Forget the quality of present day popular Hindi cinema. The real question that should warrant any debate should be ‘is there any sense of morality left in our films?’ The moral code of our cinema, or the apparent lack of it, could be blamed on the successful filmmakers and their rather apathetic sense of attachment towards things around them and, maybe, even their viewers. But that would just be half the story. Looking at films, the characters, the successes and the super hits, one could give up on any hope that things would change but that’s not as tragic as the realisation that perhaps our films have given up on us.
In an ideal world it would only be correct to say that most of Bollywood’s biggest hits are a result of striking the right chord with the audience. In that case should one get worried about Ghajini (2008), Wanted (2008), Dabangg (2010), Singham (2011) or Rowdy Rathore (2012) enjoying such great acceptability? A decade ago such, for the lack of any other term, popular crowd pleasers would feature in the year’s successful films lists but they wouldn’t be topping the charts. In the last five years the success of any film seems to be directly related to the level of its sensibility and the lower the quotient, the louder the ringing of the cash registers.
Till the advent of the Angry Young Man, Hindi cinema had a very specific good versus bad kind of morality. Simplistic as it might have been, this is the very code of ethics that operated films such as Mother India (1957) or Ganga Jamuna (1961). It may have transformed and even changed when Salim-Javed’s Vijay became the prototype for Hindi cinema’s leading man, it nevertheless inspired his creation. The Angry Young Man resorted to anti-social activities in order to get power to correct the wrongs that happened to him. Although the end suggested that he never got away easy, the result hardly mattered to us.
Hindi cinema’s balance was kept in place by filmmakers from Parallel Cinema whose films were a little more real than the reality of commercial film. The films of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, Mani Kaul and the early Mahesh Bhatt to name a few showed that somewhere the hero, much like the Angry Young Man, could be one from the crowd without being over the top or even escapist. Like popular mainstream films Ankur (1974), Junoon (1978), Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), Kalyug (1981), Ardh Satya (1983), Salim Lange Pe Mat Ro (1989), too, showed men and women the way they were but approached them with morality that was real and unlike many commercial films, believable. Many of the actors like Naeseruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, and Smita Patil who played these characters blessed them with a certain degree of credibility.
In the early years commercial films regularly sought actors from Parallel Cinema as their presence added certain gravitas to the song and dance routine. Similarly till a few years ago a big star would get attracted enough by middle-of-the-path cinema as being the part of a Shyam Benegal or a Govind Nahlani project was prestigious. Although the star increased the logistics of the film, like Paheli (2005) or Dev (2004) and Thakshak (1999), it assured a certain level of exhibition and more importantly the honesty of the intention. It gave mainstream actors to do something meaningful once in a while. Tired of playing good guys who couldn’t possibly do anything wrong, stars could be actors once again and play regular everyday people or in their words, good people doing bad things. The limited box-office success of such projects sounded its death knell and stars went back to the old game with a vengeance. This along with the shifting social consciousness of bad being good getting translated unto the screen has ensured that the only morality left in Hindi films is the one that is invisible, even missing. The worse someone is, the better they fare is the simple equation that operates characters now. Of course, there’s an ending where the right still prevails in some degree but that’s almost perfunctory. Look at any Emraan Hashmi character and you’d know what this means.
Present day commercial Hindi cinema is all about being cool. The kids are cool and the dads are cooler, the villains might cease to be dispassionate but the heroes are more aloof than ever before. It’s not enough for a character to simply kill the other; today they have to mouth some inane profanity and then hear something worse before puling the trigger or parking the fatal blow. Salim-Javed changed the manner in which morality functioned on screen and since then no other writer has been able to award Hindi cinema with a new or even slightly different code of behavior. There are exceptions like Rajkumar Hirani (Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003), 3 Idiots (2009) but they fall in the one-of-their-kinds-swimming-against-the-tide or emotions brilliantly packaged category depending on how one’s viewing them.
Sadly it seems like the failure of the smaller or different films has ensured that big, bad Bollywood extracts its pound of flesh on its viewers. The slow but sure exit of people like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza from the spotlight along with the new dictum of box-office-success-by-any-means-necessary has defined a new sense of hollow morality.
The acceptance of films like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Dabangg, Ghajini or Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010), Rowdy Rathore is a result of this new thought process and we as audiences seem to be guilty of showering it with our blessings. If you thought that was bad enough try coping with the reality that perhaps it was we, the viewer, who might have killed Hindi cinema’s morality in the first place.
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.
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