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Home >Opinion >What are films telling us about India in 2018?

Amit V. Masurkar’s Newton won the best Hindi film award at the National Film Awards last week. In Rajkummar Rao, Masurkar painted an ultra-honest bureaucrat who takes it upon himself to conduct elections exactly by the rulebook in a Maoist-infested part of India. The film showcases the duality of the Indian state—Rao’s efforts at conducting free and fair elections are often obstructed by other elements of the state—while also satirizing both Rao’s honesty as well as the exercise of holding elections in insurgency-ridden areas.

Earlier this year, Raid featured a whiter-than-driven-snow tax inspector played by Ajay Devgn. Inspired by a few real-life income- tax raids that happened in the 1980s, the film shows Devgn’s character targeting a member of Parliament, also the most powerful don in the area. Raid actually ends up celebrating the tax inspector—the thought itself is frightening to classical liberals.

Both Newton and Raid have brought back to the silver screen India’s honest bureaucrat. Such characters were more frequently part of Hindi films in the early decades after independence. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films immediately come to mind. His Satyakam (1969) showed an honest official in Dharmendra fighting great odds against systemic corruption. In those years, nation-building was a project being pursued both on and off the screen. Honest bureaucrats were just one part of this nation-building story; there was also, for instance, a Purab Aur Paschim (1970) claiming the superiority of Indian culture over Western mores of living.

Severe controls on the economy also meant great power in the hands of bureaucrats. Corruption was part and parcel of the license-permit-quota raj and bureaucrats were not complaining (mostly!). Films began to capture this part of the story too. The iconic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) throws the spotlight on the bureaucrat-builder nexus with the help of an extremely light comedy script. Once the controls on the economy began to loosen, the films, at least for a while, stopped tracking the social realities and began to focus on the aspirations of the rapidly growing middle class.

A parallel transformation was beginning to take shape in the late 1990s: the onset of the multiplex-viewing experience. The middle class with higher disposable incomes was ready to pay a premium. Scriptwriters no longer had to fill 1,000-seater halls that compelled them to put a bit of everything—action, comedy, thrill—in the same film. Even with fewer numbers watching, the producers were now getting higher returns. This was a direct result of the high economic growth rates achieved after the liberalization set in motion by former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

The scripts responded to this change. The state began to disappear from the films. The film-makers began to show the lives of rich Indians—either living abroad or those travelling there frequently. Directors like Karan Johar especially targeted non-resident Indians (NRIs) for revenue. The Indian neo-middle class was happy too, as films catered to its aspirations while offering a respite from daily realities. This was globalization on a platter for the audience.

It is in the last few years that a crop of bold film-makers have arrived on the scene. Their emergence has been helped by the surplus the Hindi film industry has generated in the last two decades. High earnings from big-budget, superstar-driven films allow more capital for experimental cinema. The good news is that the continuous trend of high economic growth has given even these films enough audience to break-even and, often, earn respectable profits.

This crop of directors is not afraid to give newcomers a shot at lead acting roles. Lesser-known actors help drive down the cost, but have also delivered sterling performances. All this has helped realism make a comeback in Hindi cinema. Films are now increasingly broaching difficult conversations. The biting reality of the caste system was an integral part of Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2017), exposing the rot in India’s sports governance. The role of caste is subtler but poignant in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015), which dwells on the tensions between modernity and traditionalism in small-town India.

The aspirations haven’t disappeared though; they are more social now. More and more films are now talking of women’s empowerment. These efforts encompass both commercial projects like Pink (2016), as well as parallel cinema like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016). The omertà around LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues is also being broken.

It is difficult to see these developments in isolation. The increased viewer interest in realistic themes is also due to greater social and political awareness among the younger generation and the middle class. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, the protests after the Nirbhaya rape, and demonetization have definitely helped. It is no surprise that there are movies now talking of specific government schemes. The stories of both Hindi Medium (2017) and Hichki (2018) revolve around the Right to Education Act.

While Raid is based on the income-tax raids of the 1980s, one wonders if the director and producers thought that such a script would find great traction in post-demonetization India. Realist cinema is welcome, but how much of it is a reflection of the state making a comeback in individual lives? The celebration of the tax inspector is cause for concern if Raid tells us something about 2018 and not just the 1980s.

Have there been more realistic stories in Hindi cinema in recent years? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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