Wednesday, 27 June 2007

India Today (2007)

Just the other day, I was sitting in Cafe Coffee Day with a friend of mine. While discussing about our respective future plans, she was talking about going to the U.S.A. Asked why she wanted to go, she replied that it was largely at the prodding of her brother and had no specific reason for wanting to go there. In fact, she told me, she would prefer remaining in India. In many ways, this friend of mine (who's 6 years younger than me by the way) symbolises the new India.

Let me take you back to the late 90s/ turn of century when I was in college. I still remember the obsession for going to the U.S.A for an MS in those days (which to a great extent still persists, I may add), I still remember the number of students, especially engineering students, carrying a GRE or a TOEFL book in their hands all the time. Going to the U.S.A was be all and end all in those days. You only had to hear college students of my generation to catch that mood. Most people seemed to believe that just going abroad (read: crossing the Atlantic) would be the solution to all problems. And you could bet your bottom dollar that those very people would have criticised India at the first available opportunity.

So what has changed between then and now? Is it premature to talk about a new India?

Going back to the conversation with my friend, she was telling me that a lot of old timers fear that the sudden growth in India is not sustainable and in a few years we might be back to square one. I could not help replying that we are now firmly on the path to progress; the developments around us: the shopping malls, multiplexes, 15-20 storey buildings, state-of-the-art offices, massive pay-packets, etc are here to stay. Having held ourselves back for half century under a myraid of draconian laws, we have suddenly broken all shackles and realised what we are truly capable of achieving. But amidst that optimism, let's not overlook the problems that still persist.

My work involves a great deal of travelling; I have been to several cities across India over the last year or so. I have myself seen a village in M.P where there is not even a proper school- its open air, there's no electricity and there isn't even the pretence of a proper road. I've heard of villages in M.P where poverty is so rife that fathers and brothers themselves pimp girls for a living. I have seen incredibly backward places in Bihar where you can see how badly people are crushed by poverty and by the heartless class system that degrades men to abysmal depths. I'm told that the poverty in those parts is so overwhelming, that people kill for a few hundred rupees. I have read that there are 44,000 villages or so in U.P without power, where healthcare facilities are non-existent and mortality rates are comparable to sub-Saharan Africa. And so, I have also seen how bad things are out there.

And yet, I remain optimistic. Why, you might wonder, after seeing all that.

Let me take you still further back to my childhood, back in the late 80s, to the days when there were just 2 T.V channels. I can still remember the excitement of a 7-year old, when Doordarshan started afternoon transmission in `88, the excitement of watching Chitrahar on Wednesdays and Chayageet on Thursdays. Sundays mornings were ours (we kids that is): after Mahabharat, you would have cartoons right upto the afternoon. Had you gone out in those days, you would have seen only Fiats or Ambassadors on the road with the odd Contessa or Standard-2000 and yes, the Maruti-800 was state-of-the-art. Any shop that had an air-conditioner was a supermarket. Watching the latest movies on pirated video tapes was the ultimate in entertainment. Anyone who had a telephone connection was considered well-off.

Then there was 1991. Suddenly, everything started changing. You suddenly had something called cable T.V; there suddenly burst forth a plethora of T.V channels. Suddenly, you had multinationals from all the developed countries queing up to do business in India.You had new brands of automobiles like Opel, Ford, Peugeot, etc which one only heard or dreamt about formerly. Everyone came to have a telephone line and you suddenly had something called a mobile phone turning up in the mid 90s. Having a mobile phone now became the new status symbol. Today, barely a generation later, a mobile phone has become incredibly commonplace. Technology has changed dramatically, economic models have undergone a dramatic transformation. With all these, even mindsets have changed.

I have a colleague called Reena. She's 24 now and expecting to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in another year or two. She once told me that she's one of the few graduates in the family and the only person in her family to have gone beyond graduation. There may be nothing extraordinary in all this and yet, it symbolises how India is changing. The heartening fact is that her family is encouraging her to study further; one generation ago, they might have been pressurising her to get married. That one fact speaks volumes as to how mindsets are changing. And that is not the only thing that's begun to change. Even the demographics of urban India are rapidly changing.

Let me tell you about another colleague of mine called Vivek. He's a native of coastal Maharashtra, hailing from a family of agriculturists. Vivek is the first member of his family to complete graduation- not just in education, but also the graduation from blue-collar worker to white-collar worker. People like Reena and he are what I'd call the first-generation middle class- they belong to the new middle class that has emerged post liberalisation. The last decade and a half has seen thousands like them rise from poverty or near poverty and enter the middle class. These are people who were workers or farmers barely a generation back and still retain connections with their roots.

