Bollywood's 2017 flops show that it must tap into the anxieties, politics of the public to achieve success

MK Raghavendra

Dec 30, 2017 21:31:34 IST

This article is part of our 2017: A Year In Review series

An issue to which not much attention has been paid by Bollywood or its clientele is the relationship between mainstream film narratives and politics. Since making films is an expensive business, there is a need for the industry to strive to recover its costs by reaching as many people as possible, and this would not be possible without an estimate of which issues may attract paying audiences. The stories told by Hindi mainstream cinema have changed constantly, and this is evidently because the concerns of the audiences have also changed. In order to attract large audiences, films must address the 'common' concerns of the public, and it can be argued that these concerns can only be socio-political. Since mainstream Bollywood (unlike regional cinema) is largely pan-India, it would not be a stretch to say that socio-political underpinnings in films are those which concern the nation.

This argument may seem out-of-place because there is rarely anything explicitly ‘political’ in any of Bollywood's films, which usually deal with ‘eternal’ or ‘universal’ values, or appealing to tradition. To understand the connection between films and politics, we must refer to a study by Beatrix Pfleiderer about audience reactions to Hindi cinema, testing several independent hypotheses on its social role, which concluded that it was an agent of ‘cultural continuity’.

It has been found that mainstream Hindi cinema stabilises the social system by representing new needs and mythologising ‘tradition’.

What this implies is that it responds to historical developments by accommodating them within the framework of familiar myth; socio-political events are translated by popular film narratives into something recognisable or familiar. This may not be done consciously but rather, film-makers (like audiences) may tend to see developments as confirming traditional belief or sentiment, which is rarely abandoned.

Bollywoods 2017 flops show that it must tap into the anxieties, politics of the public to achieve success

Nargis in Mother India

The most convenient way to represent history as an instance of timeless myth would be to allegorise it using familiar elements, and hence allegories can be expected to proliferate. This was predicted by political-literary theorist Frederic Jameson, who proposed that since ‘private life’ does not have same place in the ‘Third World’ as it does in developed countries, even personal stories have public connotations, that is, all texts (even personal ones) can be fruitfully read as allegories of national history. For example, the protagonists of key films like Mother India, Upkaar, Deewar, 3 Idiots and Bunti Aur Babli should not be seen as individuals but as ‘national exemplars’ placed in social situations, and acting as exemplars would. An anti-hero like Vijay in Deewar is ‘exemplar’ not in the sense that his conduct should be one’s ideal, but in the sense that it is the conduct expected of a hero, given the milieu he finds himself in.

The concerns of the public which need to be translated into allegory do not pertain to past events but rather are socio-political anxieties and expectations. For example, Independence gave Indians a sense of pride in the nation-state and this manifested itself in the sacred courtroom scene in which the truth is laid bare. There are no courtroom scenes in Hindi cinema before 1947, because the colonial court could not have had the same moral authority. The mixed expectations on the part of traditional society from Nehru’s modernisation programme saw the ‘modern’ represented as both good and bad as in Baazi (1951) — doctors and teachers as being good, club dancing, liquor and gambling being bad. Another key moment was the debacle of the Indo-China war, after which escapism flourished in cinema through elements such as foreign locations and gaudy cabaret dances mimicking ‘western’ ways. Bobby (1973), in which the small businessman (Premnath) holds his own against the big industrialist (Pran), was a reflection of Mrs Gandhi favouring small businesses over monopoly houses. The other standard elements in each narrative, such as romance or action, may be understood simply as the spice added to dress up this core issue to make it ‘entertainment’.

A still from Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! Image from Facebook

A still from Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! Image from Facebook

The most important socio-political development after 1947 (at least for mainstream cinema) was the economic liberalisation of 1991 under PV Narasimha Rao. It took several years for Hindi cinema to understand that this represented a decisive break, and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) was one of the key films to have dealt with the classes, not in conflict, but occupying their natural places amicably within hierarchical society (‘Ramrajya’). Damini (1993), which released only a year before this Salman-Madhuri starrer, gave us a powerful representation of classes in conflict when it showed the younger son of a rich family raping an employee (the help) and being shielded. The gap between these two films corresponds with the period when Nehruvian ‘socialist’ values died out and free market logic firmly ingrained itself in people's minds.

