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Politics of popcorn

The questions to ask about a Bollywood film are not whether they are aesthetically good or bad, but how effective they are socially and politically, writes Soumitro Das.

india Updated: Nov 05, 2009 21:42 IST
Soumitro Das

There are two reasons why Karan Johar apologised last month to Raj Thackeray after Maharashtra Navnirman Sena members forcibly stopped the screening of Johar’s new film, Wake Up Sid: 1) A lot of money was involved in the movie, 2) It doesn’t really matter in aesthetic terms or in terms of value or belief systems whether people say Mumbai or Bombay. A Bollywood film is artistically meaningless. Which is why I am always surprised when I hear someone calling a Bollywood film ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. The limited sense of beauty that a Bollywood film might convey comes from the physical beauty of the actors and the ‘beauty’ of the sentiments expressed in the film.

There is no such thing as the beauty of the image or of the narrative in the Bollywood trope. They are about defending Indian culture, or, to be more precise, upper caste Punjabi Hindu culture taken as representing Indian culture as a whole. They are about defending arranged marriage, correctly understood as the fulcrum or foundation of the value systems and the belief systems that make up the Hindu world. They are, ultimately, about defending caste society, even though — and that is the wonder of it — the word ‘caste’ never finds any mention in Bollywood films.

The enemy is sexual freedom, especially for women. If a woman is free to choose anyone she likes as a sexual partner or husband, it is possible that she might choose a Dalit or a Muslim. Sexual freedom for women in Bollywood films is the purveyor of anarchy. Also, the enemy is the West that is the source of the sexual emancipation of women.

So, to rephrase our basic proposition: Bollywood films are about defending the institution of arranged marriage against westernised sexual freedom. To take it a little further, it is about defending caste society against the values of freedom and equality that come to us from the West. It is about defending the indefensible.

If you ask a Bollywood filmmaker whether this is actually what he is defending, he will be surprised. He believes that the values he is defending in his film are universal — love, family, country, religion... The word ‘caste’ would never cross his mind. Then how do we say that Bollywood films defend caste society?

The arranged marriage or marriage with parental sanction is an institution that supports, that takes the load of caste society through absolute parental authority when it comes to marriage or any other kind of relationship with the opposite sex. This parental authority is taken for granted in Bollywood films. There is no need to even explain it. The world of Bollywood cinema is so cleansed of caste and religion that one is almost tempted to believe that one is dealing with a bunch of ultra-liberals for whom caste and religion do not define the human personality. But the real reason for this absence is that women must not make the wrong sexual choice that could lead to the collapse of society as we know it. So, the world of Bollywood cinema is shown to be a ‘natural’ world, where upper caste Punjabi men are linked up with upper caste Punjabi women without the problematic obstacle of caste ever coming in the way of their union. Whereas, in reality, especially for the middle-class, caste is an overriding factor in marriage in particular and sexual relations in general.

Even if the West is the ‘enemy’, it is never designated as such. This is partly because Bollywood films work in an implicit way, taking things for granted that explicitly stated would sound absurd. Besides, the West cannot be totally rejected, unless one wants to live in a fundamentalist society. The West is fabulously wealthy, powerful and culturally mighty. This last proposition is the one that is most consistently challenged in Bollywood films.

There are two aspects to Bollywood films’ response to the West. A certain degree of freedom of social intercourse between boys and girls, such as that which takes place in colleges, has to be accepted. But having granted this limited freedom of social interaction, this is brought under an intense scrutiny in order to drain it of all sexual content. In any confrontation between Indian social values (read upper caste Punjabi Hindu values) and Western values, it is the former that invariably triumphs.

If you put the question in so many words: how is an arranged marriage with full parental and social sanction — therefore, suppressing the individual to a lesser or greater extent, and affirming conformity with all existing social hierarchy a superiority to love — it is one to which Bollywood films have no rational answer. Western values are immoral and bring misery whereas Indian values bring happiness and social cohesion. The manner in which this proposition is affirmed would be the equivalent of judging the entire edifice of Hindu thought through the narrow prism of the institution of sati. It is impossible for Bollywood filmmakers to shake off the suspicion that there is an organic link between Western values and Western achievements, just as there is a connection between Indian values and Indian under-achievement. So Hindi filmmakers have to constantly ask themselves: to what extent is westernisation safe?

Bollywood cinema ultimately deals in fantasies, in wish-fulfilment. And the wish that it wants fulfilled is one of wealth, power, sexual pleasure and, above all, cultural harmony. The questions to ask about a Bollywood film are not whether they are aesthetically good or bad, but how effective they are socially and politically. Do they add strength to caste society and its institutions? Or do they promote sexual freedom and social anarchy? Artistically, Bollywood films are meaningless.

Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.