Friday, February 14, 2014

Does Indian Cinema shape our popular culture or merely reflect it

Since its invention the medium of cinema has become one of the most powerful tools of ideas that has been known to modern man. If American movies thrive on the valor of their people European cinema is known to take a deeper perspective in life. While Korean cinema often builds itself around the theme of love cinema of Hong Kong and East Asian variety tend to stick to stories which provide an ample display of martial arts. Yet among all these different strands out the Indian brand of cinema. India cinema by no means of imagination is limited to the Hindi speaking industry but goes beyond that. The thriving commercial successful movie industry of the South is compensated by the primarily thoughtful movies in the East. And then there is a whole strand of commercial and art films that run parallel in the Indian Cinemas today. Yet among all these strands divided by type, language, treatment and finance a few strings run common the theme of family, love commitment and honor. And these are the themes which are broadly woven into the narratives of the popular culture.

Popular culture of any society is defined by the common values and themes that any society seeks to build. It manifests itself in the form of art culture festivals and broad social interactions. Indian culture can be called vibrant and one which thrives on kinship and family. Yet culture itself is not static it is fluid. As a society moves with time connotations of culture take different meaning as well.

Cinemas for long had a deep impact in the psyche of Indian people. A blockbuster movie like Santoshi Ma eventually ensured acceptability of Santoshi Ma in the broader Hindu narrative. But themes in Indian Cinemas ran much more that merely standing on mythical or revisionist grounds.Social reality and conditions have been a favorite theme for Indian directors for long .In the 1950’s as India was passing through a new phase new challenges were encountered. A newly independent country poor with a burgeoning population was looking at the future with anticipation. Yet the poverty the abject distress couldn’t have been denied. It was this portrayal of distress which Guru Dutt immortalized in his movies like “Pyaasa” and “Do bhiga Zameen” .On the other hand the iconic image of Nargis Dutt as Mother India drove the nation and rejuvenated it .

The 1960’s and 70’s saw new hopes and much upheaval in politics. With unemployment and poverty reaching new heights the Indian man was now an angry young man. And it was no surprise that the superstar of the new decades was Amitabh Bacchan the angry young man. In movies like “Deewar” he began to represent a class that was angry at itself. Zanjeer the image of a honest cop who had to leave his job to fight the system represented the frustration of the honest working class. The angry young Indian out on the streets protesting found a voice in the form of Amitabh Bacchan.

Slowly as the 1970’s to the 1980’s perhaps the first difference between commercial and art cinema began to appear. India began to prosper there was hope economy was reviving and thus Cinemas’ too got new themes to work on. These new themes however began to move away from popular culture and concentrate on love and family. Romantic stories became the new norm in the 1980’s and the 1990’s .A new India was expressing itself not only in terms of money and power but also in terms of making fundamental choices like choosing a life partner. Yet for the discerning viewer the inherent irony of life was not lost. The aspirations of the middle class now fell on “art cinema” .Movies like Ardh Satya fell in this category. Though not commercially successful they did point out that Indian society still had its problems its inherent contradictions.
And yet the Indian cinemas cannot be limited to Hindi cinemas alone. Indian cinema has also been defined by iconic directors like Satyajit Rai who portrayed society with sheer brilliance onscreen. Assamese director Jahnu Baruah in his classic “Hagoroloi Bahut Dur” (Far from the Sea) stressed on development and what it meant for smaller societies. How the building of a bridge a sign of development across a river dashed the livelihood of a boatman who earned his livelihood by ferrying people from one side to another ,won him accolades. It was the fear of “development” and its character that the movie sensed and portrayed. Down south Kamal Hassan with his thoughtful filmmaking made a mark in the Indian film indsutry as well. While Rajnikanth was darling of the masses with his portrayal of the angry young man Kamal Hassan delighted his viewers with classics like Nayagan. These movies touched new themes dominant in the 1980’s and 1990’s the problem of insider outsider. How a Tamil speaking man had to don the mantle of a protector of his “people” in Bombay was not far from the reality at that time.

However to say that Indian cinemas has always been a mirror of Indian society would be a hyperbole. Movies especially in the new millennium have brought newer narratives into public domain. Public silent protest via candles in India Gate was a virtually unknown concept until the 2005 blockbuster Rang De Basanti bought it alive. Aamir Khan as a teacher of gifted dyslexic child in Taare Zameen Par brought new discussions centered on dyslexia and autism. Paan Singh Tomar recounted the story of Paan Singh Tomar .He was an athlete per excellence who brought pride to India in steeplechase. Yet he died as a dacoit. The movie Paan Singh Tomar brought the focus thousands of other sporting heroes whom the nation had forgotten. These new movies in the new millennium are once again seeking to blur the lines between art and commercial films which was so visible in the preceding two decades.


Thus with the passage of time Indian Cinema has gone through various phases and different threads, running parallel to each other, Yet it is not easy to say if it is merely a reflection of popular culture or it shaped it. Culture in itself is a fluid concept never static. Culture thrives on give and take .It would not be wrong to assume that popular culture and Indian cinemas seems to work together and in tandem. Both seeks to learn, share and shape each other. In the end both popular culture and Indian cinemas epitomize the changing vibrant idea called India.