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The purpose of Bollywood

Published Nov 27, 2012 11:23am


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-Photo Illustration by Eefa Khalid/

Does cinema have a purpose? One of the most powerful tools ever devised by man must do something more than merely entertaining a billion people. Cinema was supposed to make us think, inspire, and question besides amusing us but if one were to look at Bollywood’s best from the past decade then it seems like its purpose is lost. Of course, our films still entertain us but the price they appear to have paid seems too high now.

Cinema, like other art forms, is a product of its environment. The power and impact of films is far greater than an individual’s point of view and that’s why at times a deep-rooted critical analysis of even something like Bollywood doesn’t make sense. In the greeter scheme of things Bollywood isn’t as important as columns such as this might imagine it to be but something that stirs emotions both good and ugly in billions of people warrants such musing.

In a recent article that looked at the veracity of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian suggested that more than anything else films must make us think about the myths and realities of our times. Although, he said that in the context of a particular film that takes a fresh look at a nation’s biggest crisis, it nevertheless made me think about our popular films. Escapism has been the cornerstone of Bollywood ever since one can recall and for an industry where templatisation is almost a way of life, it has become the talisman that everyone believes in. Many filmmakers try and successfully pass off the ridiculous in the name of entertainment. Others take themselves far too seriously. Some like Anurag Kashyap, an icon of sorts when it comes to heralding in the “new Bollywood”, argue that present day commercial Hindi cinema finally seems to have broken the shackles of the old guard but never has Hindi cinema seemed so purposeless.

Imagine yourself to be an outsider with no idea of India as a nation. Now imagine watching Bollywood’s best from the last decade or so to get know the country. I’m certain that you won’t think much of us, now would you? There are only a handful of films in the last few years that come across as something more than mindless nonsense. In the initial years after Independence films played a major role in uniting people with their strong sense of social messaging. There were films that promoted things like education, or national unity but more than anything else they upheld a sense of general empathy. This element of purpose might seem tacky to the present day it crowd but back then the audience looked forward to it. In the last five years films like Bodyguard, Ghajini, Dabangg, Ek Tha Tiger, and Singham have made more money than films ever before but what does that say about us?

Filmmakers would argue that the proof of the pudding lies in the eating and the fact that ticket-paying viewer likes them is testimony enough. But is the viewer really at play here? If a major release has 17 shows a day per multiplex then what else do you expect the majority of Indian population to do but watch the film for cinema is still the cheapest, and perhaps the only, form of accessible entertainment for them. There is nothing wrong with the Ek Tha Tigers ruling the roost at the box-office but they invariably end up killing everything else. A film like Well Done Abba, an absolute gem directed by Shyam Benegal, didn’t last more than a week in cinemas because in the times of opening weekend collections even seven days was too long a time for a small film. It’s not like Benegal might never make a film again because he doesn’t understand the new economics that govern films; it’s because he might not be able to be completely purposeless. Today, a Gangs of Wasseypur might blow a majority of the audiences and critics equally but look closely and there’s very little that you’d find worth remembering a few days after the epic two-volume opus.

Who would have thought that in a year of a Vicky Donor or Paan Singh Tomar the moral bankruptcy of Hindi cinema would look greater than that of the 1980s. Often berated for being the worst decade for Hindi cinema, the 1980s nonetheless helped the so-called Parallel Cinema to really come of age. It was the only time when films no matter how big or small were treated at par by the industry but also by the audiences as well as the critics. It was time where a Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri could beat an Amitabh Bachchan in a popular award category and their films went that extra mile to meet the audience’s need for something thought provoking.

There seems to be a direct relationship between Hindi cinema’s growth and it’s lack of purposefulness. Our films are supposed to reflect us but there surely must be something more to us than Ek Tha Tigers and Dabanggs. A filmmaker is freer today to talk about you and me and tell our stories, they must for it’s not like the society that inspires them isn’t in strife.

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Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Gautam Chintamani loves to closely observe society when not being devoured by Bollywood, politics and everything in between. Commissioned by Harper Collins, Gautam is presently working on a biography of Rajesh Khanna due to come out later this year. He tweets @GChintamani.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (27) Closed

