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Home > MK Raghavendra
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Film Review:


(Hindi, Dir: Abhinav Kashyap)

MK Raghavendra

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Recently, on a road trip through the small towns of Rajasthan, I had occasion to study the billboards and the film posters in towns like Lakheri and Devli in the eastern parts of the state. Not only were the models advertising products in these parts unrecognizable from our experience of the city but the male star whose face was most conspicuous on film posters was not Aamir Khan but Sunny Deol,                       Dabangg                          who disappeared from multiplex screens years ago. The two Sunny Deol films being shown in these towns were entitled Veerta and Khuda Kasam and it is difficult to find details about these films on the internet. While Khuda Kasam is apparently a film from 2010, one cannot be sure whether Veerta is a recent film because the International Movie Data Base (IMDB) does not list it at all. The evidence may be anecdotal but it suggests that the Hindi cinema preferred in the ‘B’ and ‘C’ centers are not those we consider ‘mainstream’. A cursory look at some of the mainstream hits of the past two years also reinforces the sense that its concerns are also those of the urban classes and the Anglophone Indian – and no longer that of the ‘cow belt’ as it used to be. 3 Idiots (2009) is set in an elite educational institution modeled after the IITs and although Peepli Live (2010) is about rural indebtedness, it is unwilling to identify with those from the villages and small towns; the gaze it directs at them is almost anthropological! The earlier motifs from film narrative – like ‘dosti’ or the compact between friends/ brothers and the caring or nurturing mother – have also left mainstream Hind cinema, which is now preoccupied with upward mobility and enterprise.  It is in this context that the biggest success of 2010 Abhinav Kashyap’s Dabangg is significant: it brings back the earlier motifs and reminds us that there is another India outside the metropolitan cities and the public from these areas can still be addressed by film entertainment.   

It would have been extremely rewarding to a researcher if accurate information on centre-wise collections was available but for some reason the data is scanty. In order to ascertain the audience addressed by a particular film, therefore, we need to go by certain assumptions which may only be broadly justified. It can, for instance, be assumed that multiplex audiences are largely from the metropolitan and larger cities and that single screen theatres are in the smaller centers. Even within the metropolises, multiplexes being located in up-market shopping malls and being more expensive than single screen cinemas, one can make some tentative assumptions about the audiences that frequent each kind of auditorium. Another factor to be considered is the overseas spectator profile, which we may broadly take to be non-resident Indian or South-Asian if we exclude territories like Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia and Africa. We may also, given our knowledge of the migration patterns of Indians to the rest of the world, presume that Hindi film audiences in USA broadly constitute a more highly educated class than those in the UK and the Gulf.

Coming to the success of Dabangg in relation to other hits like 3 Idiots and Peepli Live, while 3 Idiots did much better business in USA, Dabangg has done better in the Gulf and the UK. While Peepli Live was largely a multiplex hit, Dabangg has done exceedingly well in A, B and C centers although collections in multiplexes have fallen off slightly after the initial blockbuster opening. It would appear, therefore, that the success of Dabangg is more symmetrically distributed across India than the other two films, which were skewed towards the metropolitan and larger cities. Another bit of evidence to be considered is that on IMDB, Dabangg has a substantially lower rating than either 3 Idiots or Peepli Live.  Since the International Movie Data Base is an English language website with an international reach, it can be argued that Dabangg has found less favor with Anglophone audiences than the other two films. Where recent films identify with people who are comfortable with the English language – also as betokened by film titles like 3 Idiots, Wake Up Sid, Peepli Live and No Problem – the characters in Dabangg are not Anglophone and pronounce even English words proudly in Hindi ways (e.g. ‘confuse’ as ‘confuj’).

