Why Bollywood needs no validation from the West
A reactionary piece to Irrfan Khan's son Babil's recent social media post
I recollect hearing many moons ago, how the day Sachin Tendulkar scores a century, is probably the one day that the poverty-stricken Indian pavement dweller, goes to bed happy, oblivious of the gnawing hunger in his tummy.
The same can be said for the Bollywood obsessed, daily-wage earner in Mumbai, or for that matter, any part of India, who willingly forgoes his daily bread to stand in a queue to get his hands on the much coveted first day, first show ticket of his favourite matinee idol's latest blockbuster.
The recent commentary by National Award winning actor Irrfan Khan's son Babil dissing 'Bollywood' and blaming his talented father's box-office failure on the prevalence of "hunks with six-pack abs delivering theatrical one-liners and defying the laws of physics and reality" got me thinking.
About how quick we are to pass judgment and look down upon the seemingly superficial world of Bollywood, glossing over the sweat and tears of innumerable technicians, artists and filmmakers.
Khan Jr. places the onus of the current sad state of Bollywood on the fact that "we, as the Indian audience, refused to evolve." He talks of the potential of cinema and its implications on humanity and existentialism.
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You know one of the most important things my father taught me as a student of cinema? Before I went to film school, he warned me that I'll have to prove my self as Bollywood is seldom respected in world cinema and at these moments I must inform about the indian cinema that's beyond our controlled Bollywood. Unfortunately, it did happen. Bollywood was not respected, no awareness of 60's - 90's Indian cinema or credibility of opinion. There was literally one single lecture in the world cinema segment about indian cinema called 'Bollywood and Beyond', that too gone through in a class full of chuckles. it was tough to even get a sensible conversation about the real Indian cinema of Satyajit Ray and K.Asif going. You know why that is? Because we, as the Indian audience, refused to evolve. My father gave his life trying to elevate the art of acting in the adverse conditions of noughties Bollywood and alas, for almost all of his journey, was defeated in the box office by hunks with six pack abs delivering theatrical one-liners and defying the laws of physics and reality, photoshopped item songs, just blatant sexism and same-old conventional representations of patriarchy (and you must understand, to be defeated at the box office means that majority of the investment in Bollywood would be going to the winners, engulfing us in a vicious circle). Because we as an audience wanted that, we enjoyed it, all we sought was entertainment and safety of thought, so afraid to have our delicate illusion of reality shattered, so unaccepting of any shift in perception. All effort to explore the potential of cinema and its implications on humanity and existentialism was at best kept by the sidelines. Now there is a change, a new fragrance in the wind. A new youth, searching for a new meaning. We must stand our ground, not let this thirst for a deeper meaning be repressed again. A strange feeling beset when Kalki was trolled for looking like a boy when she cut her hair short, that is pure abolishment of potential. (Although I resent that Sushant's demise has now become a fluster of political debates, but if a positive change is manifesting, in the way of the Taoist, we embrace it.)
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Try talking existentialism to the hungry chawl dweller who goes to bed with stars in his eyes, and an empty stomach because he has spent his last rupee cheering on Salman Khan as he single-handedly beat up a gang of villains, with nary a tear on his spotless vest, or SRK as he serenaded the love of his life atop an exotic mountain.
Not for him the soul-enriching, life-altering type of movie that will open his eyes to 'great cinema'; his needs are simple just like the harsh reality he is trying to escape. I'm by no means, implying, that it is all he should aspire for, but let's not belittle him for the simple pleasures he derives from these entertainers.
Much like J.K Rowling's recent tirade against 'cancel culture' and the denouncement of the current social media tendency to embrace "a blinding moral certainty" we need to open ourselves to the fact that 'Bollywood' need not be defined by its 'song and dance numbers' alone, those 'mindless entertainers' meant to serve as an escape from one's humdrum existence if only for two-and-a-half hours.
Irrfan Khan will be as much remembered for The Lunchbox and The Namesake as he will be for his goofy act in Angrezi Medium and other 'Bollywood' movies. That does not diminish his value as an actor.
If his extensive repertoire has shown us anything it is that there is space for all kinds of cinema within the broad frame of Bollywood. Cinema need not all be moralistic with a view to elevate one's thoughts and make the West think better of us, by association.
Granted cinema can be cathartic and open up our world view to narratives contrary to the ones we hold dear. But let's also not be dismissive of those who walk into the theatre seeking some chest-thumping, laughter-inducing larger-than-life spectacle to forget their woes and walk out of the theatre with a swing in their step and a song on their lips.
It's time we embraced Bollywood for its all encompassing quality, and not be ashamed of its escapist brand of cinema, which, needless to say, is a much sought after currency in the current world.