Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Analysing 2000s cinema

I recently made an analysis of Indian society in the 1990s using cinema as a reflection of society. The objective of this article is to try and gain similar insights into Indian society in the 2000s using cinema as a reflection of social trends. Before going further, it would be worth mentioning that this analysis is restricted to Hindi cinema. Possibly an analysis of regional cinema along the same lines would throw up similar insights for individual regions within the country.

The 2000s was a dramatic decade that saw India (or at least, urban India) undergo an extraordinary socio-economic transformation. A whole decade post '91, the effects of the liberalising forces unleashed in that historic year started being felt. In those ten years, India underwent a transformation wider and more far reaching than perhaps any that it had experienced in living memory. Inevitably, those changes were reflected in the cinema of that period that was markedly different in terms of content as well as treatment of the subject matter.

The middle-class at the heart of the economic transformation became the primary audience for the movies made. Not surprisingly, the protagonists became ordinary, middle class men. Whereas the protagonist in 80s or 90s Bollywood was usually a heroic figure and a man in economically reduced circumstances, he was now either middle class or rich. Ranbir Kapoor- one of the rising stars of Hindi cinema today- is the very embodiment of the contemporary middle class Indian. The character of Raj in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) as well as that of Siddharth in Wake Up Sid (2009) was of middle class Indians in their early to late twenties- contrast that with the impoverished characters of that Hritik Roshan played in his first few movies at the beginning of the decade, one gets a picture of the manner in which protagonists evolved as the 200s progressed.

Another trend that became increasingly visible as the decade progresses was the change in outlook towards the world. Whereas in the 90s, it was fashionable to blame politicians, administrators, policemen, capitalists and just about anyone in a position of power (not least the system) for any problem, more and more filmmakers started acknowledging the fact that Indian society had to take responsibility for its problems. And so Ajay Devgan, the quintessential rebellious and angry young man wronged by the system countless times in the 90s played SP Amit Kumar, an honest cop struggling against the system in Gangajal (2003) who in the climax scene reminds the people of his village that the policeman is but one among them and not an outsider.

The same theme was explored in the now legendary blockbuster movie Rang de Basanti (2006), where a bunch of young men with no pride in their country and little commitment to it are awakened from their blissful slumber when a dear friend dies in an air crash caused by bureaucratic negligence. In a radio address Karan Singhania (Siddharth) reminds his audience that the hated politician is a product of the very same society to which we belong and that his shortcomings are but a reflection of the shortcomings of our society. He even goes a step further and points out that the only way to change things is to enter the system and change it from inside.

In fact changing the hated 'system' of 90s vintage by being a part of it is a recurring theme in 2000s cinema. Thus the protagonist Anuradha Sehgal in Satta (2003), who finds herself unexpectedly thrust into the bad mad world of politics but rises above the herd to become numero uno in her party, reminds her countrymen and women that even ordinary people can make a change if they try. Mani Ratnam explored the same theme a year later in Yuva (2004), which was the story of three young men over the short period of a few months. Michael Mukherjee (Ajay Devgan) is a young activist determined to get into politics and change the system, up against Lallan Singh (Abhishek Bachchan), a young man with aspiration of money and power who'll stop at nothing to realise his dreams.

A related theme that was recurrent in 2000s cinema was the need for the youth to step up and contribute to society. Thus in Yuva, Arjun (Vivek Oberoi) was the very image of an educated 20 something Indian in the 90s and 2000s, who dreams of going and settling in the USA where he would enjoy a far better quality of life. Arjun quite unexpectedly falls under the influence of Michael and ends up becoming one of the comrades in Michael's crusade to clean up society. The same theme recurs in Rang de Basanti where Karan Singhania (Siddharth, who also appeared in Yuva), who too plans to turn back on India and settle in the USA forever, turns patriotic and ends up emulating the great Bhagat Singh.

Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades (2004) took up the same theme, albeit for a character already settled abroad. The protagonist Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), who is working for the NASA comes to India on a visit which takes him to a small village. Mohan's first ever exposure to life in rural India causes a metamorphosis in his thinking, prompting him to eventually quit his job at the NASA and return to his country which, he realises, badly needs educated young men to contribute.

Another unexpected trend that kicked off in the early noughties and continued right through to the end of the decade a flurry of period movies as bollywood turned back the clock with the vengeance- unusual in an industry seldom known to dish out period movies.

