Romance, music and family duty have also returned to international films, and Indian popular cinema almost has a patent on them.
The undying appeal of the Indian film to the non-Indian viewer from countries and cultures as diverse as Japan, South Africa, Russia, Malaysia, Egypt, West Indies, lies in its core of fantasy wrapped in tradition. The mainstream cinema is usually as far removed from reality as possible, with no claim whatsoever on authenticity or accuracy, but the die-hard viewer doesn’t care about a couple living in Chandigarh singing songs in Amsterdam, a Scottish castle being passed off as a Delhi college or a Swiss chalet as a residence in Mumbai. This unabashed disregard for time, space and geography can only happen in the alternative zone of existence that Indian cinema offers—a relief from harsh reality.
Hindi/Indian cinema demands and gets total suspension of disbelief. It works at the level of ballad, fable, fairy tale and simple morality yarn, where virtue is always rewarded and wickedness punished. To the West this blend of the simple and the outlandish is attractive, while others find resonances of their own lost innocence in the illusory world of the Indian film. This is the only world where there are no doubts or confusion or nasty surprises.
In real life, you can never know when you might be run over by a car, blown up by a terrorist’s bomb or caught by a sniper’s bullet; your marriage could break up, parents disown you, kids abandon you. In real life, you will have to deal with illness, redundancy, betrayal, riots. In the usual Bollywood fare, there are no divorces, families stay together; more often than not, kids are deferential, parents indulgent, and neighbours considerate. When characters go through inhuman suffering and emerge victorious, and, mysteriously unscathed, there is a sense of collective catharsis that even the most slickly made Western film cannot guarantee.
Where else do you get a permanent promise of happy endings? In a Hindi movie, almost always, the boy and the girl live happily ever after.
Boy meets girl…
Cinema came to India soon after its introduction in the West, and since among its early backers were Anglicised Parsis, Indian films have always had a form that is a peculiar mix of mythology, historical legends, folk art, Parsi theatre, Shakespearean and Victorian drama. And since there has never been a compulsion to change it, the form of popular cinema has remained unaltered over the century. The art or parallel cinema movement of the late 1960s and 1970s tried to experiment with form, but fizzled out after some initial successes; there is still some offbeat work done by directors in regional languages, particularly Malayalam. Now it is a given that popular cinema cannot exist without song-and-dance, melodrama and high-voltage emotion—violence is acceptable but only within the set formula of romance-family-honour.
Even if the song-and-dance “items” liberally borrow from MTV, and the styles and plots and scene compositions are lifted from Hollywood, the Indian film hero and heroine are invariably monogamous, modern in dress but conventional at heart; the hero (and occasionally the heroine) will resort to violence only when the family —immediate or extended (friend, neighbour, community, country) —is under threat. Like the heroes of the epics (Ramayan, Mahabharat), it is the duty of the male to protect the honour of the woman/family/community, while it is the woman’s duty to provide succour and support as the mother, sister, beloved or wife, but not to participate directly in the conflict. Like Sita, the heroine must remain chaste even when she is the villain’s (Ravan) captive, and wait for the hero (Ram) to come and rescue her, sometimes with the help of a brother (Laxman) or close friend (Hanuman). It is no surprise then, that the careerwoman has not yet found representation or respectability in mainstreet Hindi films — except, very rarely, in the form of Durga/Shakti where she dons a uniform and picks up weapons to fight evil.
Like Kunti in the Mahabharat, the mother is to be worshipped, and like Dasharath in the Ramayan, the father is to be obeyed at any cost. Sacrifice, loyalty, submission to patriarchy/authority is desirable at all times. In the romantic arena, the hero still has to go through a test of manhood to pass the heroine’s swayamvar, and the rites of wooing still follow the chhed-chhad (teasing) between Krishna along with his bunch of gwalas (cowherds) and Radha with the gopis (milkmaids).
In folk and Parsi theatre, songs, dances, declamatory speeches, exaggerated gestures and the odd routine of a comedy track separate from the main plot, were accepted norms. Indian cinema still uses the simple linear narrative style of folk oral tradition and drama, and almost always utilises the song-dance and slapstick in the manner of the now-outdated theatrical style. Ironically, Indian theatre has incorporated experimentation, abstraction, realism, taken from the West and elsewhere into ancient folk forms, and come up with a remarkably contemporary language, while Indian mainstream movies have simply borrowed new techniques from the West and juxtaposed it —not always success fully —with predictable narrative patterns.
The ending of the typical Hindi film, for instance is illustrative of its immutable derivation from the theatre. In plays, the entire cast assembles on stage to take a bow, in the Hindi film, all characters (the surviving ones, that is) gather together for a grow photograph. There is also the blithe certainty of the happy ending (with very few exceptions as in the case of films derived from the classical tragic love story of the Laila-Majnu variety). The hero and heroine will m?rry, misunderstandings will be sorted out, the villain will suffer death or imprisonment, straying husbands and prodigal sons will return to the family fold (Straying wives and daughters will, however, meet an ignoble end!) Perhaps, in the case of the Hindi film familiarity does not breed contempt. Audiences seem perfectly satisfied with repetitions —with minor upgradations of a handful of popular plotlines. Boy meets girl, one is rich, the other poor; they confront parental opposition, villainous interventions and other obstacles to reunite happily in the end.
Siblings are separated from parents or from each other either by way of natural or man-made calamity; they will keep bumping into one another throughout the film at apposite points, while their stories run parallel. They will recognise each other from an amulet, tattoo or song, and unite to defeat the villain. The noble Pandavas versus the greedy Kauravas in a modern-day Mahabharat, ensuring the perennial victory of good over evil.
Another favourite has the hero avenging the killing of a family member. This is sometimes extended to his own oppression at the hands of evil forces (corrupt cops and politicians, criminals, terrorists), at which—pushed to his limits of tolerance — he will resort to means fair or foul and clear his name and uphold the honour of his family.
The latest trend, besides youthful romance, is patriotism. Mainstream films are always quick to catch on to and merrily distort popular sentiment, and after terrorism entered India, patriotism has become an important component of the Indian film. Villains are not just ornery bad guys now, they are international terrorists. And the hero’s duties are no longer confined to saving heroines in distress, but to save Bharat Mata from The Enemy — whether it is the dreadful ISI guys from across the border, or the amoral influences of the Wicked West that threaten to destroy Indian culture.