The Bhojpuri film industry has been making news for some time now—for its success at the box office; for stars such as Ravi Kishan and Nagma; and for venturing far from its roots in rural Bihar and eastern UP to shoot at locales in London and South Africa.
Journalist and author Avijit Ghosh, who grew up in small towns of Bihar and Jharkhand, has charted the story of Bhojpuri cinema from its origins in the early 1960s to the success it’s enjoying now in his new book, titled Cinema Bhojpuri. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What led to the current boom in the Bhojpuri film industry?
There are three broad phases that Bhojpuri films can be divided into—the first phase lasted from 1962-68, the second from 1977-2002, and the third and current phase began around 2004. The current phase was inaugurated by Sasura Bada Paisewala (2004), in which Manoj Tiwari played the lead role, and Panditji Bataeen Na Biyah Kab Hoee (2005) starring Ravi Kishan. Both were blockbuster hits and after that a lot of people in the business, including Bollywood producers, saw potential in this industry. It triggered a huge rush that continues.
In the mid-1990s, Bollywood got multiplexed. Historically, Hindi film has been the cinema of the masses, but in the mid-1990s mainstream Bollywood film-makers found a new formula that bypassed small town and middle India in favour of NRIs and the urban upper class. This created a huge content shift in Bollywood stories; the hinterland smells, sights and sounds were effaced. There was, therefore, a huge gap in what Bihar and eastern UP were provided; Bhojpuri films filled the gap.
Is the Bhojpuri film industry today driven by a few stars and directors?
There are the three major stars—Dinesh Lal Yadav “Nirahua”, Manoj Tiwari and Ravi Kishan. They constitute the trinity, the troika of Bhojpuri films, like the three Khans of Bollywood. There are top directors too, like Mohanji Prasad and Aslam Sheikh.
(Left) Manoj Tiwari and Nagma in Hanuman Bhakt Havaldar (2007).(Right) Cinema Bhojpuri, Avijit Ghosh, Penguin, Rs399.
What about female leads?
Rani Chatterjee, Pakhi Hegde, Rinku Ghosh, Monalisa, Nagma and Rambha are big stars.
You have described the current phase of Bhojpuri films as the most prolific, but also as most lacking in artistic merit and quality.
In the 1960s, Bhojpuri films were a cottage industry, now it is a full-fledged industry. And essentially, the content of films is decided by the core audience. Today, that is the young underclass of small towns and mofussils of eastern UP and Bihar. That is what shapes its content, celluloid language and aesthetics. In the 1960s, the middle class and the family formed a huge percentage of audience. Now, the family has stopped frequenting the theatres, just as in the 1980s and 1990s the Hindi film audience had abandoned theatres. Very few families go to theatres today (to see Bhojpuri films).
The first phase was the golden phase in terms of quality of films?
It wasn’t just that. Music is a very important part of films. Songs of the 1960s were very melodious and these songs even today are equally hummable. Post-1980s, gradually, the focus shifted to rhythm over melody.
It seems as if the current crop of Bhojpuri films tend to be Bollywood clones, whereas the earlier films were rooted in the soil and rural milieu of the Bhojpur region.
Even now, the films have a certain flavour of the land. Unless you get that, you wouldn’t want to watch it. Moreover, as the people in the industry point out, the village itself has evolved over time. It is not like the 1960s any more. Film-makers say that they incorporate the new elements for the changing village viewers.
What about allegations that producers who do not belong to the region, and look at films purely as a business proposition, are responsible for the lack of quality in Bhojpuri films?
It is an argument that cuts both ways. The point is that all producers, local or outsiders, are primarily driven by money. I don’t believe in the argument that without them the quality of content would have been much better. Producers, directors, actors from other regions have enriched Bhojpuri films. In the 1980s, Dilip Bose, who was born in present-day Bangladesh, was one of the biggest directors. Hasmukh Rajput, who directed Naihar ki Chunri (1985), one of the finest Bhojpuri family dramas, is a Gujarati. Films like Bidesiya (1963) and Dangal (1977) were produced by Bachubhai Shah, another Gujarati.