Given cinema’s extent of influence in our society, it might be safe to assume that there should be some moral responsibility of movie makers towards the society (beyond the frequently flashing ‘smoking is injurious’ every time a character on the screen is puffing his stress out). And I don’t just mean the message they deliver to the audience (if there is one), but what they, as an industry, represent. And of course, ‘cinema represents society’ and ‘society apes cinema’ is the philosophical dilemma that has arguments in favour of both its constituent opinions in India (quite the ‘egg came first or the chicken’ dilemma ain’t it?). But all said and done, Bollywood represents everything that has been blamed to be fundamentally wrong with the Indian society – starting with the name itself!
For all the overflowing sentiments for being and representing ‘desi’, the hypocritical criticisms for aping the west and our displeasure at Indian cinema being over-looked at the academy awards (sure Salman can say, “Audiences’ reaction is more important than being selected for Oscars”… ahem), Bollywood finds its etymological roots in Hollywood. So much for being original, eh? Given the depth of our emotional attachment to Bollywood, I might generate some anguish in you, but I’ll take my chances – one, for the sake of freedom of expression; and two – I stand as a representative of the intellectual community and intellectual opinions are exchanged without emotional prejudice or judgement (okay, exaggeration intended… we’ll be talking about Bollywood after all)
A comparison in the education system of East and the West would reveal that western education has largely focused on cultivating creativity. Compare South Korea and Finland, the countries considered to ace the list of the best education systems in the globe presently. They have a significant difference in their approach to teaching. One focuses on creativity and another on cramming (you can guess which would be what). Now we have all had enough experience of the Indian education system to summarize the motto in three words: Memorise, reproduce, and forget. Same is with Bollywood. Many of our movie makers have shamelessly copied not only plot elements and reproduced visual effects (and failed miserably at it) but even remade Hollywood movies without official consent and claimed it to be original! Yeah, so there are some who would jump into the argument and cite examples where Hollywood draws inspiration from Bollywood too, but I have observed it to be rare and gracefully done after giving due credits and making it an ‘official’ remake (example – ‘A Common Man‘ (2013) starring Ben Kingsley is an official remake of Neeraj Pandey’s ‘A Wednesday!‘) R. N. Sippy’s ‘Satte Pe Satta’ (1982) to David Dhawan’s ‘Partner’ (2007) (and many more) are movies revered by Indians without the knowledge that their admirations for these ‘masterpieces’ were being bestowed on people who are not the intellectual source of the artistic product in the first place.
Then, Bollywood doesn’t represent India, ever. At best it’s representative of North-India. How many movies do you know have the protagonists from non-Hindi speaking states (apart from Maharashtra because it’s got Bombay)? Or from the North-East? Or from the East? (There are other states apart from West Bengal on the eastern shores of this nation). To those unwilling to accept this fact, well cheers! Bollywood never much bothered with factual accuracy as such. Why should hard-core fans be any different? And those who would accept the fact (appreciation expressed) but would put forward the ‘Hindi-is-our-national-language’ argument for justification, I’ve two things to say – first – the argument is inaccurate. As per our constitution (Article 343), India’s official languages shall be Hindi and English. However, each state is allowed to have its own official language based on its own linguistic demographics. So, we end up having a total of 23 official languages today but no single national language. I do however agree that Hindi is the language we’ll have to use to reach majority of audience, but then why can’t the central character in the movies belong to Assam, or Arunachal Pradesh, or Orissa? (Okay, so I’m from Orissa. If you are a Bollywood fan and if you are not from Orissa, your anguish must be building up to erupt in the form of some stereotypical verbal abuse that you could try your best to come across as intelligent sarcasm, but because you are not from Orissa and have never been to Orissa, you don’t have any clue what that stereotypical outfit would be that you can desperately fit me in. Because you just don’t have enough information about a state in your very own country to even stereotype it! Ha ha!).
Which brings us to racism and stereotyping. Bollywood has always been racist. From the Krishnan Iyer ‘Yem Yey’ in ‘Agneepath‘, the lungi-wearing nariyal-cutting, and “aiyooji” speaking Tamil character to Ra.One’s SRK, the overly, typically, unrealistically Tamil with his abnormally long name — saying “aiyyo” in every second sentence, eating with his hands and mixing curd in his noodles. And the north-Indian characters that SRK plays are always ‘soooo cooool’ – remember Raj? Ironically, Mr. Khan has had particularly horrible experiences at American airports and has expressed his discontent at the stereotyping, but this stereotyping of his own countrymen was apparently all right.
While we are on the subject, for all the furore around the ‘skin whitening creams’ in India in recent times, Bollywood has made its contribution to eradicate this social stigma from our society…yeah right, like they would ever do that! The film industry contributes to the fascination with fair skin and most leading Bollywood stars are pale-complexioned. Following is an excerpt from The Guardian quoting actress Nandita Das – “Whenever they put on makeup, they try to whiten my skin,” says actor Nandita Das with a laugh. She switched to independent films because they are less obsessed with stereotypes. “If you work in Bollywood with a dusky skin you’re doomed only to do parts like peasants or slum-dwellers,” she adds. “Successful city characters must have fair skin.”
Not only the are the characters on the celluloid actively promoting white skin to a nation of brown people, but so are the people playing them. Many Indian film stars have appeared in adverts for whitening creams including Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor and Preity Zinta. Being pale-complexioned actually seems to be one of the prime requirements for an actor to play ‘hero’ in India, sculpted physique and face being the remaining two. It’s a bonus if he can act, though it’s not mandatory. And it’s even worse in case of the actresses.
Bollywood has always objectified women. How many movies have you seen from the Yash Raj banner or the Rajshri Productions (two of the most revered production houses in Indian cinema) which have had a female protagonist and no male co-star to play the hero? Hell, why is it that actors have always outlived the actresses on the silver screen here? Why can Salman still play Prem in 2015 while actresses are replaced when they age? Have you ever noticed how the Khans manage to stay in vogue for decades but the most talked about actress is always a young beautiful woman who seems to have her ‘youth and beauty’ as the only credentials to stay in demand? And the rising culture of item numbers is simply demeaning.
Finally, Bollywood upholds lineage more than, well, let’s not make it political. I find it oddly intriguing how Bollywood actors are living testimonies to the Darwinian theory of evolution. ‘Best genetic fitness for the environment will produce offspring that can more successfully compete in that environment’ (minus the successful part). We should have a medical research to unravel the mystery of how Bollywood stars can genetically pass their acting skills and stardom to their next generation. If only it could be replicated elsewhere (We could have IITians reproducing better IITians, scientists’ off-springs could head ISRO and DRDO, and army men could produce the next generation of elite soldiers, sounds like we could have a production line for specific skills!). The only credential Abhishek Bachchan held after 14 flops (without a break) was his surname. Ranbir Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Deols, Uday Chopra and a lot more. Their credentials are (though debatable) not the matter of discussion here, but the fact that the present generation of Bollywood stars got opportunities because of their lineage is undeniable. Sure, every now and then comes an actor who’s not a star kid, but I can safely bet Shah Rukh Khan’s son is going to be an actor eventually (irrespective of his acting skills).
So, like I had said, Bollywood represents everything that is wrong in our society. It’s racist, plagued with plagiarism, it demeans and objectifies women, relies more on the packaging than the product and is constantly reminding the population to rely on white skin and a connected family, in the absence of which, success is that bleak light existent in the Neverland.