A boycott that a filmmaker practices!
Just like religion, caste is a socio-cultural reality that filmmakers themselves have preferred to boycott.
Shruti Uke | The word ‘Boycott’ is not new to Indians. We were introduced to this word especially by the freedom fighters, as a tool or a tactic to exhibit their disagreements with Colonial policies. Any measure that would have appeared even as a distant threat to the then dominant culture, religion, or the aspect of swadeshi, faced boycott! Boycott is a strong language. It is an expression of dissent and rejection. It is generally the language of the majority, voiced against minorities. It is rarely a single-intentioned action and usually has a multi-faceted approach of rejecting one ideology to either establish or protect another.
In recent times, India is experiencing a wave of boycotts against a section of the Indian film industry, the section that pre-dominantly makes films in the Hindi language. Considering the pan-Indian reach of these films, the message of their boycott and their aftereffects spreads to a larger audience.
It is a well-known fact that films do get boycotted by the people, but does it have a flip side? Have these filmmakers also practiced their own boycotts?
Filmmakers make films for society. The motives of filmmaking can be innumerable but two are openly claimed, one to entertain and the other to earn. No matter how hard they try to dissociate their film’s story from the occurred societal events, by claiming the film to be a purely coincidental product, the film, in every way, mirrors a society. It is the society, that knowingly-unknowingly, creates and lives a script. The filmmaker identifies and picks it up to produce a reflective perception (film) on it. But the reflection (film) might not always be true to the actual make-up of society.
Sometimes it is magnified, sometimes diminished beyond recognition. Such customisations of true events are neither accidental nor purposeless. The audience being the final approver, Indian filmmakers have always been extra thoughtful about catering to their audience’s taste. They are also aware of the non-homogeneity of the Indian audience, of it being divided into castes, genders, classes, and perceptions, they seemed to be extremely cautious about what content to choose and what content to discard.
Indian audience is not only varied but their socio-cultural locations also are hierarchical and oppressively unequal. The film industry, even after functioning for a century, did not dare (or care) to venture into the actual fabric of Indian society. They preferred making films that suited the psyche of the section of the audience that was socio-culturally and religiously dominant. The percentage of this ‘catered audience’ was way less when compared to the populous Indian cultural diversity, yet it succeeded in propagating the idea of - ‘the part represents the whole'.
It all started with making films based on mythologies, especially Hindu mythology. One can clearly see how Hindu mythology dominated the scripts of films of yesteryears, Raja Harishchandra (1913), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri krishna Janma (1918), Shakuntala (1943), Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950), Laxmi Narayan (1951), Hanuman-Patal- Vijay (1950) and the blockbusters-Tulsi Vivah (1971) and Jai Santoshi Mata (1975) to name a few.
Though filmmakers have always claimed their films to be a product, manufactured and sold, solely for the purpose of entertainment, films rarely had an exclusive intent of amusement. They are produced as a part of the Filmmaker’s socio-religious responsibility. The dominating presence of one particular faith on the screens and an almost absence of other faiths lent a helping hand in reviving, pushing and establishing Hindu religious values amongst the masses. Seldom did such films attract any sort of anger or opposition from the audience or society in general. The ‘catered-audience’ appreciated the eulogised reflections of their own lives on the screen while the ‘others’ did not have the courage to question their maligned representation or complete absence(boycott) from the scripts.
Moreover, an entirely dedicated movie glorifying the cultural values of other religions such as Islam, Christianity or Buddhism is occasional and difficult to locate. Hence films like Alif Laila (1953), Alladin aur Jaadui Chirag (1956), Mughal-E-Azam (1960), Pakeeza (1972), Nikaah (1982), Umraao Jaan (1981), Dedh Ishqiya (2014) or Julie (1975), Sins (2005), Finding Fanny (2014); or Asoka (2001), Paap (2014), gave a very little opportunity for the audience to absorb and appreciate these religious diversities on the film’s screens. They rather counter-motivated the audience to focus more on the flaws in the value systems of other religions. Besides, there has been a constant practice of ‘blemished-representation’ or an ‘unspoken-forbiddance’ of minority religions in Hindi film scripts.
