Changing values of Hindi cinema

From films highlighting moral values to those portraying “illegality as enterprise”, ethical motifs in popular Hindi cinema have undergone a tremendous change.

Published : Dec 25, 2013 12:30 IST

There is a great degree of 'moral polarisation' in films like Raj Kapoor's 'Awaara' inasmuch as they place an object of immense love/veneration at their centre and get heightened effects through this placement.

There is a great degree of 'moral polarisation' in films like Raj Kapoor's 'Awaara' inasmuch as they place an object of immense love/veneration at their centre and get heightened effects through this placement.

POPULAR Hindi cinema traditionally took the form of melodrama, but the new millennium has seen melodrama being abandoned as the dominant form. Broadly speaking, what is seen as melodrama is to indulge in strong emotionalism, moral polarisation and schematisation; it portrays extreme situations and actions, overt villainy, the persecution of the good and the final reward of virtue, inflated or extravagant expression and abrupt changes in fortune to affirm that the world is governed by a moral order. Popular Hindi cinema has been considered escapist but, paradoxically, it has also been sententious, inevitably giving moral instruction to the spectator.

If one were to describe accurately popular cinema’s relationship with the “real”, one could say that it was not “mimetic” in the Aristotelian sense —as Hollywood tried to be—and the world it posited followed Indian poetics in the belief that the artistically created world is not subordinate to reality but actually greater than it, or that it is “truer than the real”. Rather than portraying the world as it “was”, popular cinema tried to show it as “it should be”. Moral reassurance being the intent, it employed archetypes/ stereotypes to represent qualities in their essence to relay its messages —qualities such as loyalty, selflessness, arrogance, devotion, scholarliness, and miserliness.

The moral instruction offered by popular films upheld “eternal values” handed down by tradition, but most of these values were relayed in historical circumstances relevant to the times of each film. Among the earliest motifs in Hindi cinema is one of the strong woman as a moral exemplar in the “reformist” films of the 1930s and early 1940s. For instance, V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937) is about a woman tricked into marriage with an elderly widower and her dogged resistance to him. Other films with the motif of the strong woman include P.C. Barua’s Devdas (1935), Mehboob Khan’s Aurat (1940) and N.R. Acharya’s Jhoola (1941).

The female vigilante represented by Hunterwali (1935) represents another side of the “strong woman” as does the shrewish but caring wife in Sant Tukaram (1936). The motif can be traced to a crisis of masculinity in India under colonial rule and understood in terms of arguments offered by the sociologist Ashis Nandy on the relationship between sexuality and political dominance in colonial India ( The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery ofSelf Under Colonialism , 1983). Nandy’s arguments also explain the disappearance of the motif of the strong woman in later cinema when India freed itself from colonial rule.

Ethical concerns in cinema

This essay is devoted to ethics in Hindi cinema. There have been attempts to see dharma, especially the notion of genealogical purity, as the key concept in Hindi cinema since it has often been adapted from the epics. But some ethical concerns of Hindi cinema owe more to the Christian notion of “evil” than to dharma . It may, for instance, be difficult to interpret the conduct of Gabbar Singh in Sholay (1975) using dharma . The wife resisting the husband in Duniya Na Mane is itself contrary to the dictates of dharma , and colonialism perhaps transformed society in such a way that right and wrong could not simply be determined through a reference to the dharmic codes. As further evidence, dharma is a stronger guiding principle in Kannada cinema because it came out of a more traditional society (the princely state of Mysore, which was under indirect British rule).

