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Culture Indian politics

The Unappreciated Politics at the Heart of Every Indian Movie

Movies are a huge part of Indian society. When I was a kid, movies were part of the tacit agreement between my grandfather and I: he would take me to one or two every weekend that I was staying with him, and in return I would safeguard some of his dirty little secrets. I got to share some of the snacks he got (roasted sunflower seeds, salted peanuts, popcorn and the such), even though there were some snacks that were off-limits (ice cream, soda, etc.) Overall, though, it was a fantastic deal.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Indian filmmakers have been some of the most active innovators in pushing the limits of the medium. International acclaim notwithstanding, Indian cinema has produced some undeniable masters of the art like Satyajit Ray, Girish Karnad and K Balachander. Several prominent political leaders have built virtual empires out of a start in film and theatre: think NT Rama Rao, MG Ramachandran, Prithviraj Kapoor etc.

Yet, despite its colourful history, there’s this notion that Indian cinema and politics are (or ought to be) separate. As if politics has never been an issue that Indian cinema has taken up and should thus be left out of the narrative. There’s a strong and persistent effort to make it seem like they they are just spectacles of colour, gaudy visuals, tasteless songs and crass humour. We see this in the recent uproar over CAA-NRC, which a number of filmmakers and actors have publicly opposed and protested against. Actors’ personal stance on politics have now become grounds for the public to reject movies and condemn them to failure.

My estimation is that this idea is false, both historically and contemporaneously. Furthermore, it stands to no level of scrutiny whatsoever. This post is my attempt to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Indian movies have never been far away from the politics of the day. To do this, I’ll be looking at the statement “Indian movies are heavily influenced by politics” from three different angles: geography, culture and history. Most of the sources in this post are from works and articles by MK Raghavendra; specifically from bits and pieces of ‘Bollywood‘, ‘Bipolar Identities’ (I haven’t read either, but I’ve managed to skim through them enough to get the gist of his argument). Stay with me throughout the text or skip to whichever section you find interesting. As a token of gratitude, I’ll also present some movie recommendations at the end.

But first I need to introduce to you … you: the moviegoer.

Supply and Demand

The Indian movie industry is vast: it employs upwards of 250,000 people, produces well over 1600 movies and rakes in over a billion dollars in documented revenue annually. The real revenue it generates is far in excess of this paltry number, since Bollywood has long been a known conduit for money laundering operators, especially the Mumbai mafia (colloquially known as the “underworld”). In fact, during the ’70s and ’80s, it was quite common for the mafia to hobnob with the rich and famous and bankroll blockbusters with absolutely no issues at all. Haji Mastan – one of India’s most well-regarded producers – is one of the most visible relics of that bygone era (read this article for a brief look into this love affair between Bollywood and the mafia).

Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Deewaar was based loosely on Haji Mastan’s life as a gangster. It would go on to become one of Bachchan’s most popular movies

Today, though, the picture is slightly different. Although the involvement of the underworld is quite well-known and continues quite unabated, it tends to be less overt and has mostly been substituted by entities from the political class, who see the movies as a sort of secondary income stream that they can bank on when not in office. For many art movies and movies that end up going straight from film festival to obscurity, the production cycle therefore begins and ends in the same place: a state-funded institute such as the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. From time to time, some end up being played on some Doordarshan channels, and absolutely nobody watches them. Because of funding pressures, these movies are intensely political because they are made by the political class for the sake of the political class.

Consider for example, the (fugly) website of the Films Division of the Indian government. As you click around, you realize that this is an organization with a strong Mumbai-centric view of Indian cinema: scrolling through the catalogue confirms this suspicion: there are several hundred dedicated to life in Mumbai, Hindi movies over the years, promotion of the Hindi language (there’s a whole category called ‘Hindi Promotional’) and hundred and hundreds of movies on Gandhi. We also find some movies on Bose, a couple on Savarkar and the Hindu right, a few on “South Indian cinema” and reams and reams of news videos (mostly from foreign sources). The catalogue is a reflection of how the political class sees cinema: a record of important events, an outlet for policy priorities, and a repository of ideas to be preserved for future generations. It is also a reflection of the underlying political purpose of Indian cinema: assimilation of the various Indian peoples under a broad Hindu-Hindi umbrella.

Although not produced by the state, Pardes is a good example of the Hindu-Hindi message suffused into Indian cinema. Ghai is also a known political actor with a filmography that can be gently described as “middle-class conservative Hindu”

So, art cinema and niche cinema is intensely political. But that’s not what most people mean when they talk about movies. They mostly mean popular cinema that you watch in cinema halls and on (non-DD) TV channels. Here, it makes sense to further separate the two major groupings that make up the audience: urban audiences and rural audiences. Some regional peculiarities aside, in the largest metros Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, movie audiences tend to be more or less the same and can be studied as one bloc. Rural audiences, however, are vastly different across states, geographies and religious communities. For example, a Tamil Muslim audience has a vastly different worldview to a Marathi Muslim one. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll split “rural” movies along linguistic lines.