Just like religion, caste is another such socio-cultural reality that filmmakers themselves have preferred to boycott in their scripts. Filmmakers favoured the content of patriotism, farmer, soldier, poverty and disease over the issues of communalism, caste or caste-based inequalities and atrocities.
In the early decades of the 20th century, one of India’s socio-economic realities, ‘poverty’ was shown through the film named, Neecha Nagar (1946) where the divide between rich and poor was emphasized through the picturisation of two geographical locales, Ucha Nagar and Neecha Nagar. Ucha Nagar was shown as a society settled on a geographically elevated area that wishes to divert its sewage water into the lanes of Neecha Nagar (a habitat down the slope). It also plans to convince the people from Neecha Nagar to clean the sewage in exchange for some payment. The film dealt with everything…filth, pollution, sewer, diseases, a cigarette-smoking agitator from the Neecha Nagar but the caste. The film showed a blind eye to the ingrained caste hierarchy associated with the geography of those locales.
Another notable film that showed the plight of a farmer is Do Bhiga Zamin (1953). The relation of land with caste was so intrinsic to the caste-based social order of Indian society, yet this relation was given a complete miss in this film. Mother India (1957) is another such noteworthy film, that dealt with the issues of farmer debts but nowhere it bothered to touch on the root cause of these problems. Film Naya Daur (1977) successfully managed to show the hardship of a labour and its entity against machines. This filmed class struggle once again completely ignored the caste identities of the labourers. Caste thus remained a non-existent issue or a matter of forbiddance for most of the filmmakers.
Are there exceptions?
Filmmakers have sometimes meandered away from their usual path and entered the fields of consciousness, controversy and discomfort. But for such experimentations and attempts, the industry gave birth to (not so loved) another offshoot, called 'Parallel' cinema! Filmmakers belonging to this offshoot chose ‘unconventional’ content and tried to show the greater social evils of Indian society in a much more realistic way.
In this league, one can mention the names of the films and filmmakers like Satyajit Ray’s -Sadgati (1981), Gautam Ghose’s -Paar (The Crossing) (1984), Govind Nihalani’s -Aakrosh(1980), Arun Kaul's- Diksha (the Initiation)(1991), Rahul Dholakia’s- Parzania (2005), Anurag Kashyap’s- Black Friday(2004), Deepa Mehta’s- Earth (1999), Nandita Das’s- Firaaq (2008), Aparna Sen’s- Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), Shyam Benegal’s -Mandi (1983), Mira Nair’s- Salaam Bombay (1988) etc. These films showed everything that was purposely given a miss by the mainstream Hindi films such as communalism, caste atrocities, gender-related humiliations, caste-based sexual exploitations and prostitution.
Filmmakers belonging to this offshoot too came from the socio-culturally superior, dominant and secured locations. They braved to show these controversial social evils, without fear of public rejection as their films were never intended for the view of general public but for a ‘niche audience’. Just like filmmakers, this audience too belonged to the superior socio-cultural locations. This audience, though had a sympathetic eye towards the issues of oppressed people, looked at the films as a third person’s problem. Surprisingly, the oppressed never got the opportunity to be a part of this audience and absorb their own picturisation shown on the screens. These films though got screened and acclaimed internationally, it never intended to revolutionise its niche audience nor to reach out to the actual-oppressed masses.
Who’s the bigger culprit?
The film industry is an industry of privileged. No matter how many offshoots it has, there is a conscious reproduction of the cultures of the privileged (Society) by the privileged (Filmmakers). Even an unprivileged, whose story dominates the parallel cinema, get his/her representation through the lenses of the privileged. Mainstream Hindi films have conveniently channelised the contents boycotted and rejected by them to the Parallel Hindi cinema. As both the streams are controlled by the socio-culturally dominants, this space has been very difficult for the unprivileged to penetrate in and film their own culture and stories. The unspoken boycotts practiced by the filmmakers are comparatively more detrimental to the development of socio-cultural and political consciousness than the public boycott of the films.
Shruti Uke is an independent researcher from Nagpur, Maharashtra and is an MA Development Studies from TISS Mumbai. She is currently working with Renuka Charitable Trust, Gadchiroli.