With Independence becoming inevitable in the mid-1940s, melodrama in Hindi cinema transforms to admitting a new ethic. Post-Independence melodrama may be understood as a continuation of the “social” (or the domestic melodrama) which originated in the colonial period, but there are nonetheless key differences. A key difference between the “reformist” films of the 1930s/early 1940s and their counterparts around 1947 (and after) is that melodrama in the later cinema is of a much more heightened kind. There is apparently a greater degree of “moral polarisation” in films like Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) inasmuch as the film places an object of immense love/veneration at its centre (the mother) and gets heightened effects through this placement. Indian popular cinema never took an ambivalent position with regard to right and wrong (which finds correspondence in “good” and “bad”), but in Anmol Ghadi , we see an individual denoted as “good” conducting himself in a way judged as “wrong”. The “wrong” conduct is towards a new entity introduced into the narrative, and the subsequent redefining of the moral framework is to admit a reference to this entity. The new entity demanding loyalty in Anmol Ghadi is the mother, and an association can be made between the figure of the mother and the future nation.

The object of loyalty can also take other shapes—like a village community ( Mother India , 1956) or a childhood friend ( Sangam , 1964), but the nation can be associated with the chosen object and what is demanded on its behalf is loyalty. The idea of the nation, therefore, plays a key part in redefining the moral framework within film narratives around 1947, and this continues for several decades.

Ethics and the independent nation

One of the most conspicuous motifs in Hindi cinema after 1947 is the courtroom scene, but what is seldom acknowledged is that it has its logic in the moment of Independence. The courtroom in the Hindi film is not simply where lawsuits are heard and settled but a sacred site in which truths about social culpability cannot be denied. The courtroom is the emblem of the state and it acquires a new gravity in cinema after 1947 that it could not possibly have possessed earlier. When the protagonist in the Tamil classic Parasakhti (1952) accuses the representatives of respectable society in court, all of them lower their gazes as if in guilty admission. Judges and policemen are lampooned in earlier Hindi films like Taqdeer (1943), but they are objects of veneration after 1947. It is only after Independence that surrendering to the court ( Phir Subah Hogi , 1958) or the police ( Footpath , 1953) became admissions of moral guilt. But when a film is set outside India as in Guru Dutt’s Jaal (1952), which unfolds in Portuguese Goa, policemen can still be figures of fun. A distinction is sometimes made between the individual policeman/ judge and the “law” when the judge or policeman is grilled in the courtroom as in Awaara and Raj Khosla’s CID (1956).

The city is an important space in the films of the 1950s because it was an emblem of Nehruvian modernity. Since the public was ambivalent towards modernity, which might have threatened traditional structures, the portrayal of the city was never wholeheartedly optimistic. Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar (1954) is one of the few wholeheartedly optimistic films, but the city can also be a dark space as in Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949), in which undernourished women proffer themselves in red-light areas. The response towards modernity is inevitably mixed, with gambling ( Sree 420 , 1955), the urban gangster ( Howrah Bridge , 1958) and the “club dancer” ( Baazi , 1951) usually representing bad modernity and the doctor ( Dil Ek Mandir , 1963) or the dam construction engineer ( Aah , 1953) representing its good side. The city, however, does not embody a community, and that is usually the village as in Mother India and Naya Daur (1957).

The village in Hindi cinema of the 1950s represents the nation in microcosm and exhibits many of the latter’s characteristics. It is constituted to include various social categories composing the nation, and the threat to it usually comes from within. In later films, the “community” is a battalion of soldiers as in Border (1998), an extended family as in Hum Aapke Hain Koun , (1994), and even a cricket team as in Lagaan (2001).

Nehruvian socialism

A key political influence finding a place in Hindi cinema from the 1950s is that of “Nehruvian socialism”. Nehru’s brand of socialism was without a viable programme for distributive justice, but its rhetoric still fired Hindi cinema in such a way that concern for the underprivileged became an abiding virtue. The poor are not brought into natural conflict with the rich and in films like Amar (1954) they are even placed in the position of “trustees”. In this film the lawyer-heroine (Nargis) comes to the assistance of a milkmaid (Nimmi) who has become pregnant by the man (Dilip Kumar) to whom the lawyer is engaged. But the privileged, if they are sometimes punished, are themselves hardly without recourse.

