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India: Reactionary Bollywood

by Prakash Kona, 30 April

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Pambazuka News, April 27, 2018

By and large the film industry everywhere is a dedicated supporter of the political establishment; Bollywood, more than a manifestation of the pan-Indian cultural industry, takes the cake.

This has been the case since India’s independence and is not something new. Watch any of Raj Kapoor and pseudo-socialism espoused in movies like Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955) and Anari (1959) and you a thinly veiled endorsement of Nehru’s mixed economy model of development where essentially the poor have to appeal to the goodwill of the rich – more like the success stories of the protagonists in the fiction of Charles Dickens except that the latter’s characterisation of individuals is funny, humane and realistic.

The Nehruvian model is based on the idea that private enterprises will combine profit motives with a bit of charity or philanthropy and patriotism – as in loyalty to national goals, none of which has happened.

If public organisations with a non-profit motive have been a disaster, it is because of massive corruption at every level of government and the colonial mentality of Indians who treat even the position of a lower division clerk as a way of using power against common people. The mixed economy model ended up becoming more private than public and at this point in time even the political parties are in the hands of the corporations with the police and army used as tools to secure the wealth, property and lives of the powerful leaving the rest of the country in near chaos.

I remember with amusement Che Guevara’s meeting with Nehru, a man who had impressed him enormously in his boyhood days and who, along with Peron, Che viewed as, “both strong and charismatic leaders who promoted the rapid industrialisation of their overwhelmingly agrarian nations as an essential step in gaining fuller independence from the powerful countries.” Che was at his elegant best for this prospective meeting with “the gentleman Prime Minister of the most underdeveloped country on Earth.”

“Nehru, his daughter Indira, and her young sons, Sanjay and Rajiv, were all in attendance. Che smiled politely while the venerable Indian prime minister described each exotic dish being served. The banquet went on in this banal fashion for more than two hours, and finally Che could stand it no longer. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he said, “what is your opinion of Communist China?” Nehru looked at him absently and replied, “Mr. Comandante, have you tasted one of these delicious apples?” “Mr. Prime Minister: Have you read Mao Tse-tung?” “Ah, Mr. Comandante, how pleased I am that you have liked the apples.”

Che later wrote that Nehru displayed “the amiable familiarity of a patriarchal grandfather” and “a noble interest in the struggles and vicissitudes of the Cuban people,” but, in fact, Che felt that there was little to be learned from the founding fathers of modern India. The Nehru government was unwilling to embark on a radical agrarian reform programme or to break the powers of the religious and feudal institutions that Che felt kept India’s people mired in poverty.” (my italics)

This is the bitter truth we need to face: the mixed economy model lead to full-scale corporatisation and the failure to educate the downtrodden classes and make them self-reliant while substituting the failure with reservations as a stop-gap measure that continues to the present – the “founding fathers” of post-independent India are responsible for this situation which every generation continues to suffer in the hands of “religious and feudal institutions.” It is these institutions that keep India backward and despotic that find an ideological justification through films. What makes Bollywood reactionary to the core is this need to perpetuate inequalities through a sinister corporate model of development that puts romantic feelings at the centre of everything. No reference is made to the wealth and power of the actors and the film industry whose links with politicians and politics is no secret at all.

In India the actors are a class and a lobby as well; the acting class is both wealthy and exploitative and plays an important role in keeping the illiterate masses (which by the way includes the “educated” middle-classes as well) sedated so that both their bodies and brains can be taken for an unforgettable ride of their lives. Interestingly thanks to Facebook, blogging and Twitter, the actors are our new intellectual class. They are the ones who are supposed to give profound insights into the nature and meaning of our pathetic existence; they also tell us what is wrong with us and how we should be living our lives.

Somebody who thinks that great scientists come anywhere close to the protagonist in the 2009 movie 3 Idiots must be dreaming with his or her eyes wide open. He or she should read the biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick (also the author of Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman). For days, weeks and months Newton looked at the sky night after night and made notes based on his observations. A man literally without a personal life, Newton stands at the threshold of the modern world as its greatest scientist.

Movies like 3 Idiots encourage imbecile behaviour and make a mediocre lifestyle seem like a facet of high intelligence. You can’t be an inventor, discoverer, philosopher, artist or anything serious without working towards it in thankless isolation. 3 Idiots is nothing but Hollywood cultural colonialism and disrespect for intelligence, which is an offshoot of popular American reading of democracy that is being imitated by foolish middle-class Indians.

Even if we are willing to ignore the silliness of Bollywood movies, it is hard to ignore the lack of social commitment. We get to catch a glimpse of how much the actors care for the people of this country in the “tweets” written in those few seconds between tying their shoe laces and zipping their pants. With these sparkling tweets which are reproduced in the media on a daily basis we are supposed to be convinced that they are not just actors amassing wealth but actor-activists who are also thinking about this country’s future.

To be honest, a tweet is less useful than a toilet paper. It makes no difference on earth to anybody least of all to victims of violence to find out that someone has tweeted for them. Instead of tweeting why don’t these acting classes do something for the weak and the exploited? Being involved in social causes is both about money and time. Neither of them ever comes out of India’s film industry. It is always about getting cheap publicity for their movies and about staying in the limelight.

All the populist nonsense we get from actors about treating girl children as more special than boy children; about reforms in education and about empowering the poor – none of that can be seen in the lives of any of the filmmakers or actors. The film industry is as deeply feudal as the rest of India perpetuating hierarchies of the worst kind. Thus filmmakers’ children become filmmakers and actors’ kids become actors while the truly talented ones are outside languishing in the hot Indian sun; their dreams ground to pulp while also financially and sexually exploited.

The tragic death of the unfortunate police constable Ravindra Patil who was the prime witness in the hit and run case of 2002 when the actor Salman Khan driving under the influence of alcohol killed a person and grievously injured four others needs to be borne in mind. This is the actor who is defending the poor on screen and does exactly the opposite in reality. Justice has neither been done to those poor people sleeping on the streets nor to the police constable.

I have no idea on earth why Yale University would award Shah Rukh Khan the Chubb Fellowship, who literally has nothing to do with “public affairs” as such. Is it because they think that we are a nation of morons and Shah Rukh Khan is the only one who comes closest to giving a perspective on leadership thanks to his vast phenomenal experience in running this nation? I am being ironic. Some of the previous fellows are: Nicholas Kristof, Morgan Freeman and Aung San Suu Kyi. Shah Rukh Khan comes nowhere near them.

There are quite a few Indians who are working from the margins to seriously empower the weak. It would make sense to invite any of them to be a Chubb fellow and not someone who has done nothing for his country let alone the world. Yet another reason for me to suspect that these fellowships are agenda-based like most other things in the United States especially when it comes to the third world.

If Indian movies are playing a crucial role in keeping the inanity of average Indians alive by making their prejudices seem normal on screen we also have to be aware that films like politics are a reflection of the kind of society we live in.

At the end of the day even the stupidest Indian is not so stupid as to believe that any good has or will ever come out of the acting class. They may be stupid enough to watch the movies but that does not mean they do not know how little Bollywood actors connect to real life especially in the Indian context.

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher, researcher and professor of English Literature at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. His research interests broadly include Women’s Studies, Film Studies and Third World Politics and Writing.

P.S.

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