We eat junk food with the full knowledge that it is, well, junk. We crave it, gorge on it, all in the name of taste and don’t care how much of a land whale and waste dump it makes out of us. We justify it even in the name of having “fun.”
Junk food has its equivalent in the Indian entertainment scenario in the form of the Mumbai film industry, better known by its cheap, plagiarized moniker of Bollywood. For more than six decades now, it has done the same thing to the brains of the Indian people what junk food does to the bodies of people worldwide.
What can one say about the creativity of an entertainment entity whose name itself is an imitation?
A surfing tour of various entertainment television channels will reveal that more than half of the ginormous number of channels typically air the abhorrent visage of a Bollywood personality. What is shown does not matter. It might be an interview of a 40 something actor (?) who still enjoys playing the roles half his age, or an actress (?) who still wears teenager-clothes to hide the hideous abrasions that age and excessive make up has left on her face or a starlet who thinks that wearing derriere-hugging attire displaying her waxed legs constitutes acting and putting a fake accent means she has arrived, or a director who talks about his newest “creative and path breaking” venture with the usual opening lines “It’s actually a love story set in a very different scenario….”. The rest of the space is filled up by repeated trailers of new releases (which no one will remember three weeks after their release), nation-impacting news of which film star is sleeping with who, and shots of Bollywood starlets in some gaudy-gown in events like Cannes (the media would like us to believe that these leading ladies of Bollywood get all the attention there when the truth is that they are hardly noticed).
However, the real tragedy is that there is no escape from this for anyone. No one can say that he or she does not care about this kind of news. One gets exposed and battered by the constant assault of this mind-numbing news, 24/7. After all, one cannot just walk on the street and claim that he has not inhaled the polluted air. We all are today like the ducks bred for foie gras and we are brutally being force-fed this nonsense, and the media is the steel pipe shoved down in our gullets.
The part of the media—visual or print is the same in this. One look at any news channel and very easily conclude that India is run by Bollywood and television stars. The very fate of the country depends on the length of a starlet’s skirt. Instances of entire prime time slots of news channels being hired to promote a new film are now somewhat of a norm. In other words, which actress sleeps with which director or which actor is lusting after which starlet is what constitutes current affairs today.
On the media’s part, it is its sacred duty to promote Bollywood as the sole Indian cinema, in fact, even as the face of new India. It sings paeans of how Bollywood is taking the world by storm (sure it is, if Indian and Pakistani expats constitute your world), how Bollywood films are making their presence felt in the world judging by the images of skimpily clad Bollywood actresses on the red carpet in Cannes and Venice. No other proof is required.
In 2001, when Lagaan was nominated for the best foreign language film at the Oscars, newspapers and the visual media went berserk and all that mattered was Lagaan’s storyline and how it was so unique (when the truth was that barring the cricket component, it was just another tale of the romanticization of destitute village life) and the history of the Academy awards. When it lost out to a worthier No Man’s Land, our media carried articles belittling the Oscars by any means possible—how America-centric they are, to how ridiculously dressed the invitees are. One bright fellow even wrote on the event of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry being the first African American pair to win the honours for Best Actor and Actress, that after 9/11, America does not want to take chances with anything, and therefore it has begun pacifying its biggest racial minority by giving these two the awards. It appears that Bollywood has not just bought the newspaper, but also that writer’s brains. On TV, there were third rung actors speaking about how by not awarding Lagaan, the west has failed to the Indian culture. The pig circus didn’t seem to end.
The truth is that Bollywood is anything but artful and meaningful cinema, barring a handful of glorious exceptions. One look at its track record and one can see that it has been dominated by frightful homogeneity. The silent film era was dominated by mythological films which continued till the end of 1930s with the arrival of talkies. The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by candyfloss escapist romances where nothing seemed to be wrong in the world except for a comically evil villain in the form of the heroine’s father or a ruffian. The 1960s and 1970s went a step further. All the films in this period had without exception, along with the usual love triangles and quadrangles, the glorification of poverty and the socialist way of life in India.
