Avijit Ghosh’s book, Cinema Bhojpuri is a veritable encyclopedia of the Bhojpuri cinema. Bhojpur, signifying the large stretch of land covering Eastern Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar along the banks of the Ganges has had a distinct past and a rich culture of myths, beliefs, folklore and poetry. Upon all such cultural assemblage and aspirations of the people for a better life, Bhojpuri cinema, almost unattended by the national media is growing from strength to strength defying the Hindi cinema as representation of India as a nation.
Bhojpuri is usually associated with the uneducated, backward, country bumpkin steeped in tradition and superstition who lives in penury in the countryside or into the slums of cities pulling rickshaws and working at construction sites. To the Indian mind, Bhojpur has no geographical identity except as the back and beyond of India where thakurs reign, Dalits are beaten up, girls raped and whose art is cheap and obscene. Avijit Ghosh’s book on the popular cinema emanating from this region strikes at these misconceptions of the urbanized middle class Indian. A close reading of Avijit Ghosh’s book reveals that Bhojpuri cinema, like the Hindi commercial cinema and the popular cinema of every region in India has the same melodramatic form of boy and girl, romance, despair, home, family, separation and reunion. Yet there are enormous differences between a Bhojpuri cinema and a Hindi film precisely because of the different ways that self hood of the Indian is constructed in the context of the regional and the pan-Indian culture respectiveky. Bhojpuri cinema appeals the viewer in her vernacular identity rather than in her pan-Indian one and the recent success of the Bhojpuri cinema shows that the people of this geographical area are seeking to return back to their communities despite an all time high outmigration from this region. The Hindi film industry and the Bhojpuri industry have overlaps in terms of directors, composers, writers and actors, indicating that apart from the lure of quick returns from this industry, the Indian somewhere wants to return back to her cultural particulars, exhausted from playing the part of a universal citizen rising above identities rooted in the soil.
As the author takes us through some of the major hits over the years, we find that the films have angst and which sometimes becomes an open lament and at other times remains unspoken trusting the viewer to make her own conclusions. This angst is the low level of social development and the poor infrastructure development that make people leave their homes either due to social oppression or economic penury and most often for both. While the Hindi film protagonist quickly engages with the state imagining a strong state that will protect individuals, Bhojpuri cinema appeals to the sense of community, to the love for the soil, and very often for the river Ganga, unbroken in its course since time immemorial to redeem the individual. Many films have Ganga in their titles implying the attachment of the simple folk to this river signifying not the post colonial sovereignty, or the modern democracy but an unbroken tradition that is as old as folk memory. The folk has a strong theme in the films of this industry and the best shots are those that are keen to the details of the everyday life ordinarily led. Yet the Bhojpuri cinema is neither conservative nor traditional. It fights caste, oppression, narrow minded bigotry, communalism on the one hand and also arrogance of wealth and education and the over confidence of the city bred on the other. It wants a life of undemanding bliss, amongst the familiar surroundings with certainties of simple things in life. Despite the apparent similarities of Bhojpuri cinema and the Hindi cinema, the former is far less aspirational than the latter.
Bhojpuri cinema is not a poor man’s Hindi film especially since collections in many cases have exceeded those from Hindi releases and film stars have more devoted and dedicated following than the Hindi film stars. The author also says that the much derided Bhojpuri cinema has shown greater propensity towards realistic cinema than the much hyped Bollywood has ever done. The author divided Bhojpuri cinema into three broad periods. The first between 1962 and 1969, the second between 1977 and 2000 and the third is the present one which especially after 2004 is fast emerging into the reckoning. Theatre halls that show Bhojpuri films mostly refuse Aamir Khan blockbusters like 3 Idiots or Taare Zammen Par and other glossy productions that do not have the feel of touching the wet earth. The appeal of Bhojpuri cinema may be melodramatic but it is definitely laced with more realism than Bollywood ever has been.
The career graph of Bhojpuri cinema follows an interesting pattern because if the vagaries of this industry is plotted against the vagaries of the Hindi cinema, then it will be apparent that the success of Hindi cinema and Bhojpuri cinema are inversely related hinting at the fact that Bhojpuri cinema has resisted the Hindi film. Sociologically and politically speaking, Bhojpuri cinema seems to be Bharat’s assertion against India. When the author discusses the first major Bhojpuri film namely, Ganga Maiya Tohe.. one cannot but help notice that Yash Chopra’s recent release Laaga Chunari Mein Daag as late as 2008, starring Rani Mukherjee and Konkona Sen Sharma as a frame by frame copy of the former film. One wonders what made Yash Chopra revisit a theme almost unique to Bhojpuri cinema. As the author discusses the various personalities in the Bhojpuri industry we find a repeat of familiar names like S.N.Triparthi and Chitragupt, Hemant Kumar, Ghulam Mohammad and C Ramchandra among the composers, Shailendra, Majrooh Sultanpuri among the lyricists, Suman Kalyanpur, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi and Talat Mehmood among the singers, and Padma Khanna, Naz, Anita Guha and Sujit Kumar among the actors. And what is most interesting in this assertion is that box-office returns have always lured people from Kolkata, Gujarat and the southern states to participate in the growth of this industry which has thrived without government succor or media attention implying that the Bhojpuri cinema, though a regional one is by no means any less cosmopolitan that Bollywood. However, Rakesh Paney, Manoj Tiwari, Ravi Kishe and Sabiha Sheikh alias Rani Chatterjee are the industry’s exclusive stars. Indeed, Mauritius which is home to indentured labour from Bihar and eastern UP during the colonial rule is a second home to Bhojpuri cinema.
After the middle of the 1980’s, Bhojpuri cinema appears to have become a force to reckon with. This is due to the large number of persons from this region who have migrated to other parts of India where faced with poverty, poor living conditions, culture shock and political attacks especially in Maharashtra, there is a sense of identity among the people. Lalu Yadav’s open support to Bhojpuri cinema and the conversion of the intellectuals on its side tells us that Bhojpuri cinema is going to matter in Indian media, entertainment and politics as never before. The author however notes that not all is well with an expanding viewer base of the cinema and the use of the cinema not to imagine a better society but to assert a particularist identity is leading many directors descend towards the obscene and low brow.