Bollywood-isation of the Hindi Formula Film – Changing Cinema For Changing Times

Today the Hindi commercial cinema is known as Bollywood rhymed with Hollywood, a name by which the American film industry is known. Hollywood is a neighbourhood in Los Angeles, in the state of California in the USA, which has a concentration of film studios and residences of directors, film stars, producers and writers. Bollywood, therefore is derived from Bombay, also to indicate a plethora of such film personalities who live in the city now called Mumbai. Similarly Kollywood means Kerala cinema, Tollywood means the essentially Bengali cinema produced out of studios of Kolkata that are mainly located in Tollygunje and Lollywood means Lahore cinema and so on. But the term Bollywood used for the Hindi commercial cinema has a few interesting connotations which takes into account some sweeping changes that have taken place in the Hindi commercial cinema ever since 1995, the release of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, a period that also corresponded to the opening up of the Indian economy to global markets which, in turn brought about a radical change in the nature of the Indian state and its policies towards its citizens. The predominant popular culture, namely the Hindi commercial cinema too changed and Bollywood became a new way of making, circulating and consuming the entertainment cinema produced out of Mumbai.

The main points of difference between the Hindi cinema and Bollywood is that while the former was consumed by a substantial portion of the underclass along with the middle class, Bollywood today is mainly consumed by the middle classes. Hindi cinema was famous for its appeal to the masses, the chavanni chhap, a term that indicated viewers who stamped the cheapest tickets at 25 paisa to sit in the front row; today’s Bollywood typically release in plush multiplexes serving expensive food stuff where the main profits come from selling popcorn than from the sale of tickets. The multiplex is an entire lifestyle with its food stalls, advertisement kiosks, American corn counters and uniformed staff, a veritable hospitality centre into which film watching is located. The film is ensconced in such an environment of being an out of reality experience. Bollywood films are sleeker with sensibilities to suit a social class that has not had to struggle for survival as the earlier social class of intended film viewers of the Hindi cinema were supposed to be. Bollywood’s intended viewers are persons who are already there but now has to belong to the class of the super powerful and the super rich. Bollywood’s intended viewers are those of the creamiest of the creamy layers of the society who have had an upward mobility from the upper middle class into that class of the corporate crorepatis where professional acumen wins enough money to translate into political power. While there was a time when film stars would join politics to encash on one’s popularity as a film star, today’s politicians seek Bollywood stars to strengthen legitimacy among the masses.

Further, Bollywood cinema concentrates now on designer homes, super expensive coffee shops, exotic tourist destinations, all in a way to promote a life style. Gone are the days when exotic locations were natural sceneries from various countries and lifestyles portrayed were often contrasts between the one that the protagonist had and the other that the villain possessed; usually modest for the former, and ostentatious for the latter. Wealth was looked down upon as something immoral and bad, probably because of the socialistic ethics that guided Indian politics ever since Independence to economic liberalization. But after economic liberalization, the abashment about opulence waned off and what came in its place was the pursuit of wealth as an indication of macho power. Leadership, nationalism, masculinity, power and wealth all rolled into the ideals of the middle class to pursue in the neo liberal politics in which corporate houses and state power confound while the media, also controlled by the corporate houses tries to produce a non critical consensus. Bollywood also reflects this ideology of consensus distracting audiences into issues around romance, friendship and fidelity. Since the time when Bollywood was born with the release of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in 1995, the genre itself has changed from the family where ageing parents were the unquestioned bosses into films of “different flavor” where individuals, often shown as rootless and alienated persons were the protagonists and thus dissociating the individual from the family and opening her to a further control by media generated ideals.

Apropos to the above, the media, namely the newspaper and the television has “lifestyle” exposures, with fashion, cookery, eating out, home furnishings with large supplements of film personalities thrown in. Celebrities also express their minds in forty character “tweets” in social networking sites, and those appear as marquee in the television news channels during Breaking News ! This is in sharp contrast to the earlier stars of the Hindi cinema where they led such sequestered lives that one had to spend days and even years trying to “catch” an interview with them. The value of Hindi film stars was in their invisibility beyond the frames of the cinema; today’s celebrities must be seen more in the outside world than as actors in cinema screens. The stars are seen at award functions, as hosts of reality television shows, as live endorsers of commercial products and brands and auction their company as dining companions of “ordinary men and women” for money ! They are also known to “sell” their statuses by being esteemed guests at wedding parties albeit at a huge price from the hosts. Sometimes, real estate companies have celebrities as neighbours to raise premiums. Film stars are now cookie points which you can buy if you have the money and move up the social ladder, the new form of Sankritization, a process by which people who had come into riches could buy their way into the upper caste by imitating their customs and rituals.