In Bollywood’s films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the villains were always rich men, whose greatest crime was being rich. Being rich meant that one had to be a smuggler or a black marketer. Or just a big businessman or industrialist. That was evil enough. The hero was always a virtuous man (because he was poor) and used to ensure in the end that justice prevailed by the defeat of the devious rich baddies businessmen. It makes you cringe when you watch TV programmes about the “golden era” of films and old timers wishing that those “great” films were back again. The only saving grace about those films was their great music. Some examples of the leading actors of that era would shed some light. I’ve deliberately used their sobriquets:
Mr Showman, whose claim to fame was his cheap impersonation of Charlie Chaplin and showing his leading ladies semi-nude on screen. His descendants joined the film industry in pathetic succession after pathetic succession.
Mr Jumping Jack who thought that wearing white shoes and doing P.T in the name of dance constituted acting.
Mr Evergreen who thought that jerking movements of the limbs and eyes was a great feat of acting. He continued making films under his banner where he played everything from a journalist to a sharpshooter to a lawyer in the same film.
The first Bollywood Superstar, whose talent was largely making twisted movements with his hands and delivering all the dialogues in the same style in all the films and swirling around in circles in the name of dancing. His immense popularity which included female fans writing letters in blood to him was the proof of the pedestrian standards that Bollywood set for itself and the film-going public.
Mr Bharaat, who had the delusion of being the biggest patriot in the country’s history and made supposedly patriotic films which turned out to be laugh riots in spite of his best efforts.
To top these was the grandpa of all the actors, who in his six decades of acting hardly got to do anything else other than wearing a green shawl and thick glasses. But he is considered an iconic actor. And then, one cannot even mention the 1980s and 1990s without resorting to expletives.
Cheap and lewd antics became the name of the game. Films became so pedestrian and cheap that they were forgotten as soon as they came. Up to such an extent that you could ask even the most ardent film goer today to name one remarkable film from the 1980s and there would be silence.
The beginning of the 1990s saw a horrible twist in the tale. Now, every film had gigantic families living in palatial houses who had nothing to do but hold weddings and rituals and break into a dance. The men in the film have nothing to do except take part in the frivolous antics of the household. This has percolated to TV and now irrevocably they are all made on such storylines. Or actors in their 30s trying to convince us that they’re college students, who had nothing to do but carry two notebooks to colleges and dance in the basketball court and playgrounds. The era of truly meaningless and mindless cinema had begun and it continues till date.
If the earlier films glorified poverty, these glorified extravagant lifestyles and unrealistic dreams and ambitions. The leading man may earn his living as a factory worker but he had to sing his songs in the Alps. The leading men of the films today consist of a vast army of Khans, one of who considers stammering as acting and another who says taking a shirt off on screen is all that is needed to act. It also comprises star kids who are considered “talented” as they are still surviving after all the dozens of the films that they have done have bombed.
This was also the time when the underworld became mainstream in the film industry. Drugs, extortion and anti-national investments flowed into the producers coffers to make more pedestrian fare, which continues unabated. Blood money funds Bollywood and it’s the movie-watchers who buy tickets and fill the coffers of these criminals.
If you think I’m exaggerating, being too harsh and one-sided, you need to answer the following questions:
1. Has Bollywood made even one movie portraying the country’s condition logically, realistically and reasonably, in more than sixty years of its existence? Has it even addressed one burning issue that faces the country and the world today?
2. Has Bollywood in its “historical” films, ever depicted history in a sane manner without over-the-top melodrama? Has it ever shown the country’s true heroes in a way that they deserve? Why can’t it look beyond glorifying invading barbarians in the name of making biopics and period films?
3. Why do all films resemble different-coloured gunny bags which have the same grade of rice in them? Why this eerie similarity?
4. Is there nothing in the world worth showing other than a “love story”? Is dancing like a steroid-pumped baboon with dozens of other apes count as romance?
