‘Entertain them with what entertains them....’ said Prophet Mohammed fourteen hundred years ago. For some inexplicable reason these were the words that rang in my ears as I stood transfixed in Andheri Sports Complex among at least fifty thousand people who were there to be entertained with the yearly “Kushti” contest a few months ago. I could hardly believe that this upmarket complex, which has been host to performances of stars from Bollywood and to Michael Jackson, was now the battle ground for a seemingly ‘desi’ wrestling match, where the stage was covered in mud and gravel, and semi naked men from Benares to Pakistan grappled with each other, while the crowd roared.
“Who are these people and where have they all come from?” I asked Sanjay Nirupam, the hardliner Shiv Sena MP turned Congressman. “These are the people who are the back bone of your city and entertainment capital. Unfortunately, they have disappeared from your Bollywood radar. You guys used to make a Ganga Jamuna and Nadiya ke Paar, but now you have started catering to the Indian diaspora abroad, with films like Black and Kal Ho Na Ho, so its left to us to entertain these lonely people who are dislocated from their Indian heartland,” he said, subtly driving home his point.
It was then that with frightening clarity it dawned on me…. These are the people who have resurrected the Bhojpuri cinema which is over shadowing our self-proclaimed intelligent new age cinema today, and providing livelihood to a major bulk of our entertainment industry. “Give us back our movies,” was the unheard and unheeded cry of twenty five crores of people in the Indian heartland, who progressively discovered that the prominent film makers from Bollywood weren’t making films which mirrored their ethos, culture and language. It is the immigrant population who have left their homes and gone to the major cities in India, and are cut away from their families, land and language, which constitute the major bulk of the consumer base of the Bhojpuri films which run to full houses in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Punjab, Rajasthan and even Chennai!
My long standing friend Shailendra Goyal, who made his foray into the world of Bhojpuri films with Ganga Mile Sagar Se, and which was adjudged the best Bhojpuri film of 2005, in the first Bhojpuri film award function, staggered me by saying that Sasura Bada Paise Vala did better business in Bihar than last year’s Bunty Aur Babli. Did you know that Dehati Babu ran for one whole week in Hyderabad? Where big budget Hindi films at times are pulled out after three days? Bhojpuri films find takers in countries like Mauritius, Surinam and even Bangladesh, where the Indian migrant labourer had settled down so many years ago, but still hungered for his roots and particular culture.
So what makes Bhojpuri cinema tick? “It’s like having home cooked food,” said Ravi Kishen, who is the biggest male star of the Bhojpuri film industry. Bollywood has ignored the issues of a villager and is catering to a class which is rooted in cities and fast-food culture. The reason there is an India where Manoj Tiwari Mridul serenades a huge sea of humanity and finds a space in their hearts more than a Shah Rukh Khan can, is because he still represents those core values which his ancestors brought him up on, and through which he feels mankind will find sustenance.
Its time for us to face the obvious —that there is an India whose value system believes in denying and saving. This is the working class which believes in slogging and saving for a better tomorrow, as opposed to the other India, which believes that satisfaction lies in spending, and wants instant gratification at any cost.
Obviously, these are two different universes which require two different kinds of stories. And since the first and the last rule of Bollywood has always been the same, which is make movies to make money, it has chosen to cater to the rich Indian diaspora and the urban multiplex consumer which has deeper pockets in comparison to its poorer counterpart. When an Asian in UK spends ten pounds to see a Bollywood film, and a native of Bihar finds it difficult to scrape together even ten rupees back home, its obvious which side the film industry will be on.
However, would it not be prudent to read the writing on the wall? Which is that if there are two India's today, with growing audiences in both sectors, then why not cater to both? In any business and Bollywood is no exception, it is demand which initiates supply. And while there is no longer a pan Indian audience which will consume collectively one kind of cinema, it would be foolish of Bollywood only to cater to one section and not the other. Doing so would only serve to alienate itself from its own heartland, which would be a complete catastrophe.
The writer is a filmmaker.