The Bollywood political symphony
During his college days, he would be found rehearsing for his stage plays at the Bhulabhai Desai memorial institute on Warden Road, Bombay. In the same compound was the office of Harkirtan Kaur, known to the world as the famous Hindi film actress, Geeta Bali. Observing his rehearsals, one day, Geeta Bali apparently remarked, “You have tremendous acting potential, some day you would be India’s leading actor”. She even went ahead and offered him a role in her upcoming Punjabi language film, Rano.
Taken aback by the sudden turn of events, the young man thought it fit to consult his family astrologer about a carrier choice. Legend goes that the astrologer bluntly told him that “he has no future as an actor but would succeed in the iron and steel trade”. Geeta Bali did not survive long after that incident and died at the young age of 35 in 1965, but her prophecy would stand the test of time and disprove an astrologer’s warning.
1969, 70 and 71 were the three years when India was hypnotized by Rajesh Khanna, never had there been such a ‘phenomenon’ in Indian movies. Everybody in India, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the ugly, the urban and the rural folks were all mesmerized by him. In those three years whatever he touched turned to gold. For the first time Bombay was divided into two halves, it was a Rajesh Khanna v/s the rest division. One man triumphed over the rest. Mind you, the rest included such luminaries as Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Dharmendra, Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor et al.
Yet, Rajesh Khanna had nothing new to offer to Hindi movies, for at the end of the day he was merely an old wine repackaged in a new bottle with a twisted smile and naughty eyes. He simply rehashed the age old Bollywood tales of love and longing with haunting melodies. His meteoric rise thus coincided with an equally drastic fall. From being the heartthrob of India, he was reduced to being a phantom of Bombay.
In her younger years, she was an insipid girl who endlessly suffered from a lack of self-confidence. Whatever little courage she had was consumed by the debilitating tuberculosis. As she grew up, she was largely seen as an ornamental piece that adorned the famous household. When the “Gungi Gudiya” struck back, she totally devastated all her opponents.
1969, 70 and 71 were the golden years of Indira Gandhi. She mesmerized India into total submission. For the first time Indian polity was divided into two halves; one half consisted of Indira Gandhi, while the other half had such luminaries as K. Kamaraj, Morarji Desai, S. Nijalingappa, S.K. Patil, Atulya Ghosh et al. Indira emerged triumphant over all her stalwart opponents. She even took on the mighty Americans and yet emerged victorious by liberating Bangladesh.
Intrinsically Indira Gandhi had nothing new to offer to India, but for refashioning old problems of poverty and hunger in catchy new slogans. Instead of sorting out structural problems of governance, she offered more of banal socialism as the solution for India’s woes. Thus her meteoric rise too coincided with a thumping fall from grace by the mid 70’s. Once mighty queen of India was reduced to a street thug who had robbed India’s freedom and democracy.
India’s political destiny and Bollywood lifecycles are like conjoined twins, joined at the hip and caricaturing each other in a symphony of the absurd. It is as if that the dramatis personæ of India’s political club found an expression through the vagaries of tinsel town. India, she who brimmed with a unwashed sweaty mass of people, had found an elegantly passive pathway to resist colonial suppression under the tutelage of a half-naked Mahatma, seems to have now intertwined the tentacles of her destiny to the celluloid. Movies were after all the only self-indulgent opium of a nation of people who could neither choose their religion or caste decided by the curse of birth nor could they choose a way of life imposed by the ruling socialist elite.
Every city, small town and big village in India, those which lacked even the basic structures of governance, were blessed with a movie theatre for much of our overtly socialist existence. Those villages that lacked a permanent structure made do with touring cinemas. Each and every Indian screen (but for a few exceptions down south) would go on to play host to the masterful tale of the conquest of Gabbar in the 70s and 80s.
In 1975, even as Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency, there was a big budget western style action drama that was unleashed on the screens of India. Initial reaction to Emergency in India was one of indifference bordering on even a bit of enthusiasm and all the negativity that we associate with those years is a later manifestation. In contrast, initial couple of weeks of Sholay had one word written all over the box-office collections – flop.
As the draconian Emergency measures started to percolate down to ordinary Indians in all its revulsive glory, Sholay entered the collective psyche of India. To describe Sholay as merely a cult movie or even as a blockbuster (of mammoth proportions, no doubt) would be gross injustice to a mass movement. Sholay was a mass social indulgence of an entire generation. It was an expression of raw nervous energy of a people who were otherwise severely handicapped by the excessive control of a super state.
Rampur, the village in which Sholay is set, was constantly in a state of Emergency. While Gabbar was the oppressive state, Thakur represented the impotent ordinary public which lacked the courage to take on the high and mighty. The alliance between Jai and Veeru and Thakur was the advent of the JP movement which came about despite seemingly unsurmountable internal differences, for the people of India wanted to believe that two ordinary crooks could actually take on the mighty state.
Even before the advent of Sholay, Salim-Javed had invented the angry young man portrayed so vehemently by Amitabh Bachchan. Unlike Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh bestowed a new idiom to Indian movies, he brought violence to the table. Those were violent times, when Mahatma’s passivity had long outlived its sell by date and violence was accepted as a legitimate tool to redress grievances against the state and against all kinds of injustices.
As the JP experiment fizzled out, so also was the angry young man incorporated by the system, for every hero then went on to become angry. For the next decade or so, as first Indira and then her Son Rajiv ruled India with utter lack of creativity, political stagnation became the order of the day. Synchronously, as if in tune with the larger polity, Indian movies of the 80’s totally stagnated in excessive violence, progressively crass villains and laughably repetitive revenge dramas. The larger Indian society too was going through a particularly violent period which was getting increasingly repetitive – Punjab, Kashmir, Naxalites, Assam, the assassinations, the endless riots et al.
