Like its story cellars, art direction in Hindi cinema these days is north Indian small-town cornucopia—a profusion of the mofussil flavour. Mumbai is no longer the de rigueur, convenient canvas for Hindi film-makers. The Dev Anand in Taxi Driver or the Manoj Bajpai in Satya seem like period leads. The stray Mumbai animal in the movies now is fearful and largely hopeless (Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl In Yellow Boots and Hansal Mehta’s CityLights, to cite just two instances). From the city’s film studios and European waterfronts and snow expanses, the romantic comedies, the slice-of-life comedies and mafia dramas have shifted to Chandigarh, Wasseypur and what’s perhaps the smallest of small towns, New Delhi’s Rajouri Garden.

Almost aping advertising, the small town in Hindi films is a potent canvas for bourgeoisie heroism, with a touch of the exotic.

The actor who has found success despite her small-town lineage is the rebel, although it’s true that the Hindi film industry has attracted talent from all parts of India since the 1940s or perhaps even earlier. Recently in an episode of the TV show Satyamev Jayate, I caught actors Kangana Ranaut, from Surajpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district, and Parineeti Chopra, from Ambala, Haryana, recounting how they were victims of predatory males in their small-town streets while growing up.

This is an encouraging trend of course, to look beyond cities and make stories from smaller places entertaining—although most small-town films are set in north India. It would have been a revolution if some of these stories were by writers actually still living and writing in the small towns. While Chetan Bhagat’s counter-literary fiction sells in the smallest railways stations across the country, the reverse— regional fiction, pulp or literary, reaching city people through more translations and “Bollywoodization"—is not on the horizon. Such cross-fertilization can be seen more in contemporary art, where city galleries are making works by artists from Kochi, Guwahati and Faridabad accessible. The local stories and local histories and politics of Vadodara found abundant expression in artist Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings. Authentic, on-screen provincialism can only be seen in regional cinema. Mumbai’s film-makers do small town mostly as capsules of life where the old and new mingle in discordant ways—some recent examples being both parts of Gangs Of Wasseypur, Dedh Ishqiya, Dekh Tamasha Dekh, Revolver Rani and Khoobsurat. Small town becomes a simplified template, with some lip service to accents and flavours.

A poster of Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, starring Aamir Khan
A poster of Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, starring Aamir Khan

I recently met Rajkumar Hirani, who told me little about his forthcoming film, PK (releasing on 19 December), except to kind of nod when I said the character Aamir Khan plays seems to be moving across many small towns. Who better than the director of Munna Bhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munna Bhai and 3 Idiots to ask how he found a barometer for the pan-Indian pulse, a mythical pulse that could be running through city, small-town, middle-class and rural India? “I just got lucky," he said, “but a lot of it is borrowed from my own experiences in Nagpur, where I grew up." In other words, small town is magic.

Political Animals is a fortnightly column on the intersection of politics and culture.

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