From Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Two States: Why Bollywood needs more relevant, realistic campus films
While the campus genre is well established in Hollywood, Hindi cinema has ignored it steadily and steadfastly for some time.
As the world around us changes, one aspect of Indian students hasn’t altered much. The above average teenager or college graduate aspires to go to a campus abroad. Even though Trump’s administration tightens visa quotas, the UK runs out of employment and Europe issues fewer and fewer work visas, studying abroad is a common dream. Often it’s got little to do with education but a lot more to do with the charm of campus life.
And who can blame the millennial generation for this? Their understanding of popular culture, society and entertainment often emerges from the online universe. And in this space, the campus features as a physical space or nebulous reality knitted to identity in some truly engaging, quality content. From the universe of TV, Stranger Things, Riverdale, How To Get Away with Murder, Friday Night Lights, or Dear White People place everything from crime, to social drama, to race commentary to pure, hormone driven relationships on campuses abroad. These vibrant spaces are shown as home to people with different personalities, quirks, temperaments and origins. There’s also the cool mockumentary, American Vandal, which takes a unique perspective on the campus life experience narrative.
The campus genre is well established in Hollywood. Teen flicks are a sub genre that ranges from random, to horror, to downright dumb. But it has also thrown up real classics that are entertaining and relevant. Juno, The Social Network, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rudy, Monalisa Smile and Revenge of the Nerds are all great watches and universal in their stories and emotions. Among the classics, this author recommends The Breakfast Club, and Kicking and Screaming — both stay true to student life.
Yet, this entire space seems to have gone missing from Hindi cinema for years. We won’t venture in the wilderness of TV, where so called youth channels regurgitate soaps in jeans and tights. Hindi cinema has ignored campus life steadily and steadfastly for some time. Here are some theories on why that is.
Firstly, the bankable stars have aged. So Shah Rukh Khan, who could spread his arms in skintight tops in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (a campus that only existed in imagination but worked wonders), is now 50. Romance might not hit the box office jackpot. Likewise, his contemporaries have also gone grey, even though you don’t always get to see it! Interestingly, Aamir Khan, his contemporary, features in two rare greats that capture Indian campus life — Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar (school rivalries, the class divide and sport) , and Three Idiots. Even as political differences and imposed thought provide raw fodder for a ripe film, college campuses are mostly omitted. While love blossoms on campus in Rockstar, the college experience has little role to play in forming the film’s lead characters. As younger stars spot changing times and move towards realism, no one fits the college kid image quite right. Scripts are often written keeping a lead actor in mind. When stars feel too old for school and college, then these stories fade out.
Secondly, Indian campus life has become boring. Competitive spirit has actually mutated to a whole different level of seriousness around studying. Attendance is marked, group discussions influence peer impression and staying on top is essential to gaining access to good universities, or future employment. Consequently, the fun of college has gone missing. As the campus experience — one of hanging around and making friends, of falling in love (or maybe lust), of passionate debates over issues that don’t matter to curriculum — has become diluted, building stories around this crucial phase of life has become a challenge.
The campus stories on film also reflect that impressions of college or high school life have remained static for Indian audiences. Student of The Year was pure candyfloss but a huge hit. Two States focused on the love story while making an IIM-like institute just a backdrop. The experience of going to college hasn’t yet been captured on a mainstream film in recent times.
Yet, there are many stories waiting to be told. The current conflict of opinions — nationalistic Right versus liberal Left makes for a natural dramatic point. Growing numbers of girl students in small town and mofussil colleges and their academic performances lend themselves to true-to life inspirational stories. As the Civil Services examination reflects in the past couple of years, those rising from lower middle class or economically weak sections to conquer the IAS, based on their college educations and support from teachers, are a story begging to be told on cinema. And the crushing competitive pressure on students in both schools and colleges needs to be brought to mainstream cinema with a dramatic, filmy plot just to sensitise people about this disturbing trend.
While college life becomes yet another passage to get to a coveted job or country, the experience must find narrators on celluloid. For cinema remains our most powerful popular medium and college remains the halcyon days of our lives.
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