City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Bollywood treatment?

If reports are to be believed, schools in some parts of India were advised not to play any song from the film Padmaavat on Republic Day. This is perhaps no more than a minor addition to the list of absurdities that surround the film, but it does invite a question- why on earth would any school want to play songs from this film in a function celebrating the Republic Day?

As it turned out, one got one’s answer when our usual neighbourhood calm was shattered by loud music coming from a nearby school that was celebrating the big day. Barring a 5-minute lull that included the playing of the national anthem, the soundtrack for the morning consisted entirely of upbeat dance-worthy Bollywood songs. To be fair, most of them could be classified as having some patriotic sentiment, although there were others where that connection was extremely tenuous (Jai Ho, for instance, which barring its rousing title, carries not a trace of patriotic feeling in the rest of the song). It would appear that without the help of Bollywood, we have no vocabulary in which to express the idea of patriotism, or at a more fundamental level, the idea of celebration itself.

But then, Bollywood is everywhere and one uses the label deliberately. It isn’t cinema, which has always been deeply influential in India, but the bloated commercially packaged version of the culture that has come to represent it, that is everywhere. Bollywood has become shorthand for a way of living life by amplifying crude pleasure, accessed cheaply.

Every celebration in India somehow ends up becoming a Bollywood dance. Every function needs a Bollywood star. Stars from any field need to dance at functions. Media summits that apparently transform the world with earth-shattering cerebral dialogues cannot do without a few Bollywood types to represent the ‘youth’. Every award show requires people wearing shiny leotards gyrating in a simulation of co-ordination. Every wedding is a re-imagined movie set with Bollywood choreography. Public parks and monuments have been taken over by the ‘wedding shoots’ of newly married couples, as they enact Bollywood-inspired scenes of romance in slow motion. Across the country, baraats are becoming the norm, no matter what the original customs might have been, and everyone dances to film songs on the street. The kawadias who walk days on foot have trucks accompanying them that blare Bollywood music from giant speakers. Talent shows are full of tiny children bumping and grinding to suggestive songs egged on by beaming proud parents, unmindful of what they are making their children do. Bhajans are cheerfully set to the tune of ‘Munni Badnam Hui, Darling tere liye (Bhakt phire maara maara, o maiya tere liye) or ‘Choli ke Peche Kya Hai’ ( Mata Ke Dil Me Kya Hai). This creeping Bollywoodisation of our landscape has largely gone unchallenged.

Coming back to the Padmaavat question, perhaps this inability to find popular representations outside the Bollywood frame can offer us a clue to try and unravel what is the most puzzling aspect about the whole episode- why would an outfit like the Karni Sena object to a film that does nothing but glorify, and that too in the excessive idiom of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, all that passes for traditional Rajput values. The film is a paean to the codes, values, symbols, rituals and people that the Karni Sena apparently represents.

Perhaps the provocation, such as it is, is not provided by the content of the film, but the fact that it gets the Bollywood treatment. Revealingly, Maharajkumar Vishvaraj Singh, son of Mahendra Singh Mewar has reportedly called it a ‘historic fraud to portray an incorrectly attired courtesan-like painted doll in the song as the very ‘queen’ the film purports to pay obeisance to.”

But then per Bollywood standards, the queen is the heroine, and heroines have to dance. This film is reverential in its intent of everything the Karni Sena holds dear, except that it is hard-wired to show its reverence in the idiom of Bollywood. This means that every character is above all, a supplicant to the viewer. The reason why item songs have been invented is to get rid of any artifice whatsoever- these songs are not situated in the story at all- they are just air-dropped into the film to pander to the viewer. Rewarding the spectator in every scene, enabling an owner’s relationship between the key character and the viewer is the implicit rule that successful commercial blockbusters must follow. Touched by Bollywood, even what is presented as sacred, becomes a commodity- a shiny one perhaps, but a commodity nevertheless.

The Bollywoodisation of our imagination thus meets a challenge not from the sources one would expect- literary-minded critics who attack its inherent vulgarity and simple-mindedness, but from the literally-minded believers in the same myths as Bollywood. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s incomprehension at the controversy can be understood for his films are broadly sympathetic to the kind of ideas outfits like the Karni Sena represent. It is in his mode of telling the story that he has, in the eyes of his attackers, coarsened an imagined ideal. The strange spectacle of sides that should have been close allies having such a violent falling out is the result.

The attempt to explain what might be driving the resentment against the film is in no way an attempt to justify it. Bhansali has a right to tell the story his way and the administration has a duty to ensure that no one can disrupt the screening of the film.

But while this controversy plays out, it may be worth thinking about the extent to which we have allowed our imaginations to be Bollywoodised. Should the coarsening of our everyday lives not offend us a little more than what it does? Can we not find new currencies of expression that draw from more diverse sources? Growing out of an imagination colonised by Bollywood may be a good starting point.

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