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Sunday, December 3, 2023

Mainstream Bollywood: The Recent Representations of Class Disparity

There used to be a time where mainstream Bollywood was recognised for its larger-than-life dances, action sequences and whistle-worthy dialogues.

However, the definition of Hindi cinema’s commercial space is churning and reflecting on this shift, Ranveer Singh explains:

“The times have changed and the landscape of Hindi cinema has really changed.

When a film like Badhaai Ho, AndhaDhun or Uri comes along, the rules are changing. What is commercial or what isn’t, the lines are blurred now.

The audience just wants something authentic, entertainment and a certain quality level of excellence. You cannot fool the audience anymore.”

In the last year, there seems to be more of an emphasis on highlighting social topics and issues, through various genres.

Particularly, this year, the mainstream has fearlessly represented class divide in Indian society through the premise of ‘conventional’ Hindi films like Gully Boy, Article 15 and Super 30.

Gully Boy

Until Gully Boy, some critiqued Zoya Akhtar for constantly making films about the privileged and upper-class.  However, she proved otherwise in this film.

It is a gritty but positive depiction of Mumbai’s rampant rap-culture, through the main protagonist, Murad (Ranveer Singh).

By him idolising rap music, he imagines a life beyond the slums. In fact, this becomes his route of escapism and a chance to live life on his own terms, without resorting to crime.

Through social injustice songs like ‘Doori’, ‘Azaadi’, ‘Har Gham Mein Khushi Hai’ and ‘Jingostan’ Akhtar raises awareness of the lower-class’ plight.

Class disparity emphasised in ‘Doori Poem’ especially in the words:

“Main yeh behte aansoon pochoon Utni meri aukaat Nahin hai… Kehne ko hum pass hai par, Kitni doori hai. Yeh bhi kaisi majboori hai.”

These lyrics convey how classism restricts people from being basic human beings and enforces how drastic the disparity is. 

Whilst the movie highlights the plight of the colonised poor, it is not all about the doom and gloom of living in the ghettos.

The revolutionary film is a universal story of hope and triumph. 

Article 15

The film’s title references an article of the Indian constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, race or sex.

Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayan, a police officer from a privileged urban, international, background.

His very first posting is to rural north India where three teenage girls have gone missing.

His honesty does not sit well with the existing, deeply entrenched corrupt system where, in 2019, a 1000-year-old practise where human beings are divided on the basis of caste continues.

Seeing sequences where the policemen abuse their powers make us realise how the gate-keepers of the legal system are majorly responsible for the flawed socio-political conditions.

Initially, the crux of a high-caste ‘Bhramin’ fighting against the system seemed quite problematic.

However, it is an essential plot because after all, the ‘casteism’ issue itself has stemmed from the elite in the first place.

There is a balanced portrayal of empowerment. as the film does not bash the elite caste nor does it victimise the lower-caste.

Subsequently, the movie’s tagline: “Farq Bahaut Kar Liya, Ab Farq Laayenge” is progressive. It urges that responsibility must be taken to eradicate social division.

Super 30

Inspired by the real-life story of Indian Maths wizard Anand Kumar, who founded the renowned Super 30 coaching institute in Patna, Hrithik Roshan plays Anand on screen.

The pivotal line “Raja ka Beta Raja Nahin Banega. Raja Wahi Banega jo Haqdaar Hoga” shapes our society.

The movie exhibits the class disparity within the education system and it is quite sad to think that so many financially disadvantaged kids have to suffer such circumstances.

In fact, a particular thought-provoking sequence is when the Super 30 alumni dream about studying at the high-class institute, IIT and in that reverie, they are shown to be misfits.

They are constantly engulfed in a web of negative thoughts, which is contributed by society.

As a result, ‘education’ is represented to be a ‘beacon of change’… That subject becomes like an additional character in the movie as it becomes the strength/escapism for the underprivileged.

It is high time that dynastic privileges are omitted and opportunities are given to those who truly deserve it.

The ‘Basanti No Dance’ sequence signifies the power of overcoming ‘weakness’ especially language barriers.

Consequently, use Sholay, a film which has quite prominently formed the fabric of Indian pop-culture, as a way to stand up to class disparity.

Hindi Cinema’s On-Going Representation of Class Division

Whilst these are contemporary examples, the depiction of class divide is no stranger to the industry.

From Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953) to Hindi Medium (2017)Bollywood has continuously strived to make movies around class struggles.

In traditional love stories, the narratives would revolve around a poor protagonist falling in love with an elite and how the lower-class has to overcome societal pressures in order to ‘win’ their love interest.

The most intriguing factor about such love stories is that these would not just be about the lower-class having to win the elite.

For instance, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) the less-privileged father of the female love interest is humiliated by the affluent male love interest’s father.

Subsequently, the male is forced to independently make money in order to make a life for him and his lady love.

Even in Taal (1999), the female protagonist chooses her self-respect after her father is mercilessly insulted by the male central character’s father.

But Lagaan (2002), arguably, is a film which really changed the game with the way ‘classism’ is depicted in Hindi cinema.

Rather than it being a love story or a full-fledged patriotic venture, it uses sports to showcase the non-violent battle between the poor and elite.

Social Division: ‘Glorified’ by Bollywood?

Despite the prominent depiction classism, some feel that mainstream Bollywood’s representation ‘glorifies’ the conflict between different segments of society.

For instance, Janhvi Kapoor in an interview said:

“I feel up until this point, a lot of films in mainstream Bollywood have glorified that divide because it creates a sort of conflict – that ‘I can’t live without the love of my life’.

I feel they have glorified that divide a little bit.”

However, her film Dhadak is an exception to the ‘glorification’.

The ending is brutal and displays the harsh reality – it highlights that the love interests of different social statuses do not always end happily.

But having said that is it necessarily a bad thing to see optimistic conclusions on films regarding class division?

Maybe through seeing hopeful, insightful yet progressive stories like Gully Boy, Article 15 and Super 30 can really help to evoke change (at least in the mind-set) of our society.

At least through commercial cinema, the audience is receiving a lot more than just plain ‘naach gaana’ and the films themselves are of more relevance.

Plus, given that the mainstream space usually revolves around the ideology of ‘escapism’, such films can help viewers to at least imagine a utopian society.

For so many years Indian cinema has been carrying the post-colonised baggage, perhaps this change in filmmaking content is the need of the hour. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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