Growing up on a large dose of Hindi films, one couldn’t escape the feeling of familiarity that came with watching any new movie. The film could be really well-made, feature some excellent acting and (less unrealistically) good songs. It could keep us watching till the end without too much forwarding. We would very well mutter “That wasn’t bad at all” or “So and So did a good job, Miss. So and So looked hot as always”. The one thing that you will never hear spoken is “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!”. For going to the movies is like drinking your mom’s (or doctor’s) daily dose of traditional cough syrup. You know before opening the bottle what it’s going to taste like. First there is that strong whiff of doom, and the first taste hacks at your nerves without too much subtlety. But as the infernal thing makes its way down your larynx, your mind convinces itself that the worst is over and the end effect is a comfortingly pleasant feeling. There are many variations on the theme of course- acrid smells, tongue-scorchers or sweet, extra-syrupy syrups- but you bear familiarity with the process as a result of limitless amounts of conditioning. That is probably the same kind of familiarity that I possess with watching the offerings of our esteemed directors. The stories, the songs, the plot twists, the fight scenes, the hero’s obligations, the heroine’s limits…one learns to swallow the pungent whiff of emotional drama with tranquility knowing that the sweet relief of romantic songs is just a gulp away. The result of three hours of this controlled emotional exercise, and possibly the reason I still watch movies, is the pleasant comfortable numbness of the aforementioned medicine. And it is legal and apparently safe to do so.
But I color these words with shades of concern. In recent years, there has been a disturbing disavowal of these principles (the stories, songs, fight scenes etc.) in movies in favor of well, something else. That something else is vague, disinterested and listless. There has been a systematic abdication of process in Hindi movies replaced by plug and play plot lines, cliches and memes. In the twitter generation, movies are seemingly being made 140 characters at a time, not risking to test the attention span or even patience of the audience beyond that. Earlier (pre-2002 I guess, the date of my exodus), though you could sense the plot changes in a movie in advance (and sometimes, shockingly, you didn’t), there was an elegance and manner and even depth in which the transitions were handled. Emotional stuff, bland though it may be, still had enough vim to scratch and gnaw. The happier (=soppier) stuff tested the cardiac melting temperatures of most. When Shahrukh Khan stood up to Amrish Puri in the classic pop film DDLJ, we all stood up with him (though most in my age group would deny associating with this). When Anil Kapoor (pre-24) bandied around with the kids in the tragi-comic “Mr. India”, we enjoyed a full bandwidth of entertainment. You get the idea. The story writers, directors and the actors did not miss a trick. Their cough syrup was the real deal. (An aside, watching a really good movie would be like drinking scotch; the flavors all come out slowly).
But all that has been surgically replaced with packaged blandness, like sugar being replaced with low calorie sweeteners or a stiff tonic substituted with diet coke. Social issues were once the mainstay of movies (to the point of irritation), but now they are at most convenient (and callous) place-markers or absent altogether. Now a hot-bed, complex issue like international terrorism can be treated almost with unbelievable naiveté to tell a farce of a story (Kurbaan). Unlike in ‘Roja’- a superb romance oriented story based in a clime of terrorism, wherein Pankaj Kapoor plays a menacing Kashmiri militant, the terrorists in ‘Kurbaan’ live in neighboring million-dollar houses in subarban Philadelphia and teach lectures in Universities, even after blowing up an airline! In ‘Tum Mile’ the horrific Mumbai floods of 2007 were used as a minor plot point (devoid of context) for the coincidental re-union of an estranged couple. There have been movies made about dance competitions, FM radio shows, IT companies, call centers, cricket etc. You know that things are not going well when movies start mimicking pop culture, and not the other way round which was true for decades in India. The scripted jokes are now merely borrowed from the internet, movie plots now borrowed from uncredited Indian authors no less (having run out of western ‘inspirations’), the cliches are well, ‘extra-cliched’, the actors merely connect the dots (where is the flamboyance, the hamming, the patented twirls and shakes, the booming rejoinders to evil folks?), and the emotional detachment of the audience (sample size of one i.e. me) could not get much worse.
One can see how Bollywood, given its current trend, may remain extremely popular but may no longer remain relevant. A loose analogy may be made between the state of Bollywood and that of the great Indian religion, cricket, not too many years ago. Cricket was a dying a slow death due to a thousand stabs due to incessant and increasingly tedious one-day matches. It ran the same risk of losing relevance. But magically, it pulled itself out of the funk improbably with the invention of an even-shorter version of the game. Hindi cinema might, at least to me, need some such savior.