Bollywood is more technically intense, though it is definitely smaller in scale than the Hindi cinema. One cannot have a Mughal-e- Azam nor a Sholay, Bollywood has the money, the talent, the resources but no longer has the canvas of the mind that the makers of such large films had. There can no longer be the sacrifice of Mother India, nor the tragedy of Deewaar; there can never be a Meena Kumari in Kareena Kapoor, nor can Devdas be as in Shah Rukh as Dilip Kumar has been. Bollywood productions can be sleek and smart, but never with the passion of the Hindi cinema. Hindi cinema stars would read scripts for the emotions in them; Bollywood stars read the script to understand the attitude of the characters. This makes a huge difference in the scale, where Bollywood is about actors, while Hindi cinema was about stars. No wonder then the Bollywood actors are more of celebrities, by dint of familiarity of faces and a lifestyle of opulence, always creating a distance between them and wannabes of good life. The lifestyle of the celebrities are posited as ideals that people must follow, leading us to a path of consumerism and social competition often making us fall into the traps of debts by those very financiers who also lend to cinema.

A reckoning of a few remakes of Bollywood blockbusters will help us understand this problem better. Let us take the films Don (1978) and Don (2006). The former was a film starring Amitabh Bachchan in a double role. As Don, he was a lethal and merciless character; as Vijay he was simple and rustic. Don dies but the police officer wants to put Vijay in Don’s place so that he (Vijay) can play a Trojan Horse in Don’s gang and help the police to bust it. Don is then the figure, dangerous but absent while Vijay the simpleton has to impersonate him. The greatest idea of the film was to have Vijay “catch” Don as he continuously tries to emulate him and learn his manners. The entire film is based on a rhythm, the rhythm of the lead star, Amitabh Bachchan. The rhythm of Don is generated basically by Amitabh’s running away from his enemies and the police. There is a lot of running that Vijay does, from Roma who wants to kill him, the gang to know that he is a police decoy, the police who think that he is the real Don and metaphorically, Vijay too chases Don as an image as he tries to become the same man. This rhythm is replicated in Helen’s cabaret, in Roman’s dance and in the famous songs Main Hon Don and Khaike Paan Benarasiwallah. The film Don helped to explore Amitabh Bachchan’s “body” as a star and this went a long way in establishing him as the superstar that he was. The film also integrated the two aspects of Amitabh – one the cold, rational, calculative and strategic inaccessible man, and the other as a comic, light hearted simple soul into a single character. The music of Don was the binding factor that connected the frames, piece by piece into the totality of the film. The characters of Don supported the central character played by Amitabh Bachchan as Don and drew their distinct personas from being a part of the whole the whirled around the central but now absent character of the dead Don, thought to be alive. Kamal Kapoor as Narang, Pran as Jasjit, Satyen Kapoor as Inspector Verma, and above all Om Shivpuri as the smooth Interpol officer, Shetty as Shakaal, Mc Mohan as Ma, Helen as Kamini, Zeenat as Roma and Iftekar as the DSP, D’Silva are characters that are brilliantly etched in the mind as one recalls the film. But in the new version, these characters have nothing to define them.

The new film Don (2206) is made out of the “feelings” that one gets by watching Don; it is a viewer’s response to the original film. The director Farhan Akhtar is the new age director while its writer is his father and also as Javed Akhtar, one of the Salim-Javed duo who wrote the original Don. The new Don is an exercise in suavity, and serves to show how suave the actor Shah Rukh Khan has been, but unlike in the original Don in which the director establishes a core attribute, namely the body rhythm of the star, Amitabh Bachchan, in the new Don, the director tries to establish Shah Rukh Khan in a certain kind of attitude, smart, suave, elegant and yet ruthless. Since the new Don did nothing to the “body” of Shah Rukh Khan, its music failed to create any impact except appear as a remix. Besides, the music was the main stay of the original film, and its use by a later film without the images thrown up in a similar rhythm made the new Don fall a bit flat. Besides, the crux of Don lay in its music and beat; a beat that was centrifugal absorbing free floating episodes and characters into the centrality of form. The centrality of form emerged from the lead character Don, who commanded and controlled everything and had the power to do so.

