Nothing in Indian popular culture comes even close in reach and sway to Bollywood. But in the media celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, there was very little on his influence on Hindi films. However, journalist Sanjay Suri’s brilliant new book, A Gandhian Affair, shows us just how blind we have been to the astonishingly strong spell Gandhi cast over Bollywood. Suri offers startling, even revelatory, insights on his lasting impact. And the conclusions I reached (not part of the book) about our cinema and ourselves are not happy ones.

Of course, there have been movies based explicitly on his philosophy, from Do Ankhen Barah Haath to Lage Raho Munna Bhai, but Suri’s focus is on the much less obvious. He produces reams of evidence and extensive content analysis to show how, for decades, Hindi film-makers fenced their stories in with their own interpretation of Gandhian morality—sexual desire is sinful, wealth is bad, sacrifice is always good, victimhood heroic.

Even films with violence at their core came with Gandhi strategically inserted. The pivotal scene in Sholay is an argument between Thakur and his fellow villagers after the cleric’s son’s corpse is sent back by Gabbar Singh. Should they accede to Gabbar’s demands or take up arms? The villagers invoke the principle of non-violence; Thakur replies that to “bow one’s head before a brutal oppressor is not non-violence; it is cowardice, weakness". This is almost a direct quote from Gandhi. In the iconic canteen sequence in Deewaar, when Amitabh Bachchan, the coolie, decides to stand up to the dockyard mafia (leading to an exceptionally vicious fight), he is sitting below a Gandhi portrait. Gandhi has no business adorning a canteen wall, except to silently commend the hero’s resolve to battle oppression.

Almost all the top 10 box office grossers for each year for the first 12 years after independence (1948 to 1959), Suri reveals, have a couple of the following themes. One, sacrifice is good, however wild—heroes choose to go to prison for crimes committed by brother/father; will do anything to give up their beloved for their friends, even set themselves on fire. Two, wealth is bad—affluent heroes feel deeply guilty about being rich; variations of the dialogue “all that is wrong is due to money" abound. Three, celibacy is godly—heroes never seek out women; they always turn away from sexual advances or don’t notice them.

Things changed slowly, especially after Shammi Kapoor’s arrival, but while the Kapoor-esque hero boldly chased women, he gave away money copiously whenever he was wealthy. It was just that he was not a “loser", an ideal that found its artistic apotheosis in Guru Dutt. But while Kapoor and Co. romped, Rajendra Kumar pined, wept, embraced defeat and turned in more hits. Suri details plot lines from scores of successful movies over a quarter-century that seem utterly absurd today.

Gandhi’s influence began waning in the 1970s and 1980s. The “angry young man", created by Salim-Javed and embodied by Bachchan, was a turning point, though, as we’ve seen, the Mahatma move was hardly discarded. In Amar Akbar Anthony, Bollywood’s kitschiest ode to secularism, the three little boys’ father deposits them at the foot of a Gandhi statue.

Then came liberalization. Being rich was no longer sinful, and principled victimhood was definitely not heroic. In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the film that defined the new sensibilities , everyone is rich, the hero woos the heroine through sexual harassment, yet he won’t marry his beloved unless her father agrees to the match. It’s now okay to want, but one should wait in noble abstinence for the patriarch’s nod. Gandhi was still around, in ways he himself may not have recognized. Of course, much has changed since—the Hindi film taboo on premarital sex vanished years ago, though other hypocrisies reign on.

Hypocrisy. Suri doesn’t say so, but Bollywood’s Gandhian affair was dishonest (with honourable exceptions). After all, the heroines were constantly shown getting drenched in the rain. And while denouncing wealth as the root of all evil, the film industry pursued it hard, and may have even flouted the law in doing so. But the hypocrisy went much deeper. Combining chastity with gratuitous flashes of flesh, film-makers made the audience complicit in their moral two-facedness. The public gorged on lurid gossip about stars’ personal lives, yet paid to watch fables of selfless heroes and virginal heroines played by the same actors. Beyond mere suspension of disbelief, it was deep-seated society-wide duplicity. A symbiotic relationship between film-makers and audiences fed on each other’s lies.

Yes, the Mahatma had some strange ideas, but at least a few of them are morally indisputable. The cinematic agreement based on shared falsehood is a symptom how his most valuable messages degenerated in every aspect of Indian public and private life.

That’s why I was perversely happy to see that the big Hindi film that released on 2 October was titled War. Just an honest business decision to take advantage of a national holiday.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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