In its fledgling days, the film industry in Bombay (now Mumbai) saw the life of legendary King Raja Harishchandra (1913) as the theme for its first full-length feature film. Over the next decade, epic texts Mahabharata and Ramayana, revered by a large majority of Indians, served as prominent content providers.
This changed over the next decades when the industry came firmly into the grip of two prominent groups – Communists and pan-Islamists. The language was primarily Hindi-Urdu.
During what is now hailed as the ‘golden period’ of the industry - that is, the 1940s and 50s - the left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), was heavily populating and influencing it. The IPTA was affiliated with the Communist Party of India.
Also prominent was a “Muslim Lahori” group, created by the presence of Abdul Rasheed Kardar. He is considered a pioneer of the Lahore film industry and set up production in Bombay in the 1940s.
He and his brother Mehboob Khan, who would later make the controversial Mother India (1957), went to Pakistan after the partition but returned to Bombay. Director Mohammed Sadiq (of 1960 Chaudhvin ka Chand, among others), singers Mohammed Rafi, Shamshad Begum and Noorjahan, music directors Jhandey Khan and Master Ghulam Haider, and lyricist Tanveer Naqvi were among other names from Lahore who shifted to Mumbai.
Some went to Pakistan after the partition, some moved but returned to Bombay, and some stayed back.
Post partition, a large number of film professionals migrated from Lahore to Bombay. This was due to two reasons: Lahore was ravaged by communal riots between Muslims and Hindu-Sikhs, and the future of an entertainment industry in a nation created in the name of Islam that looked down upon music, dance and photography, looked bleak.
These professionals had the advantage of functioning and producing content in the same language – Hindi-Urdu - that the Bombay-based industry primarily worked in. These included Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs such as Pran, Om Prakash, Jivan, Qamar Jalalabadi alias Om Prakash Bhandari, Chetan Anand, LS Johar, BR Chopra and Ramanand Sagar, who was a member of the left-leaning Progressive Writers Movement.
Any casual observer of Hindi-Urdu cinema would tell you that while themes from ancient Indian epic texts largely disappeared, those eulogising Muslim conquests in the sub-continent, along with social commentaries on evils of the caste system among Hindus and promotion of Nehruvian socialism and Gandhian secularism, came to dominate.
Mughal-e-Azam (1960) by Asif Karim, Syed Amir Haider Kamal Amrohi and Wajahat Mirza had dialogues glorifying Akbar’s lineage from Taimur Lung.
Wajahat Mirza, who wrote dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam as well as Mother India, also wrote Ganga Ki Saugandh (1978), which told the fictional tale of three villains – named ‘Thakur’, ‘Pandit’ and ‘Lala’ (baniya) – who oppress a Dalit Hindu named Kallu Chamar, played by Pran. The film’s only inclusive character is one Mohammed Rahmat. Mirza later shifted to Pakistan.
Around the same time as Mughal-e-Azam, Yash Chopra, younger brother of BR Chopra, directed two films on similar themes where he reversed the religions. Dhool Ka Phool (1959) told the story of a Muslim man who brings up an “illegitimate” child of a Hindu couple. He does so in a secular way (it featured the popular song, “tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega”).
On the other hand, Dharamputra, released two years later, showed a Hindu couple raising a Muslim boy, who grows up to be a Muslim-hating Hindu fanatic, played by Shashi Kapoor.
The industry developed and perfected certain themes that it repeated in one film after another and convinced at least three generations of Indians that they really did exist in society.
For instance, the Thakur-Baniya-Pandit nexus, comic qualities of Sanskrit, inherent art and wisdom in Urdu, the necessity to stalk women to win them over, ‘hawas ka pujari’, ‘ dhongi sadhu’, ‘manhoos Diwali’, ‘khoon ki Holi’, scolding given to murtis by hero, casual use of Quranic words with negative connotations such as kaafir, taunts on women by calling them ‘patthar ke sanam’ (idols of clay) and so on. These perhaps remain the original contributions of Bollywood.
In the 1970s, 80s and early nineties, films written by Kader Khan, Javed Akhtar-Salim Khan and Rahi Masoom Raza, among others, pushed a communal agenda while deriding Hindu culture and symbols. If Deewar showed Amitabh Bachchan refusing to enter Hindu temple or eat prasad but happily embracing ‘Billa number 786’, Awam showed Amar refusing to swear by Gita as a show of non-communalism. If Judaai showed Ashok Kumar tearing a copy of Ramayana to hide sugar cubes as a joke, Sapno ka Mandir showed a Muslim fakir saving the child of a Hindu couple after all temples and pandits fail.
