Feelgood Inc.

A few evenings ago, I saw the admirably slick and feelgood Zindagi Na Mile Dobaara, which translates roughly to "You live only once". As for those of you familiar with the Internet, that's YOLO—seize the moment—Carpe Diem. No surprises that like the bulk of mainstream Indian films, ZNMD is unabashedly larger than life, showing off lead characters with impossibly chiseled bodies who are off to a road trip through Spain. Through the course of the film, ZNMD shows us how each of these entitled male characters undergo cathartic changes in their outlook, and learn to exercise choice in their lives. 

Word of warning, I will simplify things, considering my myopic, urban-heavy point of view. Keeping that in mind, the modern iteration of Carpe Diem as in ZNMD can still be read as a telling comment on our times. 

Coming as it does from a long-established tradition of showing lives less ordinary, big-budget Bollywood is most at ease when it shows actors playing out middle class fantasies of wealth and happiness, more often than not in faraway places. Watching films has always been our method of forgetting daily worries for a few precious hours. Its something we love to lap up by the mouthful.

While fantastical escapist narratives have been part of the Indian cinematic medium, inadvertently drawing from its roots as a means to escape the banality of everyday existence—urban, "new age" films such as ZNMD push the envelope a few steps further. I've often asked myself if there is something essentially wrong with this kind of disconnected, at times almost vulgar, extreme escape fantasy. For an average Indian whose lives we cannot even begin to fathom sitting in our city flats, this is a story that would at best become a cruel reflection of the choices they are not allowed in life.


Thanks to a childhood spent in suburbs and villages in southern Bengal, I remember the crowd of fifty-odd people who would crouch around our family's old Nelco television for the Sunday feature film. This was the late 1980s. I remember the wide-eyed look of reverence when Amitabh Bachchan spars an angry exchange of words with a villainous Prem Chopra, who, of course, holds a rifle in a gaudy sweeping staircase-laden palace. As the film ended, the crowd would thin out, spades, fishing nets, beedis, and other things were collected, gamchchas tied back to the waist—back to work for everyone.

What was the gaudy sweeping staircase-laden palace settings from the seventies is now a posh studio apartment in Neo-Bollywood's New York and London. The details change, and the scope of the fantastical expands from an old-money palace to the skyline of Manhattan.

On a more recent visit to the palm-cradled village house, some things have changed—others remain somewhat the same. There are more televisions around the neighborhood, and some homes now have cable access—via overhead wires straddled to coconut trees. While postcards of Salman Khan are the mainstay of any self-respecting men's barbershop decor. 

When there is time to rest, people tired from fishing, getting fleeced by landowners, and irrigating paddy fields crowd around their neighbors' televisions for a precious glimpse of SRK dancing in faraway places on the television frame.


It's easy to dismiss big-budget Indian films merely as fantasies pandering to urban upper middle aspirations, and yet they are so much more than that. The Karan Johar brand of films in foreign shores to my mind, is a comment about its intended audience, rather than the perceived insensitivity of the filmmakers. Films, much like ZNMD, point at a larger picture of an India that is gradually losing visibility, and perhaps relevance, in the story of our lives. Middle Indians populating its cities and larger towns are increasingly hungry to break with its past, and add to the mall crowds on weekends. GIven a choice, we would probably say that there are no poor in this country.

We have known a whole generation of parents only too eager to sever ties with memories of their struggles while growing up, and make sure that their kids would never face the challenges that beset the older lot. As a result, we've grown into an entitled generation of children in adult bodies, having learned to dig our fists in a KFC bucket and forget that there is an abysmally poor country lying just beyond the guarded walls of the mall.

We are the ones lucky enough to have hard-working parents who escaped the invisibility of lower India. And now we want to reach out and take the skies. Endemic to a considerable cross-section of middle India, this aspiration has, on the upside, bred workers who want to desperately rise in life, pushing ever longer hours, and often taking more than one job to build funds, get that first car, invest in a bit of real estate. This hunger to escape invisibility has mobilized the bulk of young middle-India, who too want to flaunt chiseled physiques and romance flawless lasses in Spain, à la ZNMD. The darker side to this aspiration, as seen in the movies, emphasizes a greater reinforcement of upper-middle dreams. The stories told by big-budget Indian cinema, such as ZNMD, go beyond their scope as fluffy depictions of people with choices. It points at the mind of its popcorn-greased viewers, hinting at their abhorrence of the mundane and the ordinary.

This leaves us relishing the irony of mainstream Indian cinema—in its refusal to acknowledge that overwhelming majority of the country that is perpetually in the sidelines, left out of the growth story—at best clawing at the lower rungs of the service sector in towns and cities. In your urban, tightly netted existence, you'll probably have brief, uncomfortable encounters with this part of India servicing your car, manning your lift, or smiling vacantly at you from behind the KFC counter. But who's telling their stories? And even if their stories are told, who cares?


Also, check out Smita Dakhore's take on the disappearing poor in mainstream Indian cinema. Read it here.


priya said...

I wish you could elaborate on what you meant by saying the K J brand of films say more about the intended aud than the perceived insensitivity of filmmakers. you made an argument and left it there without explaining or substantiating further. my problem with the article is your tone - its is as if there is a SHOULD in what films should focus on.why SHOULD a filmmaker talk about the poor, is there a moral obligation to do so?
and filmmakers are not supposed to do A over B, IT IS ABOUT STORYTELLING irrespective of the class, caste, race or nationality they talk about/feature.

Fully grown fuzzy Hipposaur said...

Thanks for your comment. My basic proposition has been quite simple: that in recent times, we do not have stories of the have-nots (and by extension, glimpses of the larger context of the country, its daily struggles) from most mainstream filmmakers (KJ being representative of this brand).

If you consider the history of Indian cinema, it has drawn from roots in Marathi theatre and similar episodic storytelling traditions. Films from the 50s, 60s, and even 70s speak largely of lower and middle class stories. Audiences in the 70s loved Amitabh as a struggling clerk or even a coolie for this very reason—(some of) our fathers and mothers faced the same struggles against the status quo. Villains invariably had massive bungalows, and often the same set design was repeated time an again to show the evil rich dude smoking a pipe.

These days, the audience has changed (to a large visible part) into urban privileged multiplex-hopping moviegoers. Likewise, there's been an increasing disappearance of lower and idle class narratives from films. Since mainstream films cater to commercial interests, they in essence serve up what the audiences like and buy tickets for. That way, filmmakers are simply dishing out what audiences want to see on screen, and they are not being insensitive—merely catering to the market.

As far as the tone of the piece is concerned, I don't think I've ever mentioned what SHOULD (your caps) be done. There is no easy prescription for what cinema should say, and likewise the writeup is merely an observation stating such-and-such kinds of stories don't get said anymore.

Wether you would like to admit it or not, stories in mainstream Indian cinema is inextricably linked with class, caste, and even skin colour. But this is a discussion that can go into pages.

No morality being peddled here, rest assured. Just observations.

But thanks for your response.

In case you are interested on class and depictions of power in Indian cinema, check this book