You know how they say you shouldn’t say anything at the moment you get angry and give yourself some time before you react? Well, in my case, waiting doesn’t seem to help much. It just makes me write columns like the one below. This is the unedited version. The edited version — complete with a super headline provided by Firstpost’s Sandip Roy, bless him — is here.
It’s possibly because I’m abysmally bad at maths, but when I saw the “collector’s edition” of Filmfare on the newsstand — with Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar on the cover — my first reaction to seeing “100 years” printed in one corner was to assume there is someone in the world with worse addition skills than mine. Because Bachchan’s 70 years plus Khan’s 47 and Kumar’s 90 definitely don’t add up to 100. If it hadn’t been for Vidya Balan, I’d never have figured out what the magazine was trying to commemorate. Because right next to the Filmfare was a Cine Blitz and on its cover, Balan had struck Nargis’s famous pose from Mother India. She too had the words “100 years” printed near her armpit, but thanks to placement, I could read the entire phrase: “100 years of Hindi Cinema”.
The reason these special editions are out is that in 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke made Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian film and the one we can blame for being starting a tradition of weepy, melodramatic stories in the industry now known as Bollywood. Contrary to what the Filmfare cover suggests, it isn’t 100 years of Bollywood. In fact, the term Bollywood is just about 40-odd years old. It was coined in the Seventies, mimicking Bengali films’ Tollywood (most of the studios producing Bengali films were in the neighbourhood of Tollygunge in Kolkata), which in turn was a play upon Hollywood. Some could argue that the fact that “Bollywood” as a word is a copy of a copy is rather telling as far as the industry’s output is concerned.
But whatever anyone thinks of the quality of Bollywood films, it’s become as distinctively Indian as butter chicken and like butter chicken, it’s also one of our most popular exports. The impact of Bollywood’s chorus dances and its habit of punctuating a plot with unnecessary songs has found takers all over the world. Audiences love it and it’s steadily infiltrating Western culture. Recently, I saw This House at London’s National Theatre. It’s about how the Labour government clung to power in Westminster between 1974 and 1979. From time to time, in the middle of parliamentary politics and without warning, there were explosions of singing and dancing that would have made Saroj Khan proud. Bollywood’s irrefutable popularity makes magazines like Filmfare think they’re justified when they only mention commercial Hindi cinema while celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. Forget the thriving film industries in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Never mind the films of Bengal, Karnataka and Kerala. Who cares about anything that isn’t mainstream and Hindi-speaking?
Though even if you think only about Bollywood, the arrangement of the Filmfare and Cine Blitz covers at my neighbourhood newsstand was, unwittingly, a rather poetic portrait of Indian journalistic misogyny and narrow-mindedness. On one hand, you have the Filmfare cover that has three men and no babe. It claims 2013 marks “100 years of cinema”, implying commercial Hindi cinema is all there is to Indian cinema and that glossy heroes define the industry. Look to your right, and there’s the Cine Blitz cover with toil and misery etched on Balan who, despite the strategically placed splodges of dirt and humble sari, manages to look beautiful. To my mind, Balan inadvertently becomes a symbol of everyone whom the Filmfare cover has chosen to ignore: the women, the people who do the heavy lifting in the film industry, the technicians, the unglossy ones.
It’s an irrefutable fact that actors can (and do) sell us everything from potato chips to an entire state. Consequently, it’s inevitable that film magazines would choose to focus on stars rather than the subalterns of the film industry. My inner Leftist may roar in protest, but there’s no denying that star actors have become the most important aspect of Bollywood. Get a star on board for your film and producers will back your project, whether or not you have other minor details like a script or an editor or cinematographer. So a starry cover is not just predictable; one could argue it’s perhaps an accurate reflection of priorities in Bollywood.
What’s unfathomable to me is that Filmfare didn’t find anything odd about the absence of women in the edition of the magazine that’s supposed to celebrate Bollywood. Hindi commercial cinema boasts of some outstandingly beautiful and talented women, both on screen and behind the scenes. Let us assume that the women behind the scenes are ‘unmarketable’. It doesn’t explain the absence of actresses in the magazine. If Bollywood has an international profile today, the ladies have played a significant part in this exposure. After all, the only Indian film stars who have managed to break into Hollywood are actresses. Irrfan Khan wasn’t a star until The Namesake. Anupam Kher and Anil Kapoor play mostly bit parts in American film and TV while Aishwarya Rai has played the lead heroine in five foreign films. Yes, they’re godawful, but she is the lead. In contrast, the biggest Bollywood heroes only do stage shows for South Asian diaspora audiences.
We often complain about how terribly male-dominated Bollywood is and how it treats women and women characters shoddily — all true — but the machismo of the Filmfare cover is particularly laughable because you can’t have a Bollywood film without at least one woman in it. Hers may be an irrelevant role with little dialogue and even less clothing, but the oh-so-awesome hero must have a woman on their arm. How do you know a man is a good character? He cares for his mother and his sister. It doesn’t matter what the genre may be, if it’s Bollywood, a romantic sub-plot is a must. No one dares to make a film that doesn’t have a love scene or two. So how did Filmfare imagine they’d devote an entire issue on this industry without mentioning any of the women who make sure the Bollywood show goes on?
In comparison to Filmfare, Cine Blitz does a decent job of celebrating Bollywood’s leading ladies. From Fearless Nadia to Rekha, the magazine is full of admiration and gossip-fuelled awe at the commercial Hindi cinema’s unforgettable actresses. I ended up fondly YouTube-ing old songs by actresses like Suraiya, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Dimple and Rekha after flipping through the magazine. These women, however, get no nods of recognition from Filmfare.
In Filmfare, less than a handful of the industry’s women get a half-hearted wave at the back of the magazine, where the popular choice winners are listed. Among the woman mentioned is Lata Mangeshkar, hailed as “Most Popular Playback Singer (Female)”, which is a bit of a joke because Mangeshkar must be the most popular of all Bollywood’s playback singers, male or female. I’m quite certain that if there was a fan face-off between her and, say, Sonu Nigam (no. 2 on Filmfare’s popularity charts for male playback singers), Mangeshkar would win. She’s sung thousands of songs in 20-odd Indian languages in the course of a career spanning approximately seven decades. With her trademark white sari and neatly-plaited hair, she’s instantly recognizable at sight and no one who has listened to Hindi film music can confuse her melodious falsetto with anyone else’s voice. If there’s one living personality who would be the perfect cover model for an edition celebrating Indian cinema, Mangeshkar is it.
As far as Filmfare is concerned, however, she is only good enough for a mention at the back of the magazine.