In the film Dharavi (1992), the hero, Raj Karan Yadav (played by Om Puri), strives to find a better life for himself, one that is free from debt and drudgery. After unsuccessful attempts to buy his own taxi, he approaches moneylenders to borrow money and set up an illegal factory. Once again, he is unable to pay the money back to them and unwittingly becomes embroiled in a gang war. As he meanders through his life with frustratingly little agency, the character Dreamgirl (played by Madhuri Dixit) appears — a beautiful, serene mirage that becomes his only source of comfort. This encapsulates what cinema means to India — an escape from mounting bills, equated monthly instalments and infuriating socio-politics.
A good film, they say, is one that allows each one of its viewers to see a different film. A popcorn film, on the other hand, in its desperation to be understood by all, is typically understood to be tropey, allowing for little to no nuance. A perceived crowbar separation existed between the two, until recently.
Templates and themes
In the years after Independence, several members of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) took the Hindi film industry by storm. Donning the roles of writers, lyricists and film-makers, they embedded radical reformist themes into mainstream cinema and discourse. These set the template for plot and character definition of Indian heroes, male and female, for decades.
Some of these became high grossers and the others, festival favourites. The holy grail — a combination of the two — remained numerically few. And, down south, the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) determined much of the popular culture in Kerala and beyond. Anti-imperialist and socially progressive themes formed the crux of several commercial films of the time. Remakes of successful films across industries saw the building of a certain pan-Indian ethos that embraced ideas of Nehruvian socialism.
In the 1970s and 1980s, disillusionment with the system was at an all-time high. Audiences lashed out against an oppressive system vicariously through the ‘angry young man’. The need for ‘black and white hero defeats villain’ narratives arose. For movie villains, it was a golden age. Uni-dimensional, megalomaniac despots were stand-ins for authority figures. ‘Mogambo’ and ‘Gabbar Singh’ were the catch words. Censorship ensured that important themes had to be ‘smuggled into’ the consciousness of the nation, and not spelt out. As a genre, horror, though not yet mainstream, thrived. The Ramsey brothers made films that had better initials than star vehicles at the time.
The ‘crossover’ age
In the 1990s, with the advent of globalisation and privatisation of channels, a new kind of Indian film was born — the ‘crossover’ film. The characters, who were mostly urban, spoke in English with a smattering of the vernacular language. The genre-defining Hyderabad Blues featured Varun, a non-resident Indian, who was both baffled and struggling to navigate a now alien socio-cultural landscape to court his Indian love interest. The entry of the multiplex liberated the film-maker from having to create cinema that spoke to everyone. A film that resonated with only a niche audience could also guarantee a return on investment. This also gave rise to a new breed of producers who were willing to back less conventional projects that were not necessarily ‘festival’ or ‘award’ films.
At the other end of the spectrum was Bollywood’s version of the NRI film. In the expensively mounted, wildly successful Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Raj, the NRI hero, was seen chasing Simran, his NRI love interest, to India in order to convince her to break off her engagement with her Indian fiancé and marry him. The first half of the film featured a highly aspirational Europe trip that two young adults take on their own, while the second half hard-sold ideas of a traditional India where young adults could only meet in secret or in the company of elders.
This was a period that was also rife with war cries about there being ‘threats to Indian culture’ and laments that children of the MTV generation were rejecting their roots. Themes of nationalism and tradition, often couched in modernity, punctuated cinema across industries. The overseas sales of Indian cinema — notably Hindi, Tamil and Telugu — rose exponentially. Films such as Dangal and Baahubali also drew non-Indian viewership, signalling the opening up of hitherto unexplored markets.
The year 2010 and beyond saw the popularisation of digital film-making in India, where all of a sudden, it was possible for anyone to make a film. Student film festivals and ‘make-a-film’ competitions sprung up across the country. It also led to a demystification of the process that made it possible to make films even outside the structures of traditional film industries. Access to different kinds of technology made it possible for film-makers to experiment with themes.
It is now the age of over-the-top (OTT) platforms and the rise of social media. There are algorithms that diligently (and alarmingly) track audience behaviour in real time. Earlier, while there were gaps in understanding that steered producers towards creating homogenous content (that guaranteed super hits), today, there is a more layered understanding of what an audience needs and wants, and also overlaps in markets that can be further exploited.
There is the understanding that someone who watches a film for ‘young adults’ may also watch a film about an expedition before even switching to fantasy. Notions of ‘good’ and ‘mainstream’ are constantly being reassessed and redefined. Audiences today have more agency than ever before in determining the kind of content that gets created.
They can choose exactly what they want to watch to escape mounting bills, EMIs and infuriating socio-politics.
Shalini Ushadevi is a writer and director who won the Best Screenplay Award at the 68th National Film Awards in 2022 for her work on ‘Soorarai Pottru’