Kicking off the trend was Kamal Hassan's Hey Ram (2000), a movie that traces the gravitation of the protagonist Saket Ram (Kamal Hassan) towards fundamentalism in the aftermath of the violence attendant to partition. Saket Ram, like other right-wing Hindu fanatics in the late 40s holds Mahatma Gandhi responsible for being soft on the Muslims and sets out to kill the old man before an unexpected meeting with an old acquaintance sets off a series of events that lead him to realise that violence only destroys innocents, irrespective of their religious persuasion. The year 2002 saw the release of no less than 3 movies on Bhagat Singh, all of which were more masala movies than artistic depictions of historical facts.

The year 2005 saw the release of two period movies, one based on the character of Mangal Pandey and the events leading to the great uprising of 1857 and the other based on the life of Subhas Chandra Bose. Of all period movies bollywood has dished out, the later has to be one of the most factually accurate ones. Rang de Basanti, though not a period movie, evoked historical characters to draw parallels between the tyranny of British rulers and that of India's corrupt politicians. Another blockbuster movie from the decade was Jodha Akbar (2008), based on the love story of mughal emperor Akbar and his Hindu wife Jodha Bai. This was in fact Ashutosh Gowariker's second period movie after another blockbuster movie (albeit a work of fiction) Lagaan (2001), which was based on an unusual opportunity presented by the British rulers to the peasants of a province to escape their oppressive taxes for three years.

There were, apart from the above-mentioned ones, quite a few more period movies in the 2000s. Clearly, it seems, there was a renewed interest in rediscovering the past. For a nation that was hitherto only too keen to forget the past up until the late 90s, the new found pride in being Indian perhaps created a greater desire to know the past, to rediscover it. (As I write, Ashutosh Gowariker is making yet another period movie, this one based on the Chittagong uprising of 1930).

While Bollywood increasingly obsessed with the past, there was an even greater obsession with contemporary themes. One recurring theme in 2000s cinema, especially towards the second half of the decade, was terrorism. As terror attacks on India grew in frequency, the manner in which the subject was treated also evolved.

The protagonist Raja (Bobby Deol) in Badal (2000) becomes a terrorist after his father was murdered by a corrupt policeman. Similarly, Amaan in Fiza (2000) and Altaf in Mission Kashmir (2001)- two movies released just a few months apart featuring the same actor, Hritik Roshan, as a terrorist- are young men driven to a life of terrorism by circumstances. Note the sympathetic portrayal of young terrorists at a time when terrorism was but a word in India and happened only in Border States like Kashmir.

By the middle of the decade, the situation had changed completely as city after Indian city was confronted by the ugly spectre of terrorist attacks. Rehan (Aamir Khan) in Fanaa (2006) is an unabashed terrorist, who has no qualms about deceiving and impregnating a blind girl. Despite rediscovering her several years later with his little son, Rehan remains attached to his sinister cause. A similar theme is noticeable in Kurbaan (2009), where the protagonist Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan) unabashedly deceives a young lady into marrying him purely with the intention of using her as a means to get an entry into the USA.

Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008) presented a very different perspective on the subject (those who haven’t seen the movie: please skip this para as there’s a spoiler here), showing an unnamed common man taking on and destroying terrorists in retaliation of their dastardly acts. Another movie, released around the same time titled Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) showed the damage terrorism does to the innocents affected by it. Veteran actor Nasseruddin Shah, who played the common man in A Wednesday himself had made his directorial debut a year earlier in Yun Hota toh Kya Hota (2007), a movie featuring unconnected protagonists brought together by destiny on the ill-fated American Airways flight on 9/11.

Another contemporary trend in Indian society was the rise of small town India. Not surprisingly, the same was reflected in the appearance of movies set in provincial India. Suddenly, an industry that seemed too obsessed with Swiss locales to show India (except Bombay and Delhi) started exploring life in the Hindi-speaking heartland. Interestingly, most of those movies were based on politics. Haasil (2003), Gangajal (2003) and Apharan (2005) were all movies based either on politics or political figures. Omkara (2006) too featured characters involved in political machinations. Sehar (2005) is a thriller drama showing the conflict between the police and organized crime (with the inevitable political nexus involved) in 90s Lucknow. Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) too was set in a provincial city.

