From Sholay to TVF's Panchayat, how the face of rural India has transformed in Hindi entertainment
TVF's Panchayat redeems the depiction of rural India by breaking out of the template perpetuated by the 1975 classic Sholay.
It literally takes a village to make a Hindi film set in a village. Every department — including writing, direction, production design, sound design, costume design, and cast — needs to pool in their expertise to recreate rural India, a reality far away from the cozy comforts of an urban setting.
Given that a majority of the Indian population resides in villages, more stories from these pockets should make their way to the big screen. But films representing the interiors have been few and far between, at least since the 1970s, and a lot of them are positioned from the urban audience's perspective of their rural counterparts. The urban gaze on rural stories is a sin perpetuated by cinema itself, particularly by the iconic Sholay (1975), directed by Ramesh Sippy.
From Sholay to Panchayat
Set in the village of Ramgarh (which is an actual village in Jharkhand, but the film does not even come close to its coordinates), Sholay was an Indian take on the spaghetti western. It put the 'curry western' genre on the world map.
"Everything was larger than life, even the stereotypes — the vengeful Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) the daku, the silent widow (Jaya Bachchan). But the film revelled in reversing stereotypes as well, with the small-time crooks Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra) being the nice guys, the heroes, or even the chatty tangewali (Hema Malini). I've never met a woman tangewali in my life though I've ridden tongas in my grandmother's village every summer vacation all through school years. Sholay was more a make-believe village with that pani ki tanki, terrific songs and dances, and paisa vasool dialogues," says Meenakshi Shedde, India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin Film Festival, and independent curator.
Now, compare that to Panchayat, The Viral Fever's new show on Amazon Prime Video India. The tone and texture of rural India here are completely different, breaking out of the Sholay template rebelliously, but without gloating. Released 45 years after Sholay, the show does not conform to any of the village film tropes seen in Bollywood over the years. Rather, it subverts several of them, using its irreverent humour and matter-of-fact tone.
"The intention of Deepak Kumar Mishra's Panchayat is very different: it's much more low-key in tenor, sensitively written, hilarious, with sharp insights into village life," says Shedde. Panchayat revolves around Jitendra Kumar's character, who gets a job as an administrator in the gram-panchayat of Phulera, Uttar Pradesh. It makes for a fish-out-of-water story, and thus, challenges the urban gaze on a rural setting.
"The sheherwallah is considered pretty faltu (useless) by gaon ke (village) standards: he earns just Rs 20,000, so you can't possibly get your daughter married off to him. Raghubir Yadav's entry shot is with a lota in his hand, returning after tatti in the fields, so he can't do a handshake," Shedde shares her observations to underline how the show mines the most out of nuances. It is more of a slice-of-life entertainer, with a heavy dose of subtle, situational humour, as opposed to Sholay, which incorporated all the elements of a conventional masala entertainer.
But even for a Sholay, that serves the big fat Indian thali to its audience, it needs to get them to the table at least. For it to turn into an offering of repeat value, it also needs to ensure all the items gel well with each other. It needs to transport the audience into the world of Sholay for them to exercise willing suspension of disbelief.
Anupama Chopra, chairperson of the Film Critics Guild of India, and author of Sholay: The Making of a Classic, explains what makes the film stand the test of time. "What made Sholay memorable was the fact that it was shot on location. You could almost feel the roughness of the rocks and the terrain. You could sense the Wild Wild West there. What it prompted other directors to do was to seek out the reality in a similar way rather than just shoot their film on a set where there is a mela and a ferris wheel in the background, the regular village template film."
Sholay ended up as a template in itself, as several films attempted to recreate the same formula for the next couple of decades. Just like Aditya Chopra's 1995 classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge perpetuated its template of a desi rom-com till as recently as Ayan Mukerji's 2013 blockbuster Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Sholay started a similar bandwagon for village-set films. In fact, a parody film titled Ramgarh Ke Sholay was made in 1991, with lookalikes of Amitabh Bachchan and other popular stars, which emerged as a sleeper hit.
