The realism of Hindi films

I’m thinking of my missionary activities in this regard here in the West since the late ’70s/early ’80s – before the great proselytiser Shah Rukh Khan took over and converted all Teutons to Bollywood. Now the ‘natives’ lap it up, and have their Holi raves with environment- and skin-friendly coloured flour, and take lessons in Bollywood dancing, and are generally more hep to any and every Khan on screen and off it than I could ever hope to be – at my age and after my prolonged, self-imposed exile.

And then there’s Zee.One, a Hindi film channel specially created for the Germans which I am yet to watch. And I’ll tell you why. I hardly watch Hindi films these days, ever since they changed the tag to ‘Bollywood movies’, which camouflages a subtle but not inconsequential difference. These new Bollywood movies are far too realistic for me and far too much like Hollywood, especially in the action scenes. The heroes have real six-packs and the heroines wear saris which I don’t see at first glance if I’m not wearing my specs. On top of that, all the girls seem a bit too thin in my eyes, even when I’m wearing my specs. We used to have heroines who used to fill the screen and fill the hoardings, hide ugly buildings and busy intersections and bring a smile to the betel-stained lips of bidi-smoking bus drivers and chatty minibus cleaners. Now the heroines look like badminton players off court and off carbs.

And the joke is that the Germans tell me to shut up when I try to talk to them about the lack of realism in Hindi films. They tell me what I can do with my realism – and they can be rude. They tell me to leave them in peace and let them have fun. Watching the antics of Indian expats in New York or wherever is fun? I say. They do it because it’s easier to shoot on outdoor locations in NY than in Mumbai, didn’t I know that? these ur-Germans enlighten me.

They represent the emerging German deprived classes getting their first taste of reality: they are young, to begin with; have no jobs or contract jobs or badly paid jobs; husband and wife are both working and trying to raise a kid or two on their sparse income in their spare time; no savings and hardly any hope of a decent pension… Yes, they are about ready for Hindi films, I tell them. Soon they’ll be making Hindi films specifically for the Western market, I prophesy – wishing Sachin Bhowmick was around, who used to write the scripts in English which were then translated back into Hindi for the shooting. They’ll be making Hindi films in the crossover category, East meeting West till the bedsprings creak and Kipling turns in his grave – I predict. Shah Rukh Khan’s love will save blonde-haired single mothers on rehab in Potsdam, whereas Kangana Raut and Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt will be rendering their Western male leads speechless – all to the good, considering the kind of trouble they’ll be having trying to get Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer and James Franco to speak the statutory number of words in Hindi for the coveted ‘B’ certificate – for Bollywood.

The realism of Hindi films has always been in acknowledging that the lives of most people in India, or in the world, or in the universe, being nothing to write home about, it is always a pleasure to get away from such shit for a couple of hours for the price of a cinema ticket. You leave the heat and the dust and Ruth Prawer Jahbvala outside and come into the dark, air-conditioned recesses of the cinema hall. You take only Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” with you, which you’ll need in the reels to come, believe me, as Shammi Kapoor gives Pran (or Pran gives Shammi, I’ve forgotten) a right upper cut in Bombay and Pran (or Shammi) lands in the Kashmir valley (aerial distance 1,673 km), where the fight continues. You’ll need that suspension of disbelief when Manoj Kumar aka Bharat Kumar, the greatest film patriot of all times, is tortured by Chinese soldiers in a prison cell at some remote Himalayan outpost and the walls (including the ceiling) run red with Bharat’s blood but Bharat survives. “They’ve poured it by the bucketful!” you’ll complain, only to be told by the Manoj Kumar fan in the next seat: “Paid ten annas for your ruddy entrance and now sitting two rows from the screen, you expect Manoj to show you real blood?” And you’d finally have met your realist.

The ten anna seats were a kind of ‘last minute’ chance of getting into a show, all other seats being open for advance booking. One stood in line in the passage next to the cinema hall – strongly smelling of micturation – and fought it out with all the other hoodlums for the privilege of a seat right up front, so close to the screen that one got exotropia, that’s wall eyes, trying to take in ‘the whole picture’. Otherwise it was as much fun as watching a football game from the ramparts – no point in trying to explain if you don’t know what that is, or was. And an anna used to be one-sixteenth of a rupee in the pre-metric system, four pice to the anna and so on. The anna went but the ‘ten anna seat’ survived in the cine-goer’s jargon. Where was I?

Yes, the realism of Hindi films was like the Kantian dialectic, or like Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Whenever and wherever life is as hard as it used to be (yes, Modi-ji) in India, you will have the Hindi film as the antidote. Hindi film audiences used to be like children listening to a fairy story: they are ready to believe anything, so long as they’re sitting in their hard-won ten anna seats watching a famous wrestler-turned-Bombay-film-actor race electricity to save the heroine from electrocution! In the end the hero has a brainwave (?), takes out a pair of scissors and cuts the tube, so that blue electricity drips, drop by drop, from the conduit… That’s a joke, btw, in case your suspension of disbelief has gone that far. But see how it works?

The aim of surrealism – which began in the early ’20s of the last century – was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality”, as Wikipedia will tell you. You can go from there to sous-réalisme and rêve-réalisme and what not – but don’t waste your time. Watch an old Hindi film from the ’60s, say, and ask yourself: This is Rajendra Kumar; he is a sub-inspector of the police; he is returning from work in a police jeep with a swagger stick in his hand – ever seen a sub-inspector sporting a swagger stick? Now you have. The jeep enters the sprawling grounds of a palatial mansion which would have put the Nehrus with their Anand Bhavan in Allahabad to shame. How can a police sub-inspector afford to live in such a p(a)lace – with only his widowed mother – unless he is the crookedest, corruptest police officer in existence? And why is he a lowly SI, when he could have been the police super or at least the assistant police super of the district? Ah, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you?

Firstly, please note that we Indians always refer to our actors by name – Shammi did this in ‘Teesri Manjil’ and when Raj Kapoor was singing that song in ‘Awara’ etc. Ask their best – or worst fans, and they won’t be able to tell you what name Shammi had in TM or Raj Kapoor in Awara etc. – because we Indians know, we know that it is all Maya and a Schauspiel and that Thomas Carlyle could have known nothing about heroes and hero worship since there were no Hindi films in his time.

And the sub-inspector? He has his office in the thana or the police station and emerges from it like a tiger from its cage to shout at the police constables and kick the asses of the general public – we Indians know him, he is a visible god, the SP, ASP &co. being the gods higher up in the echelon whom we do not get to see, hence there’s no point in worshipping them, is there? Power and wealth must be visible, as every Indian knows. See Sub-Inspector Rajendra Kumar drive his Dodge Kingsway into his ‘go’r’ment quarters’ which just happens to be a palace and you’ll know why life is a Hindi film with you in the ten anna seat. Jai Hind.

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