Bollywood :“ A trilogy on the questions of parenthood”
To critics of Bollywood films, (even as part of my split personality quietly stands with them) I have one single request. To understand Bollywood, and to truly appreciate it, one has to experience folk theatre, much like “Jatra” (Bengal) “ Nautanki” (North India) and mythological dramatizations like Ramleela (plays involving stories from Ramayana, part of Dussehra celebrations) Raas Garba (dance forms involving the Krishna cavorting of young men and women), which have been performed for hundreds of years. These forms represent a dramatic form, which thrive on melodrama, songs, and folk music to illustrate a theme, which may range from a social message to a spiritual exploration. Bollywood is hence a unique art form, in my view, for the common person, and not the Westernised Indian, who can never ever recognize that art is a collective and social expression and not merely an individual form of artistic achievement. Coomaraswamy refers to this huge distinction between the way art is viewed in the West and East. He would have been happy to see how Bollywood unashamedly sticks to its kitschy form. Hence, even though cinema is a modern technological art form, in India, it has followed the same patterns of music, drama and entertainment which connect, collective, social, inspirational themes to create a whole. To criticize Bollywood, without understanding its simple social uplifting experience for its “common” audience is to view this form with a Western eye, and not recognize the folk dramatic forms that preceded this form of entertainment.
The simple messages of “family relationships”. “good overcomes evil” “all live happily ever after” “deviation from social norms brings tragedy” are all common themes and provide simple uni-dimensional clarity for audiences oppressed by moral relativism of modern lives. Is watching narratives like these a simple case of escape of a higher desire to connect with themes of meaning which integrate the heart and mind? The very fact so many enjoy these films at a simple level of experience is of value. To over-intellectualize it and expect the sophistication of intellectual discourse is to not recognise the very valid need for this clarity of role models in social discourse.
I recently watched three films, all equally silly, full of silliness of the sublime kind, and exaggerations that will make many of us cringe in discomfort. These films were: “Bunty aur Babli, Waqt, and Salaam Namaste” There was a common thread running surreptitiously through all these films, aimed at the masses and severely criticized by the intelligentsia. The central theme in all these films is of the role of parenting in creating self awareness and hence growth. In this, what stood out for me was the central sacredness of the family as a unit of social structure, something a traditional society like India at the crossroads of modernity is grappling with. These films, all examined in their own pathways of exploration, the conflicts inherent in modern and traditional ways of living and their bearing on the creation of family. All three emphasized, in different ways, what being responsible for a young life can do to the ways young people make choices in life. If the form of making these very esoteric and serious explorations about the nature of family and parenting takes Bollywood form, I’d say, more power to it. However, let me illustrate further.
Bunty aur Babli’s central premise is finding a common ground between the two worlds of youthful ambition and sense of adventure with a sense of purpose in life. The two protagonists flirt with the edge of law and lose every sense of proportion in indulging their sense of fun and youthful energy which finds little expression in traditional oppressive social structures. In the form of capers and humor, this anguish takes the form of comedy. The small town meets city life through the eyes of small town ambition gone awry in the face of frustrating experiences. What brings balance and meaning to this craziness is the birth of a child which compels the pair to recognize consequences of what seems to be entertainment. Is it pedantic? Not really. Is there is a question about responsibilities and finding a meeting point between adventure, ambition and responsibility? It may not succeed stupendously, but there is a definite attempt to address these issues. In this, a silly film rises above empty song and dance fare and provides a practical approach to youthful angst.
Salaam Namaste is a remake of the film “9 months” which was a comedy. The essential difference is Salaam Namaste is not a comedy in the Bollywood world, even if it attempts at it through the silly character of Javed Jaffrey mouthing “eggjactly” at every given moment and disrespecting a white dumb woman who is his wife(?) Is this a post colonial fantasy of subjugating the white woman who has no brains? What I found interesting is not much outcry was visible at this portrayal, while I could imagine how audiences would remark if the reverse were true. Is this the crass level fantasy of the oppressed? It left a really bad taste. However, an unplanned pregnancy did not leave many feeling as sorry for Preity Zinta as they would have for Julianne Moore. However, to its credit the film does examine the reckless actions of a young couple with empathy, even as it leaves viewers thinking, “ What did people expect would happen if one had sex in a no commitment relationship?” I definitely do not see people in middle India sympathizing with such issues, although in the urban world of sexual experimentation, these become good questions. Why would a woman expect support from a man who clearly states he doe not want to be tied down? The film stood out in the way both protagonists step outside their own mental boundaries to examine how the other person feels, a true human achievement. In this element, the film stands out as it brings a human ethical question to the forefront, rather than getting entangled in unnecessary moral debates. Twenty years ago, such a film would have no place in popular cinema. That is does today, and finds an appreciative audience too, is a wonderful thing. That it comes to the conclusion, that irrespective of moral approaches to sex, parenting is about human ethics towards each other and towards a young life, is the film’s sole achievement.
“Waqt” was the weakest of this parent trilogy in my view. It took the traditional family and the overprotected son who knows no sense of responsibility and continues in adventures and actions that border on pure idiocy. There was nothing humorous in the silly escapades in the beginning and Akshay Kumar’s marriage to Priyanka Chopra who makes the big (?) sacrifice of giving up her heated swimming pool to marry a guy who has a normal pool. There are many other such retarded attempts at humor in the film. Then the clichéd cancer situation for an indulgent dad, played by a completely ridiculous Amitabh, creates the necessary filial responsibility to effect change. It showed that the love of a father can change the most wayward son in a crisis as there have been huge deposits in the bank of love. The film in not recommended at all, but it did well commercially and redeemed itself through this one message. Of course, this message is not meant for the conscious sophisticated urbane viewer, but it had its place and found a value for parental love and family duties in the web of madness that constitutes the film. That was encouraging.
Films of this kind are not philosophical investigations of the relativistic kind. Sometimes the ethical certainty of the issues of parenthood are probably best addressed in such simplistic modes. In these non –intellectual approaches to big questions of life, I feel Bollywood sets an example for other kind of media. Its even full of song and dance, which I like.