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Why is Bollywood anti-social ?
'Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola', which dealt with land-grabbing, is an exception to the full-on-entertainment rule of the 100-crore club. Why don't we make more films with a message?
It is not clear how much Amitabh Bachchan liked Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM) but it seems the superstar enjoyed the film's sweeping diversity. 'A land issue much like Singur, rich and poor divide, communism of takes, anti-alcohol, love story (DDLJ style), politics, ' he tweeted on January 11. Some, like the young filmmaker Vasan Bala, hail MKBKM as the new Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, for its "zany humour, irreverence and satirical look at contemporary society. "
But like every Vishal Bhardwaj film, MKBKM - addressing the issues of landgrabbing and economic development set in Haryana - is not without its critics. Many found it 'confusing', 'shallow' and 'indulgent'. Yet, few can deny the film's social message that resonates with contemporary India. More crucially, it begs the question - why doesn't Bollywood deal with social issues more often?
"It's unfortunate that Hindi cinema has slipped into the entertainment mode, " says Bhavna Talwar, director of Dharm (2007), a brave film about communal harmony. "Somewhere, the real issues that need our attention are getting lost, " she adds. For all the talk about Hindi cinema's maturity in the last decade, and the ushering of a new form of social realism, "our films do not reflect our society. 1940-50 s were better, when Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy were making films with a social bent of mind, " says Talwar, who feels the real issues are those faced by the common Indian every day that do not get heard. "Let's first see the issues that affect us today: the condition of women, corruption, consumerism and poverty. How many films are made on or around these themes? If the number of films that deal with social issues is minuscule, those that manage to make a point is even less, " she says.
An obvious and overused counter-point is why confront people with harsh realities that envelop so much of their lives otherwise? After all, Bollywood is a much-needed escape for millions who live in poverty and deprivation. "The truth is that the Indian audience is not ready for social realism, " says Rauf Ahmed, a senior film journalist. "That's why only a handful of filmmakers are depicting reality. Don't forget, reality is often unpleasant in a country like ours, he adds.
Among the handful is Prakash Jha. You may accuse him for compromising on his vision by accommodating big stars (as opposed to his earlier work which critics feel was purer) but he sure doesn't sugar-coat the message. Whether it was Aarakshan, based on castebased reservations or Raajneeti, an indictment of politics as a ruthless game of power or Chakravyuh, about Naxalites, Jha is not afraid to voice his angst against social ills. His films are mostly rooted in dusty landscapes;regions which are perpetually on the boil. "When we talk about Shining India or enormous growth, we forget that 75 per cent of the population lives below Rs 20 in a day, " he told a magazine last year. "Two kilometers down any national highway - seven lanes as they are called these days or four lanes or expressways - you start experiencing real India. "
Even Dibakar Banerjee who made the much-acclaimed Shanghai on development and displacement juxtaposed with dreams of Shining India, said at the time, "It's my personal take on my life, my country and what I see around me. " The most socially conscious of contemporary Indian filmmakers, Shyam Benegal says films are a form of communication and should be viewed in that context. "It's about how interesting and persuasive your communication is. Every filmmaker tries to be as persuasive as he can - whether he is entertaining you, making you aware of something or making you move in a particular direction. In the end, film is an entertainment product. Its primary value is as a commodity - to be sold and consumed. "
Entertainment is the main vehicle for Bollywood and commerce, its driving engine. Films, then, are not like public service commercials, issued in national interest. "Big money is involved, you cannot deny that, " says Benegal whose last two films, Welcome to Sajjanpur and Well Done Abba, drove the point home through humour and satire. "Well Done Abba was about ordinary, everyday corruption. Welcome to Sajjanpur questioned many things - rights for transgender people, widow remarriage, superstition, honour killing, all of this was embedded in it, " he says, adding, "You can mix entertainment with a message, but there has to be a moral core. All great Greek theatre has at its base a social morality. "
Talwar says Aamir Khan's Satyamev Jayate, the popular talk show, brought into public consciousness social issues that are otherwise ignored. "It is the collective responsibility of big stars to do meaningful cinema once in a while, " she says. Benegal admits that a star can make a big difference. "Whether you like it or not, there is a tendency to listen to what the star has to say. If a lesser known actor had done Satyamev Jayate, it wouldn't have had the same impact. "
However, the debate between the function of films as art and films as business is an old one. Dibakar Banerjee touched upon this aspect in a recent interview to The Caravan magazine. Outlining the craft-art divide, he observed, "Pure art is where there is a minimum distance between what is in the artist's head and what is expressed - between Van Gogh's brain and his canvas, for example. There is more distance between an advertising painter's brain or heart, and the billboard he makes - he has to go through many other processes, he's removed from the final product. I'm trying to reduce that distance, to put as much of myself in my films as possible. "
In the age of the 100-crore club, most filmmakers obsessed with the 'numbers game' find their responsibility gravitating more towards the producer than the audience. Tigmanshu Dhulia says, "I am first responsible to myself. It is not my job to change society. It is the job of politicians. I can only reflect the conditions around me. "
So, should filmmakers strive towards refining public taste? What are, then, the objectives of a filmmaker? "The problems of India are far complex to be contained and resolved in a three-hour format, " says Vasan Bala who is awaiting his debut film Peddlers, which takes on the pressing urban issues. "MKBKM worked for the same reasons as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro did - it doesn't preach or give readymade solutions. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was made by a bunch of passionate people who thought they were doing the right thing. That should be the attitude of a filmmaker - that you should only put forth the problem and stay away from solutions. "
In Talwar's view, cinema exerts great influence over people and over time can change the society's mindset. "This is a country where a man's notion of what a woman finds exciting comes from films, where the idea of romance comes from films and where you have a song like Munni Badnaam Hui - some illiterate truck driver's impression of what a woman wants - that is, to get badnaam. We have to make sure every line, every character and everything we put into our films makes an impact on people. We cannot afford to be lax. We need to be more responsible."
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