Dabangg, which is set in small-town Uttar Pradesh, begins with a prologue in which the protagonist and his brother are children. Chulbul and Makhi are step brothers with the same mother Naini (Dimple Kapadia). Although the second man she married – Prajapati Pandey (Vinod Khanna) – perhaps tried to treat Chulbul as his own son and gave him his name, Chulbul shows resentment and does not see his brother and father as his own kin. Chulbul, however, is of much more sterling character than his weaker step brother Makhi. In the next part of the film Chulbul (Salmaan Khan) and Makhi (Arbaaz Khan) are grown up with Chulbul being a police inspector. Reviews describe Chulbul as ‘corrupt’ but he sees himself as a Robin Hood and it is accurate to say that he ‘bends’ the law rather than break it. If he takes dirty money and uses it, it is because he has a ‘constituency’ to nurture rather than to spend on himself and he is wily. He is also dressed impeccably and this is very different from police inspectors in films like Kamimey who also look sloppy when they bring disgrace to their uniform.  To show that there are other kinds of policemen, there is a corrupt and sloppily dressed one named Kasturilal Vishkarma (Om Puri) who is associated with the villain. Chulbul Pandey is also adored by his subordinates for his numerous endearing qualities while Kasturilal operates alone. Other motifs in the film include a senior politician named Dayal Babu (Anupam Kher) and his villainous youth-wing associate Chedi Singh (Sonu Sood), who tricks Makhi into assassinating Dayal Babu. Also in the film is a drunkard named Haria whose daughter Rajo (Sonakshi Sinha) Chulbul wants to marry. Makhi has a romance with Nirmala whose father Masterji resists the wedding but later consents. The film is far from impeccably plotted and one needs to look only at some of its attitudes in relation to other Hindi film hits of the past few years.

The film deals with some of the same issues as films with a more urban or Anglophone bias – crime and the corrupt police (as in Kaminey, 2009), corruption in politics (as in Rang De Basanti, 2006, Raajneeti, 2010), small town politics, gangsters and violence (as in Omkara, 2006), rural poverty and decay (Peepli Live, 2010) – but it approaches the same issues with a different attitude. A key aspect of Dabangg requiring comment is that while it acknowledges the corruption in the institutions of the State, it still treats the State with much greater respect. Politics, if contaminated, is still regarded as a space in which there is hope.

The police have consistently represented the authority of the State in the Hindi film (1). If the police were shown as weak in the 1980s (Tezaab, 1988), it was because the state was seen to have been weakened by divisive forces during Mrs Gandhi’s second term. In the mid to late nineties the police are impervious to legality and conduct themselves like private agencies as in Satya (1999). It can be argued that this is because, with the economic liberalization of 1991-92, the State was seen to be withdrawing from its own institutions.  Cinema in the new millennium may appear to be continuing the motifs of the 1990s but there are key differences. In much of today’s cinema, the State does not even deserve respect because its servants act on their own behalf and this also goes hand in hand with the films also decrying politics. Politics is the worst kind of enterprise, most of these films say.  

Corporate India came into its own in the new millennium and in cinema the new millennium also belongs to Bollywood. The indications are that the term ‘Bollywood’ first became acceptable currency not within India but in the UK and USA, in places like Bradford, Leicester and Birmingham, where Hindi films are marketed as a brand with ‘Bollywood’ being a kind of label (2).With the rise of Bollywood as an international brand around 2002-03, Hindi cinema has attained a new respectability even among Anglophone Indians, whom it has increasingly taken to targeting. This urban, upwardly mobile segment of the public, having spending/ investing power, has closer affiliations with corporate India. After the economic liberalization of 1991-92, there has been a clamor for more ‘reform’ from corporate India and mainstream Bollywood has kept pace by seeing both politics and the State as impediments to India’s ‘development’. The ideal condition is apparently one in which market forces will rule, with the State simply keeping the country safe for them.  The disappearance of the police uniform – an emblem of the powerful State in Deewar (1975) – and the rise of the plainclothes policeman in films like Bunty Aur Bubli (2005) and Page 3 (2005) can be interpreted as a covert assertion that the role of the State is a limited one and restricted to maintaining the law – because the plainclothesman is inconspicuous to everyone except the criminal. The fact that the policeman in Dabangg is played by a lead actor and wears his uniform proudly is a throwback to older sentiments.  