To me, the new middle class is the future of this country. Their numbers are growing year after year. The middle class forms about a third of India's population today and that percentage will keep growing. Market demand, political voting patterns, education, everything will be decided by the middle class in another generation or two. When I see young people from smaller cities, like the contestants of Indian Idol rubbing shoulders with their counterparts from the bigger metros, I feel that the future of the country is in safe hands. The old middle class from the major cities have played out their historical role. Its the new middle class from the smaller cities who will take India forward.

True, problems are still plentiful and in many ways, India still remains a backward and third-world nation. And yet, there's boundless talent and more importantly, a belief among the people. Its this belief in a glorious future, this new-found energy, this enthusiasm that makes me optimistic that India has finally arrived and begun to attain its rightful place in the world.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Indian Cinema Today

I was recently watching a movie called "Bheja Fry". Seeing the movie, I couldn't help reflecting that a movie like that would never have been made even a generation ago. What a contrast movies today are, as compared those in the 90s when I grew up!

To drive home the point, let me come back to the movie I was referring to. Bheja Fry was admittedly a remake of a French movie called "Le Diner de Cons" but looking at the starcast and the format, you know right at the outset that its the kind of movie that would never have been made in the pre-multiplex age. Not a single member of the acting cast has even the slightest pretence to being a "Star". Even more interestingly, there was not a single song in the movie- an unthinkable proposition barely a decade ago. Back in the 90s, the age of "formula cinema" was not yet over.

You knew almost every twist and turn of almost every movie back then: corrupt politicians, corrupt policemen, an idealistic hero whose passion transcended the realms of reason, a showpiece heroine who would suddenly appear whenever the director felt the need to insert a song... it was all the same. One of the enduring legacies of Indian cinema is music. The first ever Indian talkie "Alam Ara" is said to have contained several songs. In fact, talkies back then are said to have had 60 songs on an average, with Indrasabha setting a record with 71 songs!

For the better or the worse, those early, pre-independence movies set the template for film making. All the changes notwithstanding, songs remained an integral part of movies right from the age of Mahatma Gandhi down to Nehru through Indira Gandhi and her successors and down to our own day. Another unfortunate corollary is that the songs frequently overshadow the movie and assume an importance of their own. So much so, that filmmakers concentrated (many of them still do) more on the music than the movie itself.

And yet, Indian cinema has undergone nothing less than a revolution over the last few years. Take the comparison between Chak De (2007) and Lagaan (2001). Lagaan was itself an extraordinary movie in its time and yet, some of the themes in that movie look archaic today: a villain, a jealous rival in love and a few songs, almost all of which had little relevance to the scrips. Move 6 years ahead to Chak De (and anyone who's lived in urban India in these 6 years would know what dramatic changes have occured in that time): no villiain, no meaningless songs, no romantic angle... just a simple story of a coach who guides a talented side to an unprecedented victory.

Lagaan in all probability catered to the requirements of its time: the demands of the average theatre going viewer in that age when going to a theatre was dying out, long long before the advant of multiplexes. The arrival of the multiplex has transformed the face of Indian cinema. Unlike the big budget, multi starrer dramas of the 90s or early 2000s which demanded a share of the role for each star, a simple script, running on a limited (sometimes shoestring) budget, without recognised faces is perfectly acceptable in this day and age. The reason? You have more intellectual, upwardly mobile audiences for such movies- all thanks to the multiplexes.

While sequels and remakes proliferate, we have also had movies like Rang de Basanti, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Chak De, Manorama- Six Feet Under, Bheja Fry, Dor, etc. within the last 24 months. Of this lot, the first three were not only critically acclaimed, all of them were massive hits. For those who claim that critical acclaim does not necessarily make for good business, this one fact should by itself adequately answer any such doubts.

Recently, I read an interview of Javed Akhtar- the very Javed of Salim-Javed who scripted bollywood classics like Sholay, Deewar and Don, in which Javed Saahab said that he once presented a script before a producer, who lauded him on the idea but refused to touch it. The reason? Such a story had never been told in the history of Indian cinema until then! That very Javed Akhtar's son was able to show one of his protagonists falling in love with a woman 15 years older than him in his very first movie- something no director in the 90s could have even dreamt of showing.

That simple difference between the father-son generation gap brings out how far Indian cinema has matured since Amitabh Bachchan's heyday. True, Indian cinema still has a long way to go, but that long journey has finally begun. Just as India is finally beginning to mature after a childhood of over 50 years, so is Indian cinema. Its not an adult yet, but its reached its adolesence. It remains to be seen how soon it makes the transition from adolesence to maturity.