One last contemporary theme that merits attention was the treatment of sexuality. Sex has traditionally been a taboo topic in India and Indian cinema has traditionally been rather prudish on the subject. In cinematic tradition, true women are supposed to be self-sacrificing and absolutely selfless, concerned only about the larger good of the family. Pre-marital sex was immoral and unacceptable. There also was the fact that sexuality was supposed to be conventional; homosexuality or lesbianism was unthinkable.

All that changed as the decade progressed. And so Anuradha Sehgal in Satta (2003) has a physical relationship with her mentor- unthinkable for a female protagonist in the old century. Vidya in Paa (2009) is a woman who not only has a child out of wedlock, but also goes on to live a perfectly normal life as an unmarried mother- once again, something unthinkable for a woman in 20th century India. Salaam Namaste (2005) features a young couple having a live-in relationship. Nishabd (2007) explores the midlife crisis of a 60 year old man who falls in love with a girl of 17. Mixed Doubles (2006) features two urban couples that swap partners just to ‘spice up’ life. Looking at the number of unconventional situations explored, it’s evident that sexuality was no longer such a taboo topic. What is even more remarkable however, is the fact that women are increasingly portrayed as sexually liberated beings with a mind and desires of their own.

But sexual liberation was not just restricted to women. The 2000s saw homosexuality being increasingly acknowledged and accepted as an undeniable aspect of reality. Whereas homosexual men were always portrayed as effeminate and feeble in the old century, they suddenly became normal men. The eponymous protagonist in My Brother Nikhil (2005) is a closet homosexual who is ostracised when it is discovered that he is HIV positive, but finally gains acceptance from society. Dostana (2008) features a gay couple (admittedly men who pretend to be gay) as its protagonists. Fashion (2008) featured a fashion designer who was gay. None of the above-mentioned characters were shown even remotely as abnormal, effeminate or laughable as had been the case as recently as the late 90s (note the effeminate character in the 1998 blockbuster Ghulam).

And so from the point of view of Hindi cinema, the 2000s has to be remembered as the decade when politics, history, introspection, sexual liberation, a true sense of patriotism and a greater sense of society’s responsibilities for its own problems came to occupy a prominent place in the collective consciousness. To be sure, these are just a few of the undercurrents evident in cinema of the period. Social historians would doubtless throw up many more observations than this writer has managed.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Tryst with Destiny

As I write, there remain all of 30 minutes to go before the stroke of midnight takes the date to 15th August- a day that is special for every Indian who has ever been to school. At the stroke of midnight this day 63 years ago, India finally achieved the independence that generations of Indians dreamt of, for which thousands sacrificed their lives and millions of common men and women underwent untold difficulties and sufferings.

Three and sixty years after Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India made that epic speech it is time for India to sit and ask itself the question: have we kept our tryst with destiny?

The facts are staggering. The average life expectancy in India is 68 years today against 31.8 at the time of independence. The colonised, impoverished land of 1947 is today the fourth biggest economy in the world (in terms of purchasing power parity) and the second fastest growing out of the major world economies. India's 250-300 strong middle class is expected to go up to 600 million or so in two more decades. Indeed, we can go on producing any number of statistics to illustrate the extraordinary progress India has made in the last six decades, especially in the years post `91.

Now for a reality check: After three and sixty years of independence, India ranks 134/ 182 on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. 44% of the children under five are malnutritioned and nearly 7% of the children born do not live beyond the age of 5. 72% of the population does not have access to improved sanitation facilities and about 11% of the population (which amounts to over 100 million people- more than the population of France, Spain and Italy combined) does not have access to improved water sources- figures far worse than those of Algeria.

While people living in the major cities may celebrate India's rise and our advance towards 'superpower' status, there still are a horde of statistics that shows just how far we still need to go before our 'superpower' dreams become a reality. No country can ever became a superpower with nearly half its population crushed by poverty, when thousands of farmers are committing suicide due to indebtedness. A country where millions of people are so badly off that nearly a third of its territory falls under the scope of operations of militant communists can never claim to be a major power. A country where half the population of its financial capital lives in slums has serious challenges to surmount.

