A hundred years ago, a great Indian visionary made a movie about a king who never lies. Raja Harishchandra—the first ever Indian movie, made by Indian producer/director/screenwriter Dadasaheb Phalke, released in 1913, marking the beginning of an era that was never to end. Phalke shot his movie in the then Bombay and thus, also set the stage for the ‘Bombay-based’ Hindi cinema industry or ‘Bollywood’ as it is commonly referred to.
The Hindi film industry, now a hundred years old, has enthralled generations of movie watchers while being arguably one of the widest artistic canvasses in the country. Hindi cinema has entertained endlessly, introduced trends, highlighted social issues, brought socio-political ills to the fore, elevated art, defined eras, united the country and broken barriers. Of course, it has had its downside and has often been accused of reinforcing stereotypes, caricaturing differences, instigating distrust and frequently dealing with serious issues facetiously.
However, it cannot be denied that Hindi cinema has had far more positives than negatives. Its outreach is hard to beat. People across the country have thronged cinema halls to watch Devanand, Madhubala, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi, Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri Dikshit and Salman Khan, to name a very few. It is one of the glues that brings the country in all its diversity together. It is perhaps the most dynamic and representative medium in the country.
But, despite all its vibrancy and splendor, Hindi cinema’s single biggest failure in the last 100 years has been its inability and unwillingness to be pan-Indian in the true sense, to involve and embrace the ‘Northeast’ of the country—a term that refers to seven states (Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram) in the north eastern part of India.
The Northeast has always suffered from a sense of alienation, facing prejudice, racial profiling, political apathy and economic backwardness for decades. It has been shamelessly relegated to the ‘periphery’ with the so-called ‘mainland’ ignoring its very existence. This region has been politically disregarded, socially marginalized and this has led to a serious trust deficit, disillusionment and a sense of understandable hostility towards the ‘rest of the country’. Most of these seven states are now conflict and insurgency-ridden, with discontentment against the Indian ‘state’ running high.
It is precisely this distance that the world of cinema has failed to bridge and in fact, has further perpetuated. For all its follies and clichés, Hindi movies have transcended many boundaries and brought several issues to the fore. From the Kashmir conflict, to communal riots, women’s issues, child abuse, caste discrimination, the Naxal movement, farmers’ agitation, poverty, rural distress and similar serious issues have been amply reflected and dealt with in movies. Do Bheega Zameen’s socialist tale of a farmer, Mother India’ reflection of a woman’s strength, the depiction of communal riots in Bombay, interpretation of feminism in Arth, youth fury in Rang De Basanti, casteism in Sujata, the common man’s frustration in the cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, faulty education system in 3 Idiots are some examples that are barely even the proverbial tip of the iceberg when talking about movies that have dealt with a range of social issues.
Similarly, people from all regions of the country have found space in Hindi movies in some form, sometimes as serious characters and at other times, in light roles. The culture, way of life, linguistic quirks, regional pride and characteristics of all states have found their way into both mainstream and independent cinema.
However, conspicuously absent is a conscious and open effort to bring the Northeast into this realm. Being the powerful media with the kind of outreach, influence and resources it has, Hindi cinema should have been at the forefront of trying to glue this part of the country together with the rest. Instead, it has paid merely token and mostly inadequate attention to it.
Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) based on the insurgency in Assam is as far as Hindi cinema has ventured both geographically and thematically to highlight any Northeastern issue. The factual premise and cinematic merits of this movie aside, it is perhaps the only movie that has talked about the restlessness and rebellion in the region. It is almost as if ‘Bollywood’ has decided to erase the region from its reels.
Characters in movies usually never belong to any of the seven Northeastern states. Except an occasional and rare Inspector Barua (a common Assamese surname) in Aitbaar (1985) and Molly Zimick from Manipur and Mary Ralte from Mizoram in Chak De India (2007). Again, not going into the authenticity of these characters or the stereotypes they may or may not reinforce, these movies have at least spared a small thought for the region.
The Northeast as a region is far from being homogenous, as is assumed by the ‘mainland’. Conflicts and separatist movements because of ethnic diversity in the region led to the break-up of Assam into smaller states like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. But Hindi cinema tells us nothing about this, even as it has successfully highlighted the Kashmir conflict, Khalistani movement, Indo-Pak tensions, cross border terrorism, the mafia world in Uttar Pradesh and the lawlessness in Bihar.
This apathy, however, runs across the spectrum. The economic blockade in Manipur last year had to enter its 100th day before finding space in any mainstream newspaper; unthinkable for a state in any other part of the country. Again, the film industry has failed to pick up this reality, not just in terms of underlining and showcasing the issue but also in bringing out the media’s ironical disconnect and failure, given journalists are now Hindi cinema’s favorite whipping boys as reflected by recent movies like Peepli Live, Rann and Page 3.
The dynamism of Hindi cinema is evident in its promptness to engage with the latest. So the post Babri Masjid demolition communal riots found a voice in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay; the Gujarat pogrom was deftly dealt with in Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania and Jessica Lal’s sensational murder case was made into No One Killed Jessica, to give a few examples.
Of course, the argument could be that Northeast and its conflicts are sensitive and complex issues to tackle and hence, moviemakers prefer playing it safe. But then so is the Kashmir dispute; that hasn’t stopped movies like Roja, Fanaa, Mission Kashmir and Yahaan among others, being made. It seems highly improbable that a region with as much ethnic diversity and cultural richness as well as socio-political strife does not provide enough fodder for powerful movie scripts.
Despite its glorious vibrancy, Hindi cinema’s biggest failure has been its inability to be pan-Indian in the true sense, to involve and embrace the neglected ‘Northeast.’
Even the so-called ‘independent’ cinema that has always claimed to be bold, socially relevant, sensitive and politically aware has failed to do justice to a crucial and integral part of the country. The parallel cinema movement that began in the 1940s saw a spurt of defining, courageous art movies in the 1980s with directors like Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Mahesh Bhatt stepping into hitherto unknown territories. However, nobody touched the subject of Northeast yet again. The new-age film-makers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bharadwaj who are known for their hard-hitting, relevant cinema have also shied away from this topic.
As a result of this, people in the Northeast and especially beyond Assam have been unable to connect with the Hindi film industry and hence, the society as a whole. Korean films are more popular in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh than Hindi movies.
Movies are a great learning medium for most. With the complete absence of Northeast related information in cinema, the average movie watcher has little exposure to that world and treats it with a certain sense of unfriendliness. This lack of knowledge and understanding of another culture manifests itself in the form of racism, which then further finds outlets like various forms of harassment of students from the Northeast in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.
In any country with diversity and ethnic groupings of such magnitude, popular mediums like cinema play a huge role in bridging the gap and familiarizing different sections with each other.
India is one of the most prolific producers of films in the world, averaging 700-800 films every year. Such an intense film industry which enjoys unbelievable popularity and incredible spread and has dealt with a mindboggling range of issues, genres, emotions, characters, passions and spaces cannot afford to be a silent spectator to the growing disconnect between one part of the country and the rest.
The integration of the Northeastern states into ‘India’ will remain incomplete till popular mediums like cinema decide to take a few steps. The Hindi film industry and Indian cinema as a whole should reflect on the last 100 years of its existence and acknowledge the stark hole in its history. It is time to make a fresh beginning. Someone needs to demonstrate Phalke’s vision and courage, and 100 years after he laid the foundation of Indian cinema, start the journey toward making this glorious medium truly inclusive.