IT’S NOT JUST BOLLYWOOD, STUPID!
Language propagandists or a lazy media? Who floated the myth that the Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood is India’s only — or largest — film industry?
By Anna MM Vetticad
“Aapki yeh karambhoomi Bambai hai. Aapka Kurukshetra ka maidan Mumbai hai (Bombay is the land where you will work, Mumbai is your battlefield),” he declared to listening students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. The speaker was actor Mukesh Khanna. The comment came during a recent panel discussion on NDTV India about Gajendra Chauhan’s selection as FTII chairperson.
Why did Khanna assume that the students’ karambhoomi would be Mumbai? Did he not think these youngsters would, could or should work in any of the other dozen-plus Indian language cinemas emerging from centres located across the country?
Khanna — current chief of the Children’s Film Society India — sidestepped my annoyance as a fellow panelist. Not surprising. As he struggled during the show to name Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winning Malayalam director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, calling him “Gopal Adoor” instead, it became clear that he knows and/or cares little about Indian cinema beyond the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry aka Bollywood.
He is not a solitary example.
Indian cinema is not just Bollywood. Try telling that though to the vast sections of the public — especially, though not only, those from northern India — and the supposedly ‘national’ media headquartered in Delhi and Mumbai who casually use the terms “Indian cinema” and “Hindi cinema” / “Bollywood” interchangeably. Sometimes they at least acknowledge the existence of what is patronisingly termed “regional cinema”; sometimes not even that. Sadly, the rest of the world is picking up this vocabulary.
So what has led to the common misconception that Bollywood is India’s only — or largest — film industry? The answer lies in a near-invincible cocktail of political propaganda, parochialism, historical happenstance, media laziness and marketing.
India’s three largest film industries — Hindi, Tamil and Telugu — have rivalled each other since the days of the earliest talking films. According to Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, the first talkie in each of these languages — Alam Ara (Hindi-Urdu), Kalidas (Tamil) and Bhakta Prahlada (Telugu) — were all made in 1931.
In other areas too, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu run neck and neck. Annual reports of the Central Board of Film Certification show that 206 Hindi features were certified in 2011, followed closely by Telugu with 192 and Tamil at 185. The previous year’s figures: Hindi – 215, Tamil – 202, Telugu – 181. The costliest Indian film till date is reportedly Bahubali from the Telugu film industry a.k.a. Tollywood. As per media speculation, Tamil film legend Rajinikanth is India’s highest paid actor.
Hindi’s distinct advantage over the other two is in terms of reach since the language is spoken in more states than Telugu and Tamil. Now combine Bollywood’s laudable marketing efforts here and abroad with the underhand success of Hindi language propagandists who have learnt well from this theory attributed to Hitler’s minister Joseph Goebbels: A lie repeated a million times becomes the truth. Their efforts have entrenched another myth in Indian public consciousness: the myth that Hindi is the national language, when in fact India has no constitutionally designated national language.
It’s a vicious circle. English newspapers and TV channels headquartered in India’s political capital New Delhi and com mercial capital Mumbai are physically closer to Bollywood than to the Tamil and Telugu industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad respectively. As is the norm with all lazy journalism, what is closer is given more importance.
Besides, most of these media houses have north Indian owners and/or editors who tend to see north Indian culture as the Indian norm while traditions of other regions are deemed exceptions. Most, therefore, hire critics to review Bollywood and Hollywood films, invest resources in extensive Bollywood reportage, and treat Telugu and Tamil as asides to be occasionally acknowledged for exotica (example: visuals of fans bathing Rajinikanth’s cut-outs in milk) or when that rare, heavily promoted, tentpole project comes around (example: Bahubali). Smaller industries are treated as intellectual footnotes (example: Satyajit Ray).
Nothing exemplifies this bias better than the coverage of the National Film Awards by English TV channels. In what is now an annual ritual, every tiny award to a Hindi film or star is headlined, while major awards such as Best Film are downplayed if they don’t go to Bollywood. The more the ‘national’ press ignores industries other than Bollywood, the more they help increase Bollywood’s market while also furthering the impression that it is — we come back to that — India’s only film industry or the largest one.
And so we have the bizarre phenomenon of an entity that calls itself the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) appropriating the term “Indian film” to hold a travelling annual awards function for Hindi films. Equally bizarre was then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s faux pas in 2012 while addressing the audience at the Cinefan film festival in her city: Indian cinema had completed a century that year, but Dikshit chose to term it “100 years of Bollywood”. Last year, Amitabh Bachchan delivered a 25-minute speech purportedly about “Indian cinema” at the International Film Festival of India in Goa. Out of the scores and scores of films and personalities he cited though, only four were not from Bollywood.
As the Central government prepares to celebrate Hindi Week in September, it is worth asking: if your karambhoomi is not Mumbai’s Hindi cinema, does it not count?
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on August 22, 2015)
Note: This photograph was not sourced from The Hindu Businessline
Previous instalment of Film Fatale: “The Rape of Avanthika”http://annavetticadgoes2themovies.blogspot.in/2015/07/romanticising-rape-film-fatale-column.html