I’ve written about Bollywood and its effect on society (and our kids) on these pages before. Many of you have written back agreeing with me, but there has been the odd comment of dissent which said, ‘Bollywood simply gives people what they want. It’s a reflection of the world, not a cause for it.’
This is an interesting take, not dissimilar to the old ‘chicken or egg’ question. Does reading books make you smart, or were you smart in the first place and therefore you sought out reading as your pastime of choice? In statistics there is an oft-repeated maxim: correlation does not imply causation. Just because society and Bollywood show a high degree of correlation and similarity doesn’t mean that there is a causative element at work.
So the question is this
Is Bollywood cause or effect? Is it causing change in the world, or is it merely reflecting it?
I think the answer is a bit of both. Every story is part reflective and part aspirational. It reflects the reality of a certain section of the audience (those who belong to the same socio-economic group as the characters that inhabit it). But at the same time, it plants stars into the eyes of others – typically those viewers who belong to a lower rung in the social ladder.
Movies like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun or Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Ghum – in which people live in palaces and throw grand parties at the drop of a hat – are reflective of perhaps the richest 0.1% of India’s population. They act as aspirational entertainment for the remaining 99.9%. In contrast, movies like Iqbal or Well Done Abba, which are set in villages and tell the stories of main characters that are ‘average Indians’, are reflective of how 70% of India is living. Their aspirational quotient is near zero.
What sells more?
Do we even need to ask? Mainstream Bollywood is thoroughly entrenched in the former type of story. It sells love to the loveless, sex to the sexless, wealth and glimpses of the high life to the poor and middle-class. It knows that keeping people in a continuous state of discontent and envy is much better business than uncovering life’s hidden meanings. And after all, isn’t envy at the base of all celebrity worship? Don’t we do it primarily because we’re jealous of the person’s many fans, his many bungalows, and her flawless beauty? Because we aspire to it, because at some level we wish we had it too?
The other kind of cinema, the reflective kind, has always been termed art-house or parallel. Sometimes it’s called ‘serious’. (Is that an admission that the rest of them are just kidding?) These films tell stories of Average Joes, and attempt to show the world as it is, with perhaps a philosophical insight or two. The focus is on such unimportant things as telling the truth. No wonder they don’t bring in any money.
So all in all, after giving it some thought, I still stand by my position that Bollywood – for the large part – is affecting society more than it is reflecting it. And it’s doing so not by expanding our minds, but by sowing anxiety and jealousy within us. And I resent it. Deeply.
Do you think that’s a fair statement to make? What are your thoughts?