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Why doesn't Bollywood take a stand?

Soutik Biswas | 10:43 UK time, Monday, 8 February 2010

Shah Rukh Khan's poster being burnt by Shiv Sena supportersWhy is Bollywood so ineffectual? Why don't its leading lights stand up and protest when one of their own (megastar Shah Rukh Khan, no less) is threatened by a local right-wing group (Shiv Sena)?

One reason is that Bollywood - or most commercial Hindi language cinema - is largely estranged from the realities of modern-day India. They reside in a strange, make-believe, ersatz wonderland and, as Suketu Mehta says, "disbelief is easy to suspend in a land where belief is so rampant and vigorous".

There was a time when the films, even in their song-and-dance idiom, tried to engage with Indian society, and glorified the underdog hero. Since the liberalisation of the Indian economy, Bollywood's divorce from contemporary realities has been complete. Pretty-looking films with prettier faces, lilting songs and noisy soundtracks shot on foreign locations are good "timepass" - as they say in India - for most audiences. And the "diaspora film" is partly to blame for killing the industry's imagination. "The diaspora," says Mehta, "wants to see an urban, affluent, glossy India, the India they imagine they grew up in and wish they could live in now." The result, in my view, is some of the most mindless and regressive cinema to be produced anywhere in the world.

But now the fans in India are beginning to feel cheated. A movie-mad policeman in Mumbai lamented to me recently that "Scotland Yard detectives and police commissioners are the ones solving crimes and grabbing all the attention" in Bollywood movies these days. "When I was growing up in the 1970s, the constable and the chief of the local police station were valued," he said.

And when Bollywood attempts to wrestle with contemporary issues - like the plight of Muslims after 9/11 - the results can be embarrassingly naïve and comical. A recent film had a dashing teacher of Islam falling in love with a svelte student - both roles played by reigning stars - and then moving to the US where the girl discovers that her young professor is actually a terrorist. What could have been a gripping film becomes vapid and silly - the professor, for example, is shown teaching a class full of white, American students in an American university in Hindi. As sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan tells me: "Bollywood is mythical, not historical. It works at the level of the myth. There is no engagement with history."

Another friend and film writer Saibal Chatterjee says Bollywood is alienated from realities because it is "essentially an industry of shopkeepers trying to sell their products at any cost". The film, he says, is just another commodity. And the film makers and performers are unapologetic about their offerings - their definition of cinema begins and ends with formulaic entertainment. A Bollywood film

Things are changing slowly though. After half a century of making escapist fun which has offered millions of Indians some of the best entertainment they have had in their dreary lives, Bollywood is now giving space to a small group of young, impressionable filmmakers who have begun serving up intelligent and entertaining mainstream cinema. But Bollywood is still a long way from making, say, a cracking good political thriller. So forget about a Z or Midnight Express from the industry anytime in the near future.

Hollywood is also profit-seeking and its offerings can be riddled with cliches. But some of it's best-known names have taken courageous stands over issues that have divided the nation. Martin Scorsese went ahead with the release of his controversial The Last Temptation of Christ inspite of protests from religious communities even before the film was released. Sean Penn took a firm stand against the Iraq war, travelled there and wrote a series of engaging pieces. The Vietnam war was reflected in Hollywood - remember Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now or Born On The Fourth Of July? In contrast, Bollywood's last successful contribution inspired by the India-Pakistan rivalry was an abominable jingoistic hit.

So, muzzling Bollywood has never been difficult. Maverick filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt has said in the past that a "filmmaker is a vulnerable animal, especially when his film inches towards release. You can blackmail and make him kneel down." Bhatt should know: he resisted demands for cuts in his 1998 film Zakhm (Wound). But most other filmmakers have kowtowed to the Shiv Sena, the self-appointed cultural police of Mumbai. Mani Ratnam, one of the top directors, organised a special screening of his film Bombay - a love story set against the backdrop of the 1993 religious rioting in the city - for the Sena leader Bal Thackeray even after the censor board had approved the film's release. Ram Gopal Varma, a filmmaker who showed early promise, showed Mr Thackeray two of his films before release.

So is it any surprise that ageing superstar Amitabh Bachchan publicly declares his allegiance to Mr Thackeray, who rebukes Shah Rukh Khan for supporting the inclusion of Pakistani players in a cricket auction (even though Khan's own team did not sign any)? Is it any surprise that Mr Bachchan's son, Abhishek, a star himself, tells a reporter that he believes that "arts and culture should be above politics"? When Khan refused to retract his support for Pakistani players and defied Mr Thackeray, he became an accidental hero in an industry which has no opinion.

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