The suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has instigated a discussion on how certain individuals or families control the film industry and often exclude the ‘outsider’. There are allegations that certain powerful elites decide the flow of the industry’s economy and also distribute the privileges without much concern for professional ethics. The allegations go that talented artists suffer due to the “nepotism” in the industry. Sushant’s death has ignited a critical discussion on the many maladies in Bollywood.
Dominated by social elites
The debate on nepotism also reveals other structural injustices in the industry. There is lack of social diversity in Bollywood films, with technical and artistic units being dominated by the social elites. A discussion on Bollywood’s middle-class bias would also demonstrate that the urban poor are the new neglected ‘outsiders’ in the multiplex business. Such exclusivity has halted the improvisation of cinema as a socially responsible art form. This domination has excluded the poor as the audience and has disallowed Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis to become an integral part of the film-making process.
First, the rhetoric that cinema is the mirror of society is untenable. The mainstream narratives of the films represent the taste and values of the social elites and visibly neglect the life stories of the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi world. Instead, popular Bollywood films project the cultural desires and social imaginations of the caste elites while veiling the terrible social realities of the majority of the people. The industry avoids hard questions on caste and social exclusion. Even if such issues are explored on screen ( Sujata , Ghulami , Mrityudand , Manjhi , Article 15 , etc.) the industry has to operate according to the emotive and psychological concerns of the social elites. Marginalised social groups have remained the perpetual outsiders.
Second, more than relationships based on nepotism, the economy functions with a conventional culture network and often disallows the ‘outsider’ to enter. Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis are considered as outsiders because they lack attributes of social networking and also the required ‘niche’ professional skills. Hindi films are written, directed, technically assisted and produced by a dominant set of clan and club members who are mostly social elites. Even film critics, reviewers, historians and scholars on cinema belong to similar sociocultural groups.
Film-making is an expensive and competitive market. In the post-liberalisation period, the political economy of Bollywood has changed substantively. Now, corporate capital invests mainly with the popular names for any venture, making cinema production an exclusive enterprise. The privileges and profits of the business are therefore regulated through a well-knit social network that is often based on caste, regional and clan affiliations (often called as favouritism). Such an atmosphere undermines creative instincts and a robust respect for artistic talent. It shows its limitation in breaking the clutch of commercial logic and has failed to produce cinema that can be honoured at the global level for its creative motifs. Even in online streaming shows, mediocrity is visible.
Pushing away the poor
Third, the poor working class audience is deliberately pushed away from cinema viewing today. Films are specifically made to cater to the tastes of the upper middle-class audiences, especially those who have the capacity to spend three times more than the average film-goer. The multiplex culture has marginalised the single-screen audiences, mainly the poor. Hindi films, which earlier used to entertain and respond to the dreams and values of the average Indian, are now categorically meant to propose specific kinds of surreal narratives (films like Omkara or Gangs of Wasseypur ), likeable mainly to the new middle-class, educated audience.
Marathi and Tamil cinema have recently demonstrated that stories with strong social themes, a diverse cast and emotive logic are well appreciated at the box office. However, Hindi cinema has not taken much of a clue from its regional counterparts. Though Bollywood directors such as Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee have qualitatively improvised the storytelling conventions on screen, they haven’t democratised the themes and social values that shape stories.
Bollywood has not addressed the popular criticisms emerging from historically neglected groups. The concern of caste diversity on screen and behind it has recently been debated within the Dalit circles but it is yet to find a wider deliberative audience. Further, very few think about the avenues to connect the poor audience to the cinema again. When we are discussing the ills of nepotism in Bollywood, these partner maladies also need equal diagnosis so that a more comprehensive cure can be prescribed.
Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU