Hindi film, the other India and a growing schism

The Hindu Magazine on Sunday had an article called Cinema: In search of a new face, which I found very interesting. The writer Zia Us Salam explored the question of how “serious Hindi cinema, entrenched in real India, has died”. He is, of course, talking about parallel cinema of the 1970s and 80s, a movement that spawned movies like Manthan, Nishaant, Bhumika, and Mirch Masala, among others. It is true that this India, increasingly referred to as the ‘other India’, has very little representation in the artistic and cultural expressions of the current generation–and this is most visible in cinema.

Popular, commercial Bollywood movies have always catered to an urban or upper-class sensibility. Karan Johar, Rakeysh Mehra and Vidhu Vinod Chopra may serve up different aspects of this reality (or unreality) but their characters speak a similar language. Recently, even film makers who previously handled themes of poverty like Ketan Mehta (Mirch Masala) and Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay) have increasingly adopted a more global sensibility, either choosing more upper-class issues(Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) or turning to the safe realm of historical biopics (Sardar, The Rising).

There are multiple problems in accurately representing the reality of an India where a majority of the people are still poor. Movies are a huge form of escapism in India; people seldom want to watch what they are trying so hard to avoid in real life. International viewers are interested only as long as it’s beautifully packaged with elements of exoticism, mystique, myth and folklore (Deepa Mehta did this very cleverly in Water, which is why her movie is an artistic success despite the fact that she passed off the quiet shores of Sri Lanka as Benares and two non-actors as her leads).

The Hindu article ends on this note:

Jabbar Patel, who recently revived “Ambedkar”, has the answer, “We have to find our identity afresh. The look of our films has to change. Poverty is there still in our country but it has to be explained in a different context.” Anybody ready to take the plunge?

Oneworld also has an interesting article on this here. “Where are the successors to the wonderful Salaam Bombay?” asks Bill Gunyon, the writer. He says:

Conflict with the British seems to make better box-office than conflict between rich and poor. Perhaps this will change as the wealth gap in India becomes more extreme and less acceptable.

I’m not sure about that. In fact, I think the opposite may just be true. As the gap becomes more extreme, the society we live in may become more schizophrenic with the realities of one having no bearing on the dreams of another. Increasingly hectic lifestyles leave people will less mental room to think about other people, not more. On a weekend, they would rather watch something they can relate to easily. The multiplex audiences are growing in importance and while they may be able to understand diaspora angst, forbidden love or even domestic violence in an urban family, Dalit or Devadasi problems are a universe away–and not one as enjoyable as Hogwarts.

The way forward, I would think, is to focus on presenting good stories with superior production values but setting it in a world other than bourgeoisie heaven. Combining the slickness of Yash Raj films with the realism of Ray or Benegal–but is that really possible?

What do you think?

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6 Comments

Filed under Film

6 responses to “Hindi film, the other India and a growing schism

  1. Mike

    Hmm..interesting post. I was wondering what you thought of a film like Bunty aur Babli – two con-artistes (their “role-playing” also playing into and playing up gender. class, caste stereotypes) escaping small-town, lower-middle class aspirations and enjoying a romp through the North. I thought it was a fresh, fun, campy but also intelligent film. Aesthetic movements should also be historicized and the genre of social realism might be past. But there are thought-provoking films that might be dismissed because they are too much fun?

  2. OrangeJammies

    It’s tough, but not completely un-doable. Take Omkara, for example. A fine rural setting with a global theme, not specific to India or its problems, but a huge success despite being non-glitzy, non-foreign-shore-touching and non-color-coordinated. It’s take a filmmaker of epic talent and foresight to pull it all together, and, more than talent or foresight today, I’m wondering if anybody has the patience or the willingness to risk their moolah and career. Interesting post, girl… keep them coming!

  3. Nithya

    Your post inspired me to write an impassiond one of my own. I started off writing a comment and it got too long! Hope you will read.

  4. Prashanth

    You’ve a lovely range of subjects, all hot to boot. AND coupled with clear, lucid writing. Enjoying your blog.

    thanks for your kind words on blogchaat. Over ‘It’s Just skin.’

  5. N

    mike: I liked Bunty aur Babli and yes, it is sometimes hard to see the thought behind the fun. I hope more film-makers employ the technique though. Heard Khosla Ka Ghosla is also a good example of this.

    OJ: Absolutely loved Omkara. But I guess it’s difficult for me to see it as a commentary on anything because “the shakespearean tragedy” thing just stands out too much and sweeps everything else aside. Thought there were some nicely placed statements like the one on gender by Konkona.

    Nithya: Happy to have inspired you to write another one of your tangy posts. 🙂

    I always look forward to them.

    Prashanth: Thank you. Hope you will come back :). I thought your story was very sensitively written.

  6. remainsofthedesi

    thank you for that food for thought…in looking back at the past work of Indian directors a lot of interesting work is forgotten by the wayside…such as the use of german expressionist lighting during a time when film noir genres were being duplicated in films like Howrah Bridge and Bhoot Bangla…I like to look at the way that cinematic techniques have changed over time…and I must say that I am very bored by the way Karan Johar uses his large scale sweeping shots with do not manage to communicate much via camera technique… a film like life in a metro goes much further in experimenting with the use of cinematography…and ram gopal varma also experiments in interesting ways…for more thoughts on bombay and a cinema of possibilities please check out our column at http://remainsofthedesi.wordpress.com/2007/05/31/bombay-je-t%e2%80%99aime%e2%80%a6towards-a-cinema-of-possibilities%e2%80%a6by-sanjay-lafont/

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