The unbecoming of Bollywood

While the commerce pundits are assessing an apparently bad business for Bollywood, it is imperative that one key issue should not be swept under the carpet: Bollywood this year shrugged off the pretence of transnationalism vis-à-vis the regionalism it embodied. That Bollywood in particular and Indian cinema in general have been subcontinental, regional, and constitutionally South Asian in character since their inception gave South Asia a sense of pride and promise. This was despite the fact that many cinematic tales propagated rabid jingoism. One thought this was only the commercial need to pander to the lowest common denominator. This also seemed to be due to the predominance of known formulas. Yet it all seemed fine as there were also some antithetical cinematic tales, such as Bajrangi Bhaijan (2015), coming to regale us with more liberationist utopias in the popular framework.

War cry without war

And then a violent manifestation surfaced when the nationalist bulls of Bollywood, so to say, echoed aversion to Pakistani actors working in Hindi cinema. This was specifically in reaction to Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil featuring Fawad Khan. Known for delivering melodrama, Mr. Johar faced rivalling melodramatic opposition from right wing groups including the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Premised on the Uri attack, the rancour denounced Pakistani actors for the anti-national deeds of cross-border terrorists. The rabble-rousing stoked opinions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Many from the film fraternity turned ‘nationalist’ and believed that if Pakistan and India were on the brink of war, Pakistani actors should not be cast. The release was delayed until Mr. Johar said he wouldn’t work with Pakistani actors in future.

Likewise, many Pakistani actors had to send out apologetic messages for the Uri attack all too sudden. Fawad Khan had to sing paeans to the great experience he had in India. While divided opinions rolled out, a crack in the Bollywood consciousness was explicit. The anti-Pakistan bulls were charging to thrust and fling away the transnational solidarity which has characterised the industry. Bollywood has perhaps come of age after living for more than a hundred years, and has become the mirror image of nationalism that it evoked through many good as well as sordid films. While Bollywood loves non-resident Indians in diaspora across the globe, it has little sense of togetherness with co-workers in the neighbourhood. The irony is more pungent when perceived in the historical backdrop of the Hindi film industry.

Crossing borders

There are examples of irreverent crossing of borders in many productions which set landmarks in Indian cinema. The technicians, cinematographers, and others in early cinema came in large numbers from what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the pre-partition Indian subcontinent, Lahore was a key centre of cinema production. It was to the credit of Dadasaheb Phalke, with many of his aides coming from various parts of the subcontinent, to have shown gods and goddesses fly on the silver screen. Prithviraj Kapoor, who started his career in the silent era of Hindi cinema and became a bridge between modern theatre and the cinema industry, came from Faisalabad and graduated from a college in Peshawar. Likewise, innumerable actors, directors, producers, musicians, singers hailed from what is now called Pakistan. Even in non-Hindi cinema, the South Asian character is explicit. For example, Ritwik Ghatak, born in what is contemporary Bangladesh, never left behind his association with his native place even though he shifted to West Bengal. One of his last films, Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), was an Indo-Bangladesh production with a star cast from both sides of the border. Needless to say, the history of Indian cinema overlapped with the history of the region, playing a crucial role in not only shaping an idea of South Asia but also fortifying a mammoth commercial base for Hindi cinema in the region. Despite bans on Hindi cinema in some parts of the region, Hindi films were watched with adulation in the hinterlands of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and beyond.

Suffice to say, before non-resident diaspora became the loved destination for Hindi cinema, it was the residents of the region who ensured success in terms of trade and commerce. This gave a ground for Ashis Nandy to write a landmark essay, ‘The Idea of South Asia’, highlighting the connecting potentials of Hindi cinema in the region. But Prof. Nandy was too optimistic under the spell of his utopian regionalism. He could not see the gradual unbecoming of Bollywood in the offing.

Crisis of imagination

With the ups and downs in the history of post-independent India, the Hindi film industry transformed too. Cinematic tales ventured across borders, frequently in Pakistan and Afghanistan, mostly to hunt down a fugitive smuggler or an escaped terrorist. Once in a while these tales turned to Bangladesh to revisit student movements in Chittagong. There is a crisis of imagination amongst cine storytellers as far as sociocultural and political contexts across borders are concerned. They seldom engage with the charming mundane aspects of nations beyond India. They may take us to Sri Lanka, or to the Maldives, to find serene locations for song sequences. Nepal was perhaps last shown in Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). Myanmar and Bhutan are not even in the reckoning of Bollywood’s cartographic calculus. In the very limited map of South Asia, Bollywood’s favourite destination seems to be Pakistan. Even though some dream merchants had to tell the story of an Indian man falling in love with a Pakistani woman, it was not at all at the cost of patriotism.

Given the fiasco of the last SAARC summit, there is a wild guess about a possible reconstitution of SAARC. But Bollywood seems to have responded to this Chinese whisper in a bizarre fashion. Bollywood 2016 could be dubbed as an ironical slap to the idea of South Asia. The diaspora logic seems to be conquering the logic of cinematic regionalism in Bollywood.

Dr Dev Pathak teaches cultural sociology in the Faculty of Social Sciences at South Asian University in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal. The original article appeared in The Hindu, the link of which can be accessed by clicking HERE.