As a Bengali, who grew up in Kolkata, I know my Godard. But I also happen to know my Govinda. The other thing Kolkata teaches you, is to spot an antel (pseudo-intellectual) from miles away. Antels are a particular subspecies, who talk about everything with absolute authority, often parroting what a more veteran/established expert preaches, without caring to actually know anything on the same. Their favourite words are Subaltern, Socialism, and Satyajit Ray.
Why am I ranting about Bongs and their antlami, which is marked by snobbery and the over-intellectualisation of even the most prosaic? Because this seems to have spread to the rest of India faster than Covid; especially among the audience watching Bollywood movies. And it is scaring the bejesus out of me.
We have suddenly become overly critical; we have forgotten to enjoy a movie as an experience. We are always busy nit-picking. Does every film require or deserve an academic discussion? Maybe not. Was Sholay a masterclass in filmmaking? No. Was it an original? Watch these four films — The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon A Time in The West, and For A Few Dollars More — and then, watch Sholay. You will know what I mean. But is it the ultimate cinematic experience? Yes.
But what is more disastrous is when we get into an academic discussion about films without getting into the academics of it. Most of us don’t understand the concept of genres. We have become pros at comparing apples with oranges (if a fruit analogy seems prosaic: Cezanne drew apples and Gauguin painted oranges. That’s Formalism and Surrealism, which is not the same). We will watch Singham and expect Omerta, and then feel crestfallen about Ajay Devgn’s antics. It is like walking into an Udupi restaurant, when you are craving sushi and then being disappointed when they serve you masala dosa.
In Bengali, we have a saying that translates to ‘having little knowledge about something is the most dangerous’. We will criticise a Barfi! for copying scenes from renowned Hollywood movies, but applaud Quentin Tarantino, who in his 1994 Empire magazine interview had boasted, “I steal from every single movie ever made.” This is because we don’t understand the difference between homage and plagiarism.
Now, over the last few years, a new trend has emerged, which entails bashing big-budget, commercial, Bollywood masala movies.
Initially, it did seem to be a step in the right direction. Audiences were denouncing mindless over-the-top cinema high on stylised action sequences and item numbers. People were lapping up ‘content-driven’ movies and TV shows. Relatable stories set in small towns of the Hindi heartland, talking about middle-class people, reflecting their lives were not only being made, but were also, celebrated at the box office. It seems finally the parallel and the mainstream have merged. Most of India’s population lives in small towns and villages, and they want to see their lives on the screen, we were told. Stories stripped off of the melodrama, dapper dimpled heroes romancing chiffon-saree clad heroines, villainous dads screaming, “Yeh shaadi nehi ho sakti,” were finally being served. And we started having cookie-cutter versions of the same joint-family characters inhabiting the same narrow lanes and sprawling terraces of near identical cities. The mother is a housewife, the heroine wears salwar-kameez-dupatta/saree, the father is usually a supportive loving person, the hero is a govt employee, Seema Pahwa is the hassled chachi/buu — film after film after film. Yes, the cosmopolitan nature of the cities robs individuality and breeds homogeneity. Smaller towns protect and celebrate the quirks, which make for interesting stories. But just because daal-chawal is your comfort food, you can’t keep eating that for four meals every day. And then imagine the plight of someone whose comfort food is fish curry-rice! After a point, we just forgot that India is not limited to the small towns of the Hindi belt. Also, did the people living in these regions really just want to see their lives on screen? Or was it a case of us high-rise-bound highbrows fetishising these stories?
Cinema is essentially aspirational. Cinema is about creating magic. Else, the Lumière brothers’ were doing fine; nothing explains the rise of Georges Méliès. It has been proven many times, and beyond doubt, that people don’t want to watch reality unfold on a big screen. Reality is mundane. Reality is boring. Reality is real. It is the realistic — something that looks ‘almost like real’ — that can make for a good screen experience. But it is difficult to survive just on a staple diet of realistic cinema, especially for Indians brought up on a robust dose of Bollywood. It is not possible to satiate the people living in the small towns with just the slice-of-life stories. They also want the spectacle — movies that were Bollywood; and today is Telugu and Kannada cinema.
While Bollywood was busy becoming Hindi cinema, shedding every trace of Bollywoodness, Commercial Telugu and Kannada cinema has surreptitiously hijacked its identity and become more Bollywood than Bollywood ever was. But what is more interesting is the reaction of the audiences, as well as critics, lapping up these movies. While Shahid Kapoor’s brilliant performance in and as Kabir Singh was completely overlooked because the protagonist was a misogynistic, toxic and physically abusive person, Allu Arjun became a ‘pan-Indian star’ post his turn as Pushpa (the film was arguably the biggest box office success of the year 2021). The film not only glorifies toxic masculinity and promotes relentless stalking as romance, but here our beloved ‘rustic’ hero offers to pay for a kiss from his love interest. Everybody loved Pushpa: The Rise. The item number Oo Atavama didn’t raise any eyebrows (apparently the lyrics were feminist! But, the gaze was not). In its defence, many have pointed out that it is a realistic portrayal of an uncouth and rustic man. By that logic, Kabir Singh was a rather accurate portrayal of a toxic, abusive alcoholic. Is it that today we are judging Hindi cinema and the cinema of the South (especially the Telugu and Kannada industries… Malayalam cinema has had a very different origin story and has created a rather different niche for itself in the last few years) with different yardsticks?
