Javed Akhtar on Hindi Films as a State of the Union

May 11, 2007
Beth Loves Bollywood

A friend recently alerted me to an article in Outlook in which screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar is quoted with a fascinatingly filmi take on Bollywood's role in the everyday reuniting of the varied cultures of India.

He proposes that because they so borrow and synthesize cultural elements from across the nation, and are made by a crew of people from various places and religions, Hindi films are the country's greatest common language - and constitute a culturally ecumenical state of the union in which everyone can (and does) participate.

It's worth noting that the only direct quote from Akhtar is the introductory idea: "There is one more state in this country, and that is Hindi cinema." None of the explanation or expansion of this idea is attributed to him; all of that comes as an excerpt from a forthcoming book The Miracle That is India by Ramachandra Guha. (Does anyone know if this comes from a longer statement or larger context shared by Akhtar elsewhere?)

I originally brought this article to the attention of some of the Desicritics editors, hoping they might have someone in mind to write about the whole article, which I had only read for the passage on Hindi films. As a white girl born and bred in the US, entirely non-Indian except by interest, I don't think it's particularly important (or maybe even relevant) that I have anything to say about Akhtar and Guha's opinions.

However, as a Bollywood fan with a personal and professional interest in topics of culture and identity (I work in a museum of world cultures), I'm definitely intrigued. My preliminary thoughts are that the idea of Bollywood as the pan-Indian cultural mosaic is both a little bit brash and cheerfully tempting.

Though I spend no energy seeking out or engaging with the opinions of people who actively dislike Hindi films on anything more significant than the personal taste level (folks who dismiss all popular films as garbage, for example), even I can easily imagine people thinking "Oh no he didn't!" given, for example, the taint of corruption and immorality that some see in the film industry and some of its products and players.

From what I have seen over the 130-odd Bollywood films I've watched, I think there's a general tendency in the movies to be inclusive in very broad strokes; as a recent commenter on my blog pointed out, it's rare that a movie just lets a character be, for example, Muslim without making a big deal out of it or even building a plot around it.

On the other hand, as a fan, I can imagine it being quite tempting to get to elevate your passion from entertainment, performance, and/or shared stories (and the values and ideas they comprise) to Indian Culture itself. I would love to believe that the rosy world of Bollywood could organically expand to politics, social structures, and cultures as they are lived. But even to me that seems a little too rosy.

That's just off the top of my head. I really hope others will respond to the article (rather than to my points, which I offer just as opening thoughts from one reader, not as anything definitive). In the words of one of America's greatest popular cultural ties that bind, "discuss amongst yourselves."

Not remotely Indian, but very, very interested - and completely in love with Bollywood!
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May 11, 2007
01:40 AM

Dear Beth,

From what I know, have seen and heard...Bollywood works in the form of a commercial industry. Most of the workings are not formal (or legimiate) and are done with sole aim of 'money making'.

To say it represents brotherhood among Indians and everything else on the same lines...is nothing but a load of bullshit. Here too people work in gangs, bitch-mouth against eachother, stoop to low levels to bring the opposition down, use and abuse as and when needed - At the end of the day everything boils down to one's own self-centered goals.

The thing is with so much competition and money + fame at stake, it's difficult to stick to cultural values and the likes.

Nice post, BTW.

May 11, 2007
03:51 AM

Hi Beth
You blog at Beth Loves Bollywood? If so, love your blog.

Haven't read the Guha/Outlook article but the Javed Akhtar quote is from a much longer answer he gave to filmmaker and writer Nasreen Munni Kabir for her 1999 book Conversations with Javed Akhtar and also quoted in her 2001 book Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story.

This isn't the whole quote (which runs for a page): "India is a country where there are many cultures, many languages, many sub-cultures, many states. Each have their own identity, their own culture, their own language...In the same way, we have one more culture and one more ethos, and one more state - that of Hindi cinema. Hindi cinema has its own traditions, its own culture and language. It is familiar and recognizable to the rest of India and the rest of India identifies with it."

He then goes on to explain how this filmi "state" is populated by fathers smoking pipes and wearing dressing gowns who say "Yeh shaadi nahin ho sakti," and mothers who are forever loving and get told by their agonising sons, "Ma, mujhe samajhne ki koshish karo" and so forth.

Its a brilliant insight into Hindi cinematic conventions but I wouldn't expand it into a statement on India in general.

May 11, 2007
09:27 AM

Sakshi - great point about how people treat each other in the Bollywood "state." One can't argue that money isn't a very important factor, and I think you're right that the demands to make a commercially viable product can overwhelm the other intentions or purposes that a project has.

Anamika - yes, that's my blog - thank you! And thank you even more for citing the quote - I'll have to dig those up. So if I understand correctly, he's just saying Hindi cinema is _a_ state, not _the_ state. That's a lot more reasonable than the impression I was getting from the article.

May 11, 2007
05:32 PM

Glad to know its you, Beth. I really do enjoy your blog.

Nowhere did I think it was a statement about "the state." There are other philosophical considerations (and performance theory) but oh well - nothing better that an out of context quote. :-)

May 18, 2007
11:30 AM

Bollywood may not be intentionally making films to bring about the unity in India but the films do act as stimulator to the minds of those who can't afford the formal education. Uneducated in India grow up debating and discussing the Bollywood films and Cricket.

December 4, 2007
12:47 PM

Hey beth,
According to actress nandita das, bollywood represents only 1%of indian population.Bollywood is recognized all over india, because its language is the national language. Also, bollywood owns a share of about75%-85% of the television in india. Mainly all these channels contribute to hindi cinema by promoting movies, music, and evrything. So its audiences are forced to accept bollywood is india's culture.

December 4, 2007
10:37 PM


You are right. Bollywood is neither a fair representation of Indian culture nor its share very big in Indian culture space. 90% of its movies flop barely grabbing people's curiosity. Even if you take bollywood's biggest hits, say grossing 100 crores, @ rs. 100 per ticket, that is one crore people, which is not even 1% of Indian population. Even if you add dvd/cd audience, it would barely come out as 2-3% of Indian population. Its songs have larger presence as they fill the TV, airwaves and roadways. Thanks to TV, Bollywood have been liberated from the confines of theaters and have hit home-audiences. But Bollywood has stopped making films for the homes and families. Movies of 60's and 70's are ideally suited for family audiences. But they are now passe. Recent trend of niche film-making and break-down of star system means it can brag about box-office hits occasionally but no break-thru in making inroads for reaching to people at large.

So far, movies have been tailored primarily for youths and lovers. That has remained its target audience. Youth and lovers don't like to be bothered with preachy serious stuff. Youth and lovers remain absorbed in their own youthful self-indulgent virtual world - Bollywood has acquired same traits by being fixed on youth culture. It has remained largely irrelevant and oblivious to cultural space that surrounds it. In usa, it was rebellious youth-counter culture that re-shaped the whole cultural landscape of USA. But that has not worked in land of cultures called India so far. It has become merely one more cultural stream of India that has only naach-gaana entertainment value, nothing more.

December 4, 2007
11:30 PM

What else would you expect an insider to say? Javed's quote needs to be put aside.

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