Bollywood's message

Despite all the razzmatazz, Indian films have always had a strong political theme, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
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To enjoy something is not always to understand it. Hindi cinema, the biggest in the world, with more than 900 releases every year, is known for its melodrama, music and kitsch. But this cultural force also reflects socio-economic conditions and often undermines the powerful. It is a key player in the tumultuous politics of India.

The birth of this art form in 1910, under the noses of the uppity British, was itself an act of sabotage. Censorship was tight but not clever. As the director Gurinder Chadha, who pays homage to this genre in Bride and Prejudice, says: "One of the earliest weapons they had was the non-English language. They used common metaphors, religious stories and codified messages. Indians had a lot to play with to subvert rulers at the time."

Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Hindi cinema, was an anti-imperialist. He made explicit links between films and freedom. As early as 1897, British films were using India as a backdrop for their own fantasies. Phalke films fought back using Indian mythology to project stories which were allegoric and seditious. The evil characters were both themselves and symbols of British domination.

Pavan Varma, author of Being Indian, believes the medium has forever renewed and defined his nation: "Indian cinema played an extremely important cohesive role, constructing a pan Indian identity. Don't buy the notion that India wasn't a nation until Britain 'unified' us. Rubbish. India's cultural unity long preceded British rule... Cinema tapped into this and reinforced it." But in a vast, diverse, multi-faith and polyglot country what language was to get primacy? Hindustani was settled on - a mixture of Hindi and Urdu - which fast developed its own idiom and style, and a new common language was born.

The movement towards independence nourished this industry - deepened its value and extended its influence. Ordinary people were drawn into stories which depicted the Raj as a morally corrupt enterprise even though it clearly brought changes that were to be beneficial to some. Films such as Shaheed (Martyr) and Kismet (Fate) knowingly stirred up desires for freedom. Nasreen Munni