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.