Prolific and diverse, the Indian film industry produces more movies than any other country – about 1500 or more annually, which is more than twice as many as Hollywood does. Popular Hindi cinema has always played a key role in defining and designing people’s minds towards the nation. The Bombay film industry, now called Bollywood, seems to be officially ignited by a passion: nation-building through cinema. Yeah, the josh is high.
So what is actually “nation-building cinema” – a tad different from nationalistic cinema, in which we’ve been drowning in the last few years. Is current nation-building about highlighting government policies and ‘achievements’ like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Sui Dhaga, and Padman—the three films that have clearly been the inspiration for the PM’s initiative? Are we moving towards a “Modi-an” Indian cinema? Will more such films be consciously churned out? Will the government fund or tax-exempt them as it did Toilet and Padman? This turns out to be actually a win-win deal for both a government seeking publicity as well as Bollywood—which is why perhaps the latter is enthused by the prospect of doing Films Division newsreels in feature film form.
Time was when the concept of nation-building cinema was different, broader, inclusive of civilization and cultural heritage, and with an emphasis on humanism and core values. The infant Indian cinema showcased the ideal nation-building process and vouched for nationalist values. After India gained independence in 1947 it had to create its own national self-consciousness from thin air and popular Hindi cinema played an important role in nation-building. The finest minds lent their talent to it beginning from the post-independence phase when the government tasked the Information & Broadcasting Ministry with nudging film-makers in this direction. Hindi films mirrored the bloom and aspirations but also, importantly, the problems of a newly independent nation were reflected in films. The periods that brought India on the global map, an era that was adorned with filmmakers and actors, left an indelible ramification on the films that are produced today.
Take Mehboob Khan’s epic Mother India (as an example of a Nehruvian cinema), which was made to coincide with the tenth anniversary of independence. Primarily a tale of agrarian distress, it is sub-textually an endorsement of Nehruvian policy and planning -the film is book-ended by scenes of Congress workers getting an aged Nargis to inaugurate an irrigation canal. Other film-makers, from Raj Kapoor to B.R. Chopra, upheld Nehru’s tenets of socialism, secularism, and democracy in their films, and their lyricists couched these sentiments in poetry that is undying. If Prem Dhawan’s Chhodo Kal ki Baatein from Hum Hindustani was a call to New India to forget the past and begin afresh, Shailendra encapsulated the headiness of a new democracy in a verse of Shri 420’s Mera joota hai Jaapani: “Honge raje rajkunwar, hum bidgde dil shehzaade/Hum singhasan par ja baithe jab jab kiye iraade.” Sahir Ludhianvi’s Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega from Dhool Ka Phool remains the definitive anthem on secularism, and sundry other songs refer tangentially to even policies like disarmament.
It wasn’t just the men behind the camera; even actors did their bit. Dilip Kumar, the superstar actually chose roles to fit his ideology and showcase Nehruvian India through films like Footpath, Ganga Jamuna, Naya Daur, and Leader—to show “India’s movement from darkness to sunshine”, and terms Naya Daur as a quintessentially Nehruvian film which was in step with the just-launched economic planning and rural development initiatives.
The socio-political impact, the struggle, and the drudgery that every Indian had to go through are subtly reflected in the conscience of the films. The movies generally whirled around the reverie of a common man, floating to and fro, dashed by the adversities of life, and in the course of the novel is revealed as a round character, with shades of grey, but ultimately finishing off with a ‘happy ending’.
But, and this is important, warts and sores of the nation were also subjected to scrutiny. A clutch of counter-narratives like Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (a tale of agrarian distress like Mother India but minus political puffs), showed up India’s stark reality for what it – also a dig at Nehru’s policies which had failed the poor. And from the ’70s onwards, the parallel cinema, ironically enough often funded by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), was a trenchant critic of the government and social maladies. NFDC and its precursor, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), were set up not only to provide finance to the film industry but also to prop it up as a vehicle for nation-building and its films ensued pro-establishment, one assumes that the government’s definition of nation-building cinema back then was more rounded.
The next phase of Indian cinema constitutes the reversion of themes from the poor, feeble man to the urban working-class society. The storyline transformed to a larger extent. By the early 1970s, the backbone of the cinema was a musical comedy, underworld mafias of Bombay, cunning villains, and love stories of protagonists divergent in their economic status. The characters had a personality that bears the traits of a hero, who is sterling in the art of dancing, to the rhythm of the music to punching and kicking, and acting as a savior to the ‘damsel in distress’. Movies like Aradhana (1969), Deewar (1975), Zanjeer (1973), Sholay (1975) mark this period. This can be interpreted as the birth of ‘commercial Bollywood’, which was charged with elements of action, comedy, musical, melodrama, and the point of convergence being the male heroes, leaving a spinet of place for the evolution of the female protagonists. The Bollywood heroine had lost her strength and space to the hero.
The 80s witnessed the most diverse shift in thematic representation. The science-fiction made its appearance on the big screen with Mr. India (1987) starring Anil Kapoor and Sridevi. Quayamat se Quamat Tak, Jo Jeeta wohi Sikandar, Maine pyaar kiya, Baazigar and other rom-coms dominated the screen in that era.
The last phase began in the early 2000s to the cinema of today. The major change that these movies depict is the 21st-century human race; a concoction of human misery, mirth, escapades, simplicity of domestic life, visual effects, global appeal, the desire for realism, and the lack of utopia which had been previously given splendid importance.
With the introduction of web series, and world cinema, India has definitely woken up from its dream vacation in an Indian ecstasy to the innate feelings of a protagonist and there has been a great emphasis on the storyline, the cinematography, the power of its actors to maintain the attention of the audience through their hearty performance. Irrefutably, Indian cinema saw undaunted, courageous filmmakers who forged stories that defied social taboos, and the questions of homosexual relationships, illicit affairs in full fledge embracement during the millennial age.
Padman, Dangal, Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku – every and each one of this masterpiece shows the way frame of mind can be shattered, and the changing vigor of Indian cinema, its growth from its pithy, narrow circle. Women are now cast as protagonists, and sexual orientation is not a matter of discomfort anymore.
Also, the evolution of the Indian film industry has been brewing through the easy adoption of technology. This can be seen in the visual effects-rich films such as Krrish, Ra.One and the latest magnum opus, Bahubaali: The Conclusion. This has channelized a surge of improvement in storytelling, scriptwriting, and special effects skills to newer frontiers and is a reflection of the evolving standards of Indian cinema.
Recently, a new flow has come into the industry through some respective directors and actors who are ready to pick a socially relevant topic that could benefit our society. Now movies are no longer just a simple source of entertainment, but again a medium of government to highlight its policies and achievements, that it believes so strongly, no other form of media can communicate well enough. Screenplays now follow government decisions and the regime’s endeavors are crafted to produce results on the silver screen. It is hard to know if the policy follows the script or the script directs the policies. The Modi government, when it comes to choosing the medium spreads its largesse evenly, from silver screen to television.
The current nation-building pact between Bollywood and the government stems not only from the thin-skinniness of the present regime and its troll militia’s attacks on contrarian films and film-makers but also its understanding of cinema. This kind of thinking, fine for Films Division documentaries, effectively reduces cinema to a PowerPoint presentation. Whether encompassing nation-building or not, Bollywood should maybe start focusing again on cinema-building cinema.