This week, India celebrates 70 years of independence from colonial rule. On a landmark occasion like this, it is natural to take stock of where we are vis-à-vis where we began. While doing so, we appreciate that there’s plenty to celebrate and be proud of in today’s India. Equally, there is much regret at missed opportunities and an acknowledgment of the many arduous challenges that we still have to overcome.
That bitter-sweet assessment holds true for the trajectory and current state of the Indian film industry too. In fact, when you really delve into it, there are so many striking parallels between where we are at, both as a nation and a film industry, that the two could well be spitting images of each other.
To cite some of these broad similarities:
Diversity – It is said that India changes every 100 kilometers. That’s no exaggeration considering the multitude of languages, dialects, ethnicities, customs, practices, cuisines, costumes and topographies that our vast and crowded nation is endowed with. Similarly, what we call the ‘Indian film industry’ is not a singular entity but rather an umbrella term for various language-based film producing clusters – from the well-established Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Bhojpuri, Kannada and Malayalam industries to occasional films in such languages as Gujarati, Assamese, Dogri, Kosli, Nepali/Sikkimese, Sindhi, Haryanvi, Chhattisgarhi, Konkani, Meitei, Oriya and even Sanskrit. Within these groupings, our films explore a wide (and ever broadening) range of genres and themes. Moreover, there is also a growing ‘indie’ movement that will only gain further traction as alternate and inexpensive platforms for content sampling become popular. In short, both India and Indian cinema embody that Latin phrase: E pluribus unum – Out of many, one.
Inequality – The sad irony of India is that its fast growing economy is tipped by PwC to become the world’s second largest by 2050, yet large swathes of our countrymen struggle to fulfill even their most basic needs of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and health. This is primarily due to massive inequality in the distribution of wealth, with India’s richest 1 per cent individuals estimated to hold 58 per cent of the country’s total wealth. The Indian film industry too is beset by substantial lopsidedness in terms of the cornering of resources by the big guns–from availability of funds for productions to work opportunities and remuneration for talent to the number and quality of shows for new releases. Ditto for revenues. As we saw in a recent editorial, the Top 10 Hindi films during the first half of 2017 accounted for 87 per cent of the total collections, even though they constituted less than 9 per cent of the total releases. However there is a difference in the two inequalities – while the Indian rich are genuinely rich, many of our even chart-topping films incur losses despite their seemingly impressive top lines!
New Bottle, Old Wine – The past and the modern sit comfortably alongside each other in India and we experience many commonplace examples of this daily – a swanky SUV honking to shoo an ambling cow off the road, the image of a deity as a screensaver in a high-end laptop, or a nimbu-mirchi totka (lucky charm) hanging from the doorway of a state-of-the-art facility. Similarly, even though our films are becoming ever slicker with production values often at par with global standards, the essence of the tales we tell remain, by and large, uniquely Indian and rooted in our culture. Nothing illustrates this better than the highest-grossing Indian film of all time, Baahubali: The Conclusion, which for all the gloss of its VFX and CG wizardry, harked back to ancient Indian mythology for its substance.
Secularism – Many would perhaps argue against this attestation, especially in the current climate where mere rumours of someone’s dietary preferences can result in barbaric lynchings, but we remain a country in which secularism is unequivocally enshrined in our Constitution – right from its very Preamble to the inclusion of the Right to Freedom of Religion as one of six fundamental rights guaranteed to each citizen. The people who constitute our industry are often religious – after all, it often seems that our vocation is literally living on a prayer! However, when it comes to work, the only religion that our industry knows is success. Casting and crew decisions are dictated by the box office power of the personnel, not the religion they practice. You are only as good as your last film, not your faith. Thank God (any/all – no discrimination here) for that!
Chaos Theory Practice! – Perhaps the most striking – and the most important – similarity between India and the Indian film industry is the fact that both have somehow managed to not only survive but also move forward (albeit not at the pace or with the equity that we would have liked) despite the many challenges, both external and self-inflicted, that constantly afflict us. Yes, there is much that is wrong with our country but at least we have been spared the worst excesses of army rule, protracted and bloody civil war, single party dictatorship and religious extremism that abound in our neighbourhood. By the same extension, it is no small miracle that despite seeming to be in a state of perpetual crisis, the Indian film industry has continued to remain relevant for over a century and has managed to retain its unique identity when much of the rest of the world has been totally overrun by the Hollywood juggernaut.
India has often been described, not unjustifiably, as a ‘functioning anarchy’. One can’t think of a more apt descriptor for its film industry either! And for both – the nation and its celluloid dream merchants – let us hope and pray that the future holds a lot more ‘functioning’ and a lot less ‘anarchy’!