I am gravely worried for the fate of India’s cultural empire. More than the Indian army or its embassies and aid packages, it’s the movie machine of Mumbai that has helped India raise its cultural flag beyond India. From Afghanistan to Japan, from Russia to south east Asia, Bollywood has found devout followers everywhere. This cultural advocacy helps corporate bodies when they march their imperialist marches into these countries. Hey, a dancing, overtly emotional Indian is better than a Kung-fu fighting Chinese.
But, Bollywood is losing its hold here at home. Its becoming a caricature of it's imagined self. The ‘desi’ moviegoer is increasingly being subjected to only Punjabi and Gujarati London/Canada dreams. The mainstream movies are rarely even shot in India at all.
Since the moneyed few rules what is to be made, the available palette is primarily composed of galling stories of people falling in love in some white suburb of NY or some such world of big white people, where surprisingly white people are never more than sorry caricatures and all Indians are wealthy and wonderful, and the ultimate triumph is of ‘Indian values’ which are always loosely hinted at and never exercised in the movie. Even the conviction is absent in acting mostly, with actors treating the movie as a vacation. Look at any Johar movie. The actor plays a caricature of his character and his body language is always so loose as if he has been sitting on a yacht for hours. Johar knows that this very body language is what sells with NRIs, this image of being arrived in life. Story is incidental, often no more than some cheap emotional masturbation, if you will. What really ticks with NRIs is some misplaced nationalism (ironically whose measure is the character’s presence in Manhattan) filling the frame of character along with the ready ease of the character’s riches.
The majority desi moviegoer doesn’t pay in excess of rs. 40 for a movie ticket, and for him perhaps Mumbai is just as distant as New York. So what does he do? Since with increasing cost of movie tickets, and decreasing relevance and fulfillment with a movie experience, he would much rather not risk his hard earned money on a movie ticket, but rather get a pirated CD to watch at home.
Thankfully, the regional cinema players have noticed this sentiment and they are busy creating relevant dramas, action flicks, comedy trips. So what we see here possibly a new paradigm in Indian cinema that will come to pass. Many pockets of India will perhaps grow mature regional cinema industries. The bollywood of Bombay will shrink to fit the affluent class. The multiplex urban cinema will take a life of its own. This fragmentation is wonderful really for it will for the first time address India’s multiplicity and grow a larger relevant industry that will perhaps create more avenues for artists and audiences alike.
But there’s a worrying aspect to it too. Northeast, long neglected and not having strong industry of its own, is appropriating Korean mass entertainment. This is unhealthy from a national perspective since it is only alienating a people further. India has never addressed its diversity properly. Nationalism need not push out margins and create a consistent voice, but rather it should celebrate and recognize each other’s differences. Mainstream has totally failed to recognize northeast anymore than a caricature or an exotic part of the greater whole. Recognition of problem, like in ‘Chak De’ is not enough. What is perhaps needed is a greater focus on helping create a stronger entertainment industry of its own in northeast. Northeasterners are characterized by their forward fashion sense and exceptionally acute sense of cool. Before even hitting the mainstream, fashions are appropriated and discarded in Northeast. It has some of the best western music bands in India. From being culture importers, they could become cool culture exporters with right infrastructure. It will only benefit the greater India for all its citizens to have a confident voice of its own. With recognition and confidence comes a possibility of co-existence. Otherwise, the red hand won’t take long to tear India into many states, and perhaps that won’t be undesirable then, if it gives the confidence and recognition to the citizens then.