One recurring accusation hurled at popular cinema is that it rarely lives up to its power of influencing a positive change on the audience. At a recent Lit Fest where this writer was a part of a panel that discussed cinema's significance as an agent as well as a reflector of change, it was interesting to note how contemporary popular cinema seems to believe in either direct messaging or none at all when compared to that of the previous century. The panel included Maithili Rao, Jai Arjun Singh - the biographers of Smita Patil and Hrishikesh Mukherjee respectively - and filmmaker turned author Fahad Samar whose books feature characters inspired by popular figures.
In the hundred years of Indian cinema, popular cinema, especially Hindi cinema has been used both as a tool of instigating change and holding a mirror to the changing society right from its early days. The manner in which V Shantaram infused realism into his narrative long before the dawn of parallel or independent cinema is a testimony of cinema's capacity to initiate a change. Shantaram's Duniya Na Maane (1937) made a bold statement against child marriage where a young woman (Shanta Apte) rebels against her marriage to the much older Kaka Saheb (Keshavrao Date) and got people talking about the malaise. Shantaram's Manoos (1939) or its Hindi version Aadmi (1939) showed the relationship between an honest policeman and a prostitute and was lauded by the police for initiating a change in the attitude of people at large towards the police.
While there was never really any doubt about the "entertainment" factor of cinema, it's intriguing that in its infancy, cinema was seen as a tool with an immense potential to serve the purpose of evoking a sense of nationalistic pride. In an essay in the book Narratives of Indian Cinema, Lalit Joshi writes that Bal Gangadhar Tilak recognised this potential and took the lead in establishing a connection between the two. His newspaper Kesari, which was edited by Tilak himself, was one of the first to not only review but also hail Raja Harishchandra (1913), India's first swadeshi film. He also remained in constant touch with filmmakers of the day to push the agenda.
Even Rabindranath Tagore was a vocal supporter of cinema's capacity to influence and readily allowed his stories to be filmed in the early 1920s. The best example of popular cinema's influential capability is the Ashok Kumar smash hit Kismet (1943), where lyricist Kavi Pradeep's song "Door hato aye duinyawaalon Hindustan humara hai" might have been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India movement but ended up becoming a clarion call for the average Indian. Fahad Samar rightly mentions how the lyricist remained underground once the censor caught on to the play of words where ''German'' and ''Japanese'' in the lines ''German ho ya Japani'' were used as red herrings to throw the British off guard.
Freedom from imperialistic power changed goalposts for filmmakers. Initially, they embraced an extremely simplistic approach towards including socialism in their cinema, but just a decade into Independence, things were different. Nehruvian socialism, which lyricists like Shailendra, Sahir and Prem Dhawan celebrated in their songs like "Badhte jaaye hum sailaani, jaise ek dariyaa toofani" from Shree 420 (1955), "Saathi haath badhaana, saathi haath badhaana, Ek akela thak jaayega mil kar bojh uthaana" from Naya Daur (1957) and "Chhodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat puraani, Naye daur mein likhenge hum mil kar nayi kahaani, Hum Hindustaani" in Hum Hindustaani (1960) was now an almost betrayal.
After this, popular cinema transcended towards reflecting the changing society as opposed to inspiring a change but this didn't go down well with the powers that be. Guru Dutt threw a refrain made by Pandit Nehru in a speech where the then prime minister said he was proud of India to Sahir, and the result was Pyaasa's "Jinhe naaz hai Hind par voh kahaan hain?"
Such observations clashed with the sensibilities of the government of the day, which now comprised of fellow countrymen and they didn't like the idea of such blatant referencing to the trail of the common man. Sahir's words were censored in Kaafila (1952), and two of his songs from Phir Subhah Hogi (1958) were banned while Pradeep's lyrics were deleted in their entirety in Amar Rahe Ye Pyaar (1961).
But even around this period, Bimal Roy's Sujata (1959) made a strong statement against untouchability and pushed a case for a change by juxtaposing the archaic norm with a new mindset embodied by Sunil Dutt's character.
Perhaps it was the death of the mood of post-Independence progressivism that transformed popular cinema into the largely saccharine-laden escapist fare that it started metamorphosing into by the mid-1960s. With the arrival of Rajesh Khanna that saw the star become a phenomenon and escapism turning into decadence, popular cinema created its own concurrent universe that had very little to do with the real world.
As a result, popular cinema, which was primarily the only variety operating then, didn't know what message to give and its potency suffered because the societal change it could mirror was a tad too bleak to be clubbed with "entertainment."
This senselessness became more pronounced in the post-Emergency years where, save for parallel and middle cinema, mainstream films didn't seem to bother about things happening in the society that it ostensibly depicted. Had parallel cinema outwardly questioned harsh realities such as the Emergency, perhaps mainstream cinema would have gone a step further than, say, for instance, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Kotwal Sahab (1977) and Khoobsurat (1980), which were the filmmaker's response to Mrs. Indira Gandhi political extremism.
In the 1980s, parallel cinema opted to depict society in a more microcosmic manner with Ardha Satya (1983), rather than including a macro viewpoint as well, like in Nishant (1975) or Bhumika (1977), which somehow also led to change in the genre itself.
Today's cinema doesn't believe in the obvious messaging or inculcating the idea of a straightforward change within the viewer. Rather than believing in the maturity of the audience, the present day popular cinema is far too confused to give a message. A majority of films today suffer from the curse of the third-act, a situation where the narrative's resolution doesn't seem organic and the reason they have unlikely endings is because the filmmakers simply want to tie the loose ends.
Of course, there are gems such as Court (2014) or Killa (2014), and to some extent, even a Queen (2014) but these are far too few and in between. It isn't like popular Hindi cinema or Bollywood doesn't have the gumption to be both an agent and reflector of change without being overtly noticeable.
If a Hrishikesh Mukherjee could depict the fault lines of society with a simple tool like the hero (Dharmendra) going unrecognised by his own friend (Asrani) because he's dressed as a chauffeur in Chupke Chupke (1975), then what's stopping a Rajkumar Hirani, sometimes labeled a modern-day version of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, from not oversimplifying his narrative tools in Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), 3 Idiots (2009) or PK (2014).