Could it be that we are in the middle of a caste war and we have not been able to see it? There has been enough evidence of the contempt we hold for the performing arts. When I was a young freelance writer, I asked the editor of a broadsheet whether I could review Hindi cinema for him. He asked, “Do you like Bollywood?” I said, “I love it”. At the back of my head was the ghostly voice of John Ruskin, admonishing us that he who loves detective fiction should review detective fiction, etc. He sighed and shook his head, “My readers want someone who despises Bollywood”. I must have looked askance for he said, “They may love (it) but they want to believe they despise it”.
Being middle class is to be caught between what you love and what you despise. Being middle class is to be unsure of whether what you love is worthy of you. (I should know. I am middle class.) I know what ambivalence is. I know how terrible it is to be caught in a moment where everyone around you assumes you have an appreciation for the kitsch of an art form, when your tears are real and your heart pounds for the cheesiest of speeches. You so want to be Kalidasa and Balasaraswathi; you so are Manmohan Desai and Helen. You so despise yourself.
And this despising is turned on to the object of love. Caste politics allows you to clothe that hatred by requiring you to hate bhaands, even as they are sexualised. Why do you think Devdas works so well for the middle class that more than a dozen cinematic versions of it have been made across the country across the decades since it was written? Was there ever a man who despised himself as much as Devdas and then turned his pain into violence and rejection?
Thus, we would like to believe that Bollywood is a filthy place because we are really not sure how clean we are. A nation obsessed with purity and pollution, which has one of the filthiest public spheres, must spend a huge amount of psychic energy managing this dichotomy. What can we do with this fatigue? We can turn it into hate. If hatred were an Olympic sport, we would be the undisputed champions.
So is Bollywood the necropolis of our desires? Probably.
But no more filthy than any other place where the stakes are high.
Is it nepotistic? No more than any other family-owned company. No more than you are, dear reader, for you are piling up whatever you can so that your children will benefit. And no one thinks it is bad. Nepotism sneaks up on you. Consider the son of a poet from Allahabad who is refused a job in All India Radio even though his voice is now considered his signature. He is an outsider. But his son? How inside is his son? Do you fault his father for picking up the phone and calling in his dues for his son? Would you not do the same?
Does everybody do drugs? No more than those in most offices across the country. I grew up in a time when there was a clear-cut divide in the student community, or so I imagined. There were the charsis (as they were known) and there were the rest of us. The rest of us fitted on to the bell curve, and we could be handled. We were no threat to the status quo. The charsis were the difficulty. Everyone feared them and hated them and tried to pretend that they sympathised. But we were warned: Dreams will drown when sugar is brown. Meanwhile, Dad worked at a tobacco company and Mom made everything with white sugar.
So here is what I suspect.
The Hindi film industry is only a reflection of the society around it. It is corrupt because we as a nation are corrupt. It is nepotistic because it never occurs to us to tell our sons to go out and earn a living on their own; they always start as VPs and end up as the creepies who ruined the company. But it is glamorous and it demands, commands our adoration. We hate the stranglehold it has on our dreams. We love the stars but only because we see in them a pale imitation of our dreamselves. And when they fall, we love them maliciously all the more in the time when they are summoned by the authorities. So not us.
In the 1980s, the common housefly was about the only entertainment you could get on television news. Safely ensconced in government funding, the newsreaders wore their saris and their khadi kurtas and read out scripts. When a fly troubled a newsreader and she actually waved a hand at it, it was news. In no way did we ever think of the television as a source of information. It was a status symbol; for entertainment, we went to the movies and considered each other’s lives.
Perhaps, the grim delight with which newspapers are reporting on the contretemps between Bollywood and the television channels is only an extension of that caste war, our hatred and fear of the bhaands, our contempt for ourselves that we can love them so much. (Some television anchors are now stars.)
I stopped watching television news many years ago. I disconnected from most social media after a few years of flirtation. I have never missed any of them. I rely on the newspapers and on the dispassionate look of words that have been edited and which seek balance and objectivity, even if these are mythical possibilities rather than actually achievable targets.
I pride myself on being post-social media. Perhaps, I am not the person to be writing this piece.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 22, 2020 under the title “The fault is not in our stars”. Pinto is a Mumbai-based writer and novelist
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