Of the thousands of Hindi films that have been made till date, there are many that promote and reinforce the dominant cultural values that Soumitro Das (Politics of Popcorn, November 6, 2009) deplores as politically retrogressive and artistically meaningless.
But there are two problems with Das’s theory: first, he ignores those films that don’t accept the dominant culture and those that critique it. For example, look at the various versions of Devdas. The demolition of Devdas is a critique of a social structure that reduced an individual to a snivelling mess because he could not live by its rules. Devdas’s pain is the emotional centre of this critique and many in the last century shared it.
Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool makes for a magnificently layered reading and revisits the Devdas story. It attacks the flawed nature of Indian masculinity and places it in a larger context, thereby, attacking that context as well. Dev D’s callow protagonist is also a critique of a society that encourages self-destructive streaks in men.
There are many other examples that puncture Das’s argument. Mehboob’s Mother India was an attempt to establish a humanist notion of nationhood that propelled a loving mother to kill her own son because he dishonoured a woman, even though the woman was the daughter of an enemy, Sukhilala.
The charge that Bollywood is artistically meaningless stands on such thin ice in Das’s essay that attacking it seems gratuitous. But I do want to present two instances of cinematic sophistication to make the point that sometimes a viewer needs to be open to artistic meaning in order to find it.
Take David Dhawan’s Jodi No. 1 in which Govinda and Sanjay Dutt convince a jeweller that they want to shoot a scene for a movie in his shop. The scene is very much like a scene from Mother India; in fact, the protagonist of the scene, played by Dutt, is called Birju, Sunil Dutt’s character’s name in Mother India.
While pretending to shoot the scene, they rob the jeweller, thereby providing a kind of revenge to the Birju of Mother India against Sukhilala, several decades later. My conjecture is that most of the people who watched this film revelled in
the fact that the new Birju was played by the old Birju’s son, a case of cinematic language incorporating the concept of dynastic succession, which is a characteristic of the Hindi cinema world. By executing a situation that would be impossible to conceive of in any other art form, Jodi No. 1 establishes its artistic credentials by bringing the history of its own art form, and the cultural space it spawns, into the frame. It expands the range of cinema’s possibilities.
And this isn’t an isolated case. Those familiar with Haseena Maan Jayegi will recall that the title song, towards the end of which Karishma Kapoor’s character admits her love for Govinda’s character. Sanjay Dutt’s character asks Govinda how he knew she would come around, the response to which is that at the end of a song the girl always comes around (‘haseena maan jaati hai’).
I hold no brief for Hindi films and I do agree they are often retrogressive. But they are also capacious end, incorporate a universe of diverse elements in them. In the search for box-office success, Hindi film directors have never put ideology, progressive or retrogressive, at the forefront. They have included everything they thought could work, in the way artists sometimes do, and they have given us a texture, a complex — sometimes annoying — sometimes gratifying, that lives and breathes through us the way art sometimes does.
Amitabha Bagchi is the author of the novel Above Average
The views expressed by the author are personal