In the new production, Don (2006), Don was played by Shah Rukh Khan. The image of Shah Rukh, unlike that of Amitabh Bachchan is not one who orders chaotic masses, not one whose power extends to bring things lying at the margins into the centrality of concern. The crux of Shah Rukh’s power does not lie in ordering or centralizing; his power lies in extending his will to areas beyond his reach. While Amitabh’s movement is from the outer to the inner, or strengthening an inner core to absorb more of the outside world into the inner core of his ideas of perfection, Shah Rukh’s movement is from the inner to the outer, restlessness that wants him to be everywhere and with everyone all the time. This makes Shah Rukh’s image one of panning out, becoming less dense and lighter as it spreads over progressively extended areas. The idea of Shah Rukh as Don is Don being physically present everywhere, while the idea of Amitabh as Don is to have a dense centre with his “men” working under his centralized command. When the Don indeed disguises as the taxi driver to kill the runaway Ramesh, in case of Amitabh, it becomes lethal because the great Don has unseated himself to deliver the fatal blow, but in case of Don as Shah Rukh Khan, it is not a shock because that’s how he generally is.

In Amitabh’s Don, Don had to die and Vijay had to find him. This is in tune with the essence of Amitabh’s image which transforms, breaks, dissolves and finds itself anew. Shah Rukh’s image is one of self-preservation, one who persists, prevails and pursues. Such an image knows no transformation and hence he could not pull off in his version of Don, the essence of Amitabh’s Don, of finding Don afresh through Vijay. Don (1978) was the rediscovery of Don through Vijay, an opportunity for revisitation. In Shah Rukh’s Don, it was to revel in the tricks of the original Don, who in the former version was already defined and set aside as if in a sanctum sanctorum, to be explored and investigated. The music of Don was born out of moments of the original version and hence fell flat in the later one. Farhan Akhtar wants to make yet another version of Don, only possible with the profanized image of Shah Rukh Khan as Don. In the original version with Amitabh Bachchan, Don was sacred, one who could not be repeated and one who no longer remained in the grips of the profane world to be manipulated or even be killed!

It is only obvious that the two versions made at two different points of time should express the ethos of their ages. In the original version, there is an attempt at control and command, a sense of individual agency, a finiteness of space and a connectedness of characters as if the film is a jigsaw puzzle, or a kaleidoscope where a strong and steady pattern forms each time out of the pieces. In the later versions, the character goes out and like Alice in Wonderland meets characters all of whom look warped and jaded as if in a Mad Hatter’s tea party. The difference in form indicates the changes in the politics of then and of now. The post liberalization age of India has been individuating, isolating given to competition and self gratification; it is an age when one has to run very hard just to stay in place. This age spells a huge crisis for the middle class for who the world has become fast moving and uncertain. The age before now was one of nationalism, with a leaning towards socialistic ideals when redistribution was a preferred to growth and when it was possible for the individual to negotiate and bargain with the powers that constrained him. In such a situation, the individual had more power to order the world according to an idea and this lent to cinema, a consistent form, a kind of closure and compactness where events came to their logical conclusion and everything contingent seemed to be able to be controlled and contained in the film as well as believed to be so in life.  Such a polity exuded the power of the institution which in turn gave the individual her power through her position as an incumbent in the institutions. Such a political economy notwithstanding various barriers to social mobility was nonetheless stable and the rules of its games unchanging and certain. The age as this was an age in which it made sense for the individual to dissolve herself and die as a martyr, seek self redemption through retribution and renunciation, because this was an age of preservation when individualism had a value and hence death also have one.

