IN A TYPICAL CONTEMPORARY KANNADA FILM, a Kannada-speaking migrant in Bengaluru tries to find employment, only to encounter difficulties at every step. Forced into the underworld, he becomes a dreaded don, cutting his enemies to bits with a cleaver until the law catches up with him and he dies. Bengaluru, here, is not the glamorous cosmopolis as perceived from afar, but a decidedly seedy city festering with crime and injustice. Why the most prosperous city in South India is portrayed as such in local-language cinema can perhaps only be understood through an enquiry into several connected factors—one which begins with the meaning of the city in Indian popular cinema.
The city has been a crucial motif in Indian popular cinema from 1947 onwards, but its meaning has changed with each significant event in this nation’s history. Bombay, for instance, used by Hindi films to represent ‘The City’, came into great cinematic prominence in the 1950s as a metaphor for the promise of the modern in Nehru’s India.
That uncomplicated optimism, however, did not last very long. By the late 1960s, Indira Gandhi’s brand of populism had unleashed a wave of aspiration across socioeconomic classes that imposed a new cinematic meaning on the city: it became a symbol of opportunity. In films like Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), in which the iconic Angry Young Man first appeared, a dockyard worker ascends to wealth and power in the city—albeit through unlawful means. While films like Deewaar nominally uphold the law, material advancement by any means is shown as hugely attractive.