In 2014 India elected Narendra Modi Prime Minister with a landslide. A right-wing Hindu fundamentalist and former member of the elite, fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh paramilitary organisation, Modi has been accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing for his part in the 2002 Gujarat riots that saw thousands of Muslims killed and many more forced into refugee camps, when serving as chief minister of the state. Like Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Farage and all the other bullyboys disfiguring the global public sphere, Modi’s inflationary, nationalist rhetoric appeals to a self-pitying mob by scapegoating minorities, multiculturalism and difference. Without having to enact any draconian laws, Modi has marshalled a craven mainstream and social media to enforce his ideology, subjecting the mildest critics to vicious trolling, accusations of ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘anti-national’ behaviour, death threats, and even physical violence in the form of destruction of property and lynching. It will be readily understood that many in what is often derogatorily described as ‘Bollywood’, with its large and powerful Muslim presence, were apprehensive.
On the surface, very little seemed to change in Bollywood. Despite being arguably the most innovative film industry in the world – in terms of repackaging, distributing, marketing and exhibiting films and promoting stars to a domestic audience of 1.3 billion, the massive Indian diaspora, and massive new markets such as China – a list of the highest grossing films of the 2010s looks a lot like those for the 1980s or 1990s. It features the same genres – mythological and historico-mythological epics, macho thrillers, exuberant romantic comedies, aspirational social dramas, and patriotic war movies. And also the same stars – including the three ‘Khans of Bollywood’, all now well over 50. Of the 20 highest grossers of the 2010s in India, 18 were Indian, 15 were from Bollywood; five starred Salman Khan; Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan starred in two apiece. There’s the same blithe piracy of Hollywood and other plots. The same trick whereby elite, college-educated billionaires contrive to embody the Indian ‘common man’. The same gender imbalance whereby varieties of masculinity are presented, tested, even critiqued, but women in general remain an afterthought, reduced to the roles of girlfriend/wife/prize/mother/auntie, and are expected to abandon their career to raise a family (many actresses have found the role of film producer more stimulating). The same spectacular song and dance routines, now pumped up with the rhythms of Western popular music, shot with shiny Hollywood-style cinematography, and packaged with the slick editing of advertisers, but essentially performing the same spectacular, communal, expressive and/or romantic functions that first gave the Hindi cinema its renown. The key film of the 2010s may be Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018), a rich meta-biopic of actor Sanjay Dutt, scion of Bollywood royalty, a drug and sex addict who has spent most of the last three decades fighting accusations of terrorist conspiracy. Sanju demonstrates the continuities between the Bollywood of the 1980s and today – the flagrant nepotism, the sinister influence of the Mumbai underworld, the volatile ethno-religious fault lines of Indian society.
Astonishingly, however, the lists of high-grossing films in India and overseas reveal instances of heroic resistance and genuine examples of subversion in the 2010s. One of the biggest hits the year Modi was elected was Farah Khan’s critically reviled Happy New Year. This Tashlinesque travesty of the Ocean’s franchise would prove prophetic. A dance troupe of social marginals (including a Muslim, a sex worker and a disabled man) are subjected to ridicule and pillory by an angry mob of compatriots when they enter an international competition. When their luck changes so does their mass media-fuelled reputation (including the blessing of a Modi lookalike) and they are embraced as ‘Team India’, embodying the soul of the nation. This subtle realignment of nationalist discourse would become the favoured mode of progressive mainstream filmmakers after 2014. In Tiger zinda hai (2017), where his wife is a Pakistani spy and he relies on a group of her colleagues to vanquish a home-grown terrorist, and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), where he returns a lost Pakistani girl to her family at great personal risk across real and ideological borders, Salman Khan, son of the legendary Muslim screenwriter Salim Khan, embodies a military or religious Hindu orthodoxy that is ennobled by reaching out to the reviled Other.
Aamir Khan – arguably the most important world filmmaker since Chaplin – is a phenomenon whose importance has spread far beyond the bubble of popular Hindi cinema. His Oprah-style talk show Satyamev Jayate (2012-2014, ‘Truth alone triumphs’) used the clichés and modes of address of mainstream television to reveal an often brutal India of female foeticide, child sexual abuse and rape, child labour, honour killings, domestic violence, the caste system, organised crime and corruption, that is ignored or denied by Modi and his apologists. Khan’s frank comments in 2015 on the growing intolerance in India after Modi’s election unleashed a blowback of outraged intolerance. His films – which he produces with the same care and control as the most meticulous auteur – have been compared to the socially engaged Parallel Cinema of the 1970s, but have a wider reach and impact – they are closer to the de Sica of Miracle in Milan (1951): the post-Independence social dramas of Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy, fusing neo-realism, Indian mythology and gripping melodrama; the satirically deployed faux naïf figures of Jerry Lewis; and, yes, Chaplin. In Hirani’s PK (2014), Khan turns the Muslim other into an actual alien who uncovers the deep, religion-fuelled inequities of Indian society. In Dangal (2016), he trains his two daughters to represent India as international wrestling champions. Despite this relatively low-budget film’s massive worldwide success, Khan was accused by some of condescension; Dangal seems more about his character’s redemption than his daughter’s prowess. Unlike most in the industry, Khan learned from his critics and produced the remarkable mother-daughter melodrama Secret superstar (2017), wherein a teenager in a niqab resists patriarchy (including a misogynistic record producer played by Khan, hilariously guying his own stardom) to become an internet sensation. Its star Zaira Wasim, who made her debut in Dangal playing one of the daughters as a young girl, would go on to genuinely resist patriarchy and conventional Bollywood expectations in real life by retiring from the cinema aged 18 and turning to religion.
Something else that hasn’t changed much since the 1980s is the indifference of Western cinephiles to the joys of Bollywood. Self-proclaimed film lovers would feel dishonoured not to have seen the latest works by Tsai, Hou or Ceylan, but happily ignore the cartoon choreography of Farah Khan, the visionary whimsy of Hirani, the romantic monomania of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, or the archaising aestheticism of Sooraj R. Barjatya. My local film rag Sight and sound calls itself the ‘international film magazine’ and happily reviews rubbish like the nth sequel of Saw, but persistently ignores Hindi films; of the 10 highest worldwide Bollywood grossers of the 2010s, all of which were released with great success in the UK, only two were reviewed, each with condescension. Pieces like my one here are part of the problem, treating Bollywood to anthropological rather than aesthetic analysis, interpreting a series of local practices to reveal something about the socio-political culture that produced them, rather than looking at the films as discrete cultural works. Instead of engaging with the complex cultural context of Bollywood films, critics lazily fall back on Hollywood formulae : Guru Dutt is the Indian Vincente Minnelli, Farah Khan is Tashlinesque, Aamir Khan is a latter-day Jerry Lewis, and so on. Well, it’s your loss – a whole world of compulsion and pleasure is just passing you by!