The Bombay cinema industry’s ongoing strike reveals important developments within contemporary India. Bombay produces a thousand films each year, easily the world’s most prolific cinema industry. Its audience is renowned for its fervour. Viewers quote entire passages from films and regularly slip into movie songs, dances, costumes and role-playing. Bombay cinema demands and receives active viewer involvement, filmic depiction blending comfortably with real-life emotion. Yet, for all that, few Indians seemed to really care when Bollywood announced recently that it was going on strike.
It’s been over a month since the film industry’s declaration. No new films of note have released. The airwaves aren’t alive with exciting new songs. There are no queues jostling outside cinemas, popcorn machines have lost their bounce and even gossip about the stars is beginning to look a little wilted. But there have been no howls of public protest greeting this sudden cinematic silence.
According to the film industry, the ‘bad guys’ in this picture are multiplex cinemas which refuse to enter into a fifty-fifty revenue-sharing agreement. Multiplex owners want a film’s performance as the basis on which revenue from its exhibition is shared. Having over-extended their expansion in India, opening carpeted theatres selling mustard-laden hot dogs in areas where bazaars and tea shops continue to be the main sites for interaction, multiplex owners are now erring on the side of caution, demanding that their investments be equalled by cinematic performance. To a film industry shaken by piracy, spiralling production costs and flops, this is not a happy ending. Undoubtedly, the industry relied on public support in its strike against adamant multiplexes.
However, like the movies, in life, timing is everything. The stand-off between multiplexes and filmmakers occurred against the backdrop of the Indian elections. With a host of colourful characters, gossipy developments and inviting mathematical speculation, the elections have occupied most adults in the country. There is also the IPL; this has lost some zest by being physically displaced from India but still holds attention spans.
Deeper into the backdrop, the economic recession’s impact also becomes apparent. The global downturn has forced entertainment industries across the world, including Hollywood, to grind slower. In India, with jobs disappearing and instability in the air, film consumers have not been displeased saving the sizeable sums that purchase a multiplex movie experience.
Interestingly, Bollywood’s strike and the languid responses to it mark the completion of the privatisation of entertainment in India. Once, going to the cinema theatre was de rigueur for anyone wanting a break; housewives, schoolchildren, unemployed youths, all scooted off to the local single-screen and enjoyed its cool, dark space enclosing pleasing imagery and satisfying dramas. Now, it is possible to ‘escape’ squarely within the domestic simply by putting on one’s television.
From conversations with viewers, an air of satisfaction with Bollywood’s strike can be discerned. Underneath the passion for cinema, there is resentment against cinema stars. Viewers feel stars get paid vast amounts for rather little work and bring a crass materialism into other spheres as well. Thus, popular feeling ruled against superstar Shah Rukh Khan for his perceived ill-treatment of Saurav Ganguly, followed by his acrimonious exchange with Sunil Gavaskar. A cinematic legend is all very well, but there are lines even SRK shouldn’t cross.
In fact, Bollywood’s strike has given people space to enunciate feelings bubbling under the surface of India’s popular culture. These express a growing unease with commercialisation. There is far too much talk of marketing, hype, star-power, even dynasty in the film industry today. Where are simple, entertaining films which don’t cost billions to make and last at the marquee beyond three days? Where are the stars who can mesmerise the public with more than speculation about their fees or physical size? Where are the stories that reflect the heat, dust, dazzle, violence and joys of Indian life? Give us films like that, say viewers, and we’ll ensure you end your strike. Until then, the public doesn’t really mind if Bollywood continues a little longer with this sudden interval.
Das is a research scholar in social anthropology at Cambridge University, UK.