Javed Akhtar on Hindi films as a state of the union

Trivial Matters, or "darling Akshay," as he is known 'round these parts, alerted me to an article in Outlook India in which wordsmith (right, Filmi Geek?) Javed Akhtar proposes that because they so borrow and synthesize cultural elements from across the nation, and are made by a crew of people from various places and religions, Hindi films are the country's greatest common language - and constitute a culturally ecumenical state of the union in which everyone can (and does) participate.

Here is the first page of the section of the article on Hindi films (it starts in the fourth paragraph down and then continues on the next page for another paragraph). It's worth noting that the only direct quote from Akhtar is the introductory idea: "There is one more state in this country, and that is Hindi cinema." None of the explanation or expansion of this idea is attributed to him; it all comes as an excerpt from a forthcoming book The Miracle That is India by Ramachandra Guha. Does anyone know if this comes from a longer statement or larger context shared by Akhtar elsewhere?

I don't feel I know enough about recent Indian history to weigh in on this - and as a non-Indian, I don't think it's particularly important that I have an opinion. As a filmi fan with a personal and professional interest in topics of culture and identity, though, I'm definitely intrigued. My preliminary thoughts are that idea of Bollywood as the pan-Indian cultural mosaic (as my adopted homeland of Canada might say) is both a little bit brash and cheerfully tempting. Though I spend no energy seeking out or engaging with the opinions of people who actively dislike Hindi films at anything more significant than the personal taste level, even I can easily imagine people thinking "Oh no he didn't!" given, for example, the taint of corruption and immorality that some see in the film industry and some of its products and players. On the other hand, as a fan, I can imagine it being quite tempting to get to elevate your passion from entertainment, performance, and/or shared stories (and the values and ideas they comprise) to Indian Culture Itself.

In the words of one of America's greatest popular cultural ties that bind, "discuss amongst yourselves."

to post (May 11, 2007): An expanded version of this post is up at Desicritics.


Anonymous said…
That's a very tempting analysis, but given Bollywood films' tendency to 'other' certain sub-communities within India, Bollywood may not be the best unifier in the land. It does seem that in Bollywood films, North Indian Hindu = the norm, and any other community is brought in as a broad slapstick stereotype, or avoided entirely. Or the third option, reserved mostly for how Muslim India is portrayed, where the avowed aim of the film is to portray pan-Indian or pan-religious brotherhood, and then you get a Veer-Zaara or an Amar Akbar Anthony. While good-hearted, these films also seem to me to 'other' the minority communities, by making such a belaboured point about how all men are the same, whatever their extraction. Rare is the Bollywood film where the majority of characters are, say, Muslim as a matter of course that need not be remarked upon, rather than as an aid to the plot.

I've seen far fewer South Indian films, but those too seem to go for the 'ignore' school of representing cultural diversity -- I haven't seen any characters in them that weren't South Indian Hindus.

That said, Bollywood films do combine a lot of landscapes, (filmified) dress and cultural aspects from all over India in any given film, so they may well provide a window onto other Indian states' culture for many viewers, making these less 'foreign' and thus fostering some element of India-wide unity. But I'm only speculating here.

The unifying aspect is perhaps simply in the love that all Indians have for these films, regardless of any cultural message.
Indianoguy said…
I came accross Ram Guha's article sometime time back. I wouldnt have agreed with Javed Aktar a decade ago, but Hindi Cinema found acceptence in south India in the last decade or so. My parents and most of my relatives have limited knowledge of Hindi, but they watch good Hindi movies now and then, that too with out subtitles.

@ Nina
South Indian movies do a better job at depicitng cultural/religious. diversity. There are loads of movies with one of the lead characters as Christians, especially in Tamil and Malayalam Cinema.

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