Understanding India through Films


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Films of India come in various shades. There are the masala films of Bollywood, which is the popular mainstream cinema. There are the serious films of the parallel movement, and then there are topical and special films that deal with different issues. This last category films can deal with as wide variety of issues from war and patriotism to feminist and rural issues. However, the parallel movement has largely fizzled out, or rather overtaken by the ‘new-breed’ cinema that mixes the glamour of bollywood with the realities of real life. Moreover the film scene itself is segmented into the Hindi and the regional language films. Many times, those who make the Hindi films are also in some ways associated with the regional films. Then there is also an important category of films on India that are made abroad. Some films like Gandhi, despite of its screen success would hardly qualify itself for being belonging to “popular culture”. However this last category of films has now overtaken itself in the screen success with the likes of directors like Mira Nair and Gurinder Chaddha making films that have the Indian cultural background, but making raves in the lands of Europe and America. Gurinder Chaddha has particularly been successful recently with films like Bend it with Beckham and Bride and Prejudice. Both these films have been biggest box office hits in UK.

What is important in this is the relevancy, of what is the objective for which the film is being used. A particular film can have various dimensions ranging from entertainment, to socio-political dynamics, to depiction of material culture of society, to portraying of social values of a particular period, to that of delineating the aims and aspirations of a society at a particular period of time. Frankly, for this purpose, the films from India can be best classified as good films and bad films.

One thing is clear that in India, films are made either for artistic excellence or for the market. Most of the popular actors and actresses – the Heros and the Heroines have earned their name and wealth working in the films for the mass market. Though they have also in some instances worked in the Art films.

Generally some decades back, when film technology was not so advanced and there were litterateurs writing for the films, many films were made for artistic excellence. Whether it be the story or the song & dance sequence, the film industry had not exactly become filmy as in our times. However, in contrast, as the technologies became complicated, and big budget films are made, the more important concern is to recoup the investments. And consequently the films are now aimed at the “market”. The films are invariably now made for a distinctly urban audience, who are upwardly mobile and also for the non-resident Indians who have made success in foreign countries. This also means that now the locales have shifted from rural settings to those of Europe and America. Now the heroes are generally depicted not as farmers, but belonging to business families. The heroines have become distinctly westernised both in their dresses and also in the way they deliver dialogues. And now the films are generally made for pure entertainment, and not much of that being representative of the society. Also, the films have gradually started dipicting trends from globalisation – where inevitably some segment of the films now connect the story to USA or UK or even Australia, where significant South Asian Diaspora resides. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding is the all-time top 10 foreign box-office hit in America. And Indian films can now be rented easily in countries like USA.

In the early times like the thirties, many films were made that aimed to make a statement against the social injustices. These dealt with issues of women as well as caste. Films like V. Shantaram’s Duniya na mane, Nitin Bose’s Badi Bahen, Franz Osten’s Achut Kanya, Mehboob’s Aurat etc depicted such themes. The 1940s led to adoption of themes from the War as well as that of freedom struggle like Abbas’s Dharti ke lal, V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis ki amar kahani that showed the sojourn of Dr. Kotnis a medical professional to China during the revolutionary period before 1949.

At the same time the reformist themes continued eg. V. Shantaram’s Do ankhein barah haath that showed the reforming of criminals through humane means etc. Later on films with themes from Indian history were also made eg. Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi ki Rani and Sikandar (Alexander the Great), both being historical personalities. Many of these films also reflected the ideas of independence from foreign rule.

Post independence films dealt with the suddenness of the events and the various issues confronting the new nation. This meant issues like traumas of partition, problems of poverty and unemployment, transformation of village life etc. would become more prominent. Generally the films were based in rural areas, and the urban lifestyle was shown as degenerating. Our times have reached a total contrast, when films generally depict the urban upwardly mobile middle class or the glamour of the elite class. Films relating to partition still continue to be made, the recent one relating to it was Gadar that showed the difficulties faced by a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl. However, it was made in a rather filmy style rather than with the refined intensity of films like Saving Private Ryan. Films like Gadar inevitably attract unnecessary political controversies as well. In my view a much better film was Earth 1947 made by Mira Nair that showed the partition days with the story line based in Lahore. This film was based on a story by a famous novelist.

