Why do people behave the way they behave? Why do they like certain things over other things?
What’s the reason behind brand preferences?
What has cinema got to do with it?
Cinema need funds. And funds are available to people who do justice to the economics.
I was watching a Future of Indian Cinema conclave – talks hosted by a large media house. And on the panel were people behind commercial cinema, indi-commercial cinema, parallel cinema and art house light bearers.
Basically people who hated the idea of mainstream Bollywood and their key concern was how to divert the funds that go to mainstream Bollywood and make it available for them.
There were mainstream Bollywood people who want to make meaningful cinema but are aware of the fact that they are a part of the larger system and market dynamics. And there were the radicals.
The mainstream guys understood the country better and the radicals refused to acknowledge the Indian truth. They wanted to be successful mavericks; do what Andy Warhol did in the sixties; it seemed to me that they wanted to live in another country (not China, Europe maybe)
The big truth in today’s world emerged – they were, like everybody else in every other discipline, talking about the ‘system’. It worked for some, some hated it.
I think there’s no point hating the system; you have to understand it well enough to make it work for you, unless of course, you want nothing out of it.
(Understanding the system is like knowing about the weather conditions in this new place you’re going to; it’ll help you pack wisely.)
To understand the system you must have an understanding of what the majority wants, or is silently validating it. And there isn’t a more conclusive way of validation than to put your money on it.
The majority of India puts their money across a counter that sells tickets for a mainstream Bollywood film. It’s not the best cinema, it’s probably something you’ll find stupid.
But it’s the truth.
Our politicians and the cinema we endorse tell a great deal about how we are as people, collectively.
And let me preface the rest of this piece by saying that I don’t hate either of them. I don’t blame our politicians and I don’t blame the mainstream mindlessness of Bollywood or hold them responsible for who we are. Without our support, they can’t do what they do.
The world is a marketplace and we are all selling something – some stuff sells more. All I can do, as an aspiring feature filmmaker in India, is to understand the market realities and find a way to make my product more sellable.
Thankfully my growing years and my formative years spent in marketing and advertising helps me understand one thing with greater clarity – what is it that people like.
It’s not going to help me write my story but it’ll surely help me sell it.
So why do the majority of Indians like mainstream Bollywood?
The answer actually is simple – anything ‘main’stream will always be the main stream.
But why do we like “heroism led modest-good-guy-beating-the-crap-out-of-the-powerful-bad-guy” stories?
The answer to that lies in the Indian reality. Almost 70 years into independence, 60 million people are under the 50 cents day-wage-earning poverty level.
The richest Indians are one the top richest people in the world.
And it’s true that while the rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer. Not because the rich are directly taking advantage of the poorer (though in some cases, that also, is a reality), but because the poor are living in darkness burdened by the perils of castism, sexism, puritanism, reliogionism etc.
For ninety-five percent of our people, every day is a constant battle for dignity.
They blame the people in power for that. And deep in their hearts they all know that there is not a thing in the world, they, in their individual human capacity, can do to change that.
But they still wish for a miracle and a messiah.
Mainstream Bollywood gives them a messiah for two and a half hours. The good-guy-hero (who is always a representation of the working class) fighting the powers of biased evil (almost always a representative of the State or the State-Corporate nexus). When that is all they see, inside a dark theatre, they forget their own identities for those 2.5 hours and they live on dignity borrowed from the figure of absolute heroism on screen.
That’s what Amitabh Bachchan gave them in the 80s. That’s what Salman Khan gives them now. Through them, on borrowed mindspace, a struggling nation kills the evil and gets the girl.
That’s what mainstream Bollywood and a poster of the next blockbuster film guarantees them – borrowed dignity in relatable circumstances.
That’s the most important element in the Bollywood success mix – relatability. When a story has elements that could be from the life of any Indian, it’s a product good for the market. The more, more people can relate to the story and see themselves in it, the bigger the box office collections.
And that’s true even for the romantic films, relatable scenarios (even if they are placed in other exotic countries) where the protagonists are relatably Indian. Fantasy, yes, but very, very relatable.
That’s the reason why people flock to see Shahrukh Khan – he is the most relatable but impossibly fantastic lover an Indian girl will ever find. That’s why they love him and that’s why he needs to play almost that same role film after film.
Coming from a very middle-class family, I myself can relate to that. When I saw these same storylines being played out film after film, I would find myself jumping with joy when the hero knocked the daylights of the villain and his team, with his bare hands, despite the fact that the villains team may have had weapons.
I used to jump with joy emulating the punches and the sound effects of ‘dhishoom dhishoom’ because, that, for me, was all I could do to counter the forces of strict adult supervision that always told me how I cannot do what I wanted to do.
I knew it was impossible for me to do what that hero is doing but I could relate to his need to break out of his limitations.
I feel most of my fellow Indians who flock the theatre to see this happening are still children at heart and interestingly most of these Bollywood blockbuster heroes play their roles with the innocence of a child – very basic, uncomplicated people who resolve the relatable crisis with an impossible fight.
Somewhere between that child and the adult that I am now, is the living reality of over one billion people. If that reality changes, Bollywood will.
Till then there’ll be products that will be manufactured for the same show to go on, albeit with more and more flamboyance.
Mainstream Bollywood will be the only solver of the existential crisis faced by us Indians.
And we must love Bollywood for that.
When we are miserable, don’t we all love the person who tells us how we are right and how the person who caused us the misery should be punched in the face?
P.S.: I also see a new wave of cinema coming to us because I already feel a new wave of consciousness amongst us. There are some great statesmen who are doing some great work. And there are some fantastic filmmakers who are giving us great new stories. Because cinema is so big in India, some of these movies are actually managing to help us evolve as richer human beings – watch the films made by Raju Hirani. They are masterpieces in societal evolution. The old is fading and the new is being inked. Someday we won’t need to find hope in seeing our realities being played out on the screen with unrealistic outcomes. I will buy you an ice cream that day