Singapore: Evidence from Bollywood

Picking up on a story in the New York Times we had suggested a counterintuitive hypothesis about Singapore – that despite the fact that it is considered one of the most successful cities in the world it could have a lot of unhappy citizens whose dissatisfactions were going unregistered and failing to affect its approval ratings.

A reader had asked why, if that were the case, the citizens were not protesting and making their voices heard? We had provided a speculative answer applicable to all cities but kept wondering if there was some real evidence we could bring to support our position.

Such evidence is very hard to find and the frustration was mounting till we had a brainwave – when in doubt, turn to Bollywood. Bollywood captures perfectly the mood and spirit of the times and records the major changes that occur along the way. So, if we were looking for the unhappiness of citizens that does not get captured in measures of urban success, we would have a good chance of finding it in the movies.

Aakar Patel has captured this aspect of Bollywood well in his claim that Indians often discover India through the movies. As late as 1964, the year Nehru died, India made movies in which politicians were noble (e.g., Dilip Kumar’s Leader). By the time of Rajiv Gandhi’s election in 1984, Indian’s believed that India could change but the vile politicians who were standing in the way were the villains of Bollywood. By the turn of the century, the economic optimism generated by Manmohan Singh had led the Indian middle class to disengage from both politics and the state – hence Shahrukh Khan and movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum and Kal Ho Na Ho.

So what did we discover in Bollywood about urban life and the feelings of citizens?

Plenty, it turns out. For example there was the story that when Nehru had given a speech in which he had remarked “I am proud of India”, Guru Dutt asked Sahir to work the line into the refrain of a song. This was the result:

yeh kuuchey, yeh niilaam-ghar dilkashii ke
yeh luTTey huuay karvaan zindagii ke
kahaaN haiN, kahaaN hain, muhaafiz khudii ke
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaan haiN?

these streets, these auction houses of pleasure
these looted caravans of life
where are they, the guardians of self hood?
those who are proud of India, where are they?

This taunt was followed by a harsh indictment of the national leadership:

zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulaao!
yeh kuuchey, yeh galiyaaN, yeh manzar dikhaao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par unko laao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaaN haiN?

go, fetch the leaders of the nation!
show them these streets, these lanes, these sights!
call them, those who are proud of India!
those who are proud of India, where are they?

What was the response to the expressions of these sentiments?

“This mode of filmmaking soon ran into problems. The censor board, now under the control of the Indian government, kicked into gear, reflecting the government’s hyper-sensitivity towards any reference to people’s struggles, particularly in the cause of socialism…. The lyrics of phir subah hogii were considered so radical that two songs from the film were banned for a while.”

One of them was a parody of the famous Iqbal poem saarey jahan se achchhaa Hindostan hamaaraa (our India is better than the rest of the world):

Cheen-o Arab hamaaraa, Hindostan hamaaraa,
rahney ko gahr nahiiN hai, saaraa jahaN hamaaraa!

China and Arabia are ours, so is India
yet we have no home to live in; the whole world is ours!

jitnii bhii bildingeN theeN, seThoN ne baanT lii haiN
fuTpaath Bambaii ke, haiN ashiiyaaN hamaaraa

the wealthy have distributed all the buildings among themselves,
while we are left to take refuge on the footpaths of Bombay.

“These songs reflect a disenchantment of the urban poor with the state. The ban came into effect around the time of the second parliamentary elections and was not repealed till 1966.”

So here we have it: the proclamation of success by the leaders and the elites, the protests of the poor, and the silencing of their voices.

Case closed.

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The material in the text is from the chapter by Ali Mir (Hindi film songs and the progressive aesthetic) in the book Indian Literature and Popular Cinema edited by Heidi RM Pauwels, Routledge, 2008.

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12 Responses to “Singapore: Evidence from Bollywood”

  1. Jag Rao Says:

    That Bollywood captures the mood of the times is as exaggeration. So is the implied assertion that “were it not for incompetent leadership and crooked politicians our country would be great”.
    Just as proclamation of success by leaders can be used to silence the poor, so can ritualistic condemnation of crooked politicans. It can be a cop out designed to justify our inaction against injustice or our silent connivance with the ruling groups. Blame the pol! I would also submit that often more progress comes through the hands of scoundrels than through the piety of saints and the self-serving moral outrage of the technocratic and middle classes.
    As for Bollywood it more often than not potrays and glorifies a traditionalist, sentimentalist, misogynist and chauvinistic point of view. It dispenses syrupy romantic struggles between good and bad that appeals to middle class sentimentality but is not consequential for the genuinely frustrated, angry and deprived. Once in a while Bollywood movies do that. But most of the time Bollywood like movie making enterpise in any part of the world is about selling opium to the masses.

  2. Amit Basole Says:

    Nice post. Bollywood is indeed a reflection of the times. One cannot but be struck by the aesthetic developed in the last ten years which successfully shuts poverty our of cinema when it wants to, mirroring the disengagement of the new middle class. Selective camera-work, editing and locales are used very skillfully to achieve on screen what we sadly cannot in real life- a clean, decent, poverty-free society.

    One small correction. As far as I know, Sahir’s satirical chin-o-arab hamara actually parodies, not tarana-e-hind but tarana-e-milli by Iqbal, chin-o-arab hamara, hindustan hamara, muslim hain ham, saraa jahaan hamara, set in the same meter as saare jahan se accha. This actually makes Sahir’s satire even more interesting, because what he is doing is cleverly replacing Iqbal’s pan-Islamism with the internationalism of the proletariat: rehen ko ghar nahin, sara jahan hamara. the world is ours, not because we are Muslim, but because we are the dispossessed and we are everywhere.

