What Modi selfie tells us about Bollywood's domination and state patronage

Dress Circle | Children of a lesser god: Bollywood’s domination over south has roots in state patronage
Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a selfie with Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and others at an event to mark Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary year, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Is Indian cinema just about Bollywood blockbusters? Some people, including some of the most powerful people in this country and media, seem to think so. The latest example being the Prime Minister’s interaction with some of the biggest stars from Bollywood to discuss their participation in celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. It was dubbed as a meeting with people from “creative and entertainment world” and “film industry” with no reference to their actual identity: Bollywood personalities. Of course, there were saner, objective voices that described the meeting as what it was, a meeting with people from Bollywood. But those voices were few and far between.

The objective of Prime Minister Modi's “Change Within” meeting was to discuss the participation and contribution of Bollywood youth icons in nation building in connection with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations. Seeing the hype about the meeting and the selfie on social media, actor-politician Khushboo lashed out at the PM in a series of tweets that, “With due respects to all those who met our honourable PM Narendra Modiji last evening on behalf of Indian cinema, I would like to remind the PM of India that Hindi films alone do not represent or contribute to the economy of this country. South Indian cinema is the largest contributor.”

Khushboo’s point about the business has always been valid, but it is conveniently buried under the glitz given to Bollywood by the mainstream media and the patronage given by the powers in Delhi. Though Indian film, unlike Hollywood and other film cultures in the world is not a singular, monolingual entity, there has been a popular fallacy of equating Indian films with Bollywood, which represents only the mainstream Hindi movies. In reality,our films speak several languages and the industry is spread across the length and breadth of the country. Such diversity makes it as complex as the nation’s democracy. Despite the fact that regional cinema (as against the Bollywood) makes significant contributions in terms of revenue, opportunities, and quality, both artistic and technical, equal stature is still an elusive dream and level playing field is a myth. That brings up the question, why are we being constantly fed this illusion that Bollywood is the only industry that matters?

Broadly, there are two aspects to this. The first one is the most obvious: the State patronage Bollywood seems to enjoy. When you go deeper into the reasons for the State patronage for Bollywood, the second aspect comes to the fore, the cultural homogenization project. We shall get to that later in this. First let’s look at some examples to see what the State patronage means.

An interesting example to start with is the “national” public interest advertisements released by the government of India in the print media, TV and on movie screens. You can’t spot a celebrity from the South appearing in those ads. Karnataka-born cricketer Rahul Dravid’s appearance in an anti-smoking campaign advertisement was an exception, but he was soon replaced by Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. CBFC mandates some public interest advertisements to be added to all the films. In the newest advertisements, Akshay Kumar delivers the messages about smoking and sanitary pads in badly dubbed commercials in different languages. Apart from these advertisements that you see in movie theatres, there are tons of others that the Information and Broadcasting ministry and other ministries produce and release in all Indian languages. Bollywood dominates those advertisements regardless of whether the Hindi film celebrities are the right ones to carry that message to audiences who do not even recognise them.

Dress Circle | Children of a lesser god: Bollywood’s domination over south has roots in state patronage
Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a hoto with Bollywood actors Aamir Khan, Kangana Ranaut, Jacqueline Fernandez, Shah Rukh Khan, Jackie Shroff and others. Photo: Twitter/PTI

The government on its part boosts to its own cultural homogenisation project by installing Bollywood celebrities in award juries and prestigious platforms such as the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) though their contributions to artistic cinema are next to nothing. And the media supports the project by hosting Hindi film celebrities at their shows and much-televised annual conclaves.

Another indicator could be the dominance of Bollywood personalities in the list of national award winners despite the fact that regional language movies have been receiving much wider, world-wide appreciation for when compared to Bollywood movies.

A cursory look at the people who were awarded national film awards and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, which is India's highest award in cinema, would reveal the Bollywood bias. Of the 49 awardees so far, 22 are from Bollywood. Another dozen awardees have prominent Bollywood presence in their resume. Though this isn’t to suggest that the winners are undeserving of this prestigious prize, a list that does not include the names like N.T. Rama Rao, Ilayaraja, G.Aravindan, M.T.Vasudevan Nair, K.S.Sethumadhavan, Prem Nazir, Sathyan, Nagesh, Kamal Haasan and Yesudas isn’t exactly a hall of fame list that it aspires to be.

