What is Bollywood really all about?
A casual combination of two place names identifies the most glamourous pastime of the Indian nation. It indicates geographical origin, but is not bound by the parameters of physical space. It is a concept, a bizarre collage of competing desires and emotions, a ruthless and unparalleled mimic, a purveyor of fantasy and false hope.
At once an octopus and hydra-headed monster, it engulfs, it permeates, it insinuates, it lifts to dizzying heights only to drop the hapless into stygian depths. It applauds with servile adulation and mocks with unspeakable cruelty. And as the ultimate justification for its dubious existence in a modern world, as a member of India, Inc, it confidently demonstrates a revenue stream of over two billion dollars, a phenomenal cash stream that doesn’t include the takings of an enormous ancillary industry symbolized by the consumption of an unending stream of popcorn and soda pop.
It is a phenomenon, and this phenomenon is known to the world and its sub-continental population as “Bollywood.”
Bollywood is, and should remain, technically a reference to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai. Formerly known by the rather matter-of-fact name of “Bombay cinema,” and when combined with the output of all other cinematic traditions in the country, contributes to the collective enterprise of the Indian film industry by creating the world’s largest producer of feature films.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of an adoring public, Bollywood is Indian cinema, and Indian filmdom can only be truly represented and associated by Bollywood. This incorrect belief has accorded to this one corner of Indian filmdom an importance far out of proportion to its size and, in one fell swoop, subsumes the rich tradition of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Bengali cinema culture, to name but a few, and nonchalantly reduces the presence of many more regional cinema traditions to an undignified non-existence.
The seamier side of the film industry has already been referred to. That is, if there could actually be any other side worth speaking about. For it is a constantly running film which flicks through frame after frame of nepotism, a shady and tacit tradition of quid pro quo, blood money, occasional murder and attempt to murder, flight from justice, and bankrolled in a manner as to provide constant sustenance to a mega laundering machine.
And behind the happy smiles, the adulation, and the recognition achieved through dubious awards looms the reality of a cynical and entrenched establishment who can make and break a star-struck aspirant with a flick of an eyebrow. For every success story, the road to the silver screen is strewn with the debris of the countless broken, their dreams rent to shreds, the wretched who have sacrificed their kingdom and sold their soul for that one vain attempt at sampling the more gaudy fruits of a way of life built on a tawdriness passing off for reality.
It is the razzmatazz jungle in which only those can survive, and indeed thrive, who have the near-superhuman ability to ride the callous schizophrenia of a make-believe world. Going by the roll-call of the dead and disillusioned, it would seem that this morbid talent manifests in even less people than we had otherwise thought.
And the latest victim of this dishonest world continues to dominate the headlines. Social media was shaken on June 14 with the news that a young actor, self-made and already well-established, had taken his own life. All initial evidence seemed to point to the fact that he had hanged himself. A mini-star of the silver screen and veteran of the churning world of serials, Sushant Singh Rajput debuted successfully and, at the tender age of 34, was already a considerable force to be reckoned with.
The shock of his death has provoked a torrent of sorrow, shame and recrimination the likes of which is usually reserved for the more prominent fixtures of the cinematic constellation. Stories abound of mental cruelty, neglect and even social shunning, a conspiracy of the cabal of elders, an unwillingness to permit an “outsider” a foot in the door, and the ageless formula, of course true to script, of a love story gone bad.
We were treated to the twitter-comedy of the stars of the pantheon tripping over themselves to breathlessly demonstrate their sympathy and declare how bereft they were at the passing of a young colleague who meant the world to them. The patent hypocrisy aside, the genuine grief and doubt has not yet abated and, to the contrary, has erupted afresh over the last few days. We have a front-seat view of the pathetically genuine manner in which fans and sympathizers, friends, and family, employ all possible means, whether through the labyrinth of the criminal judicial process and social media or by liaising with the occult, desperately search for plausible answers and satisfactory closure.
Tall, slender, possessed of refined and sculpted features and a friendly disposition, Sushant was already financially very sound with the conventional trappings of property, fast cars and faster relationships. He was apparently a good student to boot, with a taste for engineering, itself a charmingly unusual fact to be attached to an actor. The report card reads like a fairy tale. Perhaps “fairy tale” is apt, because in his tortured world it must have been both sufficiently imaginary and illusory to compel him to so abruptly snuff out his ostensibly very full and complete existence.
And why does the film industry survive? Because regardless of whether we admit to it, every cinema-goer proceeds to the movie hall light stepped, secure in the knowledge that the wheel of life shall be placed in suspended abeyance for those few delicious hours. The air-conditioned comfort, the glow of the screen casting a luminous sheet of blue-white anonymity over an audience in thrall, with each individual cocooned in their private fantasy universe. It is that visceral love affair between the individual and the screen which has no parallel.
Cinema is supposed to mirror existence, and then transcend it. We as citizens of South Asia take naturally and adoringly to those perceived as better than us. We put our actors on a pedestal and keep them precariously perched, refusing to treat them for the human beings that they are. We would be better off to perceive filmdom for what it should have originally been designed, as a touch of enjoyable make-believe to put an additional and momentary touch of sheen to our existence, and release us satisfied back into the folds of our families with a renewed appreciation of the reality of the life we live.
Alas, if only it were so.
Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in Gurgaon, India, and is a freelance contributor.