Thursday, September 15, 2005

On Bollywood

This monologue meanders through various psycho-social aspects of
Indian cinema at present. Yesterday I saw a contemporary Hindi movie,
Salaam Namaste. This movie, is in many ways, a representative of the
current neurosis gripping the metropolitan crowd.

However firstly, I would like to talk about three of my favourite
movies from Hindi cinema.
  1. Ardh Satya: It is Govind Nihalani's first movie about the impotence a man suffers when he joins the machinery of society. A sub inspector in Bombay, having grown up in a violently patriarchal family is unusually sensitive about justice, fairness and respect for the common citizen. As he observes the injustice and cruelty of the urban landscape, and as he forms a relationship with a woman (a college teacher), he inwardly disintegrates and moves towards disaster, personally and professionally.

  2. Woh Chhokri: It is a TV production starring Pallavi Joshi and Om Puri in which a poor girl, a disowned daughter of a career politician gets bounced around in society, to one exploiter after another, and finally is killed at the orders of her own father.

  3. Ye woh manzil to nahin: Three old ex-freedom fighters get together in the twilight of their lives to see the mayhem of student activism in modern India. They strive for redemption, suffering from a distant guilt about having betrayed a friend; and achieve it in a strange way after trying unsuccessfully to save an honest student leader from death.
As one can see, the three movies weave the tapestry of individual
lives in the context of the larger socity and the culture of the
times. All three can be called tragic movies, in that they offer no
hope for man, but all three are triumphant in that they show how an
individual can cease to resign to life-threatening pressures and
maintain one's integrity. Even though the individuals are common and
suffer from human frailities, a glimpse into their psyche's offers one
the unique privilege of learning about the pressures of modern life.

These movies were not mainstream movies. To contrast them to the
the current mainstream movies is useful to show what entertainment
and a movie-going experience means to the modern crowd.

I will state my observations aphoristically, since I am more
comfortable with this mode of communication.

Today's movies are made for consumption, not for contemplation.

As one of my friends put it, today's movies are made for kids and
adoloscents, not for adults.

In the angst of modern city life, of the unending pressures and
nervous tensions, one craves for relaxation and unwinding. The
escapes in a modern city are made for that purpose.

Today's movies do not portray the reality of life. They portray a
dream world. And as the reality becomes more and more bitter, these
movies are more and more successful.

As India's culture and familial structures suffer from a crisis of
values and conformity, either a joint family is celebrated, or
unusually sensitive and friendly parents are depicted, or the family
is ignored altogether in the depiction of a superficial freedom.

Freedom to live as one wants is not the same as freedom from one's
background and instinctual behaviour. Audiences love to see the
traditions and instincts in action, but with a much greater focus on
the individual.

The bodies of the actors and actresses of yore were not perfect.
Today the heroes have sculpted bodies and the actresses have gone into
the nether-world of moden make up.

As the story and the psyche of the characters becomes uninteresting,
to hold the interest of the audience, clothes, cars and toys, locales
and artificially-manufactured comic situations have to be introduced.

Indian cinema heavily plagiarizes from the western movies. Some of
the greatest Hindi movies have been rip-offs and a melange of various
western soaps and movies.

As Indian movies are now shot almost exclusively on foreign locations,
this is another level of escape from the hideousness of the Indian
landscape. Right outside the theatre, one can find blind beggars,
children wearing dirty rags, and piles of garbage. What contrast!

In such movies there is a patetic show-off of the lifestyle of the
west as well as that of the rich living a western lifestyle in India.
There is nothing wrong with western lifestyle, but isn't there a
psychological reason it is sold in media to the masses in poor

Individuation and personal idiosyncracies becomes more pronounced in
the characters in such movies because people themselves crave for a
recognition and appreciation of their whimsical selves.

Today's movies trivialize thought and depth. Attitudes and narrow
visions are celebrated rather than seen as detrimental to harmony.

As in the daily life we become more and more powerless, politically
and socially (voluntarily or otherwise), power-plays in individual
relationships become more pronounced and the only evidence of our free

Repetition is a routine feature of comic relief in Indian movies. A
mannerism or a particular turn of phrase (either in a kid or in an
adult) becomes the cue for laughter. Representative examples of this
technique are the role of the servant in "Maine Pyar Kiya", of the
Sikh child in "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" and of the Crocodile Dundee in
"Salaam Namaste".

Repetition of a particular turn of phrase or mannerism is considered
something which would make a hero/heroine identifiable, but it ends up
making him into a caricature.

And of course, the western standards of physique, facial features and
skin colour are all pervasive in our media. Aquiline noses, blue
eyes, extremely fair skin, prominent jawline in the male, shaved
chests for the male, toned muscles, thin bodies for the female and so

Predictably, therefore, the present-day movies, portray the deep
inferiority that Indians have towards their own selves, bodies and

The greatest Indian movies, according to me, are those which are
stories about human beings living in India, whose individuality comes
in sharp focus not because they possess superficial attitudes, but
because they are unable to be mass humans, conforming neither to the
western standards nor to the eastern. Ray's Apu Trilogy and "The
Middleman" and Mrinal Sen's social commentaries come to mind.

Today entertainment is mass-produced in the sense it is adjusted to
cater to what the masses want. And as being a mass man is abhorrent
to me because it would make me accept a set of beliefs (whether
eastern or western) and conformant behaviour patterns, I rejoice in
alternative cinema.