The stories that Bollywood can't tell

The stories that Bollywood can't tell

The universe is made of stories, not atoms, the American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser wrote. It’s a sentiment Indians instinctively understand. From our mythological epics to our roving folk singers, we are a land bound together by stories. Most civilisations have one creation myth, we have dozens.

The Hindi popular-film industry — Bollywood to all of us — is the most prolific and beloved among today’s storytellers. Yet, there is this aspect: Hindi popular cinema is most remarkable for the stories it does not tell.

Even though we are on the cusp of an election that will have fateful consequences for the entire country, Bollywood still shies away from engagement with politics — the big, often divisive, issues that define our times.

Why do we so carefully sunder our storytelling from our politics?

There are plenty of socially-engaged and awakened stories in our popular cinema — think Sairat or Pink — and even films that use political landscape as a backdrop. There are some films accused of being propaganda, ranging from Padmaavat to Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister. Films are always judged first through a political lens instead of a cinematic one.

There are, however, few genuinely political films that force us to roll in the blood and dirt all around us. Why do we have no real equivalent of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war epic Apocalypse Now, or a searing indictments of prejudice like Robert Mulligan’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner or Norman Jewison’s In The Heat Of The Night?

Perhaps there is a simple answer to this question. Films have a huge impact on Indians, almost as much as our politics. Politicians will not allow a film industry without reins. It needs to be subjugated, lest it questions the many narratives that the political class would like us to fall for.

Impositions of the censor board are a dreaded reality in the business of making movies in India, stifling creative decisions even as early as in the writing or shooting stage.

The impression doled out is that censorship is essential to keep the peace — that the Republic will fall apart and there will be chaos without a big brother checking on us.

There is a deeper problem. For years, our politicians have told us bigger stories than those in the business of storytelling. The stories that politicians tell are better financed, better scripted and better performed than anything our film industry can come up with. And our stories cannot question their stories.

Take the story of India in the first five decades that we were all taught as kids. Father decides to split the nation between the children, then gets murdered, leaving all power to Chachaji.

But no one can question why Chachaji then decided to leave the seat of power just to his descendants.

No one must think along these lines.

Even today people who are fine with one family being the centre of power for four consecutive generations get away with being called liberals, instead of lackeys. The same people will also have you believe that all elections, agencies and media are now controlled by the government in power, but have a tough time swallowing the fact that the same was being done by the other party when they were in power for six decades.

After all, their forefathers fought and won Independence for all Indians, and therefore we owe our freedom to them.

This works the other way around, too.

Today, the government is replacing stories with fantasies. Stories are tricky things. They twist and turn, and make us ask questions. Fantasies lull us into quiescence, like an addict’s drug-addled dreams.

We are told that our timeless traditions hold a cow’s life more important than that of a human being, so we cannot tell stories of how our ancestors sacrificed and ate them. We are told that cow urine can cure disease more effectively than modern bio-chemistry, so we cannot tell the story of how millions of Indians die because of broken public healthcare. We are told Vedic India invented aeroplanes, so we cannot tell the story of how awful our education system is.

Politics, you see, has pushed the envelope on stories that are more fantastic and unbelievable. Mythology becomes history, fantasy becomes science. Faith becomes fact.

And our stories cannot challenge their stories.