Breaking out of the Sholay template
Parallel to the rise of Sholay, Shyam Benegal's modestly made rural films came to the fore. Unaffected by the threat posed by the monumental success of Sholay, Benegal made much smaller films like Ankur, Nishant, and Manthan in succession around the same time. His efforts yielded positive results nonetheless, as all of them went on to win National Awards. "Though all of Shyam Benegal's films were accurate in terms of depiction of rural India, what stood out for me was Manthan because of its caste politics and villages coming together to make a milk cooperative," says Aseem Chhabra, film critic, author, and programmer of the New York Indian Film Festival.
Manthan, based on the birth and rise of Amul in Anand, Gujarat, is considered the first 'crowdsourced' film in Hindi cinema, since the members of the food cooperative pooled in their resources to help Benegal make the film. It was truly a film of the villagers, by the villagers, but for everyone.
"Of course, there was the whole 'parallel' cinema with Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani's films coming out as completely true to the rural India of those times. But in the mainstream, there was never a film that broke out like Sholay did, until Bandit Queen. It completely changed the way India perceived its rural areas," Anupama Chopra adds. Bandit Queen was a film about the dacoits in the Chambal Valley. It was a love letter to the rebel, and thus, it was only appropriate that it rebelled against the rural India template introduced by Sholay. The reason it broke out was not because it could recreate the magic of Sholay, but because it subverted every single aspect that made Sholay a classic.
Despite being lauded for being 'real,' it was never slotted into the parallel cinema bracket due of its mainstream beats. Also, it was directed by Shekhar Kapur, who helmed arguably one of the most mainstream films of Hindi cinema, Mr India, just a few years before diving into Bandit Queen. Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee describes Bandit Queen as "what was happening on screen was exactly what was happening outside."
Before Bandit Queen, the village films that frequented Hindi cinema depicted either external forces or internal factors as threats. For example, like Sholay had Gabbar Singh and his pack of dacoits, Manthan revolved around the societal issue of unemployment and dependence on the administration. But Bandit Queen was a film that merged the two in order to reflect the reality of that area, where the villagers were at the mercy of a system made of more powerful people and less helpful circumstances.
Abhishek Chaubey, who directed a rare modern-day dacoit drama last year, Sonchiriya, considers Bandit Queen an organic inspiration for his film, considering the setting. "The research came in at the script level itself so we didn't fall prey to cliches (of a village-based film). We didn't make assumptions about the people and incorporated traits only when we got to know the world. We spent a lot of time on ground to learn the details and rhythm of life in Chambal," he says.
Post-liberalisation: Influx of the 'NRI cinema'
Bandit Queen would go on to inspire many more contemporary filmmakers by being the defining moment for not only films based in rural India, but also for the emerging indie movement in Hindi cinema. The Indian release of Bandit Queen coincided with the opening up of the Indian economy, which snowballed into the 'NRI film' phenomenon. The exchange of people, ideas, products, and services with the rest of the world transformed the target audience of Hindi cinema. Along with the domestic audience, the Indian diaspora became a huge market. They were lured with stories either about loyalty to the country or stylised films with a universal aesthetic.
It was only in the early 2000s that filmmakers like Prakash Jha and Vishal Bhardwaj returned to the hinterland with films like Gangaajal and Omkara. Before Gangaajal, Jha made an evocative revenge drama set in Bilaspur, Bihar. Mrityudand saw a glam star like Madhuri Dixit turn into a village dweller — not a sexualised version of the same, better known as a village belle or gaon ki gori.
Gangaajal broke ground because it ended up becoming a template for every rural film yet again, with residents embroiled in politics, crime, and religion. Since dacoits ceased to be fashionable in the 2000s, local politicians, khap panchayats, hired goons, and corrupt cops took up arms (or laathis).
The introduction of cellphones as a tool to aide crime in Omkara raised the stakes even higher, and aptly reflected the rural strongholds getting rapidly influenced by their urban counterparts. This template continues to churn out similar films till today, the most recent being the Netflix show Jamtara: Sabka Number Aayega.
