Century Bazaar

It's infuriating, though not all that surprising, that the centenary celebrations of Indian cinema have turned out to be all about Hindi cinema

Bollywood’s hegemony has overwhelmed all celebrations of Indian cinema’s centenary this year. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 June, 2013

IF YOU ARE FROM THE NORTHERN PARTS of the nation, or if most of the movies you watch are in Hindi, you may not have heard of K Balachander. You may have seen the films he made in Hindi, though—Aaina, Zara Si Zindagi, Ek Nai Paheli, and, almost certainly, Ek Duuje Ke Liye, which was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s. Then as now, a filmmaker from Chennai did not usually find himself splashed across entertainment columns, though Balachander did see his name in national papers when he won Indian cinema’s highest honour, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for the year 2010. I thought I would write a book about him. After all, this was the man who launched Rajinikanth’s career. He shepherded an adorable child actor named Kamal Haasan into adult roles. And yet, despite the ubiquity of stars in his movies, South Indian audiences went to see “a K Balachander film”, which was often about women, often about tangled relationships. The director was the draw. He was an auteur in the truest sense, leaving his unmistakable stamp all over his creations. From the way, for instance, he handled his heroines, you could make a case that he was as drawn to the feminine mystique as he was repelled by it. He had to enshrine women. He had to punish them. I felt he deserved documenting.

Publishers, however, felt differently. I kept running into various versions of the same four words: “This book won’t sell.” The reason? Not many, up north, have heard of him, and as the population that reads is even scantier than the population that watches non-Hindi cinema—so the argument went—the book was simply not viable. I protested that mainstream publishers had brought out excellent books on, for example, Helen and Leela Naidu, neither exactly a household name in the South. For that matter, even in the North, how many Hindi-film watchers had heard of an actress named Leela Naidu? Or was the book pitched at those who wanted dish on Dom Moraes’s wife? As for Helen, would the audience who whistled at her moves on screen be just as interested in a well-researched book about her life? Why, I wondered, couldn’t these publishers see what I did: that the Tamilians and the Kannadigas and the Telugus and the Malayalis, both here and abroad, could easily make up in numbers for the supposedly uninterested readers north of the Vindhyas?

These publishers could just as easily have been newspapers or magazines or television production houses, reacting to a writer or a documentarian trying to pitch a long essay or a series about K Balachander’s career since his first film in 1965 (or his successful theatre career from even earlier). Stray too far from Bollywood and you hit a brick wall. It was inevitable, therefore, that the celebrations of Indian cinema’s centenary would turn out to be all about Hindi cinema. The recent compilation of Indian cinema’s 100 greatest scenes in Time Out magazine’s Indian editions featured 10 scenes from Tamil cinema (some of which were my contributions), nine from Bengali, two each from Malayalam and Marathi, and one from Kannada. The rest—76, if you care to count—were selections from Hindi films. In over 90 years of existence and with nearly as many releases per year as Hindi and Tamil cinema (the annual output of these three industries constitutes nearly 50 per cent of the films released per year in India), Telugu cinema, apparently, hasn’t produced a single scene worth singling out—not even in Pakkinti Ammayi, the Cyrano de Bergerac-like 1953 comedy based on the Bengali story “Pasher Bari”, where one man’s voice is assumed to belong to someone else. The list did, however, find a place for Padosan, which was made from the same material 15 years later.

The unfairness of the Delhi- and Mumbai-centric media establishment’s focus on Bollywood has always been felt to some degree by the rest of the nation. But at times this bias becomes a festering wound. Recently, when the great playback singer PB Srinivas—who, over a career spanning six decades, sang for Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi cinema—passed away, the Indian Express carried a horrifying obituary from the Press Trust of India that confused him with another (living) singer, named Srinivas. And when, a week later, the legendary Carnatic violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman died, India Today’s obituary focused on his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin and Bombay Jayashri, leaving the impression that this staunchest of classicists liked to dabble in fusion experiments. Irate fans were left wondering what would have happened had similar journalistic crimes been committed against, say, Mohammad Rafi or Shobha Gurtu. And now, it’s as if we’re celebrating 100 years of Bollywood, or worse, that we’re celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema aka Bollywood.

