Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Bollywood is ripe for a takeover by a pragmatic rebel

The revolt that has hit the Hindi film industry has parallels in the anti-corruption movement, even though in “Bollywood", both the camps observe intermittent fasting.

In the Anna Hazare movement, politicians who did not have the capacity to win elections, also known as activists, revolted against professional politicians. In the anti-nepotism movement, filmmakers and actors who have found it hard to enter commercial cinema’s mainstream have revolted against a small cartel that they claim controls the industry by promoting cronies and sabotaging competition. Both the movements project the lame masquerade of making the world a better place, but they derive their force from something far more potent—self-interest and the fury of the second rung that wishes to be the top rung.

Both movements seem to presume that the general public is naive, short-changed, and stultified by prolonged exposure to low standards. Here lies their doom.

The first wave of the anti-corruption movement failed without ending corruption in India, or even transforming politics. This is because it made the wrong presumption that India is morally superior to Indian politics, while the fact was that politics is an accurate reflection of the will and character of people. In essence, modern India is what it is by popular sanction.

The commercial film industry, like the rest of capitalism, is a form of democracy. A product is produced based on market surveys, instincts and conjectures to please consumers; money is spent on influencing consumers, but in the end, consumers are free to vote. Yes, in laying claim to the lottery of success, the children and friends of the powerful have a huge head start. But success itself is not guaranteed. In fact, most star children whose debut breaks are genetically transmitted to them fail. A film cartel can shrink the pool of people who have the best shot at commercial success, but success itself is not preordained. People have to vote.

While commercial cinema is a democracy, “art" is an autocracy of the elite. The business of art seems in the sway of cartels far more than the business of entertainment is.

There is a reason why commercial superstars endure. A lot of money has gone into the making of commercial superstars and in training Indians to enjoy a type of junk cinema. This cannot be neutralized by mere talent, just like mainstream Indian politics cannot be transformed by the mere morals of disenchanted rebels. “You can’t get rid of us," Shah Rukh Khan told me in an interview over 15 years ago for a story on why ageing actors endure in Hindi cinema. “We are deeply rooted in your psyche." He is still around.

For the anti-nepotism movement in the film industry to succeed, it needs what the anti-corruption movement needed to survive in a practical form—someone like, say, Arvind Kejriwal.

Anywhere in the world, a crusader-turned-politician starts out as an idealist, and when the great fuel of protest has taken him to a height but is only a burden thereon, he tends to jettison it for more practical fuels.

Any idea that overrates human nature will fail, but a revolutionary need not entirely lose his ideals just because he needs to win over a vast number of people. That essentially is what a typical humanitarian-turned-politician is—never a sell-out but somehow still in the game.

Hindi cinema has had its share of practical crusaders and small revolutions long before India’s anti-corruption movement arrived on the political scene. Ramgopal Varma, for instance, whose middlebrow cinema took considerable risks in the battle for the mainstream. It is fascinating that even though he accused “Bollywood" of being enslaved by a formula, his films thrived on it. He only made three kinds of films—about gangsters, about a vulnerable girl, and about ghosts. Artistes are so often accused of being repetitive, but it is a good idea for them to mine a familiar domain than to create shallow stories about things they don’t care about. Eventually, Varma’s new films failed not because of formula, but perhaps for the same reasons that usually doom iconoclasts—deep faith in their own instincts, low respect for others’ opinions and the absence of a strong, critical spouse.

Varma did not create a new audience for his middlebrow films. He only showed that there was an audience for them—if not in millions, at least in the hundreds of thousands. Varma was replaced by Phantom Films, a company created by Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena, Vikas Bahl and its best known face, Anurag Kashyap.

Kangana Ranaut, the mascot of the ongoing iteration of the anti-nepotism movement, may be correct when she says Kashyap has moved closer to the mainstream; but she is wrong to present this as an accusation. The natural progression of a revolution is to become the new mainstream. That entails rebels discovering that the people they once despised are actually not so despicable.

In a recent interview, Kashyap argued that the lament against nepotism is “10 years late", and that there are vast opportunities today for the unconnected. Streaming platforms themselves are an effective avatar of a transformative activist. No other force in the field of entertainment has levelled it in such a short period. That is the beauty of capitalism—a revolutionary can be a corporation. Many industries have had potent rebellions against powerful cartels, but many of them failed because their anti-establishment movements did not mutate into a mainstream power.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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