How Hindi cinema influenced the Indian mindset

Over the years, Bollywood has acted as a potent agent of social change by mirroring the contemporary society.

 |  5-minute read |   14-09-2017
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Popular cinema is a potent agent of social change. Following the build-up to the Supreme Court’s recent landmark judgment that effectively put an end to the practice of triple talaq, many jogged their minds to the first time they might have heard the word "talaq" spoken thrice in quick succession.

Chances of it being in the course of viewing BR Chopra’s film Nikaah (1982) that brought to light the almost 1,400-year-old Islamic practice where Muslim men could instantly divorce their wives by uttering "talaq, talaq, talaq" would be very high. Made with the abject aim to comment on the shari’ah laws of divorce and, also in a major way, its misuse in Muslim community, Chopra’s film went on to become an important treatise on the subject. More than a simple comment on a social evil, Nikaah can also be credited for reviving the debate both within the community and society, in general, to do away with such practices.


In the three decades since the release of Nikaah, the issue it addressed has come a full circle from Shah Bano to Shayara Bano. Despite most failing to recall the film today beyond its songs, "Dil Ke Armaan Aansuon Mein", "Beete Hue Lamhon Ki Kasak", "Fiza Bhi Hai Jawan Jawan", to name a few, is it possible that the film played a significant role in the three-decade-old Shah Bano case judgment?

The immense popularity of Nikaah — one of the biggest box office hits of 1982 — made it omnipresent and perhaps, therefore, would it be too preposterous to suggest that the film could have been at the back of the mind of the judges if they were cinemagoers?

The effect of popular culture on landmark decision might take years, sometimes even decades, but the popularity of a song or a film or a book does end up sowing the seeds that bear fruits later. As a filmmaker, BR Chopra’s penchant for blending social issues with elements of popular cinema became his calling card and before Nikaah his Naya Daur (1957) commented on the impact that industrialisation had on people who relied on traditional modes of occupation. Likewise, Karm (1977) addressed blind faith in superstition, and Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980) focused on humiliation that victims of sexual assault and are often subjected to in the course of seeking legal recourse.

There might have been real-life instances where triple talaq made it to the headlines and one cannot undermine the efforts of many women and men to put an end to the practice, but few were as effective as Nikaah to put the spotlight directly on the issue when it came to the masses. Originally titled "Talaq, Talaq, Talaq", Chopra was very clear about the nature of the film that he had in mind and due to some external pressure changed the title to Nikaah at the last moment but despite the change in the title, Chopra’s intention remained the same.

Although the decade that saw the release of Nikaah, the 1980s, has for long been derided as one of the worst for Hindi cinema, there are more instances than one would recall where mainstream films not only addressed social issues but also made loud enough noise for people to notice the said malaise around them. In fact, the year that the movie released also saw Bazaar (1982) that made a strong comment on the plight of Muslim women in Hyderabad and Prem Rog (1982) that dealt with a young Hindu widow’s remarriage.

Later in the decade, along with the art-house cinema, masala Hindi entertainers, too, highlighted the then burning social issues such as dirty politics in Arjun (1985), age-old cast barriers in Ghulami (1985), restlessness amongst the urban youth in Ankush (1986), social structure leading to lawlessness in small Indian towns in Dacait (1987) or cities — Pratighaat (1987).



Such inclusion of reality into the standard narrative seemed more organic amongst the popular Hindi cinema of the 1980s than in the decade that preceded or succeeded it. In a way the manner in which the hero redressed the evils of society culminated in the way students responded post implementation of Mandal Commission recommendation in 1989 and one can see how Bollywood between the 1990s and early 2000s barely spoke about any social issue with the same urgency.

Of late, popular Hindi cinema has once again begun to experiment with subjects where the narrative focuses on making poignant social statements. The independent film genre that came into its own between the mid- to the late 2000s has now been embraced by the mainstream both in terms of budget and treatment. Popular cinema’s power to initiate a social change is on full display with films such as Pink (2016) or Anarkali of Arrah (2017) where the narrative takes an unwavering political stand and also openly as well as boldly conveys the message.


Cinema has been considered a medium of counter-power, "a tool to place human matters in their social, political and historical context" and for long standard Bollywood fare, which was high on escapism was the last thing one could have imagined to contribute in this aspect. A few years ago Pink would have been considered an art film, but today it’s readily labelled lapped up as "commercial" cinema and its message not lost on viewers.

Likewise a Dear Zindagi (2016) where the protagonist (Alia Bhatt) tries to make sense of her life in the course of her sessions with a psychologist (Shah Rukh Khan) and the more recent Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) in which a woman (Bhumi Pednekar) leaves her husband (Akshay Kumar) on the first day of their marriage after discovering that he doesn’t have a toilet are just some of the examples of "full-full commercial" Bollywood films being as passionate as the relatively smaller Nil Battey Sannata (2016) or Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) that has a "hero" who suffers from erectile dysfunction in doing its bit to mirror the contemporary society.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

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Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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