Opinion: Film And Politics – Has Bollywood Surrendered?

Opinion: Film And Politics – Has Bollywood Surrendered?

It’s time to assess the state of the Hindi film industry as the first half of the year has passed. The good news is that, unlike last year, the most successful Hindi films were originally made in Hindi. However, there is another noticeable trend: the top three successful movies of the year align with the establishment’s agenda, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly.

The highest-grossing film of the year, Pathaan, emphasises national security and portrays the origin of the threat to the nation as coming from the neighbouring country. However, Pathaan is cautious in depicting the neighbour solely as an enemy, as it acknowledges the presence of good neighbours who care about the lives of ordinary citizens regardless of nationality. The Pakistani agent even joins forces with the Indian hero to neutralise the dangerous plan of a wicked Pakistani army officer.

A poster of Pathaan

The Kerala Story, the second highest-grossing film, also focuses on the threat to the nation but adds another dimension to it. Here, the threat to the country is equated with the threat to its non-Muslim citizens. The film suggests that the danger originates not outside the borders but from Muslim Indian citizens who systematically convert non-Muslims to Islam and send them to serve ISIS.

While Pathaan is cautious in depicting Pakistan solely as the enemy, The Kerala Story brazenly portrays every Muslim character as an enemy of the nation. The film highlights the threat that Indian Muslims pose to the nation by harbouring a secret desire to systematically convert non-Muslim women to Islam, aiming to turn them into ISIS wives.

Tu Jhoothi, Main Makkar (TJMM), the third highest-grosser of the year, may appear apolitical on the surface because it’s a romance drama, but deep down, it’s as political as the first two, although its politics plays out more intimately. It marks a significant departure from the classics of the genre, such as DDLJ, where the family initially poses an obstacle to the blossoming romance between the young couple but eventually yields to the desires of the new generation.

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A still from TJMM

In TJMM, the hero gives up on his love interest when he realises she holds his joint family against him. The highly independent female lead of the film becomes an obstacle to fulfilling the romantic desires of the hero as she asserts her individuality and demands personal space away from the hero’s joint family. In a twist to the genre, the young lovers do not defy tradition, but rather the hero, supported by his nosy and noisy family, coerces the woman into surrendering. In a nutshell, it’s a film that showcases the triumph of conservative Indian family values over the aspirations of modern and independent women.

The three films indicate a shift in the politics of Hindi cinema, particularly when compared to some of the most successful films from the early years of the current regime. PK, a film that questioned blind faith, was the highest-grosser of 2014. In 2015, Bajrangi Bhaijaan engaged with the politics of religion, and Dangal tackled the theme of gender in 2016. In comparison, the three most successful Hindi films of the year seem compliant and convenient as they emphasise themes of threat to the nation stemming from Pakistan, a demographic threat to the non-Muslim population of the country, and the triumph of conservative family values over the desire for autonomy among Indian citizens, particularly women.

While it’s a foregone conclusion that big Bollywood productions have chosen to comply, small Hindi films such as Bheed and Afwaah continue questioning the dominant politics. However, the scale of their release has shrunk, and their box-office performances are not noteworthy. This raises the question: has the Hindi film audience changed over the years? Or are filmmakers reluctant to challenge the politics of the regime, fearing a backlash? Is there pressure on filmmakers to make films that don’t defy the politics of the establishment, or are those who propagate the regime’s politics through their films rewarded?

Theoretically, a shift in the politics of Bollywood successes can also indicate a change in audiences’ preferences, but it would be premature to draw that conclusion. Mainstream cinema is subject to stringent regulation and relies on government patronage at various levels. We have witnessed instances where film sets were burned, and filmmakers attacked when an interest group disagreed with the film’s intent. Similarly, calls for boycotts are commonplace if a group disagrees with the film’s politics. Before hastily passing judgment on filmmakers, it is important to note that commercial filmmaking is a resource-intensive and risky business that cannot operate independently without assurances from the government.

Submission could be a temporary tactic to avoid the risk of displeasing the establishment for an industry that is already struggling to bring audiences back to theatres post-pandemic. However, as an audience and a keen observer of Hindi cinema, it’s disheartening to see that our films have stopped attempting to strike a delicate balance between pleasing the audience and questioning the dominant politics, as films like PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, or Dangal once did.

(Bikas Mishra is an award-winning writer-director based in Mumbai)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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