Indians are quite familiar with the word ‘boycott.’ We are introduced to this word in school while studying about the freedom fighters who used it as a tool or a strategy to exhibit their disagreements with colonial policies. Any measure that would have appeared even as a distant threat to the then dominant culture, religion or the aspect of swadeshi, faced boycott!
Boycott is a strong word. It is an expression of dissent and rejection. It is generally the language of the majority, voiced against the minorities. It is rarely a single-intentioned action and usually has a multifaceted approach of rejecting a particular ideology to either establish or protect another.
In recent times, India is experiencing a wave of boycotts against a section of the Indian film industry, the section that predominantly makes films in Hindi. Considering the pan-Indian reach of these films, the message of their boycott and their after-effects spread to the larger audience.
It is a well-known fact that films do face boycotts by people, but does it have a flipside? Do filmmakers practise boycotts too?
Filmmakers make films for society. The motives of filmmaking can be innumerable but two are openly claimed — (i) to entertain, and (ii) for profit-making. No matter how hard the filmmakers try to dissociate their film’s story from society around them by claiming it to be a work of fiction, the film, in every way, mirrors a society. It is the society that knowingly or unknowingly creates and lives a script. The filmmaker identifies and picks it up to produce a reflective perception (film) on it. The reflection (film) might not always be true to the actual make-up of the society. Sometimes it is magnified, sometimes diminished beyond recognition. However, such customisation of true events is neither accidental nor purposeless.
Audiences being the final approvers, Indian filmmakers have always been careful about catering to their taste. They are also aware of the non-homogeneity of the Indian audience as it is divided into castes, genders, classes, and perceptions. The filmmakers have been conscious about what content to incorporate and what to discard.
Indian audiences are not only varied but their sociocultural locations are hierarchical and oppressively unequal. The film industry, even after functioning for a century, did not dare (or care) to venture into the actual fabric of Indian society. They preferred making films that suited the psyche of the section of the audience that was socioculturally and religiously dominant. The percentage of this ‘catered audience’ was way less when compared to India’s population and cultural diversity, yet it succeeded in propagating the idea that ‘the part represents the whole.’
The missing picture
Filmmaking in India began with the production of films based on mythology, especially Hindu mythology. One can clearly see how Hindu mythology dominated the scripts of films of yesteryears. Here is a representative list: Raja Harishchandra (1913), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918), Shakuntala (1943), Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950), Laxmi Narayan (1951), Hanuman Patal Vijay (1950) and the blockbusters Tulsi Vivah (1971) and Jai Santoshi Mata (1975).
Though filmmakers have always claimed their films to be a product manufactured and sold solely for the purpose of entertainment, films rarely had an exclusive intent of amusement. They almost always represented the filmmakers’ socio-religious outlook. The dominating presence of one particular faith on the screens and an almost absence of other faiths lent a helping hand in reviving, pushing and establishing Hindu religious values amongst the masses. Such films seldom attracted anger or opposition from the audience or society in general. The ‘catered audience’ appreciated the eulogised reflections of their own lives on the screen while the ‘others’ did not have the courage to question their maligned representation or complete absence (boycott) from the scripts.
Movies dedicated to or glorifying the cultural values of other religions such as Islam, Christianity or Buddhism have been occasional. Hence, even the production of films like Alif Laila (1953), Alladin aur Jaadui Chirag (1956), Mughal-E-Azam (1960), Pakeeza (1972), Nikaah (1982), Umrao Jaan (1981), Dedh Ishqiya (2014) or Julie (1975), Sins (2005), Finding Fanny (2014); or Asoka (2001), Paap (2014), which had scripts primarily associated to the religions mentioned above, they failed in creating a positive image of India’s communal diversity. These films rather motivated the audience to focus on the flaws in the value systems of these religions as there has always been a practice of ‘blemished representation’ or an ‘unspoken forbiddance’ of minority religions in the Hindi films’ scripts. Just as religion, caste is another sociocultural reality that filmmakers have preferred to boycott in their scripts. Filmmakers favoured the content of patriotism, farmer, soldier, poverty and disease over the issues of communalism, caste or caste-based inequalities and atrocities.
In the early decades of the 20th century, one of India’s socio-economic realities — poverty — was shown through the film named Neecha Nagar (1946) where the divide between rich and poor was emphasised through the picturisation of two geographical locales — Ucha Nagar and Neecha Nagar. Ucha Nagar is shown as a society settled on a geographically elevated plane that wishes to divert its sewage water into the lanes of Neecha Nagar (a habitat down the slope). It also plans to convince the people from Neecha Nagar to clean the sewage in exchange for some payment. The film dealt with everything — filth, pollution, sewer, diseases, a cigarette-smoking agitator from Neecha Nagar — but caste was conspicuously absent.
Another notable film that showed the plight of a farmer was Do Bhiga Zamin (1953). The relation of land with caste is intrinsic to the caste-based social order of Indian society, yet this relation was given a complete miss in this film. Mother India (1957) is another such noteworthy film that dealt with the issues of farmer debt but nowhere did it bother to touch upon the root cause of these problems. The film Naya Daur (1977) successfully managed to show the hardship of labourers and their fight for survival against automation. While the film emphasised on the class struggle, a perspective on an ‘ingrained-caste’ within the class was completely overlooked. Caste thus remained a non-existent issue or a forbidden topic for most of the filmmakers.
Are there exceptions?
Filmmakers have sometimes meandered away from their usual path and entered the fields of consciousness, controversy and discomfort. But for such experimentations and attempts, the industry gave birth to (not so loved) another offshoot — Parallel Cinema!
Filmmakers belonging to this offshoot chose ‘unconventional’ contents and tried to show the greater social evils of Indian society in a realistic way. In this league, one can mention the names of the films and filmmakers like Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981), Gautam Ghose’s Paar (1984), Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980), Arun kaul’s Diksha (1991), Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania (2005), Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004), Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1999), Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008), Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), etc.
These films showed everything that was purposely given a miss by the mainstream Hindi films such as communalism, caste atrocities, gender-related humiliations, caste-based sexual exploitation and prostitution. Filmmakers belonging to this offshoot too came from the socioculturally superior, dominant and secured locations. They braved to show these controversial social evils without a fear of public rejection as their films were not intended for the general public but for a ‘niche audience.’
Just like filmmakers, this audience too belonged to the superior sociocultural locations. This audience did show a sign of contemplation, but only within the four walls of a theatre. They did offer a sympathetic eye towards the issues of the oppressed but saw them as the problems of the Others. Surprisingly, the oppressed never got the opportunity to be a part of this audience and absorb their own picturisation shown on the screens. While these films were screened and received acclaim internationally, they were never intended to revolutionise its niche audience nor to reach out to the actual-oppressed masses.
Who’s the bigger culprit?
Film industry is an industry of the privileged. No matter how many offshoots it gives rise to, there is a
conscious reproduction of the cultures of the privileged (society) by the privileged (filmmakers). Mainstream Hindi films have conveniently channelised the contents boycotted and rejected by them to the Parallel Cinema.
As both the streams are controlled by the socioculturally dominant, this space has been very difficult for the unprivileged to penetrate in and film their own culture and stories. The unspoken boycott practised by the filmmakers is comparatively more detrimental to the development of a sociocultural and political consciousness than the audience’s boycott of the films.
Shruti Uke is an independent research scholar who has a master’s in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She currently works at Renuka Charitable Trust, Gadchiroli.