Bollywood toasts the great Indian middle class

Last Updated: Mon, May 28, 2007 03:15 hrs

Movie moguls are courting the burgeoning Indian middle class like never before, making ordinary lives fodder for real-life situations in films like "Iqbal", "Khosla Ka Ghosla", "Metro" and forthcoming "Swami".

The Mumbai studio-based Hindi film industry has been endeavouring to rid itself of bias against the ordinary person. While scriptwriters are struggling to make the next pan-India hit masala movies out of day-to-day life, smatterings of plausible scenes and situations in a spate of recent films give hope.

No more are movies about heartaches of sons and daughters of business tycoons and little upheavals in their picture-perfect lives. Protagonists in Bollywood flicks these days have a range of salaried jobs, live in believable homes and use public transport more often.

"Ekalavya", this year's only film set in a royal palace, found no sympathisers for the trial faced by its lead actor Saif Ali Khan. But when Saif came onscreen as a car racer facing financial strife in Yash Raj Films' "Ta Ra Rum Pum", audiences loved him.

Says media-savvy producer-director Pooja Bhatt: "Audiences want to see people just like themselves on the screen and are elated when the underdog succeeds. Look at 'Iqbal'. It is the story of an underdog who makes it big in spite of all odds."

Nearly all small-budget, multiplex-targeted films that have managed to make money at the box-office were middle class-inspired stories. Not so long ago, Bollywood was routinely accused of promoting upper class lifestyles, with stars sporting foreign labels and romping in foreign locales.

Though Bollywood will continue to play to an even wealthier, urban upper middle class in India and an ever-growing population of NRIs globally, it is taking tiny steps to connect with the urban middle class and rural youth.

The efforts come just in time. US news magazine Newsweek says in its May 28 issue that India's middle class will reshape global markets in the next two decades.

Citing new research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), it says within a generation, the country will become a nation of upwardly mobile middle-class households, consuming goods ranging from high-end cars to designer clothes.

New scripts in Bollywood are clearly a reflection of the growing might of the Indian middle class.

As the culture of multiplexes in India spreads to small cities and towns the trend is set to grow. The resounding success of "Bunty Aur Babli", "Rang De Basanti" and "Guru" that found favour across classes and the rural-urban divide are an indication of the times to come.

Going by Hindi cinema's past record, it is a wonder why middle class ever lost favour with dream merchants. Over decades, as various pressures transformed India, the middle class forced the country to alter its social, political and economic vision. And Hindi cinema has, through the decades, tracked all these changes.

The 1946-69 was the idealistic era reflected by films like "Dharti Ke Phool", "Neecha Nagar", "Boot Polish" and "Naya Daur". Then came films like "Uski Roti", "Sheher Aur Sapna", and "Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan" talked about the death of economic idealism.

Amitabh Bachchan's "Zanjeer" in 1973 portrayed the first-ever middle class anti-hero, marking the beginning of the rebel. His "Deewaar", "Sholay", "Trishul" and "Laawaris" told the middle and the lower classes that there was nothing wrong in using violence, being corrupt, and breaking laws.

This trend has morphed into complete blurring of lines between good and bad as depicted in this week's release - "Shootout At Lokhandwala " - where the audience simply doesn't know whether to hoot for the don or the police.

Then there were Amol Palekars and Hrishikesh Mukherjees who put across socio-economic degradation with humour and irony. More recently, came the likes of Aamir Khan in "Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak" and Salman Khan in "Maine Pyar Kiya" who showed the Americanisation of the urban middle class.

Now "Guru" has strained the focus again on the middle class and added a new chapter in the on-screen depiction of it, with Gurubhai as the post economic reforms icon, embodying the triumph of the middle class entrepreneur and epitomising the view that the government needs to keep its nose out of business.

The feel-good film, however, ignores the reality of a major, struggling portion of the population.

The righteous character played by Mithun Chakraborthy in "Guru" tried to shed light on that side of the story. Perhaps, therein lies a story that is yet to be told.

"Swami", starring Juhi Chawla and Manoj Bajpai, slated for Friday release, promises to be a story of a simple middle-class couple, and may add to a growing number of small-budget hits based on real life. The film directed by choreographer Ganesh Acharya shows Juhi in a completely deglamourised role.

Box-office domination of big-ticket films seems set to crumble. Not so long ago, even after the advent of multiplexes, Bollywood potboilers churned out by big banners were the biggest draw at the box-office.

Whenever a big banner film releases, multiplex owners cannot avoid the temptation to flood all the screens with the same film, leaving no hope for cinegoers who may want to see something else.

However, things seem to be set to change. Filmmakers are not even shying of releasing films starring the same actor simultaneously. This week Amitabh Bachchan-Tabu starrer "Cheeni Kum" released the same day as his "Shootout At Lokhandwala".

With the number of multiplexes around the country projected to double from the current level of 70-odd to over 150 in the next couple of years and the availability of seats to go up from under 100,000 to 160,000, it is expected that experimental filmmakers can expect to share space with big banner films.

More the numbers, more the chances of stumbling upon the great Indian middle class story.

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