So, with the outline all figured out, let’s start with the most prolific and popular: mainstream Bollywood.

Bollywood and the art of class warfare

In order to understand Bollywood, it’s useful first to understand briefly the idea of “nationalism”. In order to do that, we need an idea of what it means for a group of people to become a “nation”. Benedict Anderson in “Imagined Communities” argues that nations are essentially self-declared political entities where every person feels that they belong to that group. In other words, a nation is an imagined community that is limited in its extent and membership, sovereign in its ability to handle its affairs, and shared among the members. A state, on the other hand (according to Bodin and Hobbes), is an entity that has a monopoly over violence and law-making. In contrast with nations, states are real – you don’t need to imagine India to be subject to its laws. The most powerful entities emerge when the idea of a nation coincides with a state actor: a “nation-state“. Most countries such as India, USA, Russia etc. are nation-states. The Irish nation, however, extends across the states of Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Within Russia, we find the nations of Tatarstan and Chechnya; but they don’t qualify as nation-states since they do not have full control over their affairs and Russia has the final say in most matters. India the state was created by the British over the course of the 19th century, but before India could break free of British domination, it had to become a nation. And that is where movies came in.

Since its inception, “Bollywood” has always played a vital role in nation-building. Before independence, Bollywood movies were filled to the brim with messages of the need for patriotism, valour and bravery. The need of the hour was to construct a national identity out of a vast number of disparate states and territories that had very little in common with each other. Writers such as Kavi Pradeep courted arrest and state pressure by using movies and songs to draw support towards the emerging freedom struggle. For example, at the peak of the Quit India Movement in 1943, an arrest warrant was issued against him for lyrics in the song ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo’ from the movie Kismet. The lines in question are:

Aaj Himalay ki choti se phir ham ne lalkaaraa hai

Door hato

Door hato

Door hato ai duniya waalon Hindustan humara hai

(Today we have declared from the Himalayas

Go away

Go away

Go away, Hindustan is ours)

Kavi Pradeep, ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo‘ from Kismet
The song ‘Door Hatho Ae Duniya Walo‘ from Kismet earned Kavi Pradeep an arrest warrant and he went into hiding for a month, waiting for the controversy to die down

The father of the nation, though, remained unconvinced. In interviews with the BBC and NYT, Gandhi was unambiguous in his view that cinema had nothing of value to offer the Indian public. However, his more pragmatic protege – Jawaharlal Nehru – was acutely aware of its potential as a unifying tool. When India gained inpendence from the British in 1947, Nehru made movies a key part of his popular outreach (a strategy that would be used by his daughter Indira during her reign from the late ’70s to early ’80s). It wasn’t just Nehru; wartime communication had taught world leaders that movies and radio were great tools of propaganda. None were more acutely of this than the USSR. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union felt the need to censor all subversive media, one of the first things to be banned was possession of Hollywood movies. But people need entertainment, and the Soviets saw this as an opportunity to push an anti-capitalist sentiment on its subjects. So, Bollywood was offered as the most benign, Catholic and infinitely more desirable alternative to Hollywood. Personalities such as Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt and Nargis were not just celebrities, they were also cultural ambassadors who conducted what’s come to be called “soft-diplomacy”, helping bridge the gap between India and the Soviet Union through song and dance.

By the late ’70s, Bollywood was an expected part of growing up in the Soviet sphere. To anybody with even a cursory understanding of 20th century geopolitics, it’s obvious why: from independence in 1947 right until the liberalizing market reforms of late ’80s and early ’90s, India was an intensely socialistic country that had quite openly rejected the American predatory-capitalist economic model. While most Indians may have been ambivalent about the capitalism-socialism debate, the state was not. The exemplary lives of Vinobha Bhave, Mahatma Gandhi and JP had lent some moral weight to simple choices such as cleanliness, simple living and personal freedom. The Indian state impressed these ideals upon the nation by using movies and books to drill the need for fraternity, charity, frugality and inclusivity in all social spheres. The widespread popularity of socialist values is precisely why we see the flood of movies with Marxist-socialist themes in the decades before 1991.

But the immense popularity of mid-century movies such as ‘Awaara’ cannot be explained in terms of outside support alone. Often, these movies were popular precisely because they acted as an outlet for the zeitgeist, allowing the masses to contextualize, verbalise and better articulate their reality. In other words, they were creating imagined communities or shared publics that viewers could then inhabit and communicate with.

Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awaara’ is a perfect embodiment of what made Bollywood an invisible arm of the Indian nation’s struggles, dreams and aspirations.

