Pomp and circumstance do nothing for me.* Steven Tyler was the commencement speaker at my college graduation. I didn’t particularly want to attend but my mother insisted on it - as did my siblings, who were excited at the chance to see a real celebrity. A few days before the ceremony, a friend helped me bleach my hair and dye it bright cotton candy pink. Just because. My mother stoically said nothing about it but I thought the pink popped quite nicely against the green of my robe in the photos.
Hey, at least I left the novel I was reading on my chair.
The reason I bring up this pointless reminiscence is because there has been a lot of pointless pomp and circumstance marking 2013 as Bollywood’s centennial.**
Naturally, both the media and the filmi establishment have handled the milestone with all the solemn grandeur of a Rotary Club president presiding over an awards function. And they have been just as selective in deciding who makes the cut. Hema Malini and Sharmila Tagore are remembered - how could we forget with them in our faces all the time - but substantial heroines of an earlier era, like Vyjayanthimala disappeared. Too plump? Too difficult? Too black and white? And nobody wants to drag out Fardeen Khan or Kumar Gaurav for celebrations on the off chance that you may have to listen to them beg for work. The Three Khans are in - despite the fact that Salman couldn’t care less about this shit - but Govinda and Sunny Deol tend to get left out, too downmarket.
But this isn’t about class versus mass or even the Filmfare issue that forgot the existence of one of the two genders - guess which one - but something more insidious, the reframing of Bollywood’s past through the rosy, noncontroversial glow of kitchy nostalgia.
In other words, good-bye, Manoj Kumar, talented director with a strong left-leaning social conscience and an eye for an unusual item song and, hello, one note joke about a hand gesture. Social what now? Just laugh at the funny outfits and big emotions!
This isn’t just any nostalgia, either. There is a specific nostalgia for the films of the 1960s and 1970s as seen through the eyes of a child, not so coincidentally the era when Farhan Akhtar (b.1974), Farah Khan (b.1965), Shahrukh Khan (b.1965) were all young. And then there are the more modern era nostalgics who have canonized the Three Khans. “Ah, when times were simpler and Shahrukh danced on mountain tops with ladies in chiffon saris like he did when I was young,” says Punit Malhotra (b.1982) before making his meta-ideal of Bollywood - I Hate Luv Storys. Aditya Chopra (b.1971) epitomized the worst of everything when he condensed 50 years of films into the insipid song-dance “Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte” that manages to nostaglize both Shahrukh in his golden era and the films he loved as (and like) a young boy.
The harsh realities that framed the Raj Kapoor and Nargis dreamscapes have vanished, as have the tough lessons Raj learns after he gets sucked into a life of greed, literally pawning his honesty medal along the way. His cap is merely a fashion statement (available for purchase at your local H&M.) Prickly Sadhana with her famous fringe is interpreted as a generic 1960s heroine and not the whip cracking badass of Geeta Mera Naam. The potent, animalistic, barely contained energy of Shammi and Rishi Kapoor is sanitized for bite sized youtube consumption.
Strip all social context and complex moral bargaining from a film like Don (1978) and what you get is a child’s understanding - a cool guy running around and spouting one liners, like Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006). And while Farah Khan may think she’s “celebrating” the 1970s in Om Shanti Om, she’s really ossifying the era, setting her nostalgic interpretation into public memory as the interpretation. But nostalgia is always for a time and place that never existed, a simpler time that was only simple because you didn’t understand what was happening around you... or were sheltered from it.
The nostalgic views have become what Bollywood really is to a certain segment, unfortunately the same segment that dominates the media. It’s tradition, an unchanging canon carved into stone, instead of a living, breathing art form. It’s past. It’s what they watched when they were kids. Now Hollywood, they think, that’s current and modern, not considering that maybe the only reason they think so is because they watched those films as impressionable teens discovering the world for the first time. And so the Bollywood that gets curated is a simple, sunny childlike one. Emotion is pure, concerns are limited to the immediate family, and true love is forever and always happy. And the filmmakers making actual films for mass audiences in the present, in the now, that engage in the masala format without nostalgia are either old timers like Rakesh Roshan or from down South, where nostalgia has yet to paralyze the industry and serious topics like genetic modification of food or government-media collusion can be put into complex narratives and set before mass audiences with no problem.***
It’s getting late and this is getting rambly but I also want to point out that there is another reason certain stars and films have been left out of the “official” narrative. MONEY. Men who run corporations probably don’t like films where the rich guy is the bad guy and the moral of the story is “Fuck imported goods, I’m wearing homespun cloth!” Men whose interest is in keeping the status quo and making films that are mild enough to attract film goers without offending shareholders don’t want difficult heroines like Meena Kumari, they want simple ones whose image can sell soda. Nobody is going buy Pepsi advertised by a mature woman, whose difficult life can be read on her face. No, we want to buy Pepsi from sunny, childlike Priyanka Chopra! So Meena Kumari and her social issues are relegated to art films and the rest of us suffer through a parade of soft-drink selling starlets and men-children who don’t know what love is in what passes for mass entertainment.
But Bollywood was always brainless, right? Didn’t you see Don? He does a funny dance.
* And especially not the song. Do you even know how boring the low brass line is on that sucker? WILL NOBODY THINK OF THE TROMBONE PLAYER?
** Counting from Raja Harishchandra (1913), which you can actually watch here! We can save the hair splitting on whether or not it really counts as “Bollywood” for another day.
*** Or weirdos whose films I love but that get trashed right and left. Shirish Kunder. Vicky Acharya.