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The end of Bollywood?

The multiplex revolution,the growing influence of 'NRI' audiences have transformed it beyond recognition. An astonishing array of new talent has emerged,the production is a lot more professionalised.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | New Delhi |
May 13, 2009 3:55:22 pm

This might be an opportune moment to ask some questions about the future of Bollywood. There are probably no clear answer to these questions,but given the importance of Bollywood in Indian imagery (some would argue in the idea of India itself),it is worth thinking about its cultural future.

In many ways Bollywood experienced healthy changes in recent years. The “liberalisation” of the industry,which made it possible for it to legitimately raise finance,has been a force for good. (It is reassuring to see at the end of so many films that the financier is EXIM Bank,not Dawood Ibrahim — one unsavoury legacy of the licence-permit raj). The multiplex revolution,the growing influence of “NRI” audiences have transformed it beyond recognition. An astonishing array of new talent has emerged,the production is a lot more professionalised,and niche audiences can be catered to and so on. Whether the body of work that has emerged will rival the corpus of great films in the past,whether truly great art will emerge from professionalism,is still an open question. As a business,it will probably thrive and flourish,but whether this greater “professionalised” Bollywood will occupy the same space in our cultural imaginary is also an open question.

Here are some issues to ponder.

First,the multiplex revolution has changed the viewership of Bollywood. It has segregated it more by social class. To be sure,it was always segregated even in old cinemas (the ‘dress circle’ and the ‘balcony’). But it was still the case that different audiences shared the same viewing experience — middle class students mixing with dress circle audiences; or if not that,at least vicariously participating in the same follies. That has almost disappeared because of the multiplex revolution.

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It was also the case that all classes watched the movie together in a temporal sense — the rich and the poor had the same shot at watching it in the first few days of release. Now the less privileged have to wait their turn. In short,the pattern of viewership may make it a marker of segregation rather than “coming together”. There may be no longer such a thing as a mass hit — a viewing experience shared by large numbers of people across classes simultaneously.

Second,many have often made the point that the content will be increasingly dictated largely by “affluent”,or even NRI,audiences. Whatever their other faults,“old films” created whole worlds — the smart and the dim witted,the rich and the poor,the sadist and the compassionate,the street-life and cocooned existences,the rural and the urban,all jostled for space in the same script — everyone was part of the same world. In some sense,the new professionalised scripts,with an occasional exception,are premised on representing segregated worlds. The social reality of viewing will be matched by the character of what is represented on the screen. This cinema will be hugely successful in some senses. But whether it will provide that shared vocabulary is an open question.

Third,what made Bollywood unique was of course,music. Again,at one level there is an immense proliferation of truly astonishing talent. And the market for talent has become more democratic. But it is still an open question whether over the medium to long term music will have the same role in Bollywood that it had in the past. Will it be an integral part of scripts,or be more like a formulaic item number? Will it provide the same grammar of emotion that has now,for good or for ill,become our grammar of emotion?

The staged dance numbers will probably have a place,but whether the kind of place a Guru Dutt or even an Ashutosh Gowariker gives to music is an open question. There is no reason to be unduly pessimistic. But it is worth asking whether multiplex audiences will have the same receptivity,the same assumptions about the place of music that the earlier audiences. And without the music,will Bollywood’s unique ability to colonise the space of effect and emotion continue?

Fourth,what presuppositions of storytelling and conventions will be lost in the New Bollywood? My barber shop TV always has Zee Cinema on,playing old films from the seventies,some of which were quite ghastly. But those films still evoke a response in audiences,and one wonders if Bollywood is unduly narrowing its market rather than extending it because of the multiplex revolution. Even amidst the palpable and implausible idiocy of some of the scripts,there will come this inevitable moment which brings a lump to your throat — the films were not as much about mastering the world as unexpectedly tapping into a grammar of emotion. As Amit Chaudhuri once perceptively wrote,“This does not mean Hindi cinema is fatalistic of metaphysical; its exuberance is indispensable to its conviction that life is an unrecognizable rather than a categorizable thing.”

How much of the “professionalization” of cinema will foreground an illusory ability to control the world,rather than marvel at its strangeness,is another open question. A very knowledgeable taxi driver in Cairo (where Amitabh Bachchan seemed to be the God of taxi drivers) once engaged me in a long conversation about Hindi movies from the seventies and eighties. He ended with a rueful thought: Hindi films had the key to “kismet” — by which he did not mean luck or fate; he meant something like “you never know what will move you”.

Indian art has always been inventive and innovative; so one should not be pessimistic. But it is an interesting question: Will Bollywood be the source of a shared imagination,or will it now inscribe new segregations? Will it present a self caught in excess — of the world and of its own emotions? Or will it present an abridged world,following the niche rather than transcending it? Will it be slick? Or will it have the capacity to musically articulate the realm of emotion,give words to feeling like no art form in the history of the planet has ever had?

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