Did citizens of a post-partitioned India who had experienced spectacular failure of Gandhian secularism and suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the communal beast that had been projected to them as a myth, not see through the problems in the content?
Were the themes, which were clearly biased against the Hindu nationalist movement that had risen over the last century, not noticed by the audience?
One may safely assume that if they did, they hardly had any avenue to express or highlight it.
At least since its ‘golden period’, Bollywood has functioned as a closed enterprise, with limited players at the helm of it. No wonder that after a generation or two, this model of the industry is attracting accusations of promoting “nepotism”.
Helped by lack of criticism from literary journals and publications that worked as allies, Bollywood became a massive influencer. People began taking inspiration from Bollywood icons on how they dressed or styled their hair, what names they gave to their children and how they approached the other sex.
Bollywood lingo became so pervasive that court orders till date mention rape as an act of “izzat lootna”. Perverts looking to sexually exploit women by faking love take them to the nearest temple, put sindoor in their hair and declare themselves married to get into bed with them.
Actors such as Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan became Demi-gods who were revered and imitated by millions.
The functioning of the industry remained so opaque that the average Bollywood “fan” knew his “stars” mostly from celebratory articles or flattering photographs. He considered the ‘hero’ of a film as undoubtedly a real-life one.
The real lives of actors, filmmakers and their crew members remained a mystery. So star-struck their ‘fans’ became that they taught themselves to ignore and rubbish any piece of information that revealed disturbing facets of their ‘stars’ and thus threatened to break their trance.
Accusations against the industry icons for suspected links with the Underworld, adultery, prostitution and money laundering flew thick from time to time, but would be killed instantly. In the 90s, all “stars” who were photographed meeting with and attending parties of wanted terrorist Dawood Ibrahim glided out of the controversy smoothly, unscathed.
It is entirely to the credit of the strong cultural foundations on which the Indian society has rested for ages that people could not be brainwashed beyond a point. Despite the blatant ideological agenda pushed by the D-company in its heydays, a critical movement like Ram Janmabhoomi happened. Throughout the 80s and 90s, films subtly pushed an anti-Ram propaganda and gradually upped the limit, but beyond a point, people did not accept its influence in personal domains such as religion.
So strong was the movement that it catapulted the political party that took a stand on it to power.
Yet, Bollywood has indeed remained the God of small and big things in India for several decades. However, nothing is permanent and so is the massive sway of the industry.
With the coming of the Internet, the audience got access to global culture and cinema. Bollywood was exposed as a serial plagiariser of everything from its music to movie plots and twists to camera work. People realised that if a piece of ‘art’ created by the industry was not complete trash, it was very likely plagiarised. In recent times, 2012 film Barfi!, which was initially well-received by the audience and was India’s official entry at the Oscars 2013, was trashed for blatant plagiarism when websites began posting the copied scenes.
It broke the hearts of many when they found out that many songs and dialogues they liked and drew their romantic and philosophical inspirations from were cheap copies of hard work done by their original creators abroad.
It was hard on their fans to learn that the famous ‘Chura liya hai tumne’ is lifted from ‘If it’s Tuesday’ and ‘Akele hain to kya gham hai’, which brought fame to Aamir Khan, is a note-by-note copy of a Shadows song.
Incidentally, ‘Akele hain…’ was from a home production of Aamir Khan. Aamir was the writer of the film and assisted his uncle in his direction. In simple words, it was unlikely that it was an act of ignorance. Interestingly, almost all of Aamir’s future films would feature plagiarism.
The emergence of the Internet and social media also ensured that the film-stars no more remained Gods who could be worshipped or appreciated only from a distance. Their human side came to the fore, even if they did not want it.
By this time, Bollywood stars were passing on the mantle to their second or third generation. The lives of these ‘star-kids’ were largely a disappointment to those who adored their parents and expected extraordinary things from their offspring.
The massive outrage against the Nirbhaya rape case in 2012, amplified by television media and turned into a household topic for discussions across the country, worked to sensitise people against anti-women crimes such as stalking, teasing and rape. The mindset that evolved out of the churn began to object to all signs leading to gender crimes.
This included the portrayal of stranger women as objects of sexual pleasure and ‘her no means yes’, a mindset consistently nurtured by Bollywood for several decades.
There is no doubt that the industry sensed the scrutiny it was under now and tried to change its ways. Themes of a hero winning his women through stalking and rape, drastically dropped down in the decade. A film like Kabir Singh (2019), which would easily pass off as an entertainer a decade earlier, was frowned upon for “glorifying toxic masculinity and stalking”.