Its true that steady, if slow, progress is being made in remedying these problems and that millions of people are getting the opportunity to improve their lot. Nevertheless, quicker progres is needed. Schemes like NREGS, PURA and housing development programmes need to be implemented in all honesty over several years before we can give our impoverished millions their freedom.

Let's face it: political independence and democracy means nothing if they cannot guarantee two basic meals and the most basic dignity every human being is entitled to. Every country's true status is reflected by the condition of the people at the bottom end of the pyramid. As of today, that lower end comprises over half the population.

Yes, we are a young, vibrant and rising nation. Ours is a dynamic economy, a society undergoing a profound socio-economic transformation. But our cities are dirty, our roads are pathetic, none of our cities can provide round the clock water or electricity supply to its citizens. Baring a handful of them, none of our cities have anything vaguely resembling a public transport (and I'm not even talking about the countless problems rural Indians face).

We may take pride in our improving pay packages, we still see hundreds of thousands of people struggling to find a roof to live under. We may take pride in our cars, but still find small children begging at the signals. We may have state of the art malls, but look through the windows and you're likely to see thousands below living in slums.

Only if we confront and accept that harsh truth and do something about it, will we manage to keep that tryst with destiny. If on the other hand, we continue to look the other way as we have for six decades now, the tryst with destiny will remain nothing but pure words.

Which way we go is entirely our choice . Our destiny is in our own hands

Monday, 9 August 2010

Time to move on

First and foremost, my heartiest congratulations to India for winning the third test at Colombo to level the series 1-1. Sri Lanka hasn't been the happiest hunting ground for India (or any other team for that matter) in recent years. The last two visits (in 2001 and 2008) ended in 1-2 reversals. In fact Dhoni's men became the first Indian side to come back from a tour of Sri Lanka without losing since 1997.

And yet, that says only part of the story. Here was a side that missed Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth- three out of the four first choice bowlers. In their stead was the most inexperienced bowling attack India fielded in a generation, manned by the 21-year old Ishant Sharma and the 20-year old Abhimanyu Mithun and an even more inexperienced young spinner whose CV read a mere 4 test matches coming into the series. Another key component of the team- Gautam Gambhir- missed the last two tests. Add to it all the fact that Dhoni lost all three tosses.

Under the circumstances, it was a collosal achievement to come back from behind and change 250 plus on a deteriorating fifth day wicket. India showed that limitations notwithstanding, they have the character needed for a side that claims to be No.1.

Nevertheless, one feels that its time India started looking towards the future. Harsh or even cruel as it may sound, its time to have a younger batsman replace Rahul Dravid.

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge admirer of the man. In fact I have always admired him more than Sachin Tendulkar (and I'm from Mumbai, mind you). I would be the first to point out his monumental contribution to Indian cricket: that partnership with Laxman at Calcutta in 2001, the centuries in England the following year, that epic performance at Adelaide in 2003...the list could go on. Those were the victories that saw India making the transition from an underperforming, directionless side to a contender for the top slot and Dravid, more than any other Indian batsman, was responsible for that.

But that, as it happens, is the past. The unfortunate truth is that Dravid is no longer the force he once was and at 37, he is not going to help the future by being around. He and Tendulkar are both in their late 30s. Add to that VVS Laxman who will be 36 later this year. Given that aging middle order, its imperative that India start preparing for life after them and the only way that can ever happen is by ensuring that as and when they retire, there are youngsters ready to take up their positions- which naturally means that India needs to blood younger players and test them in different conditions as soon as possible. The last thing India would want is to find themselves in an Australia like situation with an avalanche of retirements and a bunch of youngsters not yet ready for the highest level thrust into the role.

With youngsters like Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli banging hard on the selector's doors on the one hand and an old generation of stalwarts looking closer to the end than the beginning on the other, its time for the selectors to put aside sentiment and take some harsh decisions. Given their current form, its impossible to make a case for dropping Tendulkar and Laxman (in any case, its hard to imagine any selector having the courage to drop Tendulkar). Given that, Dravid is, for the better or the worse, the only available option.

Yes it sounds ruthless, heartless even. But it is saying too much to contend that the team should take precedence over the individual? Should sentiment be allowed to come in the way of the team's progress? Is sentiment any justification to deny a rising generation an opportunity to step in and get themselves ready to shoulder the future?

These are the questions that Indian cricket needs to ask itself. In the answer lies the future of Indian cricket.