Salman Khan’s cheesy grin, tortuous love complications, sequin-strewn razzmatazz dance extravaganzas – all these things probably come some way ahead of ‘social conscience’ when most people think of Bollywood.
Once upon a time, it was prepared to touch on the tough realities of Indian life, in classics like Mother India and Pyaasa. But as with most of the world’s film industries, truth was eventually trumped by escapism – and the all-conquering song-and-dance masala movie ruled the 1980s and ‘90s.
The tide may now be shifting. A fledgling Indian independent film scene is prepared to ditch the songs, cut the running times and get its hands dirty depicting India as it truly is – and that sensibility is now influencing the mainstream. Showbiz vacuousness looks increasingly outmoded; being engaged is the new show-stopper. Mega-stars like Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar have realized that social messages can actually be effective promotional tools.
Here are five recent socially progressive movies that broke the old-school Bollywood mould.
Mainstream Hindi films usually steer clear of politics. But Raajneeti blazed in headfirst, crafting a would-be godfather from the labyrinthine power struggles among a small-town political dynasty. Director Prakash Jha, who had already displayed a strong socio-political strain in his films, downplayed parallels with real-life figures like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But there was no denying the challenge to India’s flawed democracy and the corruption and violence underneath. Although the story is overblown, with a few dozen twists too many, it was still rare to see Bollywood in such confrontational form. Jha went on to attack caste prejudices in 2011’s Aarakshan.
Peepli Live (2010)
Farmer suicides are a perennial of Indian rural life, with thousands of deaths every year. Anusha Rizvi lets this stand as a quiet fact at the heart of her cartwheeling black-comic farce, focusing scorn instead on the electoral exploitation and media sensationalism around this phenomenon. Omkar Das Manikpuri’s smallholder, promised government aid for his family if he kills himself, becomes a national celebrity as politicians, caste leaders and journalists manipulate him to reverse his decision for their own ends. As the screwball frenzy tightens, he remains almost mute; an inverted symbol of the overlooked masses.
Aamir Khan is Bollywood’s leading progressive, his midlife surge to megastardom made partly on the back of light satire and earnest social commentary. His 2007 directorial debut Taare Zameen Par dealt with dyslexia; 2009’s blockbuster 3 Idiots touched on India’s pressurised educational system; while his most recent film, the wrestling pic Dangal, champions female empowerment.
But PK remains perhaps his most daring. Khan is in familiar Chaplin-esque naif mode as an alien stranded on a research mission in Rajasthan and bewildered by religion. Without going as far as something like The Life of Brian, Khan deftly pokes fun at the rituals and absurdities of organised religion – and takes direct aim at the national obsession with charismatic 'godmen'.
This lucid, much-praised work from debut director Chaitanya Tamhane puts India’s court system under cross-examination. Real-life activist and journalist Vira Sathidar stars as a roving folk singer hauled up on charges of inciting the suicide of a sewage worker who had listened to his songs. Absurd 19th-century statute and pedantic judicial procedures are found wanting, as is the country’s uneven access to decent legal representation.
But Tamhane has the self-awareness to reflect on the fact that an interest in social justice is also a luxury: Sathidar’s empathetic lawyer is part of Mumbai’s globalized elite, while the public prosecutor’s workmanlike attitude stems from being far more in touch with - and ground down by - daily Indian realities.
Toilet: A Love Story (2017)
Bollywood’s current hardest-working man Akshay Kumar took on a hot-button topic in his latest: open defecation, with an estimated 600m Indian people still unable or unwilling to use toilets. It admittedly came packaged up in Bollywood frivolity: Kumar’s villager weds an educated woman, but she threatens to divorce him unless he builds the titular commode.
Have you read?
Some think the film nakedly parrots the line of Narendra Modi’s Clean India campaign too simplistically. But the comedy seems to have snagged the zeitgeist, becoming Kumar’s most successful film. Next year, the actor is moving on to menstrual hygiene in Padman, a biography of an activist who invented a low-cost sanitary towel machine.