Macchars don’t wear sweaters

Archive for June 2007

It’s ironical that I should be writing an introductory piece on a subject I am so critical of. But as they say, adore it or despise it – ya cant’ ignore it, especially if you are in India. That’s Bollywood for you – the veritable Indian film industry – an inseparable part of the paradox that is “india”. This is more than corroborated by huge movie posters splashed on every wall of every city, town and village; on every tuk-tuk, bus and rickshaw; movie songs being belted out in every passing car, restaurant and roadside stall radio. Youngsters grow up idolizing and worshipping Bollywood mega stars, and inadvertently emulating them. Many a gait will have the Sanjay Dutt stoop or the Sunny Deol swagger, many a hairstyle the Anil Kapoor puff or the Akshay Kumar slick, many a talk the Sharukh khan stutter or the Amitabh whisper. Although I may claim to be skeptical now I remember clapping my hands in glee as a kid when Mithun caught a grenade and threw it back at the villain’s cronies, or standing with his exaggerated lead spread, hands on waist, my childish mouth pursed in an expression of mock anger, eyes ablaze, threatening a classmate with dire consequences Amitabhstyle. 

The word “Bollywood” is a juxtaposition of the words “Bombay”, its home base and “Hollywood”. But it would be wrong to consider Bollywood a clone of its western namesake. It has a unique identity completely its own, its own richness, color, absurdities and excesses – read “masala”. 

“Extravaganza” is an apt description for Bollywood movies as the makers certainly spare no effort in creating a gut wrenching, mind dizzying, tear jerking and emotionally sapping experience. Romance, comedy, action, (melo)drama, tragedy, suspense, all come together in a single plot. Another distinctive characteristic of Bollywood movies is that every movie is a musical and every situation is an excuse for a song. Courtship, consummation of love, heart break, anger, protestation – all call for a song – many of which rather than being intimate affairs – are more akin to a lavish Broadway performance – together with the fantastic costumes, colors, and scores of background dancers dancing in tandem. Now, this would completely bewilder an uninitiated viewer. The beloved accepts the lover’s proposal and heavens break loose! Where did all the dancers descend from? How did the scene suddenly shift to hills of Scotland? Why are the lovers dancing with synchronized movements? Is it some kind of ancient consummation ritual? How does all this add to the plot??? Well it doesn’t. Who said Bollywood was about making sense. Its all about untampered unhindered entertainment. 

It would be wrong to say that Bollywood is insulated from outside influences. Many a Hollywood script is lifted scene for scene and unloaded on unsuspecting audiences. But being churned through the Bollywood machine yields a product so dazzling that the original moviemaker would pinch himself and rub his eyes in disbelief. The torrents of tears, the roars of rage and revenge, the single mindedness of the heroes’ quest, the thuds of fists, the unflinching devotion of heroines, the predominance of the “mother” and “motherland”, the cosmically evil villains (touted with leery expressions and stock dialogues like “long live the Satan” or “i am a dog”), the dancing angels who appear out of nowhere, the panoramic colors, the clothes, the hairstyles, the improbabilities, the coincidences, and the invariability of the ultimate triumph of truth. 

Bollywood caters to the particular psychological needs of the Indian audiences. It offers an escape to its primary audiences – the masses. Their escape from the drabness and harshness of everyday life – their taste of glorious love, a venting of their frustrations with every punch of the protagonist, the dazzling colors a relief from the grey shades of real life. That explains the mile long queues outside theatres, the enthusiastic clapping and whistling inside when the hero performs his impossible feats or the heroine shows her ankle. Bollywood is India’s catharsis.

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All the recent “Gandhigiri” lip service and talk of Gandhi being back in fashion rang superficial and ingenuine. Will Gandhi in his new “cool n cute” avtaar with his toothless smile, adorable lisp, twinkly eyes; making girls go awwwww and helping males with romantic advice (i suspect he wears a jockey underwear under his dhoti), alter a nation’s moral consciousness or at least set the ball rolling? Are you kidding me????

It obviously one of those superficial media generated “feel good” waves, a passing fad, that even THEY dont take seriously. I have long detected an undercurrent which is quite the opposite of the aforestated position. Rather than just being indifferent to Gandhi I have often found people’s attitude to be scoffing if not out rightly hate filled. “Turn the other cheek indeed”, you will often hear people sneer, and “Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi” is an ever popular adage. And strangely enough this co-exists with “official” pro-Gandhi rhetoric. Gandhi’s picture in every courtroom, police station and politician’s office. “Gandhian principles” being touted at the drop of a hat by everybody from college presidents to eminent businessmen.

This attitude, which to me seems to be held by a majority, has oft been reflected in popular cinema – the Gandhi of Kamal Hasan’s “Hey Ram” was cold, ruthless and arrogant; or the opportunistic Gandhi of “The Legend of Bhagat Singh” who, initially confounded by Bhagat Singh’s demands of complete freedom, graduates from ignorance “total independence?? What on earth is that??” to realization “total independence…hmmmmm” to action “we want total independence!” and of course shrewdly sidelines the Punjabi freedom fighter.

This widespread attitude is perhaps not so surprising as Gandhi’s tenets and preachings go against the grain of our animal instincts. Violent revolution and revenge seem to have a strange seduction for us, which titillates the depths of our psyche. There seems to be a profound misunderstanding of Gandhi’s tenets, nor is there any desire to seek him out, as for most, he is a symbol of a despicable polarization which represents extreme meekness, cowardice, impracticality and servility, which is to be ridiculed. The young mind especially, which is prone to the romance of radicalisim, somehow finds it synonymous with anti-Gandhisim, and it is not suprising to see a “Mein Kampf” tucked away in a corner of a hostel room shelf. The right way, for them, is the opposite way, the way of courage and honor – to make your wrongdoers pay. Gandhi was a fool, most would say. Gandhi is not relevant today, the more moderate ones will say, as if human nature has evolved in past fifty years.

Gandhi would be strongly opposed to this reading of his views. His concept of non-violence was not a non violence of fear and cowardice, but of colossal moral strength, of love in the face of hatred, of restraint and forgiveness in the face of violence. Not only was his non violence a tremendous moral force but was also immensely practicable for mobilizing popular movements. But such a moral consciousness does not make sense to most and seems to have been the ……. of a minority in all ages – Jesus, Buddha, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr (and many others of course).

That is why movies, both Indian and foreign, especially popular ones, repeatedly depict the theme of violence. Fate and foes pile misfortunes upon the protagonist, and he overcomes them, violently, equipped with a bazooka, a gun, or merely his karate skills. The villain ultimately has to pay with his teeth, his blood or his guts. Gandhian forgiveness? Humbug! Does Indian society at large uphold Gandhian restraint and tolerance. Godhra testifies otherwise, and more recently, the maurading mobs of the recent Meena Gujjar impasse and the sword toting mobs in the Dera episode.

Gandhigiri is certainly not in, an eye for an eye is, and has been for a long time.