The purpose of Bollywood
Does cinema have a purpose? One of the most powerful tools ever devised by man must do something more than merely entertaining a billion people. Cinema was supposed to make us think, inspire, and question besides amusing us but if one were to look at Bollywood’s best from the past decade then it seems like its purpose is lost. Of course, our films still entertain us but the price they appear to have paid seems too high now.
Cinema, like other art forms, is a product of its environment. The power and impact of films is far greater than an individual’s point of view and that’s why at times a deep-rooted critical analysis of even something like Bollywood doesn’t make sense. In the greeter scheme of things Bollywood isn’t as important as columns such as this might imagine it to be but something that stirs emotions both good and ugly in billions of people warrants such musing.
In a recent article that looked at the veracity of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian suggested that more than anything else films must make us think about the myths and realities of our times. Although, he said that in the context of a particular film that takes a fresh look at a nation’s biggest crisis, it nevertheless made me think about our popular films. Escapism has been the cornerstone of Bollywood ever since one can recall and for an industry where templatisation is almost a way of life, it has become the talisman that everyone believes in. Many filmmakers try and successfully pass off the ridiculous in the name of entertainment. Others take themselves far too seriously. Some like Anurag Kashyap, an icon of sorts when it comes to heralding in the “new Bollywood”, argue that present day commercial Hindi cinema finally seems to have broken the shackles of the old guard but never has Hindi cinema seemed so purposeless.
Imagine yourself to be an outsider with no idea of India as a nation. Now imagine watching Bollywood’s best from the last decade or so to get know the country. I’m certain that you won’t think much of us, now would you? There are only a handful of films in the last few years that come across as something more than mindless nonsense. In the initial years after Independence films played a major role in uniting people with their strong sense of social messaging. There were films that promoted things like education, or national unity but more than anything else they upheld a sense of general empathy. This element of purpose might seem tacky to the present day it crowd but back then the audience looked forward to it. In the last five years films like Bodyguard, Ghajini, Dabangg, Ek Tha Tiger, and Singham have made more money than films ever before but what does that say about us?
Filmmakers would argue that the proof of the pudding lies in the eating and the fact that ticket-paying viewer likes them is testimony enough. But is the viewer really at play here? If a major release has 17 shows a day per multiplex then what else do you expect the majority of Indian population to do but watch the film for cinema is still the cheapest, and perhaps the only, form of accessible entertainment for them. There is nothing wrong with the Ek Tha Tigers ruling the roost at the box-office but they invariably end up killing everything else. A film like Well Done Abba, an absolute gem directed by Shyam Benegal, didn’t last more than a week in cinemas because in the times of opening weekend collections even seven days was too long a time for a small film. It’s not like Benegal might never make a film again because he doesn’t understand the new economics that govern films; it’s because he might not be able to be completely purposeless. Today, a Gangs of Wasseypur might blow a majority of the audiences and critics equally but look closely and there’s very little that you’d find worth remembering a few days after the epic two-volume opus.
Who would have thought that in a year of a Vicky Donor or Paan Singh Tomar the moral bankruptcy of Hindi cinema would look greater than that of the 1980s. Often berated for being the worst decade for Hindi cinema, the 1980s nonetheless helped the so-called Parallel Cinema to really come of age. It was the only time when films no matter how big or small were treated at par by the industry but also by the audiences as well as the critics. It was time where a Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri could beat an Amitabh Bachchan in a popular award category and their films went that extra mile to meet the audience’s need for something thought provoking.
There seems to be a direct relationship between Hindi cinema’s growth and it’s lack of purposefulness. Our films are supposed to reflect us but there surely must be something more to us than Ek Tha Tigers and Dabanggs. A filmmaker is freer today to talk about you and me and tell our stories, they must for it’s not like the society that inspires them isn’t in strife.
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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