The fifties also meant entertainment, particularly in films of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapur and Dev Anand. Raj Kapur particularly deserves special mention as one who brought about a new style that was a mix of both entertainment as well as realism. His films were also very popular in other parts of the world. His main theme was generally the common person on the street eg, Boot polish, Shri-420, Jagte raho etc. It was the same time when Bimal Roy made Do Bigha Zamin, and Satyajit Ray his Pather Panchali. Later times produced film directors like Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Govind Nihlani and others.

Many of the others were equally good filmmakers, but their stories were more on the side of entertainment with stories of smugglers, dacoits, and underworld and so on. Many of these films no doubt broke records of box office eg. Sholay. In the later decades, while the Bollywood moved towards the entertainment theme, the regional films produced some fine directors who have created films that are close to society and reality.

Apart from this, there are certain trends that are visible in the mainstream films, which are more on the entertainment side. However there are films that have been made and continue to endure and are good reflection of society, and the aspirations and values and mindset of the common people. Generally these themes relate to # religious values, # patriarchal values, # family values. Most of such films generally incorporate these dimensions in their story and role characterisation.

Religious values are depicted in various ways. Often it is also a reflection of the times and of the ways in which it had created controversy in the society. The religious values get depicted generally in form of Hindu-Muslim situation, but also in context of other religions. Junoon, was based on the troublesome period of 1857, however the main story line was how a Muslim militia leader was in love with a Christian ferangi girl, while at the same time he was fighting the British forces. While Bombay that was based on the Bombay riots of the 1990s, had the storyline of affair between a Brahmin Hindu boy and a Muslim girl in the troublesome setting of our times. Films on religious figures and historical themes like Meera, who was a woman Bhakti Saint of the medieval times, brings forth the nature of the patriarchal society, palace conspiracies, and also the cultural values. Religious values also get showcased in terms of caste relations of the society that are shown generally in a subliminal manner like in the recent Oscar nominee Lagaan. However, films like Lagaan have problems because they take up current craze for cricket match in India and juxtapose it on to a historical situation, thus making for a totally unreal / illogical story for the discerning audience.

For Indian films, Patriarchal values form an important area of depiction. The nature of the patriarchy varies according to the issue at hand. It could be a patriarchy of the village elders, it could be the patriarchy of the family head, or it could even be the male chauvinism that is shown in the various films in scenes relating to public institutions like Police etc. A woman police officer, a woman smoking, or single woman, are sufficient to raise eyebrows in the films as in real life. However, the emphasis of Indian films generally are to uphold the traditional Indian values, and generally to de-emphasise western values.

However patriarchal themes are quite concomitant with the position of mother in the films. The mother holds a hallowed position in the Indian film stories. A commercial film like Deewar made by Yash Chopra, had this classic scene where the two brothers are fighting over their mother, of who would keep her. One of them is a smuggler and has all the wealth that one can dream of, while the other son is an ordinary honest police official (with whom the mother currently lives) who somehow manages within his means. The smuggler son would recount all his wealth and question his other brother of what he has; the reply that he gets is “I have my mother”. This to a great extent shows the high position that the mother holds. The position of the mother was best exemplified in the famous 1957 film Mother India of Mehboob that won great plaudits for its characterisation and performance. In it at the end, the mother even kills her (rebel) son to uphold the communitarian and collective ideals. Both society and film stories have now reached the other end of spectrum where individual ideals and accumulative values have become predominant.

Another important dimension is that of family values. While various sociological studies have shown a general trend towards nuclearisation of families despite of general preference for joint family system, the films generally depict a joint family milieu. To some extent this is also good setting for the story. More the people in the family, more the twists and turns possible! Some directors have been really successful both in artistic expression as well as box-office success in depicting such themes. Examples would be Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee among others. Films like Khoobsurat and also many films of the 1990s like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge etc. were based on such themes.

But apart from these, there are popular themes like that of patriotism that keep getting made on a periodic basis. Often this patriotic fervour is in the context of either the British colonialism or in the India- Pakistan context. Themes of nationalism have generally been an evergreen theme of marketability. However many of these films are more commercial and rhetorical to be taken at face value. In this category war movies can also be considered. War movies like Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat that was based on the Indo-China conflict of 1962, received praise. Among other good war films have been Vijeta, Border, and also the recent Lakshya – all these having an Indo-Pakistan theme were equally good. However, in our times when in a way real war can be watched live on the television screen, there seems to be a general de-sensitisation to the traumas of conflict. More so, in commercial entertainment cinema, it gets more of a hawkish treatment.

This can also be symptomatic of general permeation of materialism in the society. Earlier, while the heroes of the films had some objective, that had a collective orientation, now the heroes have become more individualistic in their goals. Moreover, while during the 1980s, the successful storylines were rags to riches story, now there are no rags, but only riches. This is also a consequence of films being made with target audience in mind- mostly the metro cities of India, and Indians living in America or Europe. In some ways the dispossessed and the disinherited has no more remained the concern of the filmmaker.

So what all these means? To some extent it means that there needs to be a sieving of film for what purpose it is to be used. The Indian films are as wide and varied as the country is and caters to all the taste buds with wide range of genre, and many times mixing of the genres. But in my view what is certainly useful when using these films for educational purposes, is to do a background of the issues that were current at that time in the country. This would help in understanding the film in a better way. As History keeps reinterpreting the past according to aspirations of the current society, similarly the films are also working out the same logic. This also would make clear of what the film actually wishes to convey with all its nuances. Two recent films might be illustrative. One was Sarfarosh that depicted story of a police officer in the setting of Indo-Pakistan issue and deals with issues of terrorism. Though a mainstream entertainment film, it captures the current concerns of India. Another film like Lagaan (mentioned previously) has used similar theme of patriotism, but in a very different setting that is both historical and fictionalised, as well as captures the mood of the nation in the current times. It however uses some very fine social semantics that characterises social realities even today. It is in such context that films from India need to be assessed. It would not be far off to say that while the parallel films show the society with its cruel realities, the commercial films generally fantasise those issues and weave them with song and dances as means of diversion, but when it comes to conclusions, they generally hold the values that are inherent in the society.

A limitation of serious films has been the song and dances that form an integral part of Indian films. Some serious films have been able to break free of such songs. But generally the requirements of market makes for keeping the song sequences that to serious viewers seem some kind of diversion from the main narrative. Though in some cases, the songs and dances when contextualised, given a particular story, makes for a powerful portrayal of characters as depicted in films like Umrao Jaan. However songs continue to be an essential ingredient of the popular film culture.

The most important thing in my view is that films can be used as a measure of depicting social change that has occurred in the society particularly in the years after independence. Interesting examples can be how the urbanisation has taken place. This is visible spatially in the different films of previous times when compared to present films in locales of metro cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and elsewhere. Stories also take up issues of slums, unemployment, poverty etc. The stories using such themes do reflect a reality of their times.

A good indicator of the choice of films for use in educational purpose is to choose the films and directors that have won the National Award that is annually given by the government. These films can belong to different languages in which films are made in India. These films are generally good indicator of the society of their times. More often than not, these films deal with different themes like feminist issues, caste conflict, rural issues, needs of religious harmony, issues like partition, issues of gender relations, patriarchy etc. It is perhaps in such films that India could be understood in a better way and also useful from education point of view.

Copyright © Anup Mukherjee
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