The political economy of liberalization on the other hand is a release of the constraints on the individual. The free reigns to private enterprises and private profits may seem to unbridle individualism yet it appears that everywhere neo-liberalism actually isolates and decentres the individual. This is because the State has given way to the market and the individual who used to define herself vis-à-vis the rather tangible constraints on her now finds herself anchorless. The loss of the tangible forces of the State and its institutions has given the individual a loss of her boundaries and as she seeks these boundaries she extends herself, expanding endlessly, losing her centre, her origins, floating away, sometimes without aim. This is exactly how Shah Rukh Khan appears as Don in a sharp contrast to the well defined, well-bounded and definitive image of Don essayed by Amitabh Bachchan. The difference in the two versions of Don tells us of two conditions of individualism between a nationtalist and socialistic system and a neoliberal polity.

We will now turn to Devdas (1955) and Devdas ( 2002), one in which the lead role is played by Dilip Kumar and the other in which Shah Rukh Khan plays Devdas. The differences between the two versions are glaring. The former is soft hued and soft spoken while the latter is loud and garish. Devdas portrayed by Dilip Kumar is a man who is tragic because he has nothing to mourn for; Devdas portrayed by Shah Rukh Khan seems to make an exhibition of his state and finds an occasion to mourn at everything. The latter’s sorrow rises when he sees Chunnibabu, or his family servant, or Chandramukhi. Shah Rukh’s Devdas is a man who has been bereaved. Dilip Kumar’s Devdas is a character who is moving about in a vacuum. Interestingly, Devdas of Dilip Kumar’s tragedy is drawn from the fact that all constraints have been removed from him because Paro, his beloved is married off to another man. In case of Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal of Devdas, he mourns through a sense of still holding on to Paro. Relationships appear to be better defined in the earlier version and hence the sense of vacuum once such relationships dissolve. In the later versions, absence of Paro, is itself a relationship and hence Devdas, emerges from a vacuum into a definitive state through his pining for Paro. While Dilip Kumar’s portrayal could appeal to a society where relationships were firmly defined and hence the undoing of ties meant so much of a vacuum, Shah Rukh’s portrayal of Devdas happened in an age where individuals were relatively free from binding ties and at least craving for Paro became an anchor in the character’s life. While Dilip Kumar’s Devdas sank more and more into himself, becoming denser by the moment like a collapsed star moving towards a black hole that would son draw every moment of the film into the star persona, in Shah Rukh’s version, the star emerges above everyone else through his obsessive attachment to a woman who is not his. A much later production called Dev D, a modern reinterpretation of the almost mythical Devdas, the protagonist moves out of Paro, into Chandramukhi, finding in the latter, a new way of life and a new experience. In the above versions of Devdas, we find that in the former, the individual is defined through a web of relationships, the loss of which sinks him into a vacuum, while in the latter instance, the individual has no stable relationships and finds one to define himself with, namely that of his unfulfilled love, Paro.

There are also differences between how unrequited love is dealt with in the two ages. In the former case, unfulfilled love represented the greatest tragedy of the characters; in the latter period, it became a reason for obsessive behavior. Dilip Kumar in Devdas and Andaz, Raj Kapoor in Teesri Kasam, Waheeda Rahman in Khamoshi were characters who lost their loves. These tragic images contrast sharply with Shah Rukh Khan in Darr, Anjam and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Imran Hashmi in Murder. The succinct sense of tragedy in the age of liberalization is replaced by unrequited love turning into an obsession. Clearly, the sorrow of the age of liberalization is no longer in relationships but in success or failure. Hence when Karz, a film made in 1980 was revisited by yet another film called Om Shanti Om in 2007, the character, unlike in Karz was less pained by his wife’s betrayal and instead felt humiliated because he was never given a chance to become a hero in films. The pain of neo-liberal cinema is not of relationships but of victory and defeat, where relationships are trophies to be savoured. This is why when Karz was remade in 2008 along the lines of the original film in 1980, it fell flat, because relationships no longer define individuals at present than what they used to do. The difference is due to the way individuals and the various constraints on them have been redefined in liberalization.

One of the greatest fall out of neo liberalism’s freeing of the individual from her ties that bind is the rise of Aamir Khan’s brand of films namely Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots where the pain of our times have been located and articulated, namely in success and failure. Both such films are about succeeding or not succeeding and the pains of failure. Similarly, in Chak De India, the protagonist, the hockey coach, once again played by Shah Rukh Khan is pained at not only failing to win the gold medal in the World Cup but also being branded as a minority. Failure to win and non performance constitutes his tragedy and not relationships.

