x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

As Indian society has changed, so have themes in Hindi films

"Bollywood" is a recent, global appellation, but mainstream Hindi cinema tried to address India's national concerns even under colonial rule.

illustration for comment May 25, 2013 Pep Montserrat for The National
illustration for comment May 25, 2013 Pep Montserrat for The National

Indian cinema, now marking its centenary, is not synonymous with "Bollywood", the term applied to Hindi-language popular cinema from Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

India also offers productions in regional languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Bhojpuri and Bengali, plus "art cinema" - whose best-known filmmaker is Satyajit Ray - in various languages. There is "independent cinema" catering to English-speaking metropolitan audiences, and a "B category" cinema in Hindi, producing films shown mainly in the small towns of northern India and often featuring elements of horror and magic.

Still another category is "diaspora cinema" produced around the world, in English by filmmakers such as Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2013) and Deepa Mehta (Midnight's Children, 2012).

The art cinemas in various Indian languages, having grown up in part thanks to state sponsorship, are fairly alike in concerns and form.

But India's various popular cinemas are not all alike, and the differences among them are not restricted to language. They address different identities; the language communities sometimes transcend national boundaries, as when Tamil cinema is followed avidly in Malaysia.

"Bollywood" is a recent, global appellation, but mainstream Hindi cinema tried to address national concerns even under colonial rule.

Hindi films' subject matter and treatment have constantly evolved, reflecting changes in social and political concerns.

In the early days, Hindi films addressed people across the country, many of whom knew little Hindi. So they restricted their vocabulary to a handful of words - such as love, justice, good, bad, thief and kill. Consequently, understanding a Hindi film is extremely simple.

These films allowed people across a vast territory to feel that they were part of one nation. They assisted in creating a sense of nationhood. These films also had a clear moral discourse, supporting honesty, true love and concern for the poor.

By addressing public concerns, Hindi cinema made itself political, but never explicitly so. Rather, it couched political concerns in the language of myth. Its method was allegorical and covert.

Its most successful directors were those closest in sensibility to the audience - Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan, rather than auteurs such as Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy - and they shared the same concerns, subconsciously. But foreign audiences could also relate to Hindi cinema, although usually as timeless parables rather than as tracts pertinent to current affairs.

Hindi cinema developed a language which depended on the philosophical preoccupations of the subcontinent. Rather than deal with individuals, it dealt with archetypes and stereotypes, and these came to represent the political entities and players of the time.

At key moments in modern Indian history, new motifs appear.

During colonial rule, social scientists suggest, the Indian public suffered from a crisis of masculinity; this finds reflection in Hindi cinema in the motif of the weak man - and its converse, the strong woman. Devdas (1935), for instance, is about a weak young man, his tyrannical father, the strong woman he cannot wed because of family compulsions, and his descent into alcoholism.

In the first films after independence, policemen and judges, who had come to represent the moral authority of the state, acquired a new gravitas. The courtroom became sacred as the place where truth cannot be denied. A morally erring judge can himself be indicted in court (Awaara, 1951).

Lawyers also began to turn up, representing a politically powerful class - most of India's new leaders were lawyers.

Another motif of importance is the rich-poor divide, which appears strongly after 1950.

Until that year, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's political plans had faced opposition within the Congress from another important leader, Sardar Vallabhai Patel.

But he died in 1950 and after his death, Nehru went ahead with his socialist programme - which translated on to Hindi-cinema screens as the need for the rich to care for the poor (in, for example, Amar, 1954).

Nehru wanted a modern India, but traditionalists were wary of such changes. The mixed feelings towards modernisation were reflected in two motifs, "good modernity" represented by the doctor (as in Baazi, 1951) and "bad modernity" by the gambler, the nightclub and western-style dance.

Also important in this period was the notion of the city, as an emblem of Nehruvian modernity. If the city is a reason for optimism in Aar Paar (1954), it also has negative connotations as in Barsaat (1949) and Kala Bazar (1960).

Other motifs of importance include secularism, which becomes significant in films as early as 1943 when it became evident that Hindus and Muslims would have to live together in independent India (Humayun, 1945).

Then came agrarian unrest and land reform in the 1950s (Mother India, 1956). Also important is the virtuous mother, who became a cinematic emblem of the nation (as in Awaara, 1951, and Mother India, 1956).

As may be expected, the emerging stars who populated these films had personalities and images that help them appear as relevant social types. Ashok Kumar, for instance, played the androgynous hero before 1947 (in Azad, 1940), while Dilip Kumar portrayed a man overwhelmed by existential freedom in the1950s (in Babul, 1950).

Dev Anand was the morally ambivalent figure not given to scruples but who still reforms (in Baazi, 1951). Raj Kapoor developed his character, on the basis of Chaplin's Tramp (in Shri 420, 1955), as a poor man who recognises the corruption in society. Hindi cinema has always been patriarchal; the most important female star was Nargis, who played the independent woman/mother in the late 1940s and 1950s (as in Andaz, 1949).

A period of great optimism for India opened in 1950, and the popular Hindi cinema took up the task of addressing the modern independent nation in earnest.

But all that ended in 1962, with India's defeat in the Sino-Indian War. After that, Hindi cinema retreated into social unresponsiveness for several years. Escapist entertainment - gadgets, foreign locations and glamour - flourished.

The ascent of Indira Gandhi around 1970 was the next important moment for Hindi cinema, which responded to her brand of populist radicalism. A key creation in this period is the "Angry Young Man" as played by Amitabh Bachchan (Deewar, 1975).

Hindi cinema perhaps began to retreat from its socio-political function after 1991-92 when India abandoned socialism and embraced the free market. After this, Hindi cinema begins to deal exclusively with the rich (as in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, 1994).

Patriotism directed outside the nation (Border, 1998) replaces intra-national economic conflict (Damini, 1992) as thematic content.

Gradually, after that, Hindi popular cinema turned into the Bollywood we know, a global artefact addressing non-resident South Asians much more than it speaks to rural Indians.

The globalisation of India has split the nation as never before and while an English-speaking urban class has risen, the rural public has been left behind. This means that Bollywood has also divided, so that some films celebrate material advancement (Three Idiots, 2009) while others uphold feudal virtues (Dabangg, 2010).

The rise of Salman Khan as a top star can be understood as the resistance of rural/semi-urban India to global/anglophone India.

Bollywood has been hugely successful economically, but one envisages a future for it as a global brand, with only restricted connections to the Indian nation, just as Coca-Cola is today a global brand, no longer intrinsically American.


MK Raghavendra is the author of Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, and 50 Indian Film Classics