This Independence Day will see the launch of a new Bhojpuri entertainment channel, Dishum TV, to add to the entertainment matrix of nearly 15 television channels dedicated to a language spoken by about 33 million speakers in the country. However, though the language is one of the fastest-growing ones in the world — spoken by citizens of at least nine countries apart from India — and its film industry is worth Rs. 2,000 crore, not much seriousness is given to it when it comes to either journalistic writing or academic research. In this regard, it is important to ask a question: Is it possible to look at the cinephilia of the target audiences of such cinema through a scholarly lens? That’s the foolhardy enterprise the January 2017 issue of BioScope journal sought to attempt.
Mapping its evolution
An important study in the issue was that pertaining to Bhojpuri cinema and its struggle to emerge out of the shadows of the Bombay Big Brother. The article ‘Bhojpuri Consolidation in Hindi Territory’ by Akshaya Kumar tried to trace the rise, fall, and the regrouping of Bhojpuri cinema since 2004 by centring it at its primary pivot, the male singing star. It said that there are a few reasons why male stars remain at the industry’s centre. The first reason is the skewed balance of power due to the scarce and scattered distribution infrastructure. The second is a music economy which privileges the graduation of a singer-performer to an acting star. The article also traced the origins of saucy lyrics in Bhojpuri songs not just to the already-high sleaze quotient in its music, but also the exhibition space where the films first became popular. The decrepit cinemas that began screening Bhojpuri movies in the early 2000s had till then formed the exhibition sites for soft-porn. The films contained an improbable duality — they could scandalise through their songs even as their narrative remained morally acceptable.
Mr. Kumar’s study harked back to a key question: What explains the rise of Bhojpuri cinema in the early years of the 21st century? Here, Avijit Ghosh’s book Cinema Bhojpuri (2010) provided an explanation by telling that the urban cinema of the decade had an alienating influence on a section of the audience that could not identify with the “feel-good, upper-class, urban-centric” Hindi cinema that was in vogue at that time.
The inflection point here was Sasura Bada Paisawala (2004), which grossed Rs. 9 crore as against a budget of just Rs. 30 lakh. This was followed by the success of Pandit Ji Batai Na Biyah Kab Hoyee (2005) which earned more than 10 times its budget of Rs. 60 lakh. With these two films, two singing stars were born — Manoj Tiwari and Ravi Kishen. The ensuing boom lasted for more than half a decade before, as Mr. Kumar points out in his 2017 paper, the industry turned against itself, on account of the shifting balance between production and exhibition sectors.
As the nation marks 70 years of Independence, perhaps it’s time to go beyond merely paying lip service to its diversity by looking at the cinema of the peripheries through a more empathetic lens?