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Masaan: Rise of the new middle India

The Neeraj Ghaywan-directed film certainly has left a deep impact on me as I suspect it will on the minds of most who watch it.

 |  In real time  |  8-minute read |   24-07-2015
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Indian cinema, or specifically Hindi cinema (since my linguistic reach is limited), reflects change in our society, economy, lifestyles, attitudes and even sexuality more sharply than any analysis. Now it seems to have discovered small-town India much before pundits, sociologists and even politicians found it. You might say that my simplistic, impressionable non-filmy mind is blown away by watching Neeraj Ghaywan's brilliant, brilliant Masaan, which gets the pulse of small-town India as no other I have seen. It certainly has left a deep impact on me as I suspect it will on the minds of most who watch it. But it has only confirmed a trend which we saw emerge with Shaad Ali's Bunty Aur Babli and then mature in the following years with Omkara, Ishqiya, Love, Sex aur Dhokha, Dev D, Gangs of Wasseypur, NH 10 and now Masaan. Even in the relatively romantic category there's been Shuddh Desi Romance, Raanjhanaa, Ishaqzaade, Tanu Weds Manu and sequel and, at the blockbuster level, Dabangg and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Over the past decade or so, therefore, small-town India has emerged as a sharply defined genre in Hindi cinema as much as the village used to be till the furious and frustrating '70s, when it yielded to the metro and the all-conquering angry young man.

bb---copy_072415125325.jpg Rani Mukerji and Abhishek Bachchan (right) played con artists from small towns in Bunty Aur Babli.

Let us view this history of change through the lens of political economy. It is safe to say that the change today is the logical step ahead of what Dil Chahta Hai indicated in 2001. Exactly a decade after economic reform was launched, this was our first hit that unabashedly celebrated being rich. Until then, Hindi movies had reflected the popular politics of the period, which was to glorify poverty, to mock rich "Tata-Birla" types and keep hammering in the point that real joy, virtue and morality belonged to the poor. In that Farhan Akhtar film all three men were rich, spoilt, drove fancy cars, drank champagne, had equally rich girlfriends. In the usual Hindi film until then, one of them would have been the son of a widowed cleaning lady in the home of one of the other two, who would go to eat in her kitchen and tell her aunty, nobody can cook like you. But this was so strikingly unapologetic even the largely political "National Interest" had to take note of it ("Ah, the Sweet Smell of Poverty!", September 1, 2001). As a matter of fact, the expression "povertarian" I claim trademark on, grew out of reflecting on the film: Poverty is my birthright, but you shall have it. This was followed by more than a decade of cinema of the rich, often NRIs, peaking probably with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do - a film unabashed about first world problems of the beautiful and the rich. If this is now yielding to the story of the small town, it tells us two things: one, that Hindi filmmakers have picked up change which some of us outdoors journalists have been calling the rise of aspirational India. And two, that the change that 1991 started, which helped us respect wealth and love our entrepreneurs in the following decade, is now, in the 25th year of that reform, trickling down into the small town and, by and large, also in the rapidly urbanising village.

dil-dhadakne-do-titl_072415010522.png Dil Dhadakne Do - a film unabashed about first world problems of the beautiful and the rich. 

Without giving anything in the plot away, let me mention my favourite scene in Masaan. Richa Chadda, playing Devi Pathak, intense and aspirational daughter of an impoverished priest on the burning ghats of Varanasi, works as booking clerk at a railway station and freezes when a grungy urban boy-girl pair chat in front of her window if they should go some place and stay overnight together, and then ask for two tickets. Devi's resentful eyes look at her monitor which shows 26 empty seats and yet she tells them no, there are no seats left. She is poor, but educated, small-town but aspirational, knows something about the opprobrium and victimisation that would follow if she chose to spend even a couple of hours in intimacy with a boyfriend. This can be an old story in most of middle India. But now she won't accept it. This boy and girl, about her age, won't be given what she is denied because of where she comes from.

resize_072415010502.jpg Richa Chadha plays Devi in Masaan.

