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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The gentrification of Hindi cinema

The gentrification of Hindi cinema

How Bollywood changed, perhaps forever, in the 1990s

An iconic still from ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’Premium
An iconic still from ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’

Popular Hindi cinema underwent profound changes in the 1990s. Time-worn narratives adopted new forms, while increased production budgets meant slick-looking movies that better suited the aspirations of the newly-minted consumerist classes and non-resident viewers who formed the major audiences for the films of the 1990s and the following decade.

Tejaswini Ganti, an associate professor of anthropology at New York University, US, has a nifty term to describe the birthing of the mid-1990s movie, best represented by Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. In Producing Bollywood Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry, Ganti’s academic study of the dance between commerce and creativity, she uses the term gentrification to characterize the production of major movies in the two decades and the increasing legitimacy accorded to Hindi cinema by the government and the media. Ganti argues that between 1996 and 2006, when she conducted her research in Mumbai, Hindi film-makers distanced themselves from “the so-called financially disadvantaged masses". She writes, “Just as urban gentrification is marked by a vocabulary of progress, renovation and beautification, which is predicated upon exacerbating social difference… the gentrification of Hindi cinema is articulated through a discourse of quality, improvement and innovation that is often based upon the displacement of the poor and working class…" This process is linked to the desire of film-makers to be seen as practitioners of a respectable trade, one that moves away from the “roots of moral and social stigma" that arise out of “the origins of its finance, the social origins of its members, and the class location of its audiences".

Ganti explores how the Hindi movie business is structured, how films are financed and distributed, what film-makers imagine their audiences to be, and how these notions affect films being made and circulated. The book doesn’t capture more recent developments, such as the increasing digitization of movie projection, which has made it possible for films to open simultaneously on more screens than before. Yet, the ideas of gentrification and the desire for respectability help in part to explain the 100 crore money-spinners as well as the success of modestly budgeted films with offbeat themes. Edited excerpts from an interview with Ganti, which was conducted during a recent visit to Mumbai.

Your research was conducted between 1996 and 2006. How do you see your argument about the gentrification of Hindi cinema playing out at the moment?

The part I feel vindicated about is in the type of films that are being made, the kind of money being made from such films. My argument plays out in the whole desire within the industry to capitalize on the idea of new and opportunities. The nature of distribution has changed and has opened up the scene for people like Anurag Kashyap—the ability to take risks is now possible through the structures of the industry. The guys who want to make the big commercial-type films are also there, of course.

There are certain protagonists and topics that have come up that weren’t there—such as looking at people of more modest socio-economic means. Everything is not high gloss—you see more socio-economic diversity, there is more variety in the subject matter. Some things have changed, but others have stayed the same—it is still a very male-dominated cinema.

Are audiences telling film-makers what they want to watch, or are film-makers shaping taste or is it a bit of both?

Audiences are unknowable. There is no such thing as an audience—there are just people who watch films. An audience has meaning only to media industries like film, advertising and television, which require the notion of a collective that has an impact on how things happen—television ratings, for instance. The box office is their way of saying that they know their audience. All the box office tells them is that someone bought a ticket. Most of the time it’s about the film-makers’ own projections and imaginations. This is not unique to India, but happens everywhere. It happens whenever you are trying to make media for large numbers—the producers are never going to have some kind of face-to-face contact. How we relate to films and why we like something is highly complicated.

What do you make of the 100-crore movie, which seems to be a new benchmark for the industry?

I get Film Information (the trade magazine), so I keep up with the trade. I was actually struck by how the figures are being trotted about—I remember a time when every other film seemed to be flopping, when you would never share those figures. Now these figures are being trumpeted with every paper, so my first reaction was that something must have changed in the taxation codes, or the mafia situation, which is why they were not scared to share these reactions, rather than, something has changed in the business for them to be comfortable with sharing the figures.

No one really knows how much a film has made—it is a kind of creative math, in a sense. The notion of the hit is very important, which is why you are constantly announcing that the film has made so much money. Earlier, you would say that tickets for a movie were going in black, now you say, 100 crore. It’s a way to promote the film and attract audiences.

What people don’t talk about is the universal hit. “Hundred crore" doesn’t quite have the same resonance, it communicates that there was a saturated release, higher ticket prices, and lots of people watched it. But there are lots of people who also distance themselves from such films.

You took the unusual step of becoming an assistant director on a couple of movies in order to research your book. How did that transform your view of the trade?

I came to understand how people worked and how they made decisions. I learnt to appreciate the complexities of film-making, and not just fall into the trap of replicating people’s representation of themselves. People were constantly complaining about how inefficient and disorganized everything was, but I was also able to see how flexible film-making is, how nothing is written down. I was amazed at what an oral and aural culture this was. I learnt to appreciate improvisation and not fall into the trap of lamentation.

Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry, Orient BlackSwan, 645.

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Updated: 05 Sep 2013, 04:06 PM IST
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