Even when regional language movies won the best movie and other prestigious awards, Bollywood stars were often chosen for the best actor or best actress awards. Though there is no denying the fact that this isn’t a recent phenomenon, what is worrying is the blatant Bollywood bias of the recent times, especially since 2014 (62nd national awards). Of the five Dada Saheb Phalke award winners, four were from Bollywood. Of the five best actors since, four were from Bollywood and three of the best actresses were from Bollywood, too. No prizes for guessing why Vicky Kaushal won national award for Uri-The Surgical Strike and not for Manmarziyaan.

That brings us to the point about the cultural homogenization project, which seems to be giving a fillip to Bollywood. Though the phrase cultural homogenization is often used in the context of globalization and associated imperialism, in the Indian context, cultural homogenization is driven by the current ruling party’s one nation, one language, one culture ideology. The State that is imposing the one culture ideology on its people who have successfully co-existed with their diverse language and culture for many decades since the birth of the nation seems to not care for anything that isn’t part of its imagined national culture and character.

It is also a fact that Bollywood very often caricatures and stereotypes people who are from the other parts of the country. There are numerous examples for such stereotyping. The carefully-crafted superior image of Bollywood and its celebrity stars often shadowed the achievements and talent of people from other parts of the country. To understand how deep-rooted this subservience to Bollywood is just look at the way our media covers the tinsel town.

There was a time when a star from the South prominently featuring in the Delhi-based “national” media was a big deal while it wasn’t a surprise for any upcoming Bollywood star or star kid. It used to be appalling to see congratulatory messages and celebrations by readers in the early days of online media about some Hindi-speaking movie writer “recognising” Mohanlal, Mammotty or Kamal Haasan as great actors! Well, we always knew that they are the best actors the country has produced till date. There is no worse insult to Mohanlal than people from north applauding Mohanlal’s performance in Company as his best. Anybody who has been following his movies would give you a long list of his best performances in Malayalam films and his one-off Tamil film Iruvar; needless to say, his performance in Company pales in comparison.

In the 80s and 90s, Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi used to be the king of the industry commanding the highest remuneration paid to any actor in the country. Rajnikanth and Amitabh Bacchan were the other biggest stars. In 1992, he was paid a whopping Rs 1.25 crore for Aapad Bandhavudu, at a time Amitabh Bachchan used to charge Rs 1 crore per film. Chiranjeevi achieved this feat firmly sticking to Telugu cinema, unlike Amitabh Bacchan who had the advantage of a bigger Hindi-speaking market. Though he started his career in 1978, his two Bollywood outings came only in the 90s, Pratibandh in 1990 and Aaj Ka Gundaraj in 1992. Both these were box office hits, but he did not pursue Bollywood any further. Barring films dubbed from Tamil, Rajnikanth made sporadic lead appearances in front of Bollywood audience in the 80s and 90s and delivered hits such as Andha Kanoon, Chaalbaaz, and Hum. We more often see Bollywood casting female stars from the south than heroes. The southern male stars, in general, always opt for meaty roles in Bollywood, even if they come once or twice in a decade.

Dress Circle | Children of a lesser god: Bollywood’s domination over south has roots in state patronage
Mohanlal in Iruvar (1997)

Another point to consider is the dominance of Bollywood movies in the year-ender best movies or all-time best movies list compiled by the national publications. Though much has changed in the past decade that saw the South delivering the biggest films in history, the lists of best films made in the country and the stars as told by our national media are skewed to the tune of 80 per cent Bollywood and 20 per cent rest of India at best even today. The reason: too much of focus on Bollywood and a reluctance to make an effort to understand what is happening in the rest of the country. Otherwise, why do the so-called national English TV channels and websites carry reviews of only Hindi films? Aren’t they supposed to represent and cater to the whole of India?

Dress Circle | Children of a lesser god: Bollywood’s domination over south has roots in state patronage
Actor Chiranjeevi

(This is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)