Enter Manmohan, exit Gandhi

A view of a sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi placed inside Agakhan Palace on the eve of the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi in Pune. (Photo/PTI)

Cinema went from one side to the other across the bridge called liberalization – that mouthful of a word that India could not tire speaking of at the time. No doubt, some movement in this direction began earlier through the non-descript cinema of the ’80s. But the hero moves into wealth at just the time when liberalization became a national buzzword associated with Manmohan Singh.

Can we think of Bollywood cinema as moving from a Mahatma Gandhi era into a Manmohan Singh phase? How much socio-economic politics can you take to this fantasyland? But, without doubt, the upheld public ideals are seen to change in much the same way in both society and in cinema with the onset of liberalization. The public debate was all about new ways of looking at and for money.

Wealth was now acknowledged to be good for the individual and for the nation. Wealth had always been good to have, but being wealthy now became the good ideal to have. If you had money, you were moving ahead in life and taking the Indian economy with you.

The guilt over the poverty of others evaporated too; it was assumed that the poor would get richer, or at least less poor, as an outcome of your own rising income.

The past began to look like a mistake. Nehru and Gandhi were being edged out together, Nehru first. Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) would come with a reminder of Gandhi’s ways. It was Nehru that dominant thought within the country pushed out more firmly, or simply forgot about more easily. It was his socialism that came to be seen as the problem more than Gandhi’s economic morality. To the extent that those views coincided, cinema was turning away – as India was – from this particular face of Gandhi too.

Manmohan Singh took over as finance minister in 1991 and immediately began to accelerate a process that had in fact begun earlier – that of lifting the government’s weight off private enterprise. 

Nationally, private push to wealth had long been colliding against the wall of state policy; policy was seen to shackle dreams. Now the state was opening doors to new enterprise. Correspondingly, wealth came to screen too unapologetically.

It was, of course, far easier for Bollywood sets to find wealth than it was for the audiences. The average means of the audiences were improving, but the gap between them and the film setting was clearly widening. Audiences were dreaming of a move from scooter to car, not from car to helicopter. But in the mood of the ’90s, wild dreams were still considered properly ‘aspirational’.

New cars came in, gadgets, branded wear – an expression of style that had earlier taken dollars to buy. The hero, branded poor once, now appeared in nothing but brands. The ones with a good deal more were a fraction of India still, but that fraction announced new possibilities.

In any case, this was the fraction that the new Bollywood picked on. The target audience now was India’s ‘burgeoning middle class’. The expanding middle classes had not burgeoned into a majority. But they were enough in numbers to change the face of Bollywood. They came to dictate the choices presented on screen. Films began to be made primarily, if not exclusively, for them.

Audiences were now driving to multiplexes, and driving what they would see in them. They weren’t headed there to watch an exhibition of the virtues of poverty. The new middle class India pushed poverty out of its own mind into the past – never mind what they might see outside the car window. Now, the new India was blowing enough rupees at places built for dollar-like spending. Before the roll of this dollar Indian, the Gandhi spell disappears. The unseen star of ’90s Bollywood is Manmohan Singh.

Liberalization brought goods and dreams but also threats. The Western way was no doubt coming within the grasp of the middle class but, under the new advance of Western influence, Indianness looked more threatened. India wanted its West-like show of wealth separated from its idea of Western morality. Bollywood began to offer protection against the wealth it was beginning to demonstrate. The first showing to this end was preservation of Indian traditions – it was fine to liberalize the Indian economy but not to liberalize Indian ways.

The practical expression of such protection was as simple as respect for the wishes of elders and the preservation of virginity until such time that it was all right by tradition to let go. The idea was simple but the show of it spectacular.

(Excerpted with permission from A Gandhian Affair: India’s Curious Portrayal of Love in Cinema, Sanjay Suri, HarperCollins India)

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