Indian films aren’t just about entertainment. They have also initiated debates about social issues.
I conclude my personal centenary-year tribute to Indian cinema by remembering films that were significant to me for their social commentary and not just aesthetic merit, since cinema in India has been not just a vehicle for mass public entertainment, but also an important voice of social conscience.
The tensions of changing relations between women and men in new India are finely depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (Big City), his sensitive rendering of the dilemmas of a traditional homemaker in Calcutta who works in an office as the principal bread-earner in the family, after her husband is laid off from his factory in a prolonged strike. In Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha (Threshold), a woman discovers her own identity working in a home for women survivors of violence. Among many films made on widows, the most evocative is Deepa Mehta’s Water, which strings together the lives of a group of widows in an ashram in pre-Independence Varanasi: sadly this forlorn story of loneliness and exploitation of widows could equally have been set in contemporary India.
Caste discrimination and violence is a less frequent theme of Hindi cinema. I recall Bimal Roy’s gentle Sujata about a low-caste girl adopted into a household where she longs to be accepted as an equal. Prakash Jha’s Damul (Bonded for Life) is a harrowing tale of Dalit bonded families and the brutal suppression of their incipient rebellion. Feudal oppression and rebellion are the themes of many films by Shyam Benegal, most memorably Nishant (End of the Night), Ankur (Seedling) and Samar (Conflict). The last of these, set in a village in Madhya Pradesh, recounts the real-life story of the violent suppression of the demand of Dalit youth for the location of a hand-pump for clean water in their hamlet.
The secular and pluralist idea of India is repeatedly affirmed in many films. In his poetic and understated Naseem (Morning Breeze), Saeed Mirza portrays — through the eyes of a Muslim schoolgirl and her beloved grandfather — the growing divide between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay in the months leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent riots which changed the city forever.
Yash Chopra’s Dharmaputra (Adopted Son) builds on an idea in Tagore’s novel Gora, of a bigoted young Hindu fundamentalist during the Partition riots of 1946-47, who leads hate campaigns against the Muslim ‘enemy’. His world collapses around him when he learns that he was actually born to a Muslim unwed mother, and adopted by the Hindu family that raised him. Benegal in Mammo constructs an endearing portrait of a lonely Pakistani woman left childless and friendless in Pakistan after her husband’s death. But Indian authorities deny her the right to live in India with her only relative, her ageing sister in Mumbai who is raising her orphaned grandson. The film gives a human face to demonised ‘Pakistani infiltrators’, often just people battling the human consequences of the division of what was one country. Aparna Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer begins in a bus journey in the middle of a communal riot. A conventional Tamil homemaker is uncomfortable when she discovers that she is sharing her seat with a Muslim man. But when rioters search the bus looking for Muslims to slaughter, she pretends he is her husband and a bond of understanding and affection grows slowly between them, across religious and cultural differences.
Films have also recreated communal riots, such as Govind Nihalini’s Tamas, a haunting rendering of Bhisham Sahni’s account of Partition riots. Shonali Bose’s Amu is one of the few stories centred on the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984. Twenty years after the massacre, Amu who has been adopted by a single mother in Los Angeles returns to Delhi and discovers the horror of her early childhood, of a father and brothers murdered in the anti-Sikh pogrom and a mother who hanged herself in the relief camp. Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania is the chronicle of a real-life Parsi family who lost their son in the melee escaping the Gujarat carnage, the agony of both parents hopelessly hoping for his return, and the mother’s ultimate resolve to fight for justice. Nandita Das in Firaaq weaves together many stories of people living with the consequences of the Gujarat carnage, a young boy who lost his entire family to the mob, a middle-class Hindu homemaker racked by guilt because she did not rescue a Muslim woman seeking refuge in the violence, an upper-middle class man humiliated because he is safe only as people cannot recognise him to be Muslim, and a classical musician unwilling to come to terms with the hatred raging around him.
Amid mainstream films in every language on retribution and punishment, popular cinema also initiated debates around restorative justice, the conviction that even those who commit the gravest crimes deserve not mere social anger and revenge, but instead the opportunity to discover their capacities for human goodness. A stirring affirmation of this philosophy of the universal possibility of goodness is V. Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath (Two Eyes and Twelve Hands). Based on a real-life story, it portrays the successful efforts of a jailor to reform six brutal unrepentant killers in an open jail into responsible and caring citizens, a testimony that deserves to be heeded today in the current resurgence of support for the death penalty. In a far less cinematically accomplished Dushman (Enemy), Dulal Guha explores an interesting idea of a drunken truck driver who kills the sole bread-winner of a farming family in an accident. The judge sentences him not to prison, but to labour to support the hostile wrathful family, which is reduced to penury by his crime.
In this way, even mainstream cinema in India especially in the past has been a voice of social conscience — outspoken or subdued, angry or anguished, sophisticated or simplistic, and frequently compassionate — embedded deeply in our collective imagination of a more just and humane India and world.