The remaking of Indian cricket, from an old boy’s network to a diverse, dispersed group of people was led by India’s first small-town hero, Kapil Dev Nikhanj. Much before Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Mohammad Kaif transformed the composition of the elite Indian cricket team, the Chandigarh-born son of a timber merchant with his unorthodox cricketing technique and his imperfect English skills taught Team India to believe in itself, no matter its geography or its identity.
It was something Kabir Khan was conscious of when he was casting the film, which is why the actors include Punjabi rappers Hardy Sandhu and Ammy Virk, Marathi actor Addinath Kothare and Tamil actor Jiiva. “The team was plurality in action. 83 is not a film where you have to push the buttons to feel patriotic, it doesn’t have to be in relation to the other, or versus anyone,” says Kabir Khan, the director of 83. In a way, 83 is the perfect way to end a year that has underlined the diversity in our culture as never before. Identities, sexualities, languages are being explored, sometimes tentatively, sometimes incorrectly, and occasionally perfectly. The nation’s politics may be divisive, but its culture is at its most diverse.
So, a child in a slum may whistle the ‘Red light, green light’ tune of Netflix’s South Korean smash hit Squid Game even as Bollywood’s brightest throng to watch the concert of a Punjabi rapper, AP Dhillon, who sings of his pind and peg with equal élan. Movies like Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui showcase an affair between a muscle-bound, middle class, middling-minded young man and the transgender object of his attraction—of course, for most part of the movie, he doesn’t know this. Ads such as those of Dabur talk of same-sex Karva Chauth, much to the horror of rightwing conservatives. Big movies such as SS Rajamouli’s RRR (2022) have pan-Indian casts and talk of subaltern heroes like Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, one in Andhra Pradesh and the other in Telangana. Even quieter movies such as Atrangi Re are making an effort to break down cinematic silos, with the use of southern superstar Dhanush, along with Akshay Kumar and Sara Ali Khan from the north. And a big star like Suriya can put his might behind a small movie with a big heart like Jai Bhim to drive home the idea of caste equality.
Much of it is being powered by the rise of streaming services and our eyes and ears being trained to recognise a new visual and aural landscape. It is where Malayalam thrillers meet Tamil dramas and English series sit at ease with Hindi movies. Smaller universes are getting projected into people’s consciousness, whether it is the urban, professional, startup-smart Gurugram with its separating couple in Decoupled on Netflix, or whether it is the caste-riven reality of the countryside in Amazon Prime Video’s Jai Bhim.
Film scholar Selvaraj Velayutham says there is certainly a shift in the south led by the entry and diversification of new and young directors who are willing to explore important social issues against the grain of political climate that exists in India over the last several years. “I wonder, too, if this is the south speaking back at the divisive Hindu forces in Delhi. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume that ‘culture’ is uniting Indians. Most of the entertainment, though successful, is not mainstream and aimed at the new educated middle class.”
It is as if cultural producers are trying to find stories and traditions of communal harmony, but such stories, which used to be treated as part of the common culture, are now seen as divisive politics, leading to concerted social media condemnation, whether it is the representation of Diwali as Jashn-e- Riwaaz in Fab India ads or the Sabyasachi mangalsutra or even the Manyavar Mohey kanyamaan as opposed to kanyadaan. The republic of the offended is ready with a riposte.
Bollywood as an alleged site of Muslim-dominated cultural production is a familiar theme in Hindutva propaganda. True or not, Bollywood has been a source of fascination not only for India in general, but for Hindutva in particular. Says Arvind Rajagopal, professor, New York University, “LK Advani told me he used to review films for the RSS’ Organiser for many years, though always under a penname. He even rattled off all the pennames he had used; it seemed like those were good memories for him, rather than anything to be hidden.”
When the Janata Party came to power, Advani chose the I&B portfolio, and there was no criticism of productions like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977, remade in Telugu as Ram Robert Rahim, in 1980) or of the culturally inclusive messages which were common in Hindi films at that time. The photos of Advani in magazines like Stardust and Filmfare, during those years, appearing at film industry parties, suggest that he enjoyed engaging with film stars, and with the film industry in general.
Now, India is experiencing a kind of woke culture, not from the left as is the case in the US, but from the rightwing, says Rajagopal. In the US, Hollywood was the first major site of attack when the US experienced its own earlier woke moment, which was that of McCarthyism. Scores, if not hundreds of artists, saw their careers ruined on the mere accusation of being communist, and the industry got the message. It took more than 60 years for campaigns like #HollywoodSoWhite and #OscarsSoWhite to open up debates again about cultural inclusion, through racial identity rather than political affiliation.
Our ‘McCarthyism’ moment is different from televised hearings before the House Un- American Activities Committee, though it does have screaming anchors with flaming screens. The Indian film industry is large and dispersed across language and region, points out Rajagopal. Although the moral policing from Hindutva is strenuous, and quite effective, every now and then challenges do arise. They have to be tackled. But a remake of Amar Akbar Anthony would be avoided by most artists today.
But inclusivity is an idea whose time has come, perhaps not so much in religious diversity, but in cultural/racial/ethnic/linguistic identity. It can be ‘Kunjom, kunjom’ (little by little) as Dhanush sings in a song from Atrangi Re, which mixes Tamil, English and Hindi, but is understood best when watching the actor’s expressive face. Or it can a dialogue in the second season of The Family Man when Srikant Tiwari and JK Talpade go to Chennai and the latter, who loves to eat, declares he loves south Indian food, only to have the Chennai agent point out there are five states in the south.
