A new era of Bollywood has arrived. The release of Lust Stories and Sacred Games on Netflix marks a watershed moment for Indian cinema – the introduction of content that does not have to shy away from “controversial” issues such as sexuality, religion and politics. In a recent roundtable with Rajeev Masand, Anurag Kashyap described Bombay Talkies as a celebration of a century of cinema gone past, and Lust Stories as the announcement of a century to come.
Veere Di Wedding and Sanju too indicate that Bollywood’s idea of ‘mainstream’ is shifting. Films are now willing to explore previously taboo issues such as women’s sexuality and drugs; but they still end up perpetuating traditional Bollywood ethics, ‘ki end me toh shaadi hi karni hai’ (you have to get married in the end) and ‘drugs burre hote hain, chodna hi acha hai inhe’ (drugs are bad, one should quit them eventually). Still, there is hope.
Today’s Bollywood is unrecognisable from that of the late 90s or early 2000s. This doesn’t just indicate the changing preferences of a changing society, but also shows that globalisation and the internet have given rise to a new media landscape. It’s not a complete transformation by any means, Race 3 is a great example of the lingering effects of old “new” Bollywood, but it’s also clear that audiences aren’t buying it anymore.
But, these institutional, artistic and consumerist changes should not be examined from the Indian perspective alone, and looking at the changes Hollywood went through during the 40s, 50s and 60s will help us understand Bollywood in the 90s, 2000s and 2010s, and prepare ourselves for the future of Indian cinema.
Three major changes in Hollywood in the post-Second World War era resonate with our contemporary industry. First, the breakdown of the studio system. Second, the emergence of alternative sources of entertainment. Finally, diminishing censorship and the exploration of traditionally sensitive issues. These changes did not occur in isolation, and must be understood as part of a dynamic and fluid landscape.
Before the Cinematograph Act of 1952, Indian films were not shy of exploring risqué subjects. Films such as A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) and Karma (J.L. Freer Hunt, 1933) are still infamous for their kissing scenes. One could discredit the liberties they took by pointing to their foreign production, but native films too were deeply political and often had anti-establishment, i.e. anti-British sentiments. The Tamil film Thyagabhoomi (K. Subramanyam, 1939) was banned after 22 weeks of screening because it supported the Indian independence movement. The irony that the current authorities fail to understand is that they are perpetuating the same ideological control that the British once did. Azaadi? Rehne do. (Freedom? Yeah, right.)
While Indian authorities were constructing the archaic Motion Picture Production Code, the Hays code was slowly eroding in the US. The Hays code was established in 1930 because the Catholic Church found much of the 1920s’ content morally objectionable. From 1930 till 1948, the code dictated the kind of content that the ‘big five’ studios could create, and since they owned most of the theatres in the US at the time, American audiences only got access to ‘morally’ acceptable movies.
Just as the church’s religious sentiments dictated the content of films based on its moral system, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) governs Indian movies with its own self-righteous sense of morality, regardless of the actual audience’s sensibilities.
It was finally the US Supreme Court case United States v. Paramount Pictures (1948) which ruled that cinema has first amendment rights, making studio monopoly illegal. As studios had to give up ownerships of theatres, smaller studios and foreign films found more space to produce and screen different kinds of content.
Similarly, family-owned studios have declined since the late 90s and early 2000s, and studios such as UTV Motion Pictures, Viacom18 Motion Pictures Excel Entertainment, JA Production, Drishyam Films and Phantom Films have gained considerable ground. They’re the ones largely responsible for this resurgence of independent and experimental Hindi cinema. As audiences, increased access to foreign films through pirated DVDs and later torrents means our tastes and expectations have also expanded.
Yet, despite legal intervention, American cinema didn’t really start to change until the 60s. As TVs became the preferred venue for wholesome, family content, filmmakers became freer to explore riskier subjects on the bigger screen. Similarly, satellite dishes and cable took over Indian living rooms, Hindi cinema wasn’t just confined to gharelu entertainment, and became increasingly provocative. Unfortunately the industry achieved this through item numbers and sex comedies.
But now platforms like Netflix, Amazon Video, and the homegrown Hotstar and ALTBalaji may truly democratise the landscape of Indian cinema. Their content is neither regulated by the sanskari CBFC nor dictated by the conservative ideas of Bollywood, and part of their audience is fairly distinct from the theatre-going audience. How is this democratisation exactly? Well, we are seeing freedom of expression, the collapse of a market monopoly and increasing consumer access to different markets which keeps prices competitive and low.
I believe that we’re at the same place that the US was at in 1969, when Andy Warhol released Blue Movie, a semi-pornographic art film that was the first adult erotic film to receive a wide theatrical release and be taken seriously by critics, filmmakers and audiences. Lust Stories, while much tamer than Blue Movie, is one of India’s first mainstream films to focus on sexuality and desire. This, and the nudity we see in Sacred Games probably means that we are not too far from a Blue Movie sort of mainstream release, if not in theatres then certainly online.
This shift shouldn’t come at the cost of mainstream films though – we need to ensure that both, mainstream and independent movies, thrive. Were it not for Netflix, I would not have come across gems such as Umrika (Prashant Nair, 2015), Mukti Bhawan (Shubhashish Bhutiani, 2017) and Autohead (Rohit Mittal, 2016) among countless others – the sort of films that inspired me to become a filmmaker in India, and not the sort of filmmaker that people expect me to be but the sort of filmmaker I want to be.
As Netflix and Amazon step up production of Indian content (Ghoul comes out August 24), Bollywood will have to adapt. If we are really where Hollywood was towards the end of the 60s, then a renaissance is afoot. But Bollywood needs to remember that the great directors of the 70s were mostly independent filmmakers that later received financial backing and creative freedom from big studios, which not only made the filmmakers popular and critically acclaimed, but the studios filthy rich too.
Make way for the new generation of filmmakers, the ones who aren’t interested in pedalling the same stories we’ve been seeing since the 90s. We may have gotten our Martin Scorsese in Anurag Kashyap, but where is our Kubrick? Our Coppola? Our Lucas? Our De Palma? Our Spielberg? I think we can do without a Polanski though.
Vishnu Gupta is a recent Swarthmore College graduate, filmmaker, photographer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @vishnu96gupta.