Just as Hollywood is a giant culture industry that shapes and reflects how people all over the world think of reality and life, there is a major film industry in India that has been influencing public culture and people for nearly one hundred years now. Today, I will speak to you about this massive culture industry, that of Indian cinema, whose globally farthest-reaching arm is ”Bollywood.” Bollywood is the recently coined name for cinema in the Hindi language which reflects primarily North Indian culture. While there are several other vernacular cinemas in India of considerable artistry and influence, none has surpassed Bollywood or popular Hindi-language cinema in scope, breadth, and global influence. Indeed, far beyond the territorial boundaries of the Indian nation-state, Bollywood films are hugely popular in all of South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, Russia, Pacific and Caribbean countries. Now they are beginning to be popular in the UK and in the United States. I will speak to you briefly today about Bollywood as a major vehicle of social and cultural change in India; in doing so, I will also touch upon the strong influence this cinema has over Indians abroad.
As I have already said, cinema has been made in India for over a hundred years now. India is one of the world’s oldest film-producing cultures, and Bollywood alone produces approximately 400 films every year. Every year, millions of people flock to the movie theatres, and the culture of “first-day/first-show” is alive and well. TV and cable for a while set back the cinema’s market appeal in the eighties, but Bollywood in particular has bounced right back, and megaplexes and niche theatres are doing roaring business all over India. It is a risky business, and many more fail than succeed, yet the allure and the glamour of the Bollywood dream shows no signs of fading. What is it that makes this cinema both so popular and so enduring?
To answer this question it is necessary to consider in what ways this cinema reflects and shapes the cine-going public’s hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations. I will attempt some reflections on this question by examining this cinema decade by decade. Since its inception in the early nineteen-hundreds, Bollywood was a cinema that reflected national, social and personal aspirations. Before India gained independence from the British in 1947, the cinema’s main concerns were entertainment, social reform, and nationalist ardor, not necessarily in that order. I would like to talk to you, however, about a few films from the so-called “golden” fifties, the “angry” seventies, and the “consumer revolutionary” nineties, as these decades, in my view, reflect the sharpest contours of change and growth in the cinema in tandem with social and cultural change.
Let me start with the fifties, with a film by Mehbood Khan called Mother India. Released in 1957, Mother India depicted legendary actress Nargis playing the quintessential earth mother who lives and farms in a timeless Indian village. She fights adversity in the shape of a runaway husband, famine, starving children, landlord rape, and finally her own son’s desperate turn to lawlessness.
From the idealistic and socialism-driven fifties, I take you to the late seventies and the early eighties, when popular anger at abuses of political power and economic downturn in society led to the pheonomenon of the angry young man, epitomized by megastar Amitabh Bachchan. I am showing you a bit of a film titled Zanjeer (1973) wherein Bachchan plays an honest police officer fighting the endemic corruption of the social system that allowed his father’s death at the hands of gangsters. The analogy between gangster politics and national politics is explicitly presented through the depiction of the hero’s rage and his ultimate decision to take on the system by going outside the law. The true patriot then emerges as the individual unafraid to defy unjust laws and institutions.
In between the fifties and the late seventies, Bollywood mostly reverted to lighter entertainment and romances, and this oscillation was again apparent in the late eighties and the early nineties, when Bollywood suddenly returned to romance with a vengeance, usually in the form of the blockbuster musical. Perhaps the most successful film in this genre was Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride, 1995), which depicted the transnational yet impeccably traditionalist romance between two Non-resident Indians whose love can only find resolution in the homeland neither of them has seen but to whose traditions they remain unconsciously ever faithful. In on scene the hero tells the heroine that though he could elope with her, he will instead win her hand from her unwilling father because that is what a “true” Indian man would do. Overall, during the “consumer revolution” of the nineties in India, such films showed an easy reconciliation between western and eastern values, a match extremely important to a new Indian psyche anxious for a place in a new global order. The diasporic Indian was extremely critical for this reconciliation.
Two more turns in the nineties and twenty-first century must be covered even in this very brief overview. One has given us films that convey hostile propaganda towards India’s neighboring state and longstanding adversary Pakistan. By mining history for a violent past wherein Hindus and Muslims attacked each other especially during the bloody Partition of undivided India into what are now the separate countries of Indian and Pakistan, the very popular film Gadar (2001) affirmed an ultranationalist Hindu hegemony that derives its sense of identity from demonizing Indian Muslims and their shadows, the Pakistani citizen.
The second turn is to twenty-first century India, where politics and stuntmanship are oddly though accidentally juxtaposed in cinema as a whole. In 2003 and 2006, Dhoom (Rout) and Rang de Basanti (The Color of Spring) show the new India: young, sexy, colorful, urbane, cosmopolitan and post-nationalist. In Rang de Basanti, young college students gain consciousness of their country’s present political corruption and lack of proper governance and try to take justice into their own hands. They are martyred, but leave behind a new euphoric neo-patriotism; Rang de Basanti actually momentarily energized youth culture in the direction of some sort of political consciousness.
More lasting seems to be the influence of a pure entertainment thriller such as Yash Chopra’s Dhoom where cops chase bad guys on motorcycles, buses, powerboats, and other fast projectiles. Kungfu, hand to hand combat, gunfights and firebombing contribute to the sheer spectacular delight of an “action” extravanganza that loops the cinema back to its earliest days of spectacle, mythologicals, historical epics, and, last but not least, the stuntwoman films of the whip-cracking action heroine “Fearless Nadia” of the 1920s and 1930s. Thus Bollywood, over the long century of its existence, not only has adapted to cultural flows and social changes, but has remained ever mindful of its bottom-line: entertainment for the masses.