Even though Bollywood movies are tales of fiction, the social realities that form the background of such fictional tales are often very close to reality. They include social challenges that exist and motivate movies centered on them as also the manner in which the social aspirations and complexities evolve. Bollywood provides an intense documentation of how lives of people have changed.
Earlier this decade, Bollywood or the Hindi Movies Industry completed its hundred years of existence. During this period, it has produced several thousand movies, usually based on fictitious stories that have been one of the major sources of mass entertainment in India. Most of us look at these movies with little more than entertainment, though they engross us in a temporary universe for the time we are watching them in the theatre, and for a couple of hours at least, make us live and experience the characters on screen.
Typically we take documentary movies as a depiction of history. In that sense movies that are tales of fiction cannot be considered a documentary. In fact their main plot is often a tale of fantasy and aspiration that people want to see and experience, even though it may not really happen in everyday life. Fiction is not reality.
Movies can be extravagant, and sometimes can be based on events that are either impossibility or are highly improbable in real life.
Bollywood movies are no exception either. However, what keeps Bollywood movies much closer to reality than their counterparts in Hollywood and other technically advanced movie industries is their emphasis on human beings. Unlike the technology dominated industry that combines action and sex with aliens, horror or crime in the big Hollywood hits, the staple of Bollywood is human relationships, in particular the family melodramas, and of course, that infallible emotion or obsession called ‘love’! It would not be wrong to say Indian audiences have generally been difficult to attract without these ingredients.
Bollywood movies are usually centered on certain human relationships, be it between two young protagonists of opposite gender, or the members within a family, or in some interesting cases, certain adorable relationships that are somewhat difficult to define. It is possible to find all kind of relationships in these movies. Friendship, neighborhood, fraternity, community, peers, servants, masters, teachers, pupils… all are there somewhere.
The longer duration of Bollywood movies allows the director to weave complex family stories or tales of human relationships in a way that would be difficult to achieve in a shorter span of a hour and a half. The most important factor behind the continuing success of social melodramas in Bollywood is the demand for it by the family-centric Indian society. Even in the highly individualistic and Westernized India of Twenty first century, the family continues to rule the lives of its more than a billion inhabitants. For them the world begins with the family, can have a lot of things in between, but still ends back with the family.
Love has been the central feature of Bollywood during the hundred years of its existence, because of two reasons. The first was the family taboos, which frowned on pre-marital love. This was true till a few decades back for most of India, and continues to apply in many segments even today. Marriages can still be family affairs, though the freedom to choose one's partner is now given in the metros and accepted in urban life.
Caste and community still remains a restriction for many, more in the rural areas and within certain communities it may still be taboo to think of marrying outside. In such a background, entering into love and sustaining it into a permanent relationship was one of the biggest adventures a man or a woman could think of. The second reason, of course is that love is the central theme that keeps a family together. Strong human bonds are the greatest family treasure. Combine these two values of love with instincts, emotions, the energy of youth and the beauty of love, and you have a winning cocktail.
In the midst of all the fiction, love stories, family melodramas and the song dance sequences, Bollywood still provide one of the richest documentation of the realities of Indian society. In particular, the finesse with which it depicts the common challenges that are faced by an ordinary Indian is extremely precious. Take the example of Acchut Kanya, a 1936 movie starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, on how two families of different castes have extremely friendly relations, yet their marriage is considered a social impossibility. It is a very balanced and realistic depiction of a society with perfectly ordinary individuals who are unable to free themselves from the social barriers of tradition.
Another excellent example of how society viewed its challenges is Duniya Na Maane, a 1937 movie starring Shanta Aapte in the role of a young girl who is made to marry an old man but refuses to be subjugated to the traditions and instead rebels and seeks solace in education. What makes such movies valuable is that there are almost without a villain. There is no one individual whom you can blame for all the ills and sufferings, thereby letting the social limitations get emphasized.
What makes Bollywood movies even more special for observers and analysts are the contextual backgrounds and sub-plots that always run parallel to the main story of the protagonist. These background characters and their dynamics form a treasure for all to understand the transformation of Indian society over the years, its changing preferences and values, and the overall social dynamics that governs it.
The manner in which the role of women changes over the years, the manner in which village societies in the story are replaced with small towns and then metropolitan cities is a documentary in itself. So is the manner in which these movies show the life of protagonists change with their migration to cities. A recent movie, City Lights, released in 2014, shows how expectations vary from reality for those who are forced to migrate under stressful circumstances. In this movie, a couple from a middle class family in a small town is forced to migrate to Mumbai and their lives reduced to penury bordering on destitution and slavery. It is an experience that is common to millions, who migrate between jobs in a city and their village.
One can contrast it with Gaman, a 1978 movie starring Farooq Shaikh and Smita Patil, also depicting the misery of migrants, and the observations from their comparison is as true a documentation of Indian migrant’s life as you can probably get.
The hundred years of Bollywood movies reflect the society of yesteryears and a universe that is fast changing, and gradually getting lost. As joint families disappear, villagers migrate or modernize, urban slums expand and in general, more Indians taste the fruits of prosperity, one can see how the successive generations have changed. In many ways, this is the real history of India, far more authentic and far more relevant than the stories of princes, queens and their eccentricities that make the bulk of our formal history.
There is more social reality preserved in Bollywood movies than any other resource you can find. It forms an invaluable source of India's social history. An examination into the details of background of the Bollywood movie stories can reveal a lot, provided somebody has the perseverance to focus, observe and analyze!
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