5. Isn’t there any difference between history and melodrama? Why can’t the depictions of kings and freedom fighters be spared from being in a romantic angle? Must war films have songs as well?
6.Are large rooms with glowing bulbs the only thing to be shown in the name of spy films? Are romance and jingoism the only two topics left on earth?
7.Does Indian culture mean nothing other than showing gigantic joint families in palatial residences who have nothing to do but sing and dance every other day?
8. Why do the awards given to Hindi films every year have ridiculous categories like “best villain”, “best comedian”, “best newcomer actor/actress”? Doesn’t it show that the same stuff is churned out again and again and again? And pray, why are the award functions held in English when the films are being made in Hindi?
9. Why does “inspiration” never come from the numerous literary works and short stories available but from Hollywood (and now also from South Korean) films? Inspiration is nothing but another word for plagiarism, which has run unabated and amok in Bollywood since beginning. Maybe creativity means hiding your sources.
10. Why is it that more than the story and the script, what matters most is who’s acting in it and who’s making it?
People defending Bollywood are always quick to point out that Hollywood too is full of trash. They are right. Hollywood is full of trash and it too, has a very hideous underbelly. But no matter how bad a year is for it, at least a few good films are released annually. Without exception. Bollywood takes five decades to churn out ten good films. Go figure.
One stark truth which can never be uttered loud in the politically correct world is that Bollywood is just the promotion of the crescent and moon in the name of Indian culture. It hardly comes as a surprise that Bollywood is green in colour. After all, it is largely run through the money of the “Greenbhai” or Dawood Ibrahim. That is why nobody seems to bother as to how millions and millions remain readily available for making the next box office dud and paying the exorbitant fees of the actors and crew in spite of flop after flop. Songs are full of pious words like Sajda, Ibadat which can give us the illusion of listening to the proceedings of a seminary. It is needless to say that what Greenbhai invests, he gets it fully. A famous gangster was asked as to why he kept investing money in failing ventures like this. His reply: ‘cause I get to do the heroines. That’s why.
With this kind of criminal and anti-national funding, can one ever expect anything good to emerge? The films therefore are hardly logical and will always show the beloved minority in a glowing light. There will always be a True Believer in the film who far exceeds in virtues to his other counterparts who follow other religions. If he becomes a terrorist in any of the films, it is only because of the evil Hindus and the injustice he faces in a horrible country called India that is always baying for his blood. Sikhs are either shown as comical or as killing machines. Christians, well they have little to do other than going to the church and wearing a crucifix. The less said about the depiction of Tamils and Bengalis, the better.
As today’s targeted (read: moneyed) audience mostly comprises Indian and Pakistani expats, it is alright to make films belittling the country but not a word against jihad. That’s why you have seemingly “proud Indian” Khans dancing on Pakistani channels on the anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks. It’s no longer a dream to cherish. It has only become a vortex where girls are sucked into a non-returnable doom.
The independent cinema (also called art cinema) that rose into prominence in the 1970s gave a lot of hope in the direction of making quality cinema and some were truly worthy of critical acclaim. However, both the tone and content was overtly and they died out due to paucity of funds. It lost its most talented actors to the Bollywood cesspool where they’ve been reduced to playing caricatures.
Bollywood today has hijacked the identity of Indian cinema to such an extent that people hardly realize that there is more to Indian cinema. It is totally devoid of quality and can never ever make anything remotely matching the best of world cinema. And money is the least of Bollywood’s concerns. Not with all the money in the world would it be able to make a fine war film like Saving Private Ryan. Or a fantasy like say, Lord of the Rings. There is no originality or creativity. There is only “inspiration”.
The real hope in Indian cinema lies with the independent filmmakers. It is heartening to see that their number is growing and they stand out among the mainstream crowd of ghouls. There are encouraging signs in the form of different films being made, both in Hindi and regional languages. It sure is a trickle which one hopes will turn into a torrent with time. But it can only be successful when the audience broadens its horizons to appreciate meaningful cinema instead of cheap thrills.