The implications of institutionalising Hindi cinema as Indian cinema by the media establishment are disturbing, and not just because of the pricked sentiments of those who make and watch movies in other languages. Whenever a best-of list of Indian cinema is announced, we see the same films—Pyaasa and Mother India and Sholay. The problem isn’t with these films but with the refusal to go beyond them, and to see through the eyes of audiences who watch more than just Hindi cinema. A Tamil film viewer, for instance, may laugh at the assertion that the most erotic moment in Indian cinema came about when Dilip Kumar stroked Madhubala with a luxuriant feather in Mughal-e-Azam, for this statement can be made only by someone who isn’t aware, for example, of Kamal Haasan’s tireless evocation of eroticism in films such as Nammavar, which includes a memorable sequence in which he savours Gauthami’s fingers. Each time the same Hindi films are celebrated as ‘Indian cinema’, those from inside and outside the country, those who are looking to know more about Indian cinema, are denied knowledge of non-Hindi cinema, at least, the serious kind. Rajinikanth, though, they know all about, because he is celebrated by the media establishment. He’s fun. He’s an internet meme. He can be packaged as wild entertainment. It isn’t difficult to envision a casual cinephile in Rome or Peru thinking that the big Bollywood movies apart, the only kinds of cinema in India are the ones Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee make, and the kind in which a swarthy Southerner tosses cigarettes between his lips.

It must be said that Hindi cinema has done an extraordinary job of marketing itself. First, there was the minting of that neologism “Bollywood”, which, far from suggesting a cheesy rip-off of Hollywood, has come to suggest a vibrant, dominant cultural force. Other industries that have affixed “woods” to their names haven’t managed to burst out the way Bollywood has. Go to New York, and you’re not likely to witness a performance of “Kollywood dance”. Second, the Hindi film industry has aggressively sought to reach out to an audience that may not speak the language—through subtitles, through worldwide release patterns, through widely covered and ultra-glamorous red-carpet events, through participation in prestigious film festivals like Cannes, and through cleverly timed event movies, like the release of the heavily hyped Bombay Talkies to coincide with the centenary of Indian cinema. Even a major Tamil film rarely gets a release outside the South, and even if it does, it isn’t very accessible. A screening in a single-screen theatre in a distant Mumbai suburb—without subtitles—is hardly going to further the cause of a Tamil movie that doesn’t feature Rajinikanth.

Third, and most important, Bollywood has forged a symbiotic relationship with the English-speaking media to such an extent that news channels devote segments to everything from nostalgic programmes built around old Hindi cinema to review shows of new Hindi films. And let’s face it, the English-speaking media is the agenda-setting establishment; up north, everybody speaks of the Aamir Khan-starring Ghajini as the first Indian film to gross more than Rs 100 crore at the box office, but the fact that it was based on a Tamil blockbuster rarely comes up. The centenary celebrations are, in fact, a concoction of the Bollywood media machine. Raja Harischandra wasn’t a Hindi film in the first place—it was silent. Sadly, no other film industry in the country employs the English-speaking media or the vernacular media to further its cause, at least to this extent. The Tamil newspapers and magazines, for instance, talk about the local releases and find space for gossip, but there’s not much cheerleading for the industry’s history. You don’t find best-of lists being compiled by industry veterans. These publications do, however, dole out Bollywood tidbits, and frequently feature Bollywood heroines in sexy poses. On occasion, regional publications even review Bollywood films. So while Tamil readers get to know about Bollywood, those who don’t engage with the Tamil media remain largely unaware about Tamil cinema. Similarly, Malayalam films, presently among the finest in the country, are reviewed mostly in the Malayalam press and in Malayalam television channels, and end up with only Malayalis as their consumers. Perhaps those publishers are right, after all. Perhaps a book about a Malayalam filmmaker makes financial sense only if written in Malayalam.

This lack of recognition is why so many actors and technicians flee to Mumbai after making their mark in the regional cinemas—though there, too, most of them may have to settle for fortune rather than fame. Real recognition comes not if you prove indispensable in the making of a movie, as a worker behind the scenes, but if the media can spin a ratings-garnering story about you. That exalted echelon of newsmakers is occupied by Bollywood stars and, sometimes, star directors. (You cannot make a movie without an art director; you cannot make a much-read story about one either.) A newcomer to Indian cinema may be forgiven for thinking that the bigwigs of Bollywood are the only ones who’ve had anything to do with Indian cinema, as they’re the only ones who have been asked to say something about it on this occasion. And when asked for quotes, when asked for favourites, when asked for memories, they fall back on Pyaasa and Mother India and Sholay, and declare, as if for the first time, that Dilip Kumar stroking Madhubala with a luxuriant feather is the most erotic moment in Indian cinema.