Anand Vardhan, an M.A. in Political Science, got his formal education in Bihar and Delhi. He is an explorer of the ‘absurd’ in vacuous space and time. He writes only by accident as you will find out if you accidentally happen to read his piece. He might accidently be paid someday.
Bye Bye Yash Chopra
For starters, let me be a bit nasty to someone who is dead. The case against Yash Chopra is that of inflicting collective cinematic fatigue. The symptoms of it were diagnosed by a few when he was alive, but in his death he has left it as a disease (Precautionary measure: Stay away from his last picture-postcard romance set in the pink bubblegum world where London is the backyard and Kashmir the hangout for patriotically-inclined and occasionally nature-loving couples).
Fatigue is setting in about the mushy romantic flicks which somehow are addressed to “multiplex sensibilities” (for whatever it means). It’s becoming very boring how often the rich fall in love with the rich (and sometimes not-so-rich), in similar locations (ranging from Switzerland to London and from New York to Kashmir), mouth similar sugary vacuities and sing and dance (the only concern seems the pre-marital and post-marital fixing of wealthy “hearts”). Love could be a spectacle if its ambience is affluent, and merchandise could offer a staple diet as repetitive as European cottage vacations.
But the problem is that when the Bollywood frames for the spectacle have got stuck there too long, the “dazzled” audience in mofussil India as well as the drooling audience of multiplex India have grown weary about the “too sweet” diet. Even in terms of the commercial arithmetic of mainstream Bollywood releases, trends suggest that romantic flicks set in metropolitan colleges (from city colleges to corporate boardrooms, involving “unemployed tycoons” who are never shown working and women who are somehow 24×7 dressed in designer clothes even in their home) and the mushy city-based romances are no longer enchanting the audience.
Why have these movies become tiresome experiences even for a growing number of urban audiences and wannabe “city-slickers”, and why have they lost the “aspirational” element for the mofussil audience?
Loss of Conflict and Shifting Arenas of Romantic Conflict
There could be numerous explanations for this phenomenon, each offering its own key to unlock this enigmatic fatigue with the genre of metropolitan romance in Bollywood consumers. Let us look at one such explanation which cinema sociologists are offering of late. They have tried to explain it in terms of loss (or even absence) of conflict in the narrative of Bollywood’s attempt at portraying city-centric romance of, more specifically, affluent couples. The frame remains frozen, there is no underlying “unromantic” tension and no conflict. All rich city-dwelling boys and girls falling in love speak the same language, hang out at the same places, have similar ideas of “courtship” and “sweetness” and go through the motions of the same “pink” pangs and romantic hitches which somehow get sorted out by pampering parents, agreeable in-laws and of course, the sugar-flavoured peer group.
Somehow, such romantic tales have become as dull and insipid as the “tolerance for dating/affairs” has gone up in metropolitan households. Such scripts are overdependent on music or bolt-from-the-blue twists such as memory loss/accidents (quite regular in Bollywood as well as Hollywood movies) and in some cases extramarital flings to save the day for them. Romance by itself seems inadequate in doing so. So Bollywood’s take on romantically-involved rich metropolitan couples has run out of its narrative steam. In other words, such narratives lack “dialectics”, they are just too sugary and one-dimensional to have space for couteractive and frictional forces in the narrative.
The shift towards mofussil romance in Bollywood (inadequately translated as small-town romance, though it could mean more than that) is also viewed in this causal framework. Some sociologists explain that the mofussil India provides a more interesting set of socio-cultural and political currents to animate a romantic tale. It provides the subtext of feudalism, conventional mores of man-woman intermingling in public spaces, caste rigidities and even political and hegemonic turf wars which play out quite interestingly in the leitmotif of a romantic script. In addition to it, there could be an interesting complexity in how feminity and masculinity is constructed and deconstructed in mofussil India vis-à-vis metropolitan India.
However, some dangers are obvious here. In their engagement with small town India, the filmmakers might be carrying the “metro prism” to look at life and cater to the audience with distortions to produce “exotic shock” show for multiplex audiences. The fragments of reality in mofussil India might not add up to the cinematic template in which Bollywood filmmakers are portraying it. These parts of the country are not monolithic entities, and they are witnessing and responding to socio-cultural dynamics in their own way and historical contexts. I had addressed some issues confronting such cinematic forays in a piece I wrote for media-watch website, Hoot.
But, as arenas of contested ideas and the backdrop of romantic dialectics, the cinematic shift towards mofussil India seems palpable.
The Rosy and Boring World of Mr Chopra
Before Mr Chopra’s last offering was released, I had written a piece on this site diagnosing the malady plaguing Mr Chopra’s idea of cinematic romance. His last attempt somehow vindicates the diagnosis, as I wrote:
“The possibilities of romance and money got heady in Yash Chopra’s brand of romance. He painted the romantic canvas of mainstream Hindi cinema with a brush of affluence in the Eighties – Silsila and Chandni, and Nineties – Lamhe, Darr, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (his son Aditya’s directorial debut under his mentoring and production house), Dil to Paagal Hai, and at the turn of century, flicks from his stable such as Mohabattein (again his son’s direction carrying his stamp). Chopra’s love stories started and ended with rich beautiful people for whom Switzerland was their backyard, and who could go airborne for courtship, showering the beloved with flower petals.
All was rosy in this world except for some hearts to be fixed and romance to be taken to marital destinations. For the aspirational urban middle class, it was an escapist narrative woven by characters in his later movies who fit neatly into the post-liberalisation capitalist upsurge of consumerism. He also sought to blend it with a need felt by the urban rich – the need to sound and look exotic, something which his NRI characters were always yearning for. That was a cinematic template of affluent romance that had an escapist appeal as it assumed its audience to be aspirational in the consumerist sense of the term. The emotions money can buy. Embarrassing, but such are the possibilities of money.”
There are subtle undercurrents to how cinematic narratives play out in different minds, contexts and sensibilities. Fatigue and even disillusionment are part of it. There is a quite different way in which silver screen portrayals have made inroads in non-metropolitan India, something seminal in its own way and with divergent consequences. But that’s a story for later.
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