Zany, Tough and Real: The Return of the Middle Class to Bollywood
Stills from <i>Shubh Mangal Savdhaan</i>, <i>Tumhari Sulu</i> and <i>Qarib Qarib Singlle</i>.
Stills from Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Tumhari Sulu and Qarib Qarib Singlle.(Photo altered by The Quint/ Divya Talwar)

Zany, Tough and Real: The Return of the Middle Class to Bollywood

The Indian middle class is a sad bunch. No, really. Think about it. Not only are they forever struggling to overcome socio-economic borders in real life, they have more or less been largely missing the bus when it comes to being represented in mainstream Hindi cinema.

A poster of <i>Khatta Meetha</i>.
A poster of Khatta Meetha.
(Photo altered by The Quint/ Divya Talwar)

Ever since the mid-80s, our leading men and women seem to herald from either extremely fortunate or extremely unfortunate circumstances, with little screen space given to those coming in between.

Disclaimer: We are not really talking about what Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar or Rohit Shetty imagine as middle-class.

In fact, except for the delightful vignettes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, this particular social strata has always been poorly represented in Bollywood. Think of the worlds of Chitchor, Mili or Bawarchi and you’ll know what I am talking about. These filmmakers, along with Sai Paranjpye, Gulzar and in less commercial ventures, Basu Bhattacharya (Avishkaar, Grihapravesh) and Bhimsen Khurana (the lyrical Gharaonda), introduced Hindi cinema to that group of Indians who literally and metaphorically are caught in between - financially, culturally and morally.

The result? A new wave of cinema that was entertaining yet realistic and familiar.

Rajesh Khanna in<i> Anand</i>.
Rajesh Khanna in Anand.
(Photo altered by The Quint/ Divya Talwar)

Characters in these movies - as in real life - didn’t fight the system or knock down a gang of 10 gundas. Nor did they win the over most beautiful girl on the planet and promptly jive with them - remember this was also when Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor were ruling the silver screen.

A poster of <i>Gharaonda</i>.&nbsp;
A poster of Gharaonda
(Photo altered by The Quint/ Divya Talwar)
These were people who had simple dreams, struggled to make ends meet, sometimes even had to fight for some me-time in the loo (that memorable scene in Bawarchi), and were almost always outwitted by the smart alec.

These films reconstructed the world of the common man with common dreams, who had little swag and even lesser luck. Presented with equal doses of ace storytelling, authenticity, quality performances and humour, these films were runaway hits and it’s intriguing why Bollywood forgot to work this very successful mantra.

This social group all but disappeared in the mid-80s as Bollywood plunged into no-brainer comedies, action flicks and bales of chiffon. When engaging stories did make a comeback at last in the new millennium, the middle class again was largely missing.

A moment from <i>Chotti Si Baat</i>.
A moment from Chotti Si Baat.
(Photo altered by The Quint/ Divya Talwar)

Till 2017 that is.

This year, a clutch of films has welcomed back the middle class - both urban and small-town - largely authentically on to the screen.

From Tumhari Sulu to Qarib Qarib Singlle, Bareilly Ki Barfi to Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Hindi Medium, there’s a rush to look into the lives of this particular social strata again. And while they are still feel-good, they also reflect the huge transformation the middle class has undergone since the 70s.

For starters, the struggles are more existential than to do with actual survival. Where earlier people were seen battling to make ends meet, now there’s very little economic crisis. The characters are no longer trying to secure a job. Like most of us out here, they are grappling to survive it instead.

Ashok in Tumhari Sulu is fairly well-off, owns a car, washing machine and a LED TV (however defunct). But he struggles everyday against the arbitrary humiliation thrown at him by his boss. The leading man still often hesitates to express his feelings, but he is dealing with rarely or never-before-openly-discussed issues like commitment phobia (Qarib Qarib Singlle), the importance of an English language-based education (Hindi Medium) or erectile dysfunction (Shubh Mangal Saavdhan).

It is the leading women however, who have become all but unrecognisable when compared to previous counterparts. The current crop of films in fact reflects how much and how far real Indian women have travelled to make their own space in a still-very-patriarchal society.

A poster of<i> Mausam</i>.
A poster of Mausam.
(Photo altered by The Quint/ Divya Talwar)
Even though Deepa (Vidya Sinha) in Chhoti Si Baat or Neha (Deepti Naval) in Chashme Buddoor for instance were independent, career women, they were nowhere close to exuding the confidence and swag of the middle-class women on screen today.

The ladies have gone from coy to cool, with most boasting strong, individual identities. No more demurring lassies waiting to be saved, these women know what they want - be it love, sex, a job or the courage to walk out of one’s wedding. They may or may not have careers - Jaya (Qarib Qarib Singlle) and Sulu (Tumhari Sulu) present interesting contrasts - but they are masters of their own lives.

You don’t mess with them no more.

Interestingly, it’s also these films which are re-introducing the Indian audience to women who don’t flaunt size-zero figures and look like unreal, made-up dolls. Sugandha, Jaya and Sulu flaunt their curves and confidence with equal elan.

As in the retro hits, the supporting characters and the physical setting go the distance to lend a much-missed authenticity to this new wave of Hindi films.

To our immense relief, mothers here don’t flaunt fancy pearls on a random day but are positively un-classy in ugly shawls. Chandni Chowk doesn’t seem like an Arabian Nights throwback and middle-class homes no longer flaunt Ming vases.

While Jaya’s upper middle-class Mumbai apartment reflects her urban, expensive tastes, Bitti’s home in Lucknow or Sugandha’s house in Gurgaon are all stained walls, hideous plastic fancy lights, tacky pictures glued on walls and soaps without soap holders.

Positively aankhen taras gaye moments, I tell you!

And hell, whyever not? We have had enough of Dior and Dharavi on our screens. How about some Dadar and Daryaganj, eh?

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