Bollywood has warned us again : The Tribune India

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Bollywood has warned us again

A remarkable feature of our Bombay cinema — whether it is a silly commercial dance-and-song piece of fluff or a hard-hitting art film — is that it manages to apprehend social change before the academic world can see it.

Bollywood has warned us again


A remarkable feature of our Bombay cinema — whether it is a silly commercial dance-and-song piece of fluff or a hard-hitting art film — is that it manages to apprehend social change before the academic world can see it. Our sociologists and historians are often so trapped in their research work or so blinded by ideological theories that they fail to see the wood for the trees. I do not know many ‘intellectuals’ who go to see a film (good or bad) because they consider it either a waste of time or a peg to hang their pet peeves on. Many of us (I put myself in this category as well) think it is a declaration of one’s low intellect to go and see a Bollywood blockbuster. We prefer to read reviews by eminent movie critics who only write for a readership like ours. Perhaps the only real appreciation of this genre comes from the common men and women who go there to escape the miseries of the real world. 

I may be wrong but I sincerely believe that unless one keeps in touch with popular cinema and other forms of public entertainment (such as the serials and reality shows on our television), or traditional quasi-religious popular events such as Ramlilas, jagrans or urs celebrations at our Sufi dargahs, we no longer have a hand on the pulse of the country. Our cynical attitude towards the cultural preferences of the masses has driven a deep chasm between Bharat and India over the years. Believe me, Hindutva was not born overnight.

Now let us turn our attention to a brief history of Indian cinema since Independence. The early years were dominated by card-holding members of IPTA or the Progressive Writers’ Association. Bimal Roy’s films brought before our eyes the pitiful condition of the peasants oppressed by feudal landlords and the squalor of the mill-worker’s chawls. In both narratives, the viewers’ attention was drawn to the new agents of oppression arising in the country even after it had liberated itself from colonial exploitation. In answer to this was the romantic nationalist film popularised by directors such as V Shantaram whose cinema proudly sang of the essential nobility of the poor. Both genres showed us a world being established in our towns and villages. Giving strength to such narratives was the sublime music scored by Naushad, SD Burman and C Ramachandra who tapped into the rich traditions of our classical and folk music. Above all, were the haunting lyrics penned by our greatest Urdu poets — Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, to name a few — who provided the words that immortalised these films. Just think of a film like Mother India and you will understand what I am trying to convey about the idealistic dreams of the fifties and sixties. 

Come now to later decades when the grand themes of communal harmony or the nobility of the toiling worker slowly receded. The narrative had moved to individual and personal lives and problems: the domestic had replaced the national saga. Helen’s gyrations brought a new swing into the Bombay film and music directors such as Rahul Dev Burman adapted western tunes to introduce a new note (no pun intended) to make us forget the grim world of earlier decades. The pull of western music and clothes were to have a profound impact a few decades later and today we live in a world where Indian clothes (dhoti-kurta, sari, salwar kameez) have given way to skirts and jeans. No one can doubt that fashions come to us from our film stars who are our style icons, so hairstyles (whether Dev Anand’s coiffed puff, Dilip Kumar’s studied mop, Rajesh Khanna’s cute half parting or Amitabh Bachchan’s long sideburns) have launched a thousand snips.  

However, these outer manifestations of change were nothing as compared to what was happening beyond them. The Angry Young Man was imported straight from our screens into our towns and villages to explode into anarchic social movements — Naxalism, Mandal et el. A little later came the life of the NRI that brought the clash of cultures in families that had gone straight from the pind to ‘Burmunghum’ (from Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge to Patiala House). I have just seen Anarkali of Arrah, a film about a gutsy naaach-gaane wali who performs bawdy numbers at weddings and other public events. Set in a quintessential Bihari small town, what caught my attention was the crowd of youth lustily cheering her double entendre songs. I had recently seen them on my TV screen in the rallies of young men who vow to protect ‘our women’ from ‘Romeos’, or cows from kabab-eaters. They were then proudly waving flags behind the bhaiyyas, behenjis and yogis they supported in the recent elections in UP. Once again I was struck at the prescience of our Bombay films. 

So my takeaway lesson is: beware the animal energy and sexual frustration of these young men for it is a bomb waiting to explode. Bombay has warned us once again.

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