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Labour Day: Where's the Common Man in Modern-Day Hindi Films?

Our modern scripts are too engrossed with the idiosyncrasies of the rich elite.

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Like the polity, now Hindi films too have forsaken the common man.

Although common citizens pay hard-earned money at the ticket window, it is a sad reflection of our times that most film stories nowadays do not depict their travails and triumphs at all. It seems like modern-day producers, directors, and writers have forgotten that common folk like teachers, clerks, nurses, vendors, labourers, and housewives play a pivotal role in providing society with its moral spine.

Our modern scripts are so engrossed with the idiosyncrasies of the rich elite that they hardly portray the upheavals or pathos of an honest farmer, a gardener, a factory worker, a doctor, or the injustices meted out to the have-nots of society.

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Today's Films Exhibit Little Empathy for Common People

Except for stray aberrations, most films nowadays from Baahubali, RRR, Brahmastra to Pathaan depict cinematic tales of protagonists who are completely unidentifiable and have little in common with our milieu and attitudes.

Unlike the protagonists of old films of the 1950s and the 1960s who reflected human warmth and sincerity as well as stood for certain ethical values, films nowadays exhibit little empathy for common people and their characters seem extremely synthetic in their persona, as if they are creatures from a different planet. In fact, viewers now have to suffer an incessant onslaught of screen protagonists that are unreal, farcical, and have no connection whatsoever to reality. 

It is amazing that the massive contribution of common citizens to social environs, technology, as well as emancipation of women find little representation on screen, and our mainstream commercial films hardly depict authentic characters like commoners on the street. Granted that the tentacles of a corrupt system have made ordinary lives miserable and viewers sometimes need a certain dose of escapism, yet it is incomprehensible as to why film scripts do not enlighten us with the intricacies of the lives of ordinary citizens who have made aspirations and ambitions come alive with some outstanding achievements.

Like cinema everywhere, Hindi filmdom too has had a fair share of skewed and flawed characters, yet most mainstream films of the yesteryears revolved around inspirational characters from our social system. Despite their technical imperfections and incongruities, old films unfolded stories of substance and we could identify with common-life protagonists that suffered from human frailties, dilemmas, and economic disruptions like us.

Even in the period of highly toxic masculinity served by the angry young persona of Amitabh Bachchan, film scripts provided us with a steady stream of common folks on screen like Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) or her potter husband Kishtayya (Sadhu Meher) from Ankur, middle-class office goers like Sudip (Amol Palekar) and Chhaya (Zarina Wahab) from Gharonda or the blind man Aniruddh (Nasiruddin Shah) from “Sparsh” who revealed gigantic truths of our ordinary lives.

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Protagonists Used to Resemble Those Close to Us

However, it was the pre-1970 films that are worth applauding for giving us authentic glimpses into real India and its common citizens. That is why whether it was the poet of Pyaasa or the postmaster of Parakh, the schoolmaster of Jagriti or the Satyapriya of Satyakam or Dr Dharmesh of Dil Ek Mandir or Shambhu Mahto of Do Bigha Zameen, they were characters with whom we could identify easily as we had seen many like them around us. Similarly, we empathized with the “common woman” like Mrs D’sa of Anari or the adopted girl of Sujata just as we identified with the bhabhi of Bhabhi ki Chudiyaan, the college girl Usha of Arzoo, and nurse Radha of Khamoshi since they were unsung heroines from our daily lives.

We laughed and cried with them because they resembled many of our own relatives, workers, and neighbours; people whom we had seen waging silent battles against exploitation with an unwavering commitment to truth and honesty. Like us, these protagonists were humane, grassroots people of integrity but lacking in chicanery and sophistication of the commercial world.  

From the evergreen trio of Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand to the large ensemble of actors like Balraj Sahni, David, Manmohan Krishna, Abhi Bhattacharya, Nazir Husain, as well as Lalita Pawar, Leela Misra, Leela Chitnis, Meena Kumari, Nutan, and Sadhana, they all enacted many a memorable “commoner” on the silver screen.

Of course, there were countless others too who rendered marvellous performances as common folks in several films, etching a permanent place in our memories. Granted that many of their old films too suffered from inanities and ludicrous plot lines, yet by and large most dwelled on subjects that lent substance to the lives of common people. You could disagree with their delineation and execution or the implausible coincidences, yet the scripts served “slices of life” of common folk whereas now it is difficult to ascertain where characters come from in films like Bachchan Pande, Welcome 4, and Rowdy Rathore.

Even the worst of old films had memorable and moving scenes of romance between common folks to inspire trust and respect for kinship. Along with astounding passages of lyrical verses, the films inspired as well as strengthened bonds of our secular brotherhood but in their quest for the absurd and high-octane action, today's stories are cruder, louder, and more abusive. It is apparent that little thought is being given by writers and directors to the plight of a common man and instead, most movies are taking a cue from Kabir Singh and suggesting maltreatment of women as an acceptable form of behavior! The absence of moving stories of grassroots citizens is leading to a brazen disrespect to the feminine gender and the grotesque violence and offensive pelvic thrusts are doing more harm than good to the collective psyche of the younger generation.

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A State of Collective Amnesia

It is sad that the common man, who is repeatedly being deceived by an institutional framework, is now being cheated by the Indian film fraternity too. Otherwise, why do we not see stories of the central characters of this nation like the vegetable vendors, the truck drivers, the rickshaw pullers, the bank officers, the steno-typists, or the maidservants? In many old films, not only these characters played the main protagonist but they also had stellar songs written on them.

Today, even when someone like Raju Hirani does attempt a story around such characters, the protagonist is more ethereal than real. Although they always profess undying affection for their audiences, the present-day image makers are erasing common citizens from their film canvases and it is no wonder that there is a strong disconnect between the films and the masses today, since film stories are far removed from the concerns and sensibilities of the common man.

Any serious filmmaker must see filmmaking as a piece of art. But how can there be exquisite masterpieces if films do not reflect the stories and aspirations of the citizens?  How can there be good, entertaining films if the very fulcrum (common man) is missing? In these times of changing tastes, how long can you go on with inane stories with shirtless actors and chiffon-clad actresses dancing on snow?

The stupidity of the creators and the insipid quality of content is clearly being reflected in the box office numbers and it is time that they see the writing on the wall. But like the celebrity cricketers and politicians that are blind to the plight of the female wrestlers of India, it does seem the million-dollar Hindi film industry too is in a state of collective amnesia and completely deaf to voices of sanity.

(Deepak Mahaan is a documentary filmmaker and an eminent author. A specialist on Cinema and Sports, he has published numerous pieces in prestigious publications in India and abroad. He tweets at @mahaanmahan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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