On a quest for the real ‘Pan-Indian’ cinema

An empty celebration of the current southern blockbusters could limit exploration of radical themes

May 19, 2022 12:55 am | Updated 12:32 pm IST

A promotional still from KGF: Chapter 2.

A promotional still from KGF: Chapter 2. | Photo Credit: Hombale Films

The recent South Indian films, Pushpa, RRR, and KGF 2 are rewriting Indian film history. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a Telugu and Kannada film, dubbed in Hindi, would become the highest all-time grossers in Hindi. This has led to an animated discussion about not only the supposed decline of Bollywood but also the emergence of a new “pan-Indian” cinema.

The rise of the southern film industries, hitherto marginalised as “regional” cinema, and the challenge to the domination of Hindi cinema is indeed a welcome development. But its celebration as pan-Indian cinema, breaking language and culture barriers, is premature without discussing what these films represent. These three recent films (two of which have crossed the stratospheric collection record of ₹1,000 crore), and Baahubali before, indicate that they do not challenge dominant ideas of a homogenous nationalism, caste hierarchies, toxic masculinity, or gratuitous violence. Neither do they offer any cultural authenticity.

National market

Such “massified” commercial films (albeit in new linguistic registers and with vastly superior technical quotient and cinematic experience) targeting the national market and the “lowest common denominator”, may in fact be counterproductive to the idea of linguistic/cultural plurality and the exploration of novel and progressive themes. Because the barriers to better, and world-class cinema is not merely the domination of Hindi films.

Recently, Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi spoke about the insult he felt in the 1980s at a national award function where Indian cinema was portrayed as Hindi cinema, and how the recent South films have become a vehicle to correct that notion. The same was also reflected in Kannada star Sudeep’s comments on the claim of Hindi as the national language.

Yet, this “regional” claim for an equal place in Indian cinema does not refer to the exclusions, and cultural homogenisation performed by the mega-budget, pan-Indian film emerging from the South.

Thus, RRR, for example, is steeped in a religious-inflected nationalism with a cartoonish and melodramatic take on colonialism: the evil British versus the good Indians. It is perfectly in sync with the present climate of aggressive nationalism even though it seeks to speak from a linguistic marginality. In this nationalism, while Subhas Bose, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh, Shivaji, and others from the South are unsurprisingly present, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru are missing.

More seriously problematic is the appropriation of the trope of Adivasi liberation to the nationalist cause, and thus making it seem that the oppressors of Adivasis were merely the British. This is a move, as I have argued before, seen in movies like Lagaan. One of the two heroes Bheem, who is purportedly based on the legendary — but ignored — Gond leader Komaram Bheem, is shown in the film as asking the other protagonist Ram, a savarna Hindu, to educate him. This, writer Akash Poyam (a Gond himself) points out, casts Bheem as an innocent “noble savage” while in reality it was Komaram Bheem who coined the slogan, “Jal, Jangal, Jameen” which is shown as being inscribed by Ram in the film.

Other films like Pushpa and KGF are also not breaking any new ground, but reinforcing many of the tired masala conventions like a poor hero taking on the state-criminal nexus and as a saviour of the toiling masses, etc. Yet, they have been lauded as catering to small-town India, and the so-called masses, something which Bollywood has largely moved away from with its focus on the urban middle classes, the elite, NRIs and multiplexes. But this is a reductive understanding which posits the masses as capable of appreciating cinema only with excessive violence, misogyny and the low brow, and the urban rich as not the purveyors of the same. Yet, the recent blockbusters drew big crowds in the multiplexes as well as in the diasporic audiences.

Similarly, some scholars have argued that the success of Pushpa and KGF is that they exemplify the local against the nationalist rhetoric of the Hindi cinema, a contention that is questioned by the success of Baahubali and RRR.

Beyond binaries

There is a need to go beyond such simple/only binaries of local vs. national, class vs. mass and Hindi vs. non-Hindi, or the anointing of new formulaic productions with monster budgets and targeting the national market as a pan-Indian film. Instead, there is a need to conceive pan-Indian cinema as one which is socially and cinematically expanding boundaries, culturally rooted and yet nationally/globally resonant, and as one which is a conversation among the languages.

The seeds of such a pan-Indian cinema were already present before the market success of the recent South blockbusters.

Pushing the envelope

For a decade now, the “new generation” films in Malayalam have rewritten Indian cinema history in their own way, and have captured national attention, especially since the flourishing of OTT platforms. There has been an explosion of films, especially small ones, dealing with an array of subjects and pushing the envelope in so many directions. Films like Maheshinte Prathikaram, Ozhivudivasathe Kali, Ottal, Angamaly Diaries, Kumbalangi Nights, Jallikattu, The Great Indian Kitchen, Pada, and so many others became successful because they moved away from male superstar-driven formulas.

Yet, if new Malayalam cinema has not fully contended with caste, there has been a veritable revolution in tackling caste oppression in Tamil cinema from the 2010s with films like Attakathi, Madras, Kabali, Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal, Asuran, Karnan, Sarpatta Parambarai and Jai Bhim. They also showed that films with radical themes are not dichotomous with superstars starring in them or mass commercial success. The latter was also proved with the huge all-India success of the Marathi film Sairat.

An empty celebration of the present southern blockbusters as pan-Indian cinema is scotching the above trends besides ignoring other possibilities within Kannada and Telugu industries themselves which produced excellent small films and cultural nuggets like Thithi and C/oKancharapalem.

Thus, the scope for a real pan-Indian cinema is immense but can be only realised by the infrastructure (theatrical, and not just OTT) to experience the best cinematic content across different Indian languages. Until the Indian audience is able to, for instance, watch the National Award winning Byari, in the tiny Beary language, or the internationally acclaimed Khasi film lewduh in their own languages (not just in English), the idea of a real pan-Indian cinema would be stillborn.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada, and tweets @nmannathukkaren

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