The change in the nature of tragedy in cinema reflects the change in the priorities of the society. Indeed, not love nor passion drives people in neoliberalism, but the pursuit of success. This makes the entertainment cinema lose what we had always known as its formula. The formula of the Hindi cinema was about individual agency, efforts of the human beings to overcome their constraints and move towards their goals, the goals being defined by the large body of intertextually related works produced under the banner of commercial cinema from studios of Mumbai and Chennai. The fact of goals being defined and created by the interrelatedness of works towards which individuals must progress and thus insisting on a Hegelian linearity of character consistent protagonists of cinema can only be the formula of a society which is limited but certain in its outcomes. The Hindi cinema thus develops through its protagonist, a critique of the entrenched powers of the society and a theory of constraints that do not allow individuals to climb up social ladders despite the Constitution of Independent India mandating an open society with equal opportunities for all. Needless to say that the Hindi cinema was born out of the Freedom Struggle when the nation was imagined as a universal space in which individuals would exist as individuals beyond those socio-economic particularities of class, caste and creed that defined them and constrained their life chances. The individual was to become free under the aegis of a panoptic State and hence should fight her/his traditions that promoted superstitions, prejudices and preconceptions. The Hindi film critiqued the society from the standpoint of a rationalist, secular and humanist discourse with large supplements of socialistic ideals of equality and redistribution.

However, when economic liberalization took place, apropos to the neo-liberal State everywhere else in the world, the Indian State too was to withdraw as an economic presence and a moral force. It became corporatist in the sense that its expenditure had to be limited through its revenues and this resulted in a large scale and almost shrinking back of the State as a force that ordered the society and economy. Free enterprise, mindless pursuit of private gains and the collapse of institutions of welfare threw the individual into the open sea of ruthless competition. For a while, through the films of Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar, the cinema tried to set the large Indian joint family as a support system which very soon collapsed under the weight of a contrary Indian reality in which growing demands for increased income made families greedier and selfish. The formula of the family that survived on socialization and social bonding proved to be economically beyond bounds for most Indians in a system in which income inequalities were only increasing.

As the income gaps became wider and the ideology of equality and upward social mobility continued, there emerged a spate of imitative practices by which the lesser endowed classes in the society could “copy” styles of the better ones and hence disguise themselves as elites that they definitely were not. Soon, the insignia of fashion, perfumes, gaits, hairdo, perfumes and models of mobile phones became markers of social status which in turn helped people to find employment and develop contacts for businesses. The “showy” culture of the Indian society necessitated by the needs of the economic forces of its times pushed the cinema of Bollywood into becoming lifestyle statements. Films like Wake Up Sid, or Oye Lucky Oye and even Dev D explored emotions that were new to cinema but very relevant for the times in which we live.

The individual who apparently is free in a neoliberal State is unfortunately rather unfree because of the various uncertainties in employment and income that she faces. She has to always run in search of employment most of which do not last for more than a few years at best and a few months at least. This instability of employment and income has made the individual acquire a rather tentative self identity and self image; the decline of stardom is an outcome of the decline of a consistent self image of the individual. One of the greatest fall-out of the loss of character consistency is the collapse of the typical song and dance routine. Songs that for the Hindi cinema would emerge out of the story, articulating its moods and discourses have become “item numbers” in Bollywood, being used out of the context of the story and as an addendum more like a garnishing rather than the spices.

In today’s world there are no stable jobs and hence no assured income streams for individuals. Unlike in the days before liberalization, individuals looked for stability in employment, in today’s world; stability means stagnation and often stable poverty. Therefore, individuals would want to hit the jackpot, get huge chunks of money which would then be invested for good returns. The idea of speculative windfalls that can be translated into rental income and in all of this, there is little ends-means relationship of profits to work. The crux of modernity that was based upon returns to labour and which constituted the core of the Hindi film’s morality today makes way for “smarter” people, with supercilious manners and little sense of power of work. Hence Bollywood produces smart alecs, wit, suavity and evasive characters those who know how to manipulate, dodge and slip away; but as creators of social orders taking charge of one’s life they seem to have outlived their age. The characteristics that Bollywood seem to develop in direct contradiction to the constituents of a Hindi cinema formula is thus in response to the neoliberal state in a globalised economy that make nations based on socialism and equality things of the past.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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