Bollywood and the moral compass

For The Express Tribune, 1 July 2014

I recently saw two Bollywood films, both very different and yet very similar. Mohit Suri’s Ek Villain is more like a standard Bollywood film, with good-looking people, a lot of romance, music you’d love to play in your car, and dishoom-dishoom from the first to the last scene. Hansal Mehta’s City Lights is, by Bollywood standards, serious cinema. The real difference between the two is about the budgets, I suppose. Yet, the two films are very similar. Both are set in Mumbai and are about men who are transformed by circumstances — birth, upbringing, migration, love, luck and urban life — into bad men doing bad things to innocent people. The women are passive victims of this violence.

In City Lights, a man with his wife and child migrates from Rajasthan to Mumbai in search of a life. They are duped from the moment they land in the big city. Their naivete comes face to face with the worst of the big city — the cheats, the crooks, the property dealers, hit men and heartless capitalists. Each time he meets someone who promises to be nice to him, he gets further entangled in a trap of poverty and crime. He has no choice but to eventually give in, to stop being the nice guy. In the process, he gives up his life but makes his wife rich. This is the vision of the city as an evil place, a dystopia you can rule only if you play by its rules and leave behind your morality in the village. (A direct opposite of this narrative is also equally plausible: a sheltered, middle class boy from the city goes to the village and gets embroiled in the ugly reality of rural violence in the name of caste and honour.)

In Ek Villain, the middle class boy does not grow up in a sheltered home because he saw his parents get shot before his eyes as he hid under the bed. He grows up to kill his parents’ killers and becomes a mafia don’s hit man in the process. He meets a girl who’s dying of a terminal disease and discovers life, love and forgiveness. Just when he becomes a good guy and his love has overcome her illness, she is killed by a serial killer. This serial killer goes around killing women as revenge for all the taunts he hears from his wife — on whom he can’t raise his hand. All his wife wants is for him to earn more; all he wants is to hear her say that she loves him.

I enjoyed watching both films, and yet wondered about what they were telling me. The films were telling me there’s such a vicious domino effect of evil in the city that being good is impossible. The sharper the twists and turns in the plot, the more shallow I thought the films were.

And then I saw a documentary film. Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, released in a handful of theatres. It is a film that spends time with two unlikely groups of women. One is a Hindu nationalist group called Durga Vahini, which, among other things, imparts political indoctrination in the name of religion, gives arms training and despite these, preaches patriarchy. The other group is that of 30 women participating in the Miss India contest. You may think that’s a silly binary, but what follows is a lot of shades of grey on both sides.

The main character in Durga Vahini, a trainer, says she feels like half a man. She resists pressure from her family to marry and the camp is her place of escape, her cause to give life meaning. In the Miss India contest, a passport to a career in the glamour industry, the women feel unsure of what they are doing. The contest and its preparation objectifies their bodies to the extent that any normal human being would consider humiliating.

Unlike those two Bollywood fiction features, The World Before Her has stayed on in my head for weeks now. I keep wondering and arguing about it with friends. The documentary form does not allow the flexibility of fictional narrative. And yet, here’s a documentary that reveals so much complexity and nuance in our understanding of the life and times we live in. In City Lights and Ek Villain, the moral compass goes either north or south. The World Before Hermakes you wonder if you even know what a moral compass is. It unsettles you in the way that great cinema and literature ought to.

That is just one example of the Indian documentary going places. It is only a matter of time when we’ll get used to seeing documentary films in theatres. The big boys of Bollywood, your game will soon be up.

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