‘Awaara’ contains many elements of the quintessential mass-appeal Bollywood movie, so it’s worthwhile to articulate them properly. The movie follows a budding romance between a poor thief and a rich and well-meaning – but somewhat naive – heroine. Briefly, here’s the sparknotes version. The moral messaging is not even subtle:

  • Everybody’s created equal and is fundamentally the same in terms of joys, sorrows, shame, biases and inner conflict
  • Poor people are poor only due to the circumstances of their birth, and if only the rich shared their wealth more, there wouldn’t be so much desperation in the world
  • Everybody has a right to fair trial and a life of dignity
  • The court is an impartial entity that provides justice, regardless of a person’s ability to access it; but bad actors sometimes derail the process by relying too much on biases and prejudices

All of these are a reflection of independent India’s new democratic norms as dictated by a generation of erudite, anglophone Oxbridge leaders such as Nehru, Gandhi, Menon and Ambedkar who valued the primacy of the individual and wanted the Indian state to use its authority to educate the masses and reform society through impartial, sacrosanct institutions such as courts of law. Seen in the context of contemporary politics, ‘Awaara’ is an intensely socialistic movie that argues for people to set aside their prejudices and be more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. In pre-1992 Indian cinema, such motifs of equality, tolerance and smiling through struggle are everywhere. These motifs, in turn, produced a popular sentiment that valued poor underdogs, honest cops, charitable zamindars and benevolent dictators (a legacy of Indira Gandhi’s stranglehold over the Indian psyche).

The 1970s and 80s saw the reshaping of these ideals to fit a modern age: an age of gangster capitalism where stealing from your fellow man was the only way left to survive. A persistent “Hindu rate of growth” had created a painful shortage of things that India has no paucity of: food, skilled labour and hope. This was the peak of the “angry yound man” phase of Bollywood, where the restless protagonist raged against a system that no longer provided what he was promised, and constantly finds ways to undermine his worth. So, denied the right to a decent life, he takes a life. Denied a right to livelihood, he robs people. Denied a job, he makes his own: of conning people, robbing them and smuggling things he is not allowed to legally move. The state’s rules and restrictions around what is and is not allowed leeches into every part of society, and creates a whole new genre: the crime drama.

‘Sholay’ encapsulates the latent rage of the ’70s and ’80s in India

But in 1991, everything changed.

1991: The birth of the middle class

In 1991, as the Soviet Union descended into infighting and fragmented into a dozen new nations, India opened up its markets to Western firms. Althought the process had been going on in fits and starts since 1986, it really took shape in 1991 in the shadow of the balance of payments crisis. Under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the Indian government at the time went all in on long-pending market reforms. Business conditions were relaxed, key sectors opened up to private players, “Licence Raj” was abolished, export-import systematized and a vast bureaucracy was created to feed the aspirations of an emergent Indian middle class. Modern India was created. The impact on Bollywood was akin to a sugar-rush. As millions of new jobs opened up in the public sector and the private sector was energized like never before, the Indian populace forgot the principles of socialism, and got high on capitalism. A growing interest in Indian products, places and services (yoga, meditation, ayurveda etc.) upended social contracts prioritizing Gandhian ideals like redistribution, charity and humility.

It also brought more revenue, both in amount and in variety. As a result, the patrons of Bollywood were no longer the humble, huddled masses in UP or Bihar. They were increasingly to be found in Bombay, Poona and Madras. Starting in 1992 and continuing to the present day, Bollywood’s political compass took a sharp turn to the right. It decided that it was done pandering to the poor and would instead take a more militant approach towards their role in society. Where pre-1992 Bollywood emphasized equality and opportunity, post-1992 Bollywood spoke of utility, consumption and stratification. It glorified the acquisition of wealth, and began a process of undermining social institutions such as courts, police and bureaucracies that’s had a devastating effect on their perceived legitimacy while also lowering the standard they’re expected to live up to. (This is an idea I’ll revisit in some future post, but for now suffice it to say that the idea of the Indian nation was beginning to unravel a bit.)

In its place was inserted a sort of postnational, transcendental identity that sought to revive a long-lost Vedic ethos and bring it back to the centre of Indian thinking. These seemingly innocuous social conditions also led to the birth of neo-spiritualist organizations such as “The Art of Living” and “Isha Foundation” that sought to strip Hindu religious practice of its external religiosity while preserving the spiritual core. Part of this process was purely incidental: India was opening up and the opportunities brought foreign ideas and institutions into a conservative and aloof country. A large chunk was, however, entirely political: the statist Congress had read the writing on the wall and agreed to loosen market regulations, and by doing so had created the pirticular conditions for antistatist parties from the right – BJP, Shiv Sena etc. – to thrive. The emergent right churned out movies glorifying “desi culture” and repackaging old wives’ tales as heroic patriotic acts.