The other factor of importance in Dabangg is the return of the sacred mother figure. It has generally been noted by film theorists that the mother is the site of virtue (3) in Hindi film narrative. As importantly, the mother has the position of a transcendental object of loyalty through which the protagonist connects with the community and who also makes reconciliation possible. Moral transgression by the protagonist is judged most strongly when the mother disapproves and this is not only true of Mother India (1957) and Deewar but also of Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) in which the mother remains with her divorced daughter-in-law after her son has indulged in adultery. A reason for the disappearance of the sacred mother in the mainstream Hindi film is perhaps globalization. In mainstream films today, people hop across the globe at the smallest pretext, as businessmen, professionals or, more often, as criminals (as in No Problem, 2010). With the global mobility of even the middle classes in the metropolitan cities and with Dubai coming closer to Mumbai than Kanpur or Patna, films have begun to address ‘global citizens’ rather than a community of ‘Indians’ when the mother-as-anchor cannot play a role. In fact, with Bollywood increasingly becoming a brand, it may even be argued that the mainstream Hindi film has no national loyalties; it is only as ‘Indian’ as Coca Cola is American (4). Dabangg, in locating its narrative in a space which is still India and dealing with a community which can be equated with the Nation, finds a crucial place for the sacred mother figure.   

It is now generally accepted that the Nation as an imagined community is facilitated by the book, the novel and the newspaper (5). In India’s case, mainstream Hindi cinema also assisted in the imagining of the Nation as a community after 1947. Although it played a crucial role in the 1950s, it did so without official patronage because the government was expressing concern over the rapidly ‘declining standards of aesthetics in cinema’ (6). The irony is that when Hindi cinema became a global brand as ‘Bollywood’ and hardly addresses the ‘Indian community’, it gets most attention from the government – because of its export potential. While the export potential of Hindi cinema is certainly important to the Nation, there is another aspect which needs to be considered and that is Bollywood’s ‘soft power’ within India, its ability to influence opinion and even decisions.

Since the Anglophone Indian class is the one with the greatest spending power the media has begun to target it and this means that it is the class that has also come to represent ‘opinion’. Bollywood and its personalities are increasingly powerful in the new set up because they wield influence in this class and have even become role models. It may be this factor which makes some of them more visible in the corridors of the government that their predecessors were. It is here that an equation between Bollywood and corporate India would be appropriate. Both are creating icons for the middle-classes, both are influencing ‘opinion’ and neither has the stake in India that it once had because of enterprise becoming global. Bollywood’s smaller stake in India is becoming all too evident today when film discourse shows only token concern for social issues. One can, for instance, find more helpful political messages in Mother India and Deewar than in Raajneeti and Peepli Live (7). When Bollywood takes to State-bashing and politics-bashing, its position is morally suspect because it takes no comparable stand vis-à-vis Indian businesses. It is difficult to prove that the culpability of the corporate houses is deliberately avoided by cinema but one wonders if product placement and corporate financing contribute to this absence. The crooked Sethji of the earlier cinema owed to times when capital had not networked its way into wielding the kind of influence it exerts today – especially by controlling the media.  

It is because of the attractions of an ‘Indian’ cinema, a cinema that addresses the public than one merely branded in India, that the enormous success of Dabangg is so heartening. Dabangg may have come from the same industry that all the other films have come from but it still speaks with a different voice. Despite the Indian State’s constant effort to discredit itself, Dabangg provides evidence that a large number of Indians still have faith in it, in politics and in the Nation still as a functioning, if chronically disorganized, community.

Notes/ References

MK Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp130-2.
Ravi Vasudevan, The Meanings of ‘Bollywood’,
For instance, see Ravi Vasudevan, Shifting Codes, Dissolving Identities from Ravi Vasudevan (ed.) Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000, p110.
One can, for instance, easily imagine a ‘Bollywood’ film made in Mauritius with international financing and imported into India. 
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1983, p14.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency, New Delhi: Tulika, 2009, p81.
See MK Raghavendra, Peepli Live and the Gesture of Concern, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. VLV, No.39, 25th September 2010, pp 13-15. 

MK Raghavendra is the Founder-Editor of Phalanx

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