I am not denying the fact that Bollywood has made some rather horrible movies in the past few years. When watching on small OTT screens, sans the theatrical experience, the ridiculousness of those lavishly-mounted films became more obvious in the intimate setting. The more personal stories, smaller, independent films were more conducive for OTT viewing and the rise of the OTTs was also directly proportional to the rise of regional language cinema as it got them an equal reach to their Hindi counterparts.
But while Bollywood is bashed, and rightly so, for even the slightest objectification of women, the same is watched, relished, and applauded when it happens in Telugu and Kannada movies. Even Tamil movies are known for normalising male entitlement and gender bias. Maybe subtitles create a sense of distance/otherness/detachment that makes these seem less offensive. I am not sure.
After Arjun Reddy (the Telugu original of Kabir Singh) in 2020, Deverakonda played another such rowdy character, where he actually had a dialogue that went, “Yamini! I did not just spread your legs. Yamini. I loved you! I loved you Yamini.” I am not making this up.
Let’s take a more recent case. A prominent film journalist lists RRR among the must-watch movies of 2022. Although the journalist makes a passing mention of the problematic casteist undertones and rampant use of Hindu iconography, the journalist mainly gushes over the movie applauding the exhilarating experience it creates. The same reviewer totally pans Shamshera (the critic had loved Befikre, another YRF movie… maybe it is an attempt to redeem oneself!) — another lavishly-mounted spectacle, produced by YRF and starring Ranbir Kapoor, it is as Bollywood as it gets. Among other things, the movie is criticised for casting Iravate Harshe, who is apparently 39, as Ranbir Kapoor’s mother. I remember watching Harshe in Shanti. It was in 1994, so she was 12 when she played Nidhi Mahadevan, Are we just looking for reasons and at times conjuring them up to bash Bollywood?
The film happens to be one of the few Bollywood films that talk about casteism and puts a saviour that is not an upper-caste Brahmin, in fact, here he is the conniving villain. It has Ranbir Kapoor playing a larger-than-life hero twice over. It has those robust Bollywood dialogues and glorious songs that we miss in Hindi movies these days. Yes, it has its flaws in non-existent plot twists, convenient resolutions, and random ravens saving the day. But did RRR have any great plot twists? Wasn’t Ram Charan Teja demolishing the gun-wielding British army almost single-handedly with a bow and arrow almost as bizarre as a slew of birds appearing to save the day? Ram hai toh mumkin hai aur raven hai random hai? Also, the hyper Hindutva of RRR just got quietly brushed under the carpet!
If we talk about the hackneyed storyline, how is KGF’s any different from the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer angry-young-man movies of the ’70s and ’80s? I am not saying Shamshera is a brilliant piece of cinema. But it is a pretty good cinematic experience. It doesn’t have any actor doing a shoddy job apart from the rag pretending to be a baby (in fact, I am totally rooting for Saurabh Shukla’s character to get a spin-off!). The cinematography is gorgeous. There are all the tropes of an ’80s Bollywood movie replete with an Amrish Puri-like Sanjay Dutt. If in the quest of being woke, we are forgetting how to have fun. Then, this film is definitely more woke than a KGF, Bahubaali or RRR.
I wonder if the audience and the critics would have reacted the same way to Shamshera if it was made in Telugu with a ‘pan-Indian actor’. Are we increasingly getting prejudiced against Bollywood and viewing movies from that prejudice-tinted lens? Why is this snobbery targeted only against Bollywood movies? Take the case of the song Kesariya from the upcoming movie Brahmastra, becoming meme fodder for the usage of a single phrase: love storiya (interestingly, nobody is really talking about how Pritam has yte again, copied the music. This time, from the foot-tapping number of Ek Chalis Ki Last Local). Then sample the lyrics of the Pushpa song everyone is humming: “Teri Jhalak Asharfi Srivalli, Naina Madak Barfi, Teri Jhalak Asharfi Srivalli, Batein Kare Do Harfi,” reminds me of the ’90s cult classic, “Telephone dhun mein hasnewali, Melbourne machhli machalanewali.” And we have grown up on lyrics like “Jab tak rahega samosa mein aalu.” I find this sudden snobbery about everything Bollywood a bit misplaced.
Bollywood is not just an industry; it can also be regarded as a genre. Let’s not forget that today the Kannada and Telugu movies made using that very blueprint (and often dialling up the toxic masculinity to the level of ’90s Bollywood) are regarded pan-India hits. My problem is not that the Bollywood films are being panned but I am at my wits end why these very problematic movies made down South are not being held accountable. Whatever South cinema does is regarded today as the gold standard (well, some of it definitely is, but it seems we are creating an infallible God of it). But are we viewing the two, when we are claiming that both should be regarded just as ‘Indian cinema’, through different lenses?
(Featured Image Credits: YouTube @yashrajfilms)