The archetypal post-1992 movie actually came out very early on: in 1996, in fact. When ”Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” came out, it shook the industry’s conception of where its audience was and what their aspirations were. The movie was so popular that for several years, new movie halls opened up in every small town and village just to play this one movie. It has been argued that the movie singlehandedly shifted the trajectory of Bollywood rightward, and led to an avalanche of pseudointellectual Hindu apologisms all using variations of the same tropes:

  • Indian culture = Upper-class Hindu culture (vegetarian, Ram-Sita worshipping, chaste, etc.)
  • Indian culture is superior to any other culture out there (even ones that are materially better off, like USA or UK)
  • Respect for elders is of utmost importance
  • Divorce is immoral and Western culture has been debased by indulgent men and women who marry people of their own volition
  • God decides how much money a person gets to have, so possession and accumulation of wealth is an indicator of piety. So, rich, upper-class people are paragons of morality and wisdom who must be obeyed at all costs
  • Superstition is okay as long as you say “science doesn’t know the answer to everything”
  • The ideal Indian-American family does not assimilate at all: they have a puja room, eat Indian food 3 times per diem, celebrate diwali every other day and harass white women when given the tiniest opportunity
  • Indians often forget how great their culture is, and must be reminded by the twice-born hero, who too was once seduced by allure of the West, but gave it up to be with his family and marry the girl they chose for him
  • Cool people wear shades indoors, play basketball, double-dribble like they’re having a seizure and have an indecipherable accent

Here, it makes sense to take a small detour and examine the explosion of country music. Country music was actually not popular at all when a majority of Americans still lived in the country; it took development and mass migration into cities before “country” went from mildly-offensive to nostalgic. Similarly, development and secularism brought awareness and heightened pride, which fed a feeling of nostalgia, that then created the necessary political economy for many Indians to revert to their Hindu roots. DDLJ practically created the classic Yash Chopra-Karan Johar stereotype of the sanskaari family. The movie, and more of its like (Dil to Pagal Hai, Pardes, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Naa Ho), were released at the same time that the BJP went from a two-bit regional player in central India to holding power for a full term in 1999-2004. The Hindu right was not only responsible for propping up the whole conservative faction in Indian politics, it also made cultural space for the idea of a spiritualist supranation that extended far beyond the country’s borders.

In doing so, these movies acted as a sort of homecoming for scores of non-resident Indians (NRIs), who could now call themselves Indian without any of the actual poverty, pollution, discrimination or misery of actually living in India. In a sense, Bollywood in the 90s gave a face to the metropolitan, modern Indian diaspora of the new millennium. And it was the youthful, cherubic visage of Shah Rukh Khan in his various incarnations as Raj, Rahul or Karan.

And he wasn’t the only Khan around.

The two Khans

In the midst of all this, the silent majority remained intact: scores of rural, Hindi-speaking youth migrated from villages to towns in search of jobs and a better life. The space vacated by emigrating upper-class Indians was quickly filled by a vast and growing wave from the inner reaches of the country where decades of development had failed to percolate. Villages where the panchayat was supreme and schools failed their tests were now centers of untapped political power; dusty, unpaved roads that led to unnamed villages living with prejudices that urban (and urbane) India tried to pretend had never existed. Soon, these communities found their political voice. After years of thumb-twiddling, the Mandal Commission’s recommendations were finally enacted, guaranteeing OBCs quotas in government jobs. The Act did more than just revolutionize politics: it brought the promise of power and jobs to those communities that had been denied them for millennia. The new millennium looked like a new dawn for India.

But there was a catch: in order to access that power, they had to hold on to their identities, for the selfsame caste and religious identities that formed the backbone of oppression now formed the basis of opportunity. This uniquely Indian contradiction was to be the basis of a new and revived polity that took pride in regional identities, did not care for English (except when they did) and wanted nothing more than to be seen and heard. They would no longer be mere sidekicks and punchlines: they were heroes in their own right. Proud, sturdy and garish heroes that were together more important than the suave, educated, smooth-talking, English-speaking urban elite.

In other words, the re-enfranchisement of rural India that brought to power people like Lalu Yadav and Deve Gowda also created Sallubhai.

If you’re feeling dizzy, I don’t blame you. We just sped through 60 years of Indian politics through the lens of Bollywood and the urban-rural divide. But it’d be disingenuous of me to suggest that the urban-rural divide is the only political rift playing out in Indian cinema. In my opinion, there’s at least one more essential factor to be considered here.

In the next part of this series (out next week, hopefully), we’ll examine the questions: why are Bollywood films so recognizably different from Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada films? And why are they so different from each other?

The answer, of course, is politics. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

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