A picture is worth a thousands words, goes the old saw. By that reasoning, the corrosive images coming out from Bollywood, India’s prolific cinema production industry, and its TV soaps must have by now done great damage to the image abroad of Indians.
In a movie from Bollywood, the hero’s falling in love is usually incomplete without a song and a dance. The couple never ever jump into bed, because the official censors in India don’t allow screening that.
But there is enough in the dance sequences to titillate a repressed audience. A favorite of directors is a scene of a fully dressed woman standing under a waterfall or a shower, revealing a lot through the wetness of her clothes. The director also throws in well-choreographed dance sequences, with a large number of over-fed and skimpily clad starlets, known locally as “item girls”, dancing in tandem with the hero and heroine.
The story line is also quite simple and repetitive, exploiting ad nauseam the “ love conquers everything” theme. The hero or the heroine usually come from a poor family, and there is opposition to the marriage, and other obstacles thrown up by villains who suddenly surface in the plot, either in search of profit, or hired by a competing girl friend or boy friend. Pain is exaggerated and so is cruelty and sadness. A gunned down actor could take half an hour to die, while a nail-biting audience watches every gory detail.
It is only recently that producers have started experimenting with new themes, but most are quite improbable in the Indian context. One movie “Nishabd” (Silent) released this year had a top actor Amitabh Bachchan, who is in his 60s in real life and in the movie, falling in love with an 18 year-old girl. The film was not a hit at the box offices.
Realism is also given the go by in popular TV soaps. The heroes and heroines grow older, and have children and grand-children, as the soaps proceeds from one episode to another. But they still strut around with jet-black hair and youthful faces and figures. And they are still caught up in romantic entanglements of their glorious past. In one serial, the widowed matriarch is a great-great grandmother !
Most of the popular soaps center around wealthy business households with spacious homes, and expensive cars. Some aim at being westernized or modernized, by introducing, and subtly glorifying, to traditional Indians and the country’s rural masses, themes of infidelity, extra-marital affairs, and crimes of passion.
Other soaps like “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” (Because a Mother-in-law was once a Daughter-in-law too) attempt, in a contrived way, to convey that despite their wealth, the family is still traditional, adhering to the local “sanskar” or culture.
As for the poor, they don’t exist in the world-view of the soaps. The Indian soap is a celebration of the new upper-class hedonism that has emerged as a result of India’s economic boom.
All this adds up to a potential image problem for Indians. If earlier the country was known as a land of elephants and snake charmers, it will now get portrayed as land of social upstarts living in a world of their own imagination.
If Bollywood portrayed Indian men and women dancing around trees or breaking into song, with little by way of intellect or existential concerns, the soaps have gone a step further. They have brought into focus the new Indian upstart. Unlike the love-smitten, song and dance loving hero and heroine of Bollywood, the heroes and heroines of the soaps do unfortunately exist.
But they do not represent all Indians. They do not represent the large number of Indian engineers and researchers who have made a mark, occupying top positions both in India and abroad. They do not represent India’s scholars and Nobel prize winners.
They do no represent India’s large number of poor.
As Indian producers try to take their fare abroad, they will not be exporting real Indian culture, but a new ersatz culture and a new stereotype – the stereotype of the stupid Indian.