Posted by: Vikram | May 1, 2015

Lessons for Bollywood from the last days of the Mughal Empire

It is perhaps no coincidence that the leading male actor of contemporary Hindi cinema makes it a point to refer to himself as the only ‘Badshah’ out there. The memory of the Mughal dynasty is strong in the core regions of that long gone empire, and that region is also a cultural stronghold of contemporary Hindi cinema. So as Bollywood has started showing signs of a decline in its patronage, it might look to lessons from the last days of that dynasty.

But first, a small detour into Mughal history and some structural reasons for its rapid decline after 1707. Two reasons stand out for the erosion of Mughal authority after Aurangzeb’s death. One was Aurangzeb’s inability to accommodate emergent elites. By the time his reign of nearly 60 years was coming to a end, he had made the rising Sikhs, who could have been a great asset to the Mughal Empire in its vulnerable North West (a fact well recognized by the British); its sworn enemies. He had militarily engaged the Marathas in a protracted conflict. The Marathas had previously been reliable soldiers of the empire; and the long Mughal-Maratha war gave them the motivation and experience for the future conflict over the subcontinent. Aurangzeb failed to realize that the emergence of new elites who would seek out more political and cultural autonomy was an inevitable consequence of the stability that the empire provided, and not necessarily a threat to its survival.

The second reason was the competitive Mughal system of succession and its undoing by the ripe old age till which the emperor ruled. Mughal succession was not by primogeniture, princes were to develop the skills and networks to compete with each other for the throne. Living to be 92, by the time Aurangzeb was ready to be replaced, there were four generations of the Mughal dynasty with claims to the throne.  A dynastic competition between three or four princes became a melee of four generations of male Mughals. A necessary consequence was the weakening of the network each contender could build and the resources available to them. Unsurprisingly, even the prince that ultimately emerged victorious had a greatly diminished authority and capacity to mobilize resources. Thus the collapse of the Mughal empire was ensured by the emergence of alternate sources of political authority, and a greatly fractured centre.

The Hindi film industry seems to show similar signs. It is unable to accommodate new talent and new sources of cultural production. The Hindi film industry and its North Indian elites still live in a world where they are the sole ‘center’ and every other form of cultural production is ‘regional’ or marginal. With increasing consciousness and available surplus for cultural production, it is inevitable that the Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and other film industries will join the Southern industries as major culture producers. Bollywood elites have to realize that they cannot expect the Hindi film to be dominant in regions where Hindi is not the main language. Unfortunately, recent episodes indicate that they do not shy from using their financial and cultural clout to subjugate competition from local movie makers.1

The other limitation in accomodating new talent comes from the increasing sell-by date of the existing Bollywood badshahs. Various techniques are extending the ‘youth’ of the existing leaders, and the number of potential dynastic heirs from the incestuous clans of Bollywood is rising quickly. The youth of metro India is increasingly attracted to foreign cultural products and norms of cultural consumption. Thus, the generation of pretenders to the Bollywood throne have to deal with intense competition in the metro India and Bharat markets from each other, and face diminished acceptability in the metro India market.

How could Bollywood survive and thrive ? Undoubtedly it needs to localize, its leading lights have to increasingly engage with the smaller but growing markets across India. The industry also has to transition to a far more egalitarian process to recruit new talent rather than become a factory of star-kids seeking their parents positions.

1: “YRF distributors in Assam have forcibly replaced an Assamese film — titled ‘Raag’ — with their latest release, ‘Gunday’.”


  1. Life lessons from the “bad boy” of Bollywood.

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