Everywhere, the world of cinema is usually a hive of creativity. But India’s Hindi film industry has had an unusually strong ability to attract talent and creativity. Since 2007, India has consistently produced the maximum number of films in the world and of these, Hindi films have been the most numerous. The industry is valued at a Rs 183 billion but, it is beyond that. As the tributes for the late Dilip Kumar established, the line from Bombay’s silver screens goes straight to something about India’s definition of itself.
Magical, Diverse World of Hindi Cinema
In the 1940s and 50s, India’s Progressive Writers fuelled both, quality and popular writing, talented actors gave it form and entrepreneurial directors and producers whipped up the magical Hindi film.
These films crossed bitter language barriers of the time and worked to give muscle and shape to the composite and modern Indian idea that emerged after the fractious Partition that divided India and Pakistan. The credit roll at the end has always been a delight to savour as names that would not have a chance anywhere else could make it big and excel in the ‘city of dreams’.
Over the years, from films as disparate as Neecha Nagar, Dharti ke Lal in 1946 which focused on poverty and the Bengal famine, to Yaadon ki Baarat, Sholay, Mughal e Azam, Deewar or Dangal, which focused on completely different set of things, Hindi cinema was a cultural ambassador, as it told the best story of India there was to tell.
It was also where men and women from varied backgrounds could flourish off-screen and break from the traditional mores of Indian society. Creativity thrived in the cross fertilisation that was possible as several Indias collided here.
Crack Down on Cinema Not New, Its Frequency & Intensity Are
Different people displayed different political loyalties. Many stars rose to contest high profile elections and some achieved great success. Regimes like Indira Gandhi’s Emergency cracked down on popular singers like Kishore Kumar, who did not oblige her government. The prints of a defiant film on the unhealthy attachment to power, Kissa Kursi Ka, were infamously burnt and the guilty never got punished.
But Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide and the vicious social media and TV attack led by a carefully orchestrated and networked campaign which was captured in a University of Michigan study was of another order. Bollywood is yet to exhale and has had to deal with other attacks on what is being produced for Over The Top (OTT) streaming platforms.
Tandav and Mirzapur were targeted. These stories would have been seen as tame a few years ago—but not now. Organised trolls, online and offline, well supported by noise on the media and a ‘legal strategy’, are engaged in the process of shutting it all down.
The new changes proposed in the draft Cinematograph Act, would make it possible for certified films too to be questioned, by law and not by ‘pressure’ alone. The film maker would live in perpetual fear. This means, the full force of the law, the state and ruling party leaders would serve as a multiplier to what was just ‘a mob’ so far.
Cultural Policing in Other Contexts
One must not forget what has happened in other contexts when culture has been policed by state and mob.
Germany of the 1930s offers valuable and costly lessons. Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda recognised the great potential of cinema for propaganda. The story of Fritz Lang is an instructive testament of the times.
Hitler was very enamoured of his film Metropolis in 1927, which was centred on German society’s economic inequality and troubles. Lang some years later, went onto make a film with anti-Nazi overtones which the Reich banned, but Hitler recognising his talent, wanted Lang to hold the highest post in his system, and invited him to be his artistic director.
Lang, half-Jewish, feared an eventual reprisal and terrified about drawing attention, fled Germany soon after. The control of the Reichsfilmkammer on the German film industry was just so tight, with the regime deciding who will make films and which ones, along with ever-tightening censorship, that the industry could not survive the exodus it led to.
How Lahore Film Industry Couldn't Survive Zia's Islamisation
Closer home, it may be tough to imagine this today, but Lahore was once not just as big as Bombay, but equally vibrant. A study published in 2010 by Wajiha Raza Rizvi of the Film Museum Society in Pakistan looked at 122 academic and non-academic articles, film directories, books, and films to assess the incline and decline of Pakistani cinema under different political regimes and had some dark conclusions to offer.
While Lahore was hit by technology, piracy and sheer decline in quality after 1971, when Dhaka separated, taking away some vital creative fuel, it was essentially unable to survive the terror and the Islamisation of the Zia ul Haq years.
Bollywood Once Ensured Safe Passage Even in War-Torn Afghanistan
What Joseph Nye had in mind when he first spoke of ‘soft power’ more than forty years ago, was the immense hold that political values, culture and influence a nation can exercise, to get others to do what they would not do otherwise with just ‘hard power’.
For a country like India, its ‘soft power’ was seen as of immense potency and value. Hindi film stars strode across languages, whether in Uzbekistan, Ukraine or Kenya. Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan worked their charisma from the middle-east to Japan.
There are true stories of safe passage being provided in strife-torn Afghanistan to Indians in exchange for VHS-es of Hindi films. Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots was a hit in China and the power of Khans in Bollywood was a disarming statement of how India was the entire world, squeezed into a country.
Modi Govt's 'Soft Power' Mileage Impossible with Such Tight Controls
India needs its soft power the most at a point like now when the world is in transition. But none of the effervescence and energy that makes this ‘soft power’ happen is possible when you have everything at the end of a tight leash.
The possibility of a double-censor, police and court action for storylines, characters portrayed in films, straitjacketing, downright intimidation, and haranguing of those the government thinks do not agree with it, will smother this precious Indian asset.
Surely, this government must wish to draw mileage from soft power at a difficult time for itself. The self-goal of destroying a vital source of our soft power at a time like this is mystifying.
Actor Raj Kapoor swayed to a memorable song in 1955
Mera joota hai Japani,
Yeh patloon Englistani,
Sar par lal topi Roosi,
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani,
(my shoes are from Japan, my trousers English, the cap I wear is Red (Russian) but my heart is Hindustani).
It was a smashing hit and the best expression of the proud Indian at ease in the world. It would be a pity if India were to shoot the Hindustani in the foot.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. 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.)