Indian_American Nov 29, 2012 03:47am
In 20 years , I've watched about 20 hindi movies. Most indian ppl considered me "different" but I take it as an compliment. I guess, I haven't missed much . Have I ?? lol
P. Abidi Dec 04, 2012 02:56am
It is not the movies but the content has deteriorated. The producers, directors, poets are not there and so is the music directors, actors who walked with the story line and much much more. Bollywood has not produced quality movies since the late 60's early 70's. We do not have Guru Dutt. Yes a lot of wannabees.
Saurabh Nov 28, 2012 10:09pm
ms abida pls watch taare zameen per,paansingh tomar, 3 idiots, OMG, Zindagi na milegi dobara, kahaani, bandit queen, chak de india, Hindustani,border,gangs of wasseypur,chhitgong,Legend of bhagat singh,Stanley ka dabba,barfi,rocket singh salesman of year,wake up sid,Vicky donor and many more.
raika45 Nov 27, 2012 12:14pm
In the tough times of earning a living in India, where tensions and "hurly burly" of life are a fact. Escapism into the world of fantasy for some 3 hours where pretty damsels dance and heroes do the impossible in most cases in air conditioned comfort for the viewer is good enough.They have enough of reality in life to see it on the screen in the "serious"cinema.The latest fad of the item number that most films have now which started with Dabang with it's Muni badnam hui is paisa vasul.
haris Nov 27, 2012 03:11pm
In this case, the purpose of Art is Dead. Art and Entertainment often come hand in hand but Art has its own splendor which reflects the society and provides Entertainment as well.
Matthew Thomas Nov 29, 2012 01:47pm
You seem to think only Bollywood movies have some monopoly on escapist cinema that's eaten up by the audience. The biggest hits worldwide this year have been The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, all of them are big budget blockbusters. Oh sure both Rises and Skyfall may have slightly bigger ambitions than most mainstream movies but they're still popcorn flicks. And if you want films that look at 'myths and realities of our time'. Why not Kahaani that explores terrorism and makes some astute gender observations. Or Paan Singh Tomar that looked at an athlete who becomes an outlaw after he's failed by the system. Or Shanghai that explores corruption in politics.
Abida Batool Nov 27, 2012 02:25pm
You are definitely right, Indian movies are never promoting any healthy and long-lasting message. They do often but the masala thingy makes it a total fuss and a waste of time for me & my elders who still remember those 10 or more years older movies of OLD BOLLYWOOD.
Magister Ludi Nov 27, 2012 02:47pm
When movies are divorced from literature they end up artistically, and one might even say morally, bankrupt. If one is to look at Hollywood almost of the memorable and great films are based on books; from Gone with the wind, Ben-Hur to Godfather to the Lord of the rings all are based on books. Although, Hollywood does produce a lot of crap like Ironman or steelman or some other idiotic name; but once in a while it does produce gems like Dark City and there is also a strong and very active parallel cinema trailing along And what can we say about Bollywood? How many of Bollywood films are based on books? No wonder that the extremely low standard of Bollywood films reflects the bankrupt nature of a society that is completely devoid of a book reading culture.
Oliver Nov 27, 2012 02:52pm
The closest to literature Bollywood has gotten in recent times was someone penning a poem in iambic pentameter for Katrina Kaif. Engaging titled Ode To Katrina Kaif.
True Indian Nov 28, 2012 02:54am
Completely agree with you....everybody knows that most of bollywood movies are not close to reality but still we love it not because its Indian but because we enjoy and forget our tensions and pains for those 2 or 2-and-half-hours...And one thing nobody can deny is, they maybe jealous but they cannot deny, that Bollywood movies are super entertaining....Bollywood ROCKS !!!!!
human Nov 28, 2012 11:44am
Pakistani women cannot survive a day without watching bollywood serials.
Khan Nov 28, 2012 01:55am
Slumdog millionaire depicts the true face of Indians
Mj Nov 28, 2012 02:04pm
Saving face depicts the true face of pakistans :D
human Nov 28, 2012 11:45am
Films should give entertainment also, apart from lessons Too many moral lessons are no good for human consumption.
srilatha Nov 28, 2012 04:19pm
I think lollywood..
Ankush Nov 27, 2012 03:52pm
At least a few good directors like Anurag Kashyap are left in Bollywood which are still trustworthy. Rest are just using Bollywood to mint money. They say audience is not mature and is content with the tried and tested formula of a masala movie. But I say that's the challenge. Make something strong which entertaining too.
srilatha Nov 28, 2012 04:13pm
We call indian films as bollywood movies, then what about pakistani mfilms??..what is the brand name??
Silajit Nov 27, 2012 07:41pm
The voting is a bit extreme. I'm fine with some movies being meaningful and others being meaningless entertainment. Agree that the 80s were the worst as far as movies went. Movies with messages ended in the 60s. The 70s had lighter fare with Rajesh Khanna, Sanjeev Kumar, Amol Palekar which gave way in the 80s to the angry young man type of movies with Amitabh, Dharmendra and at best Naseeruddin Shah and Kamal Hassan. Artsy movies like Aakrosh, Ardh Satya and Saaransh showed up but they continued to be pessimistic - "all hope is lost" variety.
Sridhar Sikha Nov 28, 2012 05:02am
i have seen - welcome to sajjapur - well done abba - even movies from Aamir Khan and Shahruk - like swades - i think there is enough parallel cinema - ram gopal varma's movie - of amitab/ashwarya/abhishek -on Don - like the reader said - swealtering heat - need to hang you head for 3 hrs - best comfort money can buy - and you do want to take your mind of the hustle and bustle - din and dust cinema's job -like theater - plays - stories - is to entertain - the mind - so people dont go off and join jihad -
Y ed Nov 27, 2012 11:06pm
It is doing much more. It is corrupting Pakistani youth. And reducing their moral spine to pulp.
Ali Abbas Nov 28, 2012 05:01pm
I voted for the last option because I find the whole discussion silly. There are several movies out there that "make us think". Public decided which movie they want to watch and find anything that suits their taste. I feel there are better things to discuss. By the way when you ask people to vote, majority will just say what seems right and not actually what they do.
Ropa Nov 27, 2012 01:16pm
This is the philosophical difference between the Fahrenheit and the Americans. The French analyze every movie for its implication about society and culture, and what it says about the angst of the people, whereas the Americans just watch the movie and forget about it. There's a reason why Hollywood dominates the world.
urawal Dec 01, 2012 07:37am
I am a thinking man ....I need different thought provoking intelligent and classy movies. But what abt a common non thinking man who just needs a few hrs of entertainment . He needs it too. Everything is not abt intelligence.....Let him enjoy gross/unintelligent / no thought provoking movies............let him enjoy latkas and jhatkas......spicy stuff.
Arsalan Nov 28, 2012 12:19pm
On a different topic, I am surprised at the editorial quality of this article. This is full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. I expect better from Dawn.
Just be Happy Nov 28, 2012 01:48pm
I do not understand why everything has to have a purpose or meaning... yes some movies should have purpose but all the time is annoying and pointless as well. Entertainmnet should remain entertainment
NASAH (USA) Nov 28, 2012 02:34am
The Indian films are mostly melodramatic formula trash.
abbastoronto Nov 27, 2012 02:42pm
The silver screen is either about reality, or a wish how the reality should be.