Bollywood cinema is a creative paradox. On a familiar plot, which consists of a love story, half a dozen songs, big dance numbers and a stylized villain, it creates visual dramatization of public fantasies, over and over again. Unless the familiar narrative goes haywire, its mass appeal has the ability to capture the audience, because it has evolved as a sub-culture within the diverse cultural strands in the society/country.
Bollywood cinema is an enigma too. On a similar plot, Mera Goan Mera Desh, released in 1971, attained moderate success whereas Sholay, released four years later, created cinematic history. What made Sholay a blockbuster is open to multiple interpretations. Did it work among audiences as it helped quell post-emergency fears of a system’s collapse or did it appeal to the masses as it offered an alternative narrative of looking at criminals as solutions? Gabbar became the uncontested hero, a masculine symbol that defied the system. Through the 1970s, a corpus of films captured this new found imagination of defying the law a’la angry young man. Perhaps, this was a cinema in response to the social crises of that time!
Bollywood cinema has been socially responsive. Through its existence over last hundred years, it has continually captured the diffuse aspirations of an evolving nation. With social responsiveness as its defining feature, the cinema has examined the contours of change in its myriad manifestations. Through in-depth analyses of blockbusters of the tumultuous decades of 50’s, 60s and 70s, Priya Joshi, a professor at the Temple University, argues that rather than narrowing the notion of ‘India’, popular cinema has continued to expand it. During these decades in which the nation was made, unmade and remade, cinema has continued to remain the most potent social force.
Joshi’s argument lends credence to the popular perception about Bollywood cinema being a kind of confession box, wherein people get chance to speak their mind on cultural taboos or matters of political repression. Even in an overtly teenage love story like Bobby, released in 1973, the subject of ‘dowry deaths’ was taken up. Trishul, released in 1978, took a radical step in proposing 'illegitimate father' (as opposed to 'illegitimate child') as an unheard social identity. Overall, Bollywood cinema has dealt with some of the most challenging aspects of Indian life, from generation gap to class tensions, and from political corruption to global terrorism. In doing so, it has helped ordinary viewers understand the intricacies of life, as much as drawing inspiration to come out of it.
Bollywood cinema has held a mirror on the society, reflecting its overt and covert anxieties, contestations and aspirations. Each of the blockbusters in the book, Awara, Deewar, Sholay, A Wednesday, and 3 Idiots, represent important milestones conveying the tensions and politics of its time. There are several layers of social reality captured in each of the blockbusters, giving visual expression to the collective psyche of the masses. Need it be said that cinema has often been a critique of the state and the nation, showing ‘truth’ that hardly gets spoken.
Providing wide-ranging literary, theoretical and socio-cultural perspectives, Joshi picked on blockbusters to decipher their mass appeal and to make the readers comfortable with her narrative explications. She has gone beyond the script in her analysis, adding new dimensions for re-viewing these blockbusters. Through her incisive analysis, the author lends hitherto unknown perspectives to many high voltage scenes in these blockbusters. No wonder, some of these movies have had subtle impact on shaping individual minds.
While the blockbusters of the bygone era have played a prominent role in managing the misery and euphoria of an evolving nation, the post-liberal arrival of corporate capital (and perpetuation of narcissism in society) has ripped cinema of its social substance and political edge. It is indeed worth asking if the new genre of popular cinema will distance itself from the public fantasy?
Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy
by Priya Joshi
Columbia University Press, New York
Extent: 191, Price: US$ 30