How films and TV serials became our guide to Indian culture
The way we dress, eat, pray, live and die are so reflective of popular movies.
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Nothing has impacted popular culture in India like films (and of late television). Every aspect of our lives has been in some manner influenced by cinema.
For decades, the medium was the message as millions of eager fans thronged the thousands of cinemas far and wide. The way we dress, eat, celebrate, pray, work, live and die have a synthetic ring so reflective of popular movies.
In a heterogeneous country like India perhaps only few things evoke a pan-Indian response. Religion, cricket, films and disasters. In the initial years after Independence as a much-divided India looked for a new identity, films helped create this elusive India. This at a time when communications and travel were limited and usually inaccessible to the common man. However, as we now discover what emerged was a plastic pastiche. Draped in atavistic palimpsest, most of these changes are superficial and fake.
Let's look at some popular festivals such as Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi. Although it finds mention in the puranas, for centuries this festival celebrating the bond between brothers and sister was largely a north Indian (and parts of western India) affair.
However, it achieved universal acceptance in most parts of India, thanks to being regularly featured in Hindi films and songs (Bhaiya mere rakhi ke bandhan ko nibhana).
Jai Santoshi Maa, 1975.
Similarly, Govinda, a part of festivities during Janmashtami was a Maharashtra-centric activity but films (Govinda aala re) spread its fame across India.
Ganpati, another traditional celebration of the elephant God’s birth, is now well-recognised and celebrated all over again, thanks to various films featuring sequences showing lord Ganesha being worshipped in specially erected pandals and homes. Durga Puja from Bengal, Karva Chauth from Punjab, Navratri from Gujarat are again some of the regional festivals, which have been popularised by films and more recently television.
Jai Santoshi Maa, a Hindi blockbuster from the 1970s, rediscovered this obscure goddess (mentioned in mythology as Ganesha’s daughter) and made her much worshipped.
Shirdi Sai Baba, a saint revered largely in the Nasik region of Maharashtra, is a today one of the most revered saint in India with several million followers after a series of films showing his miracles were huge successes.
In fact, many rituals have received popular sanctity after their portrayal in films and mythological series on TV. Many sociologists give the popular TV epics of 1980s, Ramayan and Mahabharat, a lot of credit for the grand revival of Hinduism.
Similar examples of other temples, dargahs and other places of worship have acquired large following after their showing in movies and TV.
It was Raja Ravi Varma, the well-known early Travancore painter, who first gave a stylistic look to several gods and goddesses in late 19th century. Early cinema, which revelled in making silent mythological, carried this depiction forward and today they are the most accepted form of the Hindu pantheon rather than ancient sculpture or art.
In a culturally diverse country like India, it is cinema and TV which have forged a common symbolism. From attire to demeanour, even loutish behaviour (stalking has been the modus operandi of wooing in popular cinema for decades), a national identity has emerged from an imaginary amalgam of different strands. Hairstyles and fashion of top stars have been aped for years.
It's films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, which have morphed the north Indian wedding ceremony into a pan-Indian phenomenon.
Devon ke Dev...Mahadev, TV soap
Ladies sangeet, a folk tradition of north India, is now an accepted part of Tamilian and other south Indian weddings.
From the sari to salwar suits and denims, broad sweeps can be visible across India, courtesy media.
Millions of fans down the ages have aped matinee idols such as Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Rajinikant and others.
Angry young man, hulks, yokels, sultry sirens, babe in the woods, rebels without a cause are all stereotypes born out of popular cinema.
Today, as popular cinema gets a little more real, its TV soaps that carry forward the social caricatures and stereotypes forward. Recent successes of books on religion and myths forgotten (by authors such as Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi) only reinforces this point.
People seek emotional catharsis from popular cinema and television. They seek hope and emotional crutches through identifiable iconography. A society bereft of heroes, heroines and role models under constant stress needs succour.
They also need scapegoats and villains who represent the system and the oppressor. Landlords, underworld dons, corrupt authoritarian figures that ultimately meet an inglorious end is the retribution, which the viewer will never get in real life.
In cramped slums and dusty towns and villages, romance has disappeared and it is what the audience seek in colourful provocative song sequences.
A modern semiotic is emerging which subsumes tradition, patriarchy with modernism and newfound confidence of a resurgent economy.
Consumerism has redefined moral codes but a revival of religious bigotry is creating new contradictions. Socially and politically the majority is asserting itself and popular culture will soon start depicting this change.
Messenger Of God (MSG), 2015
Whether this will create further chasm or create a new identity is difficult to tell.
Historical imperatives too change. We are living in an Engagement Economy where several sensory bombs are exploding simultaneously in our immediate environment.
There are bound to be new archetypes, which will appear in popular media. However the very syncretic and diverse socio-economic nature of our national fabric will collide with rising fundamentalism of all kinds.
Urban terror, natural disasters and disparity in wealth are the truism, which will assert them. Our movie-makers and writers are slow to react to this glacial change. As media becomes more pervasive, spectacular and multi-dimensional, newer festivals (IPL), newer gods (Ram Rahim), newer villains (Devasena in Baahubali) and newer dreams will weave their magic on the myriad screens of our lives.
A new iconography is under construction. And as the narrative changes, the influence of the moving image, whatever the format or medium, remains eternal.