Between 1975 and 1990, it is said that every script writer in Bombay wrote his story keeping Amitabh in his mind as the protagonist. Since it was physically impossible for Big B to enact all those roles, other ‘heroes’ got a chance to display their ability to indulge in mindless violence.
It is remarkable how everything in India changed in a short span of 3 odd years between 1988 and 1992. In this short window of 3 years, Indian polity was totally revolutionized. Three long lasting changes were founded between 1988 and 92, which went on to dominate India for the next two decades. The socio-political revolution of just these 3 changes in 3 years has been so powerful that no Nehru-Gandhi has since ruled India directly, whilst they ruled us with total divinity for the first four decades.
Mandalization created a new paradigm in the politics of power by giving birth to such eminent leaders as Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar or even a Siddharamaiah who have dominated the political scene for more than two decades now. Mandir agitation brought BJP to the forefront of India’s national conscience and it has since become the only viable alternative to the Congress party. Third and most important change was economic liberalization which has not only altered the way politics is practiced in India but also has given the longest serving non-Nehru-gene-pool PM of India. What is striking is that all these three momentous changes happened over a small window period of three years.
As if on cue, between 1988 and 92, Bollywood went through its own revolution when finally the film industry was liberated from the giant presence of Amitabh Bachchan. It is curious indeed that in those three odd years were born the five superstars who have totally dominated the box-office for more than two decades – the Khan triumvirate, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan all made their debuts between 1988 and 92.
It is these five men who have consistently given the biggest blockbusters of the last two decades, it is these five men on whom 80% of all big Bollywood investments ride on at any given time and it is these five men who can carry the burden of attracting audiences to the ticket counter just by their solo presence – apart from Hrithik Roshan and Ranbir Kapoor to some extent now and Sunny Deol & Govinda briefly in the late 90s. It is remarkable indeed that the entire foundation of the post-modern Bollywood was laid in just a small window period of three years between 1988 and 1992.
As Indian polity went through its ups and downs, so did Bollywood in the last two decades. Through the advent of satellite television and internet, movies began to lose their primacy over entertainment, while a liberalized economic structure meant less and less power in the hands of the politicians. The incestuous nature of both Bollywood and the Indian politics made it almost impossible for “outsiders” to break in. Meanwhile a large number of movie theatres that occupied prime properties in thousands of Indian cities had to shut shop under the onslaught of newer technological avenues for entertainment. There was a time in the late 90s and early 2000s when Bollywood’s demise was being discussed as a very real possibility. Similarly, the political class of India had lost all its goodwill among the general public; every politician was looked at with suspicion by the cynical Indian masses. So much so that ‘politics’ had become a dirty word in public dictionary.
Although the rebirth of Bollywood had started in the middle of the last decade through the multiplex revolution, the real fight back only began a couple of years ago when Bollywood instigated to reinvent itself. Indian movies have never had it this good apart from a few golden years in the 60s and 70s when Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India and Sholay et al enthralled the nation.
Such diverse tales have never been told with such finesse and with such overwhelming commercial success as in the last couple of years. Starting from a biopic of an unknown dacoit turned steeplechase champion to the story of a sperm donor and then heading towards gang-wars of hinterland Bihar and finally the tale of intelligence failures in preventing the assassination of a former Prime Minister – stories that Bollywood is unleashing have never been this original or this divergent. What is common between all these successes? They are all movies that have come from outside the elite incestuous club of Bollywood.
In fact, the ‘outsider’ is on the cusp of taking over Bollywood and liberating it from the clutches of the Khans and Kapoors. This year for instance, a dark, unassuming Tamil hero with absolutely disastrous non-chocolaty looks gave the biggest sleeper hit of the year through Ranjhana which grossed a whopping 70 Cr at the Box office. Similarly, last year, another horribly bad looking, dark and short hero from Muzaffarnagar delivered a huge critical and commercial success in the form Gangs of Wasseypur 2.
It is happening everywhere in Bollywood, these young small towners and rank outsiders with no familial ties to the film industry have become the darlings of the box office overnight. An Ayushman Khurana from Chandigarh or a Sushant Singh Rajput from Patna, who are total outsiders to the usual Mumbai-Delhi circuit have demonstrated that they can give multiple box-office hits on their own steam just like the Khans or Kapoors.
Bollywood is simply the lead indicator of the phenomenal social changes that India is witnessing. The orchestra of India’s destiny is tuning a new song that has melodies borrowed from outside the elite club of Dilli (and Mumbai). Narendra Modi is the ultimate outsider who has a story to tell – a story of development and progress, a story of equal opportunities for a young India and ultimately, a story of hope – and Indians are lapping up this story.
‘Politics’ in India is no longer a dirty word, for politics is now associated with passion and hope. The passion of those climbing the poles in virtually every NaMo rally, or the passion of those thousands of young, hitherto uninterested, men and women chanting “we want Modi” incessantly, or the passion of millions of online warriors spending hundreds of man hours every month to propagate the NaMo philosophy, this passion is contagious and is spreading across India like a wildfire.
[Disclaimer: This write-up may be discarded as pop-sociology by a serious social or political scientist, but the fact is that there are some interesting patterns in the social tendencies of our movie culture that may be eventually reflective of political changes. At any rate, this subject needs a wider social study.
Indian film industry is by no means represented by Bollywood alone as there are other far more enriching and possibly even more influential language films, especially down south, but this was only a limited exercise of looking at the national politics through the eyes of Bollywood
Indian movies are overwhelmingly patriarchal in nature, therefore the narrative is excessively male dominated and does not take into consideration the influence of Bollywood women over the polity]