In the films Mother India and Ganga Jumn a (1961), the defence of the more privileged is assumed by the community as a whole when the rebellious protagonist’s acts against the landlord/moneylender exceed the ends of justice. It is significant that the motif of the wronged man as transgressor, and being punished, continues even up to Deewar (1975), and the agent of punishment is the person closest to him (mother and/or brother), who acts on behalf of the community/state/nation. The stability of the motif suggests that the ethical fabric of society was relatively undisturbed and intact even by the late 1970s, despite Indira Gandhi’s professed efforts at radical social transformation.

The portrayal of the nation apparently transforms in the 1980s, with policemen increasingly portrayed as weak or corrupt ( Pratighaat , 1987), caste and regional loyalties coming to the fore ( Batwara , 1989) and gangland bosses ruling the cities ( Agneepath , 1990). But rather than redefining the ethical framework in film narrative, the films of the period are perhaps merely sententious in a different way—about how things “should not be”.

In J.P. Dutta’s Batwara , a policeman describes himself as a “Thakur first and a policeman afterwards”, but he is the villain (played by Amrish Puri) and hardly articulates the film’s moral viewpoint. Even youthful romances like Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1982) and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) are dark and brutal in the 1980s. India was going through a violent phase with the rise of regional/religious/caste conflict (most conspicuously in Punjab) and the state was virtually under siege; Hindi cinema was only responding to this political scenario. But the most important political development for Hindi cinema after 1947 was the economic liberalisation of 1991, which eventually left it unrecognisable.

Redrawing of the ethical framework

Economic liberalisation’s greatest cultural damage to Hindi cinema was perhaps done because it was understood as the official abandonment of socialism—as meaning that concern for the underprivileged was no longer an ethical preoccupation of the nation-state. Hindi cinema reacted to the development with confusion initially because of what it might mean to its own moral viewpoint. The “anti-hero” of Abbas-Mustan’s Baazigar (1993) does the most dastardly thing that a protagonist of a Hindi film had ever done. He murders the trusting woman who loved him—and this is in his efforts to retrieve the business empire out of which her father cheated his family; in this move we already see how economic motives would eventually supplant moral values in Hindi cinema.

It took three years for Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s political decisions to be culturally registered and this first happened in Hum Aap keHain Koun . The underprivileged in this film are household servants, and if the masters show concern for them, it is not as political equals. In comparison, in the film Damini (1992), which appeared only two years earlier, the older daughter-in-law of an affluent business family comes to the rescue of the maid who has just been raped by the younger son. She tries to have the assailant accused and indicted, resisting the pressure brought on her by her in-laws. The films of the 1990s celebrate wealth and privilege, and the liberal state (because it was “withdrawing” from the public space) is rarely in evidence. When the police figure, as in Satya (1999), they behave as private agencies and are impervious to the law although this makes them stronger. The state, in effect, is engaged in withdrawing even from its own institutions! It is perhaps only in the 1990s that the Hindi film begins to regard extrajudicial killings with approval.

The rise of the new economy businesses in the early years of the new millennium brought about another fundamental social change. The development meant increased migration to cities, higher wages, and spending power to those who were acquainted with the English language. Along with the rise of the multiplex, this led mainstream Hindi cinema to target Anglophone Indians in the metropolises—when it had once been genuinely pan-Indian and had addressed an undifferentiated public. Mainstream Hindi films —perhaps after 2004—increasingly address Anglophone Indians although this is not as “elite” as English-speakers had once been. Characters in films break off into using English words like “shit”, titles are only in English and key concluding legends (as in Peepli Live , 2010) are also in English. More importantly, a new motif —personal aspiration—appears ( Bunty Aur Babli , 2005; Guru , 2007; 3 Idiots , 2009). Those employed in the new economy were taking up occupations that were breaking with their family vocations and this translates as aspiration, which is resisted by parents and families in all these films.

A clear schism is in evidence in the cinema of the new millennium as India’s growth story brings affluence to many in the metropolises. Where Hindi cinema had once identified with the poor, notably farmers, and leading stars (like Nargis and Manoj Kumar) had played them, Peepli Live views the poor farmer virtually as the fit subject of ethnographic study. The shift in focus towards personal aspiration and advancement means that Hindi cinema can no longer play the moral role it had once played, and none of the above films is melodrama.

