Have you ever watched an '80s science fiction show with really, really low production values? You know the type: the villain looks like he has snatched a five-year-old's gun collection, the "computers" are more like a cross between a calculator and a karaoke machine and the time machine has probably overshot the cardboard budget. Watching a Manoj Kumar film today feels a little like that. To begin with, there's the fact that all his characters feel the need to declare their name and their loyalties in the same breath, Game of Thrones style. Even when a British character is about to attack him in Kranti, he stops, reflects upon the efficacy of the ammunition in his hands, and then taunts Bharat (Kumar's one-size-fits-all name for a fair few of his characters): "Yeh angrezi barood tumhaare badan ke tukde tukde kar degaa!" (This English gunpowder will tear your body to pieces!) Not just any gunpowder, mind you: it had to be English gunpowder. To be used against Bharat from the house of Bharat, geddit?
But what sounds shrill to us today was the sweet music of ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching back in 1981, when Kranti was released. The movie marked Dilip Kumar's comeback to cinema after a five-year hiatus and ran for a staggering 67 weeks in cinemas, grossing almost Rs 10 crore — which may not sound like a lot today, but was a humongous amount in those days.
Patriotic films (or just films that are "politically charged", allegedly) have come a long way since Manoj Kumar's heyday. The chest-thumping has been toned down and there are shades of grey in even the most proud patriots. But the really important change has been this: that Bollywood, even as it is churning out stories about have young politicians/political activists, has become paradoxically apolitical as a whole.
This is a curious tightrope to walk. You want to hint at everything, but assert nothing. You want to allude to everyone, but name no one. You want the truth, the absolute truth and nothing but the truth — except the elaborate and unconvincing layers of fiction used as wrapping paper. And in Bollywood, the wrapping paper is very often more expensive than the gift.
Patriotic films have come a long way since Manoj Kumar’s heyday. The chest-thumping has been toned down and there are shades of grey in even the most proud patriots. But the really important change has been this: that Bollywood, even as it is churning out stories about have young politicians/political activists, has become paradoxically apolitical as a whole.
Take Youngistaan (2014) for instance: here's a film about Abhimanyu, a young man who becomes Prime Minister overnight, after his father, the Prime Minister of India, suddenly dies. Taking cues from the Indira Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi chain of events, there are party insiders who take exception to the young man's elevation to the big chair. But of course, our hero romances his paramour against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal, delivers impromptu little motivational speeches and wins over his critics with an impish smile. Here's my problem with this: nothing Abhimanyu does in this film is remotely related to politics. The things that save his ass are: a change of heart by his enemies and a viral video of his do-gooder ways, in that order.
Perhaps part of the problem is our treatment of films that dared to give us onscreen politics that actually resembled real-life political scenarios. The Indira Gandhi story had previously been attempted by Gulzar in his 1975 film Aandhi, starring Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar. Now, Aandhi's protagonist Aarti had a story that was different from Indira Gandhi's, despite the fact that Sen's saris and her white-streaked hair gave her more than a passing resemblance to Gandhi. What she did have going was a good, solid screenplay: Aarti is a real person, who swears, smokes and drinks. She is also an actual politician, who comes across as more than a little bloodless at times. Aandhi, therefore, strikes the right balance between real-life echoes and creative license. And what did we do to this neglected gem of a film? Ban it, of course.
Two modern-era films, of very different qualities, tell us all we need to know about Bollywood's politics problem: Rang De Basanti (2006) and Rajneeti (2010). The former is often cited as perhaps our best film about the youth's role in politics and nation-building. The frequency of this assessment alone should tell you something about the film industry's understanding of politics: that the youth's best chance lies in drive-by shootings followed by the armed hijacking of a radio station, that these actions are acceptable, even admirable, so long as you follow it up with homespun homilies that sound like Shiv Khera met Dale Carnegie for lunch. ("Koi bhi desh perfect nahi hotaa, use behtar banana padtaa hai") But really, Rang De Basanti demanded so much suspension of disbelief from its audience that Aamir Khan and Dara Singh could have switched roles (Aamir looked too old for his role, Dara looked a little young for his). And once again, this film told us nothing about actual politicians, apart from the fact they are (gasp) sometimes corrupt.
Rajneeti, a film where the male and female protagonists are both young politicians, takes pains to establish its grounding in the real world. Within the first 30 minutes or so, there is a reasonably realistic depiction of both caste politics and dynasty politics in India (even though Rajneeti is a Mahabharata analogue; its characters are prisoners to one of India's oldest screenplays). But after that, the story reduces itself to one sentence: "Hey, among all these so-called politicians, who hires the best assassins?" Needless to say, the answer to that is: "The good-looking one", in this case, Ranbir Kapoor. Nation-building can wait.
Bollywood's reluctant not-quite-realism points towards an inconvenient truth: that we want to be seen as politically aware, but we really cannot be bothered about oil prices, reservations, who's in charge of the environment and all of the other useless stuff that doesn't matter when you have a sincere infotainment drug habit.