After 2014, the schism got bigger. As the political order changed, ideological leanings began to be revealed more clearly. Bollywood icons began to present themselves as intellectuals – perhaps with the conviction that they could pass off as geniuses in real life much the same way they portrayed strong characters on screen, including doctors, scientists, college professors, secret agents and super-humans.
Twitter, where their ‘fans’ interacted with them directly, or at least could respond on the same platform as them, embarrassed these pseudo-intellectuals. Through social media, the common man now had the power to present the truth as effectively as any media oligopoly. Many went on to quit Twitter, including Aamir Khan, Uday Chopra and Sonakshi Sinha, citing “toxicity”. Some quit but returned, including Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Rishi Kapoor.
Social media turned the tide, and it was not in favour of Bollywood.
The placard campaign by Kareena Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar and Sonam Kapoor where they criticised the Kathua rape-murder case of a Muslim girl by highlighting the word “devi-sthan”, did not go well down with their audience. They hit back asking where were their placards for the gangrape of a minor Hindu girl in a madrassa during the same time as Kathua (the ‘Justice for Geeta’ campaign).
The ‘stars’ provided no answer. People now began confronting them on their plagiarised work, agenda-driven themes, hate against the Hindu nationalist movement, silence on crimes against Hindus, minority appeasement and promotion of stalking and paedophilia. Most recently, the silence of Bollywood icons on ‘sar tan se juda’ rallies against Nupur Sharma and the murders of Kanhaiya Lal and Umesh Kolhe has brought huge criticism their way. Amid this, when Ratna Pathak described Karwa Chauth as a festival manifesting social regression and religious conversation, people were furious.
The one-way nature of interfaith relationships between Hindu women and Muslim men, as predicted by BR Ambedkar ahead of partition in a book where he endorsed complete transfer of population, became a subject of intense outrage by people, giving rise to laws to check the phenomenon by several states. Bollywood, which either remained oblivious to the voices on ground or arrogantly dismissed those, produced a spate of high-profile films on the same theme including Toofaan, Indoo Ki Jawani, Laxmii and Kedarnath. The schism only increased.
The tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, considered an “outsider” in the industry as he was not a “star-kid”, created an anti-Bollywood movement on social media. The triggers were the emergence of alleged drug cartels and a cold response by most prominent names in the industry.
The movement saw several smaller players from Bollywood coming out to speak against the dark realities of the industry, proving to be the proverbial last straw to break the camel’s back.
Today, Bollywood is in deep crisis even if some industry stalwarts, in their arrogance and disconnect with the ground, refuse to see it. People today have countless alternatives for entertainment. They have access to better-quality world cinema where they get originality. They feel embarrassed when they see that Bollywood’s quality has been dismal, compared with films from even poorer countries.
They can ignore Bollywood and yet have no dearth of options to entertain themselves.
The back-to-back failure of large-budgeted, high-profile films such as 83, Jersey, Bachchan Pandey, Heropanti 2, Shamshera and Samrat Prithviraj has been noticed by all. Prithviraj tanked despite government support and tax-free status in several states because the audience, most likely, rebelled against real-life aspects of actor Akshay Kumar who they felt is opportunistic.
Aamir’s statement given during the promotion of the controversial PK that those whose sentiments were hurt could ignore the film, and Kareena’s statement during the nepotism debate that no one forced people to watch ‘stars’ like her, came back to haunt them during the release of Laal Singh Chaddha.
The recent debacle involving the film confirmed the fears that calls to boycott Bollywood on social media could have a real impact. However, many continue to remain in denial. Kareena Kapoor was recently quoted by media as saying that the boycott calls were limited to “one percent” of social media. Anurag Kashyap and Tapsee Pannu, who though entered the industry as outsiders but played along, were recently seen joking about the public anger, laughing that they too wanted to be boycotted.
Coupled with the fact that a common man can build muscles and appear as presentable and attractive as them, film-stars are just not as popular as they used to be.
The spectacular success of The Kashmir Files, a low-budget film helmed by Vivek Agnihotri, along with Hindi-Urdu dubbed versions of Kannada and Telugu-language films such as KGF, Pushpa: The Rise and RRR, has proved that it is not cinema that people have turned against. Smaller filmmakers too have met with great success with films and web series for OTT platforms by telling simple stories such as Panchayat, which gave a refreshing break to the audience from the perpetual guilt-trip.
A survey conducted by Duolingo – one of the most popular language-learning app – found that Korean is the fastest growing foreign language that Indians are choosing to learn. This has been driven primarily by Korean web-series and films, which though not as grand in scale and full of antics as Bollywood, excel as good, original cinema.
A director in Bollywood told us privately that if the trend continues, they may end up making only Ram Katha and Krishna Charitra. The condescending tone used for the themes told us that he had still not learnt his lessons.
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