Cinema is a wonderful tool for catharsis. It’s an even better tool for propaganda. From Triumph of the Will to American Sniper to ridiculous videos of world leaders doing yoga, the visual format is excellent for propagating misinformation, perception-creation and cementing ideas and ideals into the national psyche.
Taken together, cinema as propaganda and cinema as catharsis comprise a type of utopian cinema. In his 2002 article ‘Entertainment and Utopia’, Richard Dyer characterises utopian cinema as achieving the dual purpose of escapism and wish-fulfilment. The social, economic and physical ails of everyday life are eradicated in utopian films. The characters never have to concern themselves with financial scarcity, exhaustion, dreariness and social fragmentation. Instead, they concern themselves with “higher” issues such as finding true love, fame, fortune and attaining self-actualisation.
Bollywood’s current relationship with utopia is a concerning one, especially given our political landscape. When real life itself is a nerve-racking, violent, Orwellian political thriller, why bother with the reel? Just grab some popcorn and tune into your ideologically preferred news channel. But the surge of nationalistic and utopian films produced by Bollywood should not be taken lightly. One man’s entertainment is another man’s propaganda.
The rise of utopian cinema can be traced back to the 1991 economic liberalisation. Opening up economic borders also opened up possibilities of upward social mobility and prosperity. Consequently, the movies of the post-liberalisation era projected the possibilities of life in New India. So we created characters like Raj from DDLJ and Rahul from K3G – for whom physical restrictions and economic scarcity were inconsequential concerns. These films perpetuated the notion that the highest ideals one should strive for are love and familial cohesion. Vestiges of these ideals can still be observed today in films such as Befikre.
Utopian visions eventually gave way to more serious and dramatic works starting around 2008. This shift was aided by a growing independent film circuit which was primarily concerned with exposing the ‘truth’ rather than fabricating it. Between 2008-2016, Bollywood went through some serious self-reflexivity and social awareness (minus Milap Zaveri movies).
But now something else seems to be happening. Commercial considerations have beaten out social considerations. Perhaps today’s politically charged social climate of today has made films such as Rang De Basanti and Udta Punjab commercially unviable.
2017 was a paradigm changing year for Bollywood. Women-centered films such as Tumhari Sulu and mid-budget comedies such as Bareilly ki Barfi far exceeded box office expectations, while mainstream “blockbusters” tanked. Other sorts of films that tended to do well were social message dramedies or nationalistic political thrillers. Growing access to world cinema and streaming services means that plots that had been working in Bollywood for decades now suddenly fall flat.
This year, we have seen a general bifurcation of Bollywood into two categories. These groups are not determined by genre or themes, but rather the intent behind the film. The first is cinema for escape (catharsis), and the second is cinema for wish-fulfilment (propaganda). Cinema for escape comprises general comedies, rom-coms and other light-hearted movies whose primary purpose is entertainment and distraction from the grave realities of life. It says something when two of India’s most socially outspoken and serious directors, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap, are making films that fall into this category – Pataakha and Manmarziyaan respectively.
Cinema for wish-fulfilment is the set of movies which affirm our preconceived notions about the nation and its superiority, whether that’s in politics or sports. In simpler terms, it’s the group of films that seek to say nothing deeper than “mera Bharat mahaan” (and lately always involve Akshay Kumar or John Abraham). The release of the trailer of Uri: The Surgical Strike shows us that, unfortunately, this idea of the “naya Hindustan” is here to stay.
The saddest part of all of this is that this stock of films for wish-fulfilment does not resemble that of the 90s and early 2000s. The films that came immediately post liberalisation were forward looking and optimistic, while today’s are cynical. Increasingly they are period political thrillers or sport dramas such as Raazi or Gold, which explicitly reaffirm audience beliefs such as ‘India is the best country,’ ‘We are the best at hockey’. Implicitly, they all seem to be chanting the slogan ‘Make India Great Again!’
Perhaps it is only the turbulent political climate of today that makes writers look to the past for inspiration, but I believe there is something deeper going on here. The surge of movies for wish-fulfilment panders to both – audiences that either already believe India to be the best country, or those that want to believe in it.
By looking at the past and ignoring the present and future, writers are implicitly expressing their concern for present times. While it was once possible to think in hopeful terms about the future of this nation, we now have to look back to hold on to any sense of pride. And this is a greater tragedy than any that has graced our cinema screens.
Vishnu Gupta is a recent Swarthmore College graduate, filmmaker, photographer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @vishnu96gupta.