A social anthropologist eager to understand Indian society would do well to look at its commercial cinema. Few creative expressions mirror its social mores more accurately. While theatre, art, poetry and literature make for interesting commentary, they are still too niche. For what the masses think, feel, dream and lust for, there is no better than the canny Bollywood director.
For long Bollywood (along with regional commercial cinema) has reflected the ideology of its time. Post-Partition Nehruvian socialism was a cozy handmaiden to the Khwaja Ahmed Abbas-Raj Kapoor films of yore.
When the great showman produced the blockbuster Bobby in the mid-seventies, it was a message that India had got over its Partition hangover and was in the first flush of its teenage years. Romance, poppycock songs and lyricism were the mood of the nation.
That phase reached its zenith with Rajesh Khanna and his saccharine lover-boy persona, only to be set aside when Salim-Javed sensed the angst of unfulfilled dreams, unemployment and a general air of restlessness in the country’s youth and gave us Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man” character in Deewar.
Other shifts in the nation’s mood such as the economic reforms and globalisation found reflection in the multiplex cinema of Yash Chopra and Karan Johar. The empowering of women meant better roles for the likes of Vidya Balan, Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, and the tapori characters pointed to the rise of the immigrant in urban centres like Mumbai.
Given India’s symbiotic relationship with its commercial movies what can we make of the recent controversy about the lyrics of Prakash Jha’s latest offering, Chakravyuh?
For those who came in late, the film has attracted a lot of attention for a song whose lyrics are “Birla ho ya Tata, Ambani ho ya Bata/ Sabne apne chakkar mein desh ko hai kaata/ Are humre hi khoon se inka/ Engine chale dhakadhak” (Be it Birla or Tata, Ambani or Bata/ Everyone has exploited the nation for his or her own benefit/ Their engine runs on our blood.).
Jha, who has made an art form of attracting controversy for his anti-establishment positions, was reported to have begun his film’s promotional campaign with a pugnacious battle cry saying that his film would carry a “claimer” announcing that the critique was “intentional”.
“Resemblances to real-life characters and incidents are intentional,” he is reported to have said. “I don’t wish to deny the historical perspective in Chakravyuh and have asked for an announcement, a ‘claimer’ as opposed to a ‘disclaimer’, because it is important to let the audience know that the political references in this film are not artificial,” reported one website.
Later when the Censor Board took objection to this slight he was heard mouthing the usual banal “the names used are generic and mean no offence, etc”. Be that as it may, the fact that some of India’s largest industrial groups have been identified as blood-sucking exploiters of the masses and that the film will go ahead and carry the offensive lyrics speaks volumes for the mood of the nation.
Millions spent on CSR, philanthropy, brand-building, PR and corporate communication cannot hide the fact that the anger on the streets is palpable.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org