The common thread in this genre is how rapidly our small-town attitudes are changing. Hyper-connectivity, education - even if at bummer engineering or management colleges - wheels, media are all bridging the big-small town divide, disrupting caste and social barriers, but widening the generation gap. If in Banaras or Bareilly, Hoshangabad or Hathras the first point of contact between a girl and a boy at that endocrinologically well-endowed stage of their lives will be on Facebook, entirely on first-name terms, when courtship will begin with one accepting the other's "friend" request, by the time the parents and the families start delving into serious issues like caste, it will be too late. This may even explain the rise in "honour" killings. Or when 20-something women will discover sexuality not through the usual aunty gossip or whispers but watching pornography on computers even in their poor households, they are likely to go out exploring rather than wait for marriage or relationships. And when they are "caught" and angry parents ask why-the-hell, they could even say, simply, that I was curious to find out.

This combination of cheap smartphone-motorcycle-private colleges has totally devastated old, "traditional" notions of family relationships, ambition and sexuality. When we saw the first statement of this change, in Anurag Kashyap's Dev D, with Mahie Gill carrying a mattress on her bicycle for a tryst with Abhay Deol in a sugarcane field - where else would you find privacy in a village in deep Punjab - we were shocked, and titillated. But that is the changed, new Bharatiya nari. The smarter filmmakers found her first, with these new trends. And now audiences are accepting it, because this is so reflective of what they see in their families and neighbourhood.

12469-mahie-gill-and_072415010625.jpg Mahie Gill (left) and Abhay Deol in critically-acclaimed, Dev D.

The first people to sniff this, and put it in verse were usual suspects Gulzar and Jaideep Sahni when they wrote, sort of together, the theme song of Bunty Aur Babli: "Chhote chhote shehron se". In an interview with me later, Jaideep (who has written brilliantly for Chak De! India, Khosla ka Ghosla, etc) said he was still searching for a line to complete an idea that would best sum up the film when Gulzar came up with "Khali bore dopaharon se (we escape bag and baggage from small towns and their idle, boring afternoons)" and that pretty much set the story up. This young new Indian is no longer resigned to fate, is willing to move out, mentally if not physically, either with bags, or by dumping the baggage of the parents' generation. The city is not as distant as it used to be and nobody is willing to accept a second-rung status to those brought up in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore.

There are perils in self-referencing, but what used to be called mofussil India has come a long way, post-reform, from where my generation was brought up. When your only window to the world was short-wave radio, training in spoken English was cricket commentary of Berry Sarbadhikari, Melville de Mellow and VM Chakrapani that your parents forced you to hear rather than Ravi Chaturvedi and Jasdev Singh, however brilliant their Hindi. Or when a really kind teacher would save up for a bus ride to Delhi to pick up old copies of Time and Life magazines from the then famous Kabari Bazaar (flea market) next to Jama Masjid for his favourite, and more curious, pupils. Today, you could learn to speak English and follow anybody and anything in the world on your cheap Chinese smartphone, and never mind your accent and diction because your boss or consort will also most likely be equally desi and unself-conscious. And even send a "friend" request to anybody who caught your fancy.

In several of my reports under my occasional "Writings on the Wall" series, I have attempted to portray this generation of Indians as aspirational, ambitious, impatient, post-ideological, even a me-first, won't-be-left-behind, I-don't-owe-nobody-nothing generation. They were only infuriated by Rahul Gandhi's references to his grandmother and fired by Narendra Modi's promise of the Gujarat model. But our enormously more talented and creative filmmakers are now bringing them to our lives on the big screen. You can see how this generation brought about the political upheaval of May 2014 as they saw in Modi someone more likely to take them forward rather than Rahul and his message of self-pity. You saw them make a complete turnaround in Delhi with no memory of which party they had voted for just months earlier. You will bore them with mandir, masjid, cow or caste, Hindi medium, what to eat, social conservatism at your own peril.

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Shekhar Gupta Shekhar Gupta @shekhargupta

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