Another significant change that took place at the turn of the new century was that more attention was being devoted to the accent of the village being depicted in the film. The pioneer in this millennium was definitely Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan, where all the actors worked on their Awadhi accents rather than just tweaking their diction or harking back to the rather filmy Sholay-style dialogue delivery. Lagaan ran the risk of being dubbed as outdated since it released in the same year (2001) as another film starring Aamir Khan — Farhan Akhtar's directorial debut Dil Chahta Hai.
Akhtar completely steered clear of any cliche his scriptwriter father Javed Akhtar had made popular, by changing the vocabulary of the characters to fit the time it was made in. Lagaan, though not overtly dramatic, was a far cry in that respect, but was received more warmly because it stood true to the times it was set in. It was a period film set in the British Raj, and brought to focus the plight of Indian farmers who were forced to pay taxes despite a dry spell.
Subsequently, the rural crime-drama genre became a staple in the first decade of the 21st century. Only a few films like Lagaan, besides Swades by the same director, broke the norm. In the latter, the poster boy of NRI cinema, Shah Rukh Khan, played a NASA scientist who returns to his childhood caretaker's village in India, and vows to save them from the persistent issue of power cuts.
Return to the hinterland potboiler
While Aamir Khan, and even SRK, tried to disrupt the rural India template, Salman Khan brought it back with all his might. In 2010, he starred in Dabangg, a hinterland cop action comedy, that played to the Sholay gallery yet again. There was a messiah, a village belle, song-and-dance sequences including an item number ('Munni Badnaam Hui'), and lots and lots of dialoguebaazi. With Dabangg, the NRI genre was turned on its head, and Chulbul Panday reinstated the trend of masala films set in the hinterland like the good ol' days, though in modern colours.
But in the same year, Manish Sharma's Band Baaja Baaraat released as well. It also kickstarted a fresh trend of films set in small-town India. Over the years, rural films like Rowdy Rathore, R...Rajkumar, and Bullet Raja gave way to mid-level small-town cinema, including Bareilly Ki Barfi, Bala, and everything associated with Ayushmann Khurrana. "Now, along with the tier-1 cities, people in B and C towns are also massive consumers of cinema. And they are a huge market for producers now," says Aseem Chhabra. Owing to the rise in the standard of living, small-town dwellers have also developed decent spending capacity, and a more 'evolved' taste in cinema. The widening of the small-town market has further increased the gap between India and 'Bharat'.
For rural India, that may be a distant dream. Since their issues are barely represented on screen anymore, and they do not even attract as much attention from the big-budget filmmakers, representation of rural life and issues in Hindi cinema seems to be as low as it was when NRI cinema was at its peak.
The way ahead
One recent film broke all records, and gave filmmakers a new incentive to go back to the hinterland. But it seems now that Nitesh Tiwari's sports drama Dangal was a one-off affair. However, what the film did was it allowed girls to bask in the spotlight. It is based on the true story of a Haryanvi wrestler named Mahavir Phogat, who trained his two daughters, Geeta and Babita Phogat, in wrestling, so that they follow in his footsteps. Naturally, there was little chance that they would be showcased as gaon ki goris on growing up.
Four years later, in Panchayat, one initially feels that rural women have been relegated to the sidelines yet again. But the final episode shows how the actual winners of the panchayat elections, including the pradhan (Neena Gupta), come to the forefront in order to save the day for their husbands, who were acting as their surrogate leaders to bank on the quota reserved for women in elections. This is just one instance of how Panchayat offers a keen insight into village life, rather than merely brandishing the urban gaze on rural India.
With the advent of the digital space, rural India could save itself from marginalisation, and get a new lease of life on streaming platforms. Fortunately, the deal here, unlike for theatrical releases, comes without the risk of a low box office turnout.
Clearly, one only needs to seek out the right people who are willing to make rural India great again.
All images via Twitter.
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