Well, time to get back to the original purpose of this blog, informing India’s netizens what the scholars think about their country. Before I discuss anything, let me point out a few things that make Bwood quite unique and important. In a country, with the second largest English speaking population, Hollywood hasnt been able to make much of an inroad due to the enormous popularity Bwood has enjoyed since the early 50’s. This is quite remarkable, almost every country in the world has some sort of entertainment industry but only India and the US seem to have large, well established movie industries, India actually has atleast 6 well established film industries. In revenue terms though, Hwood dwarfs Bwood. But Bwood is enoromously popular and actually supports upto 6 million jobs in India! In recent days, Bollywood seems to be losing its audiences and Shakuntala Rao of the State University of New York, discusses the same in her paper on the ethnography of Bollywood fans.
Bollywood has been quite a dynamic industry, which is perhaps part of the reason for its enduring mass appeal. Early after independence, filmmakers had vastly different priorities than those in the 70’s, 90s and today, Rao says,
Rao missed out Mother India (59) and Naya Daur (57), two of my favourites. For anyone interested, I would highly recommend Jagte Raho and Naya Daur, most of the themes are truer today than even in that time. By the 70s, as the idealism of the 50s faded, the angry young man appeared on the silver screen,
The hero was potrayed as a disaffected, cynical, violent, rebellious, urban/worker who was often seen single-handedly fighting rich businesses and ineffectual and corrupt politicians.
Zanjeer (73) is the classic example of this genre of Bollywood, which has survived in some form even today. Krantiveer (94) and Prahaar (91) are two examples from the 90s, and Rang De Basanti (06) from this decade. RDB is very different in one regard, in that the hero(es) were not poor urban laboures, but college going youth, marking a shift in whom the moviemakers perceive as their primary audience. Bollywood no longer looks at the ‘slum’s view of India’s politics’ but rather that of the ‘suffering’ middle-class.
Bollywood’s style and themes have changed markedly due to the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 90s. Bollywood is no longer simply a ‘movie industry’, it is in fact,
a more diffuse cultural conglomeration involving a range of distribution and consumption activities from websites to music cassettes, from cable to radio, from Delhi to New York ….. now films target small segments of primary filmgoers who constitute the paying public … [who] has disposable income and attracts advertisers.
Bwood produces fewer movies that do well both in urban, semi-urban and rural markets. Even a movie like RDB, failed to do well smaller cities and towns, Rao further notes,
Hits like Dhoom or Kal Ho Naa Ho, made close to 80 % of their profits from urban multiplexes in India and overseas.
The slum dweller has all but disappeared from the landscape of Bwood, Rao points out,
In the new Bollywood, it is the wealthy who are the heroes. Even the actor who personified the angry young man onscreen in the 70s and 80s films, Amitabh Bachchan, plays in recent films, a multi-millionaire industrialist (in Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gum) and rector of a wealthy prep school (in Mohabattein).
These facts are probably well known to most readers, the major contribution of the paper is in documenting the reaction to recent Bollywood moves from a set of students at Punjabi University in Patiala, Punjab. I will first just repeat some of their statements verbatim.
About why movies are watched some times,
Some movies can be likened to kalpanalok [dreamworld] where life is absolutely unreal, beautiful, and problem-free. There are nymphets who live in this kalpanalok and we want to see them.
What the movies mostly show these days,
They move from set to set, from lavish homes to lavish offices and back. Have you noticed they never show the streets ? They never show the regular people like us who are walking on the streets or the beggars or the dirt ? Most of the time they are not even in India, they are in Mauritius or Vancouver. Their ‘legs are dangling in the sky’ [Punjabi phrase].
Whether there is any connection with the protagonist,
There is no connection-his clothes, the cars he drives, the houses, going off to Canada or Switzerland – I cannot relate.
In earlier films, it is used to be 80 % reality, 20 % fantasy, now it is 20 % reality, 80 % fantasy.
How the movies are often seen, to be contrasted with the ‘escapist fantasy’ perception of Bollywood prevalent in the West,
They are making a mayajal [web of desire] for us and we are stuck in it.
What the movies almost never talk about these days,
Where are the films about corruption, hatred, unemployment, criminalization of politics ? In its place, we have films like this Dhoom which is nothing but an advertisement for foreign motorcycles and expensive sunglasses.
To debunk the misplaced notion that showing scantily clad woman on TV will change the attitude towards women,
There is never any emphasis on progressive change. [female student]
Contrasting the older movies with the newer ones,
Raj Kapoor’s films in the 1950s showed poor people living in Bombay’s chawls [slums]. Those people are still there but are not in films any longer. Only when they have to show violence or terrorism, they will show the slums.
One very important aspect of the new Bwood is the representation of the NRI,
NRIs are shown as more patriotic, more knowledgeable about Indian culture. In comparison, Indians are shown as more irritated, more dogmatic, they are not as concerned with the society. Everyone here is unhappy, everyone there is happy.
This is part of the broader problem of NRI’s ‘best of both worlds’ illusions which ultimately results from their flawed notions of Indianness (rooted in ‘culture’), Rao says,
Ultimately, such representation of the NRI problematizes the identity of the Indians living in India. While valorizing the life of the NRI as materially happy and spiritually fulfilled, the films alienate the subjects who feel “left behind” …. suggesting that the NRI are all rich but also more “Indian than us”
Needless to say, such representations are rejected by all the interviewees, as they probably are by most of Bwood’s audience.
It is quite clear that the ‘new’ Bollywood is not connecting with its audiences and not addressing their hopes and fears. It seems little more than a glorified foreign tour’s agency for the most part. Bollywood needs to combine its new technical capabilities and financial muscle with good, meaningful scripts and engaging themes to not only win back its main audience, but also remain the integral part of the Indian story that it has been so far. Aamir, Mumbai Meri Jaan, A Wednesday were interesting, thought provoking and well made movies, that I may not personally completely agree with but did lead to some debate. I leave you though, with a classic from Jagte Raho,