As a little girl growing up in India, I loved the larger than life world that Bollywood movies inhabited. As a kid, my life was painted in pastel colors of white and gray. I was quiet and shy, an only child with simple tastes. On the other hand, the world of Bollywood movies was as colorful as a “Holi” palette of colors, filled with larger than life characters who could sing, cry, fight or go up in flames at the drop of a hat. The actors and actresses were beautiful and talented, could wiggle their hips in amazing ways (even the men!), sing and dance and die for their love. It was the world I would escape to when the grays of my world threatened to overwhelm the colorful soul hidden within. In a small Indian town like Lucknow, my love for Bollywood movies was normal, and accepted. Then my Dad got a brand new job in India’s capital, Delhi and with it came a heart-wrenching move to the big, bad world of Delhi. Among other things, I discovered Bollywood was “garish”, “vulgar”, “lacked culture” and “meant for lower classes and small town people”. As an uprooted twelve year old kid, stuck in an entirely new environment, it wasn’t hard for me to sell out so that I could fit in. So I switched from Bollywood to Hollywood, which wasn’t a bad trade, except for the fact that I was denying what had become an essential part of me.
Years passed. I went to college in the US at the tender age of eighteen. Although I was uprooted again and in a completely new environment, this time I did not buy into things because I wanted to fit in. I had learned that fitting in was not all that it was cracked up to be and definitely not worth the sacrifice of your individuality. Long torn between my love for many things Western, and South Asian, I started to discover the ideal blend between the two. And part of that ideal blend was to fall in love all over again with Bollywood. In the many years that have passed since my graduation, I see that attitudes haven’t changed that much today. Bollywood lovers still need to remain in the closet to continue to hang out in South Asian intellectual circles. What many don’t realize though, is that the Bollywood of today has undergone a sea change. Although I loved the Bollywood of my childhood, it just does not hold up to the Bollywood of today. The Bollywood of today is better, brighter, bolder and as Jules from “Pulp Fiction” would say “righteous”! I think its because the India of today is a better, brighter and bolder India, and I love that.
Not all movies fit the bill though. Bollywood produces over 1000 movies each year, very few of them make it big. The ones that do make it big are democratic in the truest sense, they have to attract audiences at all levels. The “teawallahs”, the office girls, the college students, the businessmen, the expat Indians and people from large swathes of rural areas that crisscross India. The appeal of these movies cut across the language, caste, religious and gender lines that divide India. They do this by touching the one thing we all have in common, our basic goodness, our humanity. And so, in a land of emotional people – where people set themselves on fire to protest price increases, where the electorate instantly elects the widow of a slain leader, where casual remarks cause protests, bandhs and bloody riots, where respect and honor counts above all else – movies have to connect at an emotional level, and at the same time, bring out the best in this tired, worn out, yet defiant humanity. So these movies cannot be pedantic or they won’t succeed. They have to entertain, and they have to do it over three long hours. And many recent movies do it brilliantly.
The Bollwood movies of today have many different themes. One theme that struck me particularly is the spirit of resistance, of never giving up. To me, this theme is new to Bollywood movies. Perhaps no movie displays this better than a recent movie that was adapted from Devdas, which is the ultimate tragedy written by one of India’s most famous writers, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Devdas, the namesake of the novel and the ultimate romantic, falls in love with Paro, his childhood friend. His class conscious family objects, as Paro belongs to a lower caste. Confronted by his family’s resistance, a defeated Devdas cannot muster up the strength to go against their wishes and marry Paro. Rejected by Devdas, the heartsick Paro marries someone else. Devdas repents but it is too late and he is forever caught in the thrall of his love for Paro. Even after he finds Chandramukhi, a prostitute who loves him and takes care of him through his ill health, Devdas continues to cling to his fantasies of Paro and dies drunk and dissolute at Paro’s door. The book was written in 1917, captured the imagination of Indians and over 14 film versions were made of it, most of them hewing to the general theme of loss, love, weakness and the romance of tragedy.
Then, in 2009 came the unconventional interpretation Dev D. Dev is still a selfish, weak, and generally good for nothing man who doesn’t marry Paro because he believes, mistakenly, that she is cheating on him. He regrets his decision but does not stop Paro from marrying someone else. Once she is married, Dev sinks into drugs and alcohol. He meets Chanda who is a prostitute just like Chandramukhi – but with a difference. Chanda has not resigned to herself to her fate. She, too, is a victim of circumstance, but she resists – she continues to go to school and make something of herself. Ultimately Chanda, too, perhaps against her wishes, falls in love with Dev. Dev rejects her initially but is ultimately redeemed by her love, and is a better man for having loved her. In this movie, Dev D is still a weak man, however the important difference, to me was that his character was not his destiny. His circumstances help him to ultimately become conscious of the effect of his decisions and ignites in him, a desire to be better than the person he has been so far. The result of his inner struggle is that he opens himself up to change and in taking the second chance he was given, chooses life over death. And in that movie, we see how India’s character has changed. Life is a struggle, struggle against the odds that life has given you. If you fight for every inch, then whether you are poor or weak, you no longer have to accept your kismet. As Pacino said in “Any Given Sunday”, We are in hell right now, gentlemen believe me and we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell. One inch, at a time. Instead of romanticizing loss and weakness, Bollywood now celebrates people who overcome adversity through their inner strength.
Another great movie, Lage Raho Munnabhai brought the country together through an idea – the simple human value of peaceful resistance. The movie stirred popular imagination by combining non-violence, a value that many Indians hold dear, with social activism, and the belief that you can change the world with your actions. The values of non-violence were incarnated not in a holier than thou, physically weak character, but an ex-thug, someone who could use physical strength and violence if he wanted to, but chose not to. Indians today root for a guy who eschews violence, but can knock out more than a couple of guys in a bar if he needs to – a promise that the leade actor, Sunjay Dutt fulfilled. While Lage Raho Munnabhai took its inspiration from the living breathing India of today, it also had an impact on the rest of the world. Shortly after the movie was released during July 2007, the movie inspired Aman Kapoor, founder of the Immigration Voice forum to protest on behalf of people who were legally in the U.S. but not being processed due to a green card backlog. Aman used techniques similar to those in the movie (“shower your enemy with gifts and love to confuse him”) and was responsible for many people sending hundreds of flower bouquets to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office over a three day period. On 17 July, the USCIS announced that “it will accept applications from foreign professionals seeking permanent residency through an expedited process, reversing its earlier decision.” Way to go Munnabhai!
The India I see in Bollywood movies of today, reminds me of the America of yesteryear- the country that conquered the world through the power of its ideas, and not by the idea of its power. It is impossible to escape the powerful irony of anti-American terrorists clad in American jeans and tshirts. Some ideas are so powerful that when they permeate through our minds, they stick, like superglue, and it is impossible to get rid of them. Levi’s jeans became popular throughout the world, not because they were a great product, which they certainly were. It was because the jeans represented the idea of freedom, toughness and equality. The jeans were first worn by the working class but these iconic associations made them popular throughout the world.
It is not the Bollywood movies that make India what it is today. It is the India of today that has made these Bollywood movies. An India that re-defines Devdas, that encourages a fighter who is strong but does not always need to raise his fists. The Bollywood we used to know has undergone a sea change. It shows an India that is rising and will not be stopped. And we never noticed it happen.