Bollywood’s only commitment was and remains to itself
By Mir Uzair Farooq
When Hollywood swayers self-congratulate themselves on their liberal values by haranguing at the Oscars or any other awards show annually, one watches with irony hypocrisy unfold—white nomination after white nomination and nothing but big studios scooping up wins—The Weinstein Company and Miramax with Harvey Weinstein at their helm have had garnered more than 300 Academy Award nominations.
Every speech made laps up some social issue or the other, but in the end Hollywood comes out as a hero.
A few doses of self-criticism and self-denigration wrapped in comedic punchlines are served at the annual gatherings and to the naiveté of the viewer it is implied that Hollywood is getting there.
They applauded the Polanskis for long and booed the likes of Venessa Redgrave. No wonder Weinstein was one of the most thanked persons on the Oscar dais!
Coming to its Indian counterpart, the Bollywood, such pretensions fall to ground. At least the audiences that Hollywood caters to globally ask of it to stand true to its on-screen portrayal of the liberal values and variegated American dreams, the Hollywood, even if through pretension, acknowledges that it has such a role to play.
Bollywood to our respite has no such pretensions but to our misfortune, it is utterly oblivious to the fact that it has any such role to play. All the problems that abound in Bollywood are due to this narcissistic denial. L
Whether it’s nepotism within, the on-screen portrayal of women and minorities, the dissonance between the screen and the lived reality of the Indian audiences or redress of political issues, Bollywood has only been good only at dragging its feet.
After the tragic death of Sushant Singh Rajput, who was the most promising of the new Bollywood crop, Bollywood has been forced out of its navel-gazing only to have itself indulge again.
Nepotism, which is the trademark of an Indian bureaucracy, isn’t the only problem with Bollywood but surely turns most heads. The nepotism debate in Bollywood, erroneously anchored to the insider-outsider dichotomy, has generated more heat than light. It is not just about insiders being preferred over outsiders but the insiders defining the whole enterprise of Bollywood.
Bollywood turns out to be: by the Khans/Kapoors/Chopras, of the Khans/Kapoors/Chorpas and for the Khans/Kapoors/Chopras. Yes, Anushka Sharma is right in saying that both the outsiders and star kids from Bollywood dynasties labor, but she downplays the privilege which launches the star kids directly into the mainstream while the outsiders struggle day in and out just to be an extra on the set.
And the imperativeness to keep yourself afloat on the box office reigns on outsiders than on a star kid. The survival of the latter is insured by the family tag they carry while the latter stay on a precipice of forgetting.
Abhishek Bachchan has sizable number of flops to his name but that didn’t prevent him from acting in over 50 movies. And the outsider always has to look for a breakthrough unlike being welcome to the launching pad of Karan Johar’s—Student (read new star kid) of the Year.
But nepotism isn’t the only issue plaguing Bollywood. A bigger problem is the way Bollywood has heralded a bigger-than-life cinema, a cinema that is cut-off from the lived realities of masses that it serves and who sustain it.
No wonder shooting outside India has become a sine qua non of this illusory cinematics. Lost in this elitist grandstanding are the countless local stories which give cinema world over its raw appeal. We see life in its barest of forms in Satayajit Ray, the most creative of Indian directors. One of the best movies to come out of India in the last decade, be it Gangs of Wasseypur or Masaan, have taken cinema back to its roots, to life as common Indians live it.
Why movies like Masaan or Article 14 agonize a viewer is because they untether a world full of stories from the apathy and mundanity of life in which these stories actually happen. It is easy to ignore suffering when it inundates you although doesn’t form part of your life.
But true cinema makes it a part of your life by humanizing it. Film as art was scorned (even by the likes of Theodore Adorno) when it emerged first as a medium of art but like every art form it acquired a genuine expression of its own, finding art in human stories, democratizing art.
Today Bollywood stands more commodified than ever, having become an alienating epiphenomenon of a mentality which is unconcerned of the others but exceeds limits of self-indulgence. It won’t be amiss to say that at this point Bollywood (that of the insiders) is committed solely to itself, not to the art in the name of which it pats itself on the back nor to the people who it accredits its mediocrity to. In 2020, Bollywood doesn’t dare to rid itself of the jaded tropes which have long sustained it.
Although romcom remains the genre of choice and sexual motifs saturate the plots, adopting the act of sex as a usual part of the plot has been eluding it. Instead, oversexualization of women and their treatment as objectives of a life-long existential struggle of the egomaniacal hero retain their prime place—what an abomination Kabir Singh was! A bearded Muslim with the name of Abdul or Ahmad keeps his role of the terrorist.
Kashmir remains the venue of exhibiting the savior complex and flexing the nationalist imagination. Musical form remains the template, blinkers on any meager mode of experimentation—an ‘item number’ remains prerequisite. No form of entertainment is above criticism, least of all cinema and I think film critics won’t take issue with that. Nor is cinema as entertainment a non-artistic enterprise. The whole of Bollywood consider themselves artists first and celebrities next. But I presume their image of an artist is one of a heedless doer, unaccountable to the art or its resource. Not only does Bollywood, with its indifference towards art and self-inspection, art a disservice, its commitment to its audiences remains unrealized. Above all its phobic exclusion of newcomers who revere the art of film-making epitomized in their life struggles only shows how deep the malady lies. The recent spike in the dissemination of more indie and diverse cinema through OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, etc. maybe curative to an extent.
(Mir Uzair Farooq is studying political science at Delhi University)