Disenchantment with politics

Another feature about new Hindi cinema that was not in evidence earlier is that it begins to take an interest in politics—perhaps beginning with Rang De Basanti (2006). This film culminates in the assassination of the defence minister. While this in itself is not new because the protagonists assassinate politicians in Satya and Shool (1999), in the earlier films politicians are killed for their personal doings, while in Rang De Basanti the politician is assassinated for behaving “as a politician”—taking bribes in a defence contract. This points to the disenchantment with the political class, but since Rang De Basanti is also one of the first of Anglophone Hindi films, it points to the specific disenchantment of this class, an upwardly mobile urban class which regrets the fact that the outcome of electoral politics is decided by the unlettered and stresses “governance” (a euphemism for economic reform). Another pertinent film is Raajneeti (2010) in which governance passes into the hands of a businessman’s daughter after the politicians in the story have killed each other off.

From the viewpoint of ethics there are other aspects to Anglophone cinema that are more worrying. The motif of individual aspiration in Hindi cinema is frequently accompanied by an endorsement of illegality as means. In Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), one of the first films to do so and (ironically) heralded as a return to Gandhian values, a “loveable” extortionist is visited by Gandhiji’s spirit and he learns to tell the truth in his private dealings, even while continuing with his strong-arm methods. In Bunty Aur Babli, two youngsters embark on a conning spree but, after being apprehended, are let off because “lives must not be destroyed” while protecting the law. In Mani Ratnam’s Guru (based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani), the protagonist who breaks laws governing imports is presented as a visionary who anticipated the later relaxing of the same laws!

Films like Bunty Aur Babli , Guru and Dhoom 2 (2006) make veiled suggestions that illegality is the global norm and they celebrate Indian “enterprise” and its cunning in embracing illegality. The celebration of “illegality as enterprise” reaches its apogee in Kaminey (2009), in which people conduct themselves disgracefully because of the reassuring postulate that everyone is a scoundrel.

How this state of affairs came about is difficult to explain, but I propose that the state yielding ground steadily to private enterprise eventually weakened it—because enforcement was not simultaneously strengthened. This led private interests to subvert the state further, promoting the perception that illegality was unavoidable. India’s growth story, it can be argued, was responsible for the public itself becoming corrupted—if the highly popular discourses articulated by Bollywood are any indication. Alongside these celebrations of “enterprise” are celebrations of Indian spending power, with films showcasing lavishness as in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani (2013). But if friends have “fun”, they hardly “transact” with each other as friends once did (when they came to each other’s rescue and made sacrifices) and interpersonal bonds are therefore noticeably weak. Loyalty as an issue is not invoked, suggesting that the nation is itself weakening in the public consciousness—since “loyalty” is associated with the nation.

Most of the films just described tend to target Anglophone audiences in the metropolises, but as if to resist it, there is another kind of cinema best epitomised by Dabangg (2010) and other films starring Salman Khan. These films are set in rural/ semi-urban areas and are closer to the older cinema. But these films are alarming in another way because they uphold caste/feudal affiliations and local structures of authority—to which the nation-state has apparently ceded power.

In Dabangg , the swaggering protagonist woos the heroine in his police uniform as though his uniform entitled him to wed her. Dabangg communicates the sense that local authority is often a law unto itself, which is what the khap panchayats also suggest. The Hindi film, it is acknowledged, played a large part in Indians imagining the nation as a cohesive community after 1947 but it has apparently travelled some distance since then.

M.K.Raghavendra is a film scholar who received the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic in 1997. He was awarded a Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2000-01. He is the author of Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford, 2009), 50 Indian Film Classics (Collins, 2009), Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film (Oxford, 2011)and Director’s Cut: 50 Major Film-Makers of the Modern Era (Collins, 2013).

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