Globalisation has been another development, but it has been steadily represented in mainstream cinema as the progressive weakening of the State, right from Mrs Gandhi’s tenure as PM. This progression of ideas can be found in the portrayal of the policeman, who went from being a figure of honour to one of infamy. The celebration of the criminal, from Deewar to Bunty Aur Babli implies that when the State is weak, the hero takes advantage of it. Deewar came at a time when the criminal was still someone who deserved punishment, but Bunty Aur Babli was made and released at the height of India’s growth story, when the distinction between wealth earned lawfully and unlawfully was considerably smaller. This film suggests at its conclusion that the protagonists’ expertise at earning wealth using any manner is the ‘global way’ and the two are hence recruited by the State. Raees (2017) is the most recent offering from Bollywood to celebrate criminal enterprise.

A poster for Bunty Aur Babli. Image from Facebook

A poster for Bunty Aur Babli. Image from Facebook

Information about Bollywood flops is very difficult to come by, but by all accounts, 2017 has not been a good year for Hindi cinema. Stars like Shah Rukh Khan (Jab Harry Met Sejal), Salman Khan (Tubelight) and Ranbir Kapoor (Jagga Jasoos) all delivered flops despite the publicity that their films garnered. Bollywood has no ready formula it can rely on and films succeed or fail almost arbitrarily. If this had not been the case, Anurag Kashyap (with encouragement from Karan Johar) would not have embarked on Bombay Velvet (2015).

Here's a proposition to Bollywood: Why not study the socio-political issues of present times to understand what plagues the mind of the public before any new film, since it could guarantee box-office success?

Given the implementation of drastic measures like demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST), the Narendra Modi-era has created entirely new anxieties and expectations, but Bollywood has not taken note of them. It only seems to be saluting the national flag (The Ghazi Attack/Dangal), as though it is the only thing that signifies this time in history.

It is not easy to understand pubic anxieties and expectations, especially because one is constantly distracted by the media which promotes issues of smaller importance because they have a more sensationalist appeal. There is also the fact that what one considers ‘important’ is often based on one’s ideological position. At present, there seem to be only two or three seemingly ‘key’ issues which may actually be of less importance and which could otherwise be neglected. The first of these, which does not merit the attention it is getting, is patriotism. The nation does not appear to be under threat from either external forces or traitors within, and it is only when such threats are genuine – as in times of war – that patriotism rules as a sentiment. Secondly, there is the issue of the cow looming large and magnified by the media – with one section equating harm to cows with threats to Hinduism itself, and another holding the view that the nation is being taken over by cattle vigilantes. Both sections are using wild rhetoric to suit their political ends, and it would be sensible to disregard the cow issue to understand actual problems.

It was assumed that Salman Khan had a foolproof box office formula, but Tubelight proved otherwise. Image via Twitter

It was assumed that Salman Khan had a foolproof box office formula, but Tubelight proved otherwise. Image via Twitter

The patriotism debate – chiefly the political tussle between student groups – and the cow debate are both essentially law and order questions which can be resolved if the government has the political will to do so. The question of whether it has the political will to do so is not one that the public fears. There is also the issue of communal unrest; hitherto, there has been no alarming conflagration which might awaken public anxieties.

If there is any anxiety in the public space, it pertains to what drastic scheme the central government under Modi might think of next which could disrupt one’s life, and this is, without doubt, a strong and genuine one. For the first time in decades, possible future State action must be contended with while taking major financial decisions. Mrs Gandhi’s decisions (like bank nationalisation) were also sudden and drastic but they did not impinge upon individual lives the way Modi’s decisions have. With the intrusion of Aadhaar into everyday life, one cannot rid oneself of the sense that the State is strengthening itself determinedly, and the raids on houses of economic offenders who are politically powerful only strengthens this way of thinking in the public consciousness.

If there is any single inference to be made about the third year of the Modi era, it is about how the weakening State has finally begun to assert itself. The issue here is not whether the State has actually become stronger, but the general perceptions about it.

When this translates into a mythology and if Bunty Aur Babli is remade, one will most likely see the couple behind bars.

Mainstream cinema has not engaged in subversion and has towed the line even at the height of the highly unpopular Emergency. Although the public has been enduring much in the recent past, there are a few signs of the unpopularity of the regime. But even if there was evidence of such unpopularity, one cannot suppose that the mainstream cinema will change its complacent ways. The strong State will only be viewed positively by Bollywood for the next few years. Since the weak state was represented in cinema by the corrupt state machinery (notably the police) and the triumph of the criminal entrepreneur, one might anticipate that the strong state will be represented in Bollywood’s mythology through the figure of the upright state servant fighting economic offenders within a generally corrupt milieu. Following this formula could provide Bollywood with some major successes, but the implications of the Narendra Modi-era are perhaps still to be registered by the producers of film entertainment.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

Updated Date: Jan 08, 2018 12:50:31 IST

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