Can films usher in social change?

Post-independence popular Hindi films considered class disparity as one of its go-to themes and included it in nearly all genres ranging from romance to drama.

 |  4-minute read |   17-07-2020
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In the web series Hollywood, Raymond Ainsley, an up-and-coming filmmaker in the 1940s tells a studio executive that if the studios changed the way that movies were made, one could change the world. As an Asian-American trying to get his foot in the door, Ainsley comprehends the power of films and believes that movies didn't just show audiences the world as it was but how it could be.

The moving image indeed has the power to change the world. Many would like to believe that cinema reflects the society, more than society reflecting films, and therefore, as long as the latter does not change, the former, too, would carry on the same way. This couldn't be further from the truth. It's evident from the way everyone from leftist revolutionaries such as the Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin and the cogs in the wheel that drove the free world such as America's CIA used movies as a tool to not just convey messages but change the way the world stood.

Ripple effect

Irrespective of the cinemas of the world, the success of a film is reason enough for it to be replicated. The bigger the success, the greater the probability of a movie spawning clones. A few weeks ago, JP Dutta's Ghulami (1985) turned 35 and it brought to mind how despite being one of the first 1980s' mainstream films that deftly combined classic Bollywood genres such as action with themes that were standard art-house such as casteism, its success did not have a large enough ripple effect.

Post-independence popular Hindi films considered class disparity as one of its go-to themes and included it in nearly all genres ranging from romance to drama. It also had films that explored casteism every now and then such as Bimal Roy's Sujata (1960) but its narrative did not bring that in focus until the advent of the New Cinema in the late 1960s and later the blossoming of Parallel Cinema movement of the 1970s. The Dacoit-genre also tried to highlight such disparities but, once again, the narrative did not scratch beneath the surface. The narrative in Dutta's Ghulami was crafted in a way where it spoke about the kind of topics that the industry would often relegate to art-house films in a way that would connect with its typical audiences.

Power of cinema

In the film set in Rajasthan, Ranjit (Dharmendra), the son of a peasant rebels against the deep-rooted caste prejudices and discriminatory practices, is sickened by the exploitation and runs away from the village only to return years later to see that nothing has changed. He is further discriminated by the landlord's family by being made to work to pay off his father's debts. Ultimately, Ranjit becomes a fugitive. The climax reiterates that the unjust system might never change and leaves you less hopeful.

The rugged setting and the presence of songs, it also included the iconic 'Zihaal-e-miskeen mukon ba-ranjish' (Lata Mangeshkar, Shabbir Kumar, lyrics: Gulzar, music-Laxmikant-Pyarelal), allowed Ghulami envelope the basic plot points from the commercial point of view, but the film had more than enough to talk about. It's not as if Ghulami did not inspire films that followed but it did not trigger off the larger debate extolling the power of cinema to change the way society existed.

To give a more contemporary context, imagine the kind of discussion that followed the release of Article 15 (2019). This was still a few years before the late 1980s' Mandal Commission riots that changed the way an entire generation viewed the subject. The Ghulami esque films that followed were largely vendetta films that picked up more on the feudal set-up, the class disparity than the caste angle. The film was a precursor to Rahul Rawail's Dacait (1987), an under-rated gem that needs to be studied more, and Dutta's own Yateem (1988), which is perhaps the closest to a revisionist western that Hindi films ever came, but the failure of both at the box office sealed the fate of such films.

Mission impossible?

Interestingly, a year later Basu Chatterjee's Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), one of the funniest films of the period, also talked about casteism but left with a more positive message. The Amrita Singh-Anil Kapoor starrer was more insynch with the demands of popular Hindi films but the industry never allowed anything on similar lines to be attempted any time soon. Could the younger generation that was bereft of any role models between mid to late 1980s been more positively inspired had films like Chameli Ki Shaadi been more in numbers, and also enjoyed success?

For those who feel that cinema, and essentially popular films, cannot change how people think, need to look at the depiction of Kashmir in Bombay films. Even though India fought four wars, and an entire community was made to live refugees in their own country, Bollywood, knowingly or unknowing, rarely failed to depict Kashmir as paradise on earth.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Writer

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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