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    Jag Rao, I agree with a lot of what you say. It would seem, though, that precisely because Bollywood has to sell its product, it cannot be too far out of sync with the values, sentiments, aspirations and fantasies of its customers. In that sense it can serve as a record of the changing values of society.

    Here is what a New York Times review of Chandni Chowk to China says of Akshay Kumar:

    “If a generation ago Amitabh Bacchan captured the spirit of this country with his emblematic portraits of the angry young man, Mr. Kumar, a trained martial artist and India’s most famous stuntman, seems to have tapped into the New India of raw, unbridled ambition.”

  4. Anil Kala Says:

    “often more progress comes through the hands of scoundrels than through the piety of saints”

    I can give two examples viz. Laloo Yadav neck deep in fodder scam, turning around Indian Railways and Narendra Modi architect of Gujarat massacre, doing excellent job of running Gujarat government.

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, So on balance do you give Narendra Modi a passing score?

    If a person is the architect of a massacre (as you claim) what does it say of a polity that allows him to continue running a government? Should we conclude that authoritarianism delivers and that’s what matters? Mussolini was okay because he could get the trains to run on time?

    Or should one take the position that it does not matter how great an administrator someone is, if he or she is guilty of a crime as significant as a massacre that person should be behind bars?

  6. Anil Kala Says:

    Certainly not, he is the flip side of Taliban coin and should be punished but I was merely pointing out how accurate Jag Rao’s obseravations are.

    Human nature is bizarre and democray is based on some assumptions. Often things don’t work out the way we want them to.

    By the way your ire is directed only at Narendra Modi why spare Laloo Yadav?

  7. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, My ire was not directed at Narendra Modi. I was using that as an illustrative example assuming that the charges alleged by you were correct. I have also read of the charges against Laloo Yadav. Even if they are also correct, I would say that there are many thieves but they cannot be put in the same category as architects of genocide.

    My point was not personal against these two individuals because I do not have enough information to make categorical statements. But I do believe it to be accurate that a high percentage of elected members of South Asian representative bodies are criminals. That makes me wonder about the polities that elect such people, ignore their sometimes heinous crimes, and laud their administrative abilities as adequate recompense. There is something fascinating about such polities that needs to be understood better.

    You mention that democracy is based on some assumptions. Could you elaborate on what these are in general and in India, in particular?

  8. Anil Kala Says:

    I guess, something to do with Robin Hood syndrome. There are enough legends of dacoits hero worshipped; there was the legend of daku Man Singh during British rule and then post independence there is Phoolan Devi, who eventually became an Indian member of parliament. It appears to me doubtful that any hard core dacoit will have a softer side, my guess is that if a hard core dacoit merely spares the life of a common person he will be so much relieved that this act will seem to him the most kind act (perhaps loosely Stockholm complex). The point I am making is that it is quite possible that dacoits became legends just by not doing harm rather than doing any good. Rogues sitting parliament could be extension of this logic.

    Another point is that ( I am no expert though) much of our thinking is done by left brain; language, logic, math, sequencing, marking of time etc is all done by left brain, right brain has very little to do viz, spatial observation, instinct, empathy etc. In order to cope with so much work left brain work with templates and jumps to conclusion at the first sign of matching a template. My guess is that because of this reason we avoid complex thinking therefore always look for simplistic solutions i.e. make me a dictator and I will set things right.

    This simplistic deduction is probably the cause of democratic mismatch which assumes that best will be chosen to lead.

    Purely intuitive……..

  9. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, The Robin Hood myth has an appeal because the proponents were ostensibly robbing the rich to help the poor. You can apply some version of that (rightly or wrongly, I don’t have the details to say) to some dacoits in India or to the Naxalites. And people like Phoolan Devi had an appeal because they were avenging insults by social superiors and were thus acting out the aspirations of the down-trodden.

    But neither of these apply to Hitler who was engaged in genocide out of a contempt for other human beings.

    About democracy, we have to look at each case separately. For example, the kinds of criminals that get elected in South Asia won’t get elected in Western Europe. So we will need to provide an explanation of that which goes beyond the universal explanation relying on two halves of the brain (which in itself is probably not wrong).

  10. Anil Kala Says:

    “For example, the kinds of criminals that get elected in South Asia won’t get elected in Western Europe.”

    The difference is in details only. Wasn’t Dubya re-elected on whipping up war hysteria.

    We are liberal and magnanimous depending on how secure and comfortable we feel. I read somewhere that acts like even treason was taken lightly at the height of Gupta dynasty whereas Americans got hysterical at first whiff of jobs shifting to India, Philippines and other countries.

  11. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, Comparative analysis requires very narrow definitions if it is to be valid. So we would have to define criminals – either those charged or convicted of crimes. We would also have to define what counts as crime because the range is very broad. Acts that count as crimes in one country don’t in another. We would have to restrict the range so that we are considering crimes of equal severity.

    Once we are comparing like with like, we can then test the hypothesis, for example, that the percentage of criminals elected to offices in the US is not significantly different from that in South Asia. I don’t know the answer but my guess is that it is different.

    We cannot reach an answer if we are too relativist and equate treason with hysteria over outsourcing (which is not a crime). We may not like Bush and think of him as a criminal but the fact is that he has not been charged with or convicted of any crime under the law. He may be in the future but that is another matter.

    The US may change under stress and become like South Asia in the future. That is quite possible but that also is another discussion. The problems with American democracy are quite different from those in South Asia. There is a brilliant analysis by Mark Slouka in the February 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

  12. Ayesha Hoda Says:

    That’s very interesting actually…yeah, people often depend on movies from Hollywood and Bollywood to shape their perceptions…although they do exaggerate a lot.

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