A marker of the increasing sophistication around the diversity debate is the question of authenticity. Should a transgender actress play a transgender character in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui or do we believe director Abhishek Kapoor who says his film is just the beginning of what he hopes is a continuing conversation? Should we cringe that the Tamilian heroine of Meenakshi Sundareshwar, played by Sanya Malhotra from Delhi, uses Rajinikanth and dosas as shorthand for her identity or be happy there are romances beyond the Malhotras, Kapoors and Singhanias? Should we quibble that the most powerful woman in Netflix’s Bombay Begums is still someone who slept with her boss rather than got to the top without a crutch? Or should we go right ahead and cancel them all because they didn’t fulfil all requirements of political correctness and wokeness?
The alphabet culture is acquiring elements of many languages, ideas and discourses. “It’s your need to cherish the past. But you cannot stop change. The city cannot be a museum,” the playwright Vijay Tendulkar told actress Sonali Kulkarni once. She understands what he meant when she sees the way Halloween is celebrated now in Mumbai, which has been her home for the past 20 years. “Ten years we didn’t even know what this festival was,” she says, and “now I sit for hours and plan my daughter’s costume for the trick-or-treat. We’re becoming more global.”
The Punjabification of culture has changed, though it doesn’t mean people have stopped listening to Punjabi music. Dhillon, a young man who went from Punjab to become an engineer in Canada but veered off into music, has given a new vibe to Punjabi lyrics where he mixed hip-hop with the trap sub-genre. His blend of the immigrant experience and aspiration makes him very attractive to young people. The emergence of musicians such as Dhillon, Sandhu, Tony Kakkar and Badshah has much to do with the rise of independent labels, but equally it’s harking back to the 1990s when no college festival or graduation party was complete without KK’s ‘Pyaar ke pal’ (1999) and Euphoria’s ‘Dhoom pichak dhoom’ (1998).
Eventually, people are responding to the art around them in an emotional way. “The way a mother reacts when she is reunited with her child is the same in every culture,” says Rajamouli, creator of the Baahubali franchise. “You don’t need a specific language to communicate it.” That’s a point R Madhavan makes too. “The difference between Netflix’s hit show Squid Game and its other show Money Heist is the former is about relationships, and young people are beginning to care a lot about these things. I was shocked to hear the kids outside a chawl in Mumbai humming the tune to ‘Red light, green light’ from Squid Game. They don’t do that even to big movies.”
That’s the new consumer, whose smartphone has given him/her access to a world of possibilities. Eventually, says Kabir Khan, an art form can flourish only if the audiences patronise it: “Something has happened in the last 10 years where you see local boys and girls just coming up in film, in the performing arts, in writing. And because of being shared on social media, they’re able to break barriers and cross boundaries.” So, Bhuvan Bam can be a star on YouTube alone with his mix of comedy and music, without the support of a major media platform, and TVF’s Aspirants, a show about IAS hopefuls, can be the highest rated show on IMDB without the backing of a streaming giant.
And creators have to adapt accordingly. Rajamouli says he can tell fairly early on in the making of the film whether it is regional or universal in nature. If he feels the story has universal elements, he will then examine what additional effort it needs to travel across borders, in its communication, marketing, release strategy. The story dictates it. We usually know by the time the trailer comes out. “It’s all about human relations and how much people trust you and relate to you,” he says.
The change is also visible in the roles being written and offered to women. It’s because more women are in writers’ rooms of streaming services. “OTT has given work to all actors, age no bar, looks no bar, language no bar, accent no bar. Now, we are being told just bring it on, be fearless, bring in your raw energy,” says Sonali Kulkarni. “We had so many women from the south who looked effortlessly north Indian, like Sridevi or Rekha or Jaya Prada.”
As the world moves towards a new creative economy with the rise of digital-first brands, the need for fresh stories is moving creators deeper into India, into smaller towns, diverse groups, more languages. The trend towards diversity in content creators began in 2010-11 with Yo Yo Honey Singh, says Vijay Subramaniam, CEO, Collective Artists Network, “and continued with Kapil Sharma, who created comedy from outside the cinema spectrum.” He passed on the torch to Bhuvan Bam, with his digital stories, and now CarryMinati, gamer, rapper, comedian. The duopoly of movie stars and cricketers has become a triangle now with the addition of digital-first stars who can come from anywhere and they are bringing their unique, often unfiltered, and usually refreshing narratives. So, it can be a stylist in Gurugram or a singer in Bhopal, if they have the talent and the technology, they can access a whole new creative marketplace.
This defies not merely the barriers that Bollywood institutionally places in the path of outsiders but also old, conventional narratives. Anything, or almost anything, goes here.
So, the big stars co-exist with OTT stars who can share the growing pie with digital-first creators. In a country of roughly 825 million internet users and an estimated over-500 million smartphone users, the thirst for content has to be quenched.
EdTech, live streaming, e-commerce have opened up during Covid-19, and the hybrid experience is here to stay. Disney completed its Disney+ target of 100 million subscribers globally in 16 months rather than by 2024, the target they had given themselves. The apps downloaded during Covid are not going to be deleted. The parallel creative economy is not going away, nor is the mainstream. And India is finally accepting content agnostic to where it originated from, says Subramaniam .