The world of commercial Hindi films is peopled by thugs, smugglers, dacoits, voyeurs, murderers, cabaret dancers, sexual perverts, degenerates, delinquents and rapists, which can hardly be called representative of modern India.

Forum for better Cimena, responding to Nargis Dutt’s critique of Satyajit Ray in the early 80s

I found this description of Hindi films quoted in Salman Rushdie’s tribute to Ray written in 1990. In the tribute, Rushdie talks of films from various angles – the ideas, the audience, the artistic expression, the practical and political background etc. Now, 30 years later, Hindi films are more glamorous and have bigger budgets but sadly the above description still applies to most of them.

Ever since I can remember Bollywood has glorified the idea of the one man superhero who saves the day, preferably from a ugly looking, gun wielding, mustache stroking, blood lusting, woman hunting, shady dealing tyrant. This is our main guy and everything is about him. Traditionally our guy has a troubled past, some injustice was done to his family. Perhaps his father was killed for standing up to the tyrant and our guy wants to get revenge. Perhaps a female member of his family was assaulted and the honour of the family is at stake. The word honour comes up a lot when a female member is involved. In this world, the men usually bring honour to the family and the women are responsible for loosing it. Our guy will have to recover the honor by exacting revenge from the tyrant. Our guy usually wants revenge.

In this whole business of revenge he will meet a pretty lady who always has fair skin. His ideas of female honour are put on hold for a bit while he attempts to woo this fair lady. He indulges in stalking, cat calling, emotional scheming and physical assault. At times he also manages to save her honour from other sexual deviants who lie on the other side of the hero-villain divide (these guys tend to have dark skin). By this time the lady is so flattered by our guy’s manly attributes of cockiness, physical strength and a mysterious past that she is his to have for eternity. Having served her purpose as the eye candy and masala in the story, she then proceeds to melt into the background as our guy gets back to his revenge mission. She will be seen at times shedding a tear and smoothing our guy’s ego when he is a little down but that’s about it.

Now comes the action part of the story. Our guy is ready with his lady at his side, equipped with his uncanny confidence, passion and belief for his cause. The end involves a lot of aggression – beating up the tyrant’s dark skinned goons, fighting with knives, sticks and other weapons, dodging bullets, violent trash talking about the honour of mothers and sisters, acrobatic maneuvers and angry outbursts on morality. Our guy comes out with flying colors, injured in just the right ways that give him a rugged macho look. His mission is completed, honour is avenged, might is right. End of story.

Over the years Bollywood has done many variations of this narrative but the essential doctrines have held strong. The black and white nature of the main characters, the emphasis on one strong man against evil and the portrayal of female characters. A major reason for this is the commercial nature of the industry. Like its counterparts in other forms of business, it is a cut-throat, no holds barred for-profit enterprise with no obligation to consider the consequences of its actions. The industry has perfected the mantras of commercial success – Salman bhai with his bulging biceps and queer dance moves, Canada kumar with his banal comedy routines, Baaghi shroff with his perfect abs and Rambo impersonations. All this and more, always with a generous scoop of skimpily clad ladies dancing suggestively to ribald lyrics. Juicy advertising contracts are another driving force for the money-hungry superstars of the industry. Big Bachchan would probably agree to market poison as children’s candy given enough money. Other people are already doing this, in the form of highly processed, sugar infused edibles and a seemingly endless range of body care products that directly lead to lifestyle diseases and also indirectly create a host of other problems around body image, casteism, class divides etc. The films themselves propagate these ideas to a large extent. Our worldview is replete with ideas that can be traced back to films – one man savior (our voting patters), the damsel in distress (our attitude to women), the strong hero (our ideas of masculinity), the black-white divide (our fascination with simple explanations), the dark-skinned villain (our attitude towards certain sections of society), the foreign locations and rich protagonists (our refusal to see those outside our bubbles) etc. These things wouldn’t be so important if films didn’t play such a big role in the life of the average Indian but undeniably they are a big part of our education.

In spite of these entrenched attitudes, there is much more room today for films that don’t fall into these stereotypes than there was when Rushdie wrote his article. There are films that have tried to weave a realistic narrative by delving into the the grey shades of characters and blurring the lines between good and bad, by showing perspectives on a situation instead of moral sermons, by creating complex female characters that carry the story on their own, by loosening the ideas around gender roles, by drawing portraits of the everyday life of the common Indian. These films are creative in their conception and respect the intelligence of their audience. They present in subtle and beautiful ways the complex lives of people in this diverse country, they connect people and help them understand. There is some hope, some comfort in that thought.

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