A longing for elsewheres

Akshaya Kumar

Inside the multiplex, Bollywood escapes into small towns and older times.

Hindi cinema has never had a settled location, even if the industry has. This means that an enormous amount of labour has gone into the task of imagining a national audience as well as the task of anticipating and deducing provincial tastes to pitch stars and genres accordingly. This labour has gone through several cycles of adjustment. It has had to take into account successful formulas, internal constraints and sustained, even if fanciful, myths. The "masses" have been routinely alleged to be illiterate, star-struck and devoted to the idea of family, among other things.

But the corporatisation of the industry — from production to exhibition — has given this process a structural stability. The emergence of the multiplexes, fetching the bulk of the returns at the box-office, has meant that the Hindi film is now housed in fairly standardised settings. This has streamlined, to some extent, the film product as well as the audience. The emergence of genres in Bollywood has also helped reduce outrageous speculation towards a "universal hit".

In spite of the diversely located audiences, the multiplex itself, as a sensorium of desire, draws its audiences out of their respective neighbourhoods. Yet, as they are drawn into another universe, the question of belonging lingers. The withdrawal into multiplex-malls is partly compensated for by the nostalgia for elsewheres. This has led to the emergence of two major trends in the post-multiplex Bollywood.

On the spatial axis, there is the emergence of "small-town" films marked by a distinct provinciality, often north-Indian in orientation. Starting from Haasil and running well into Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, a huge number of films have evoked the small town, where the excesses of bodily expression are celebrated and lawlessness goes unquestioned. These towns make possible large-hearted grandeur, as in Jab We Met's Bhatinda, and also fantasies of violent orgies, as in Gangs of Wasseypur. The small towns are presented as affable, loud and stylish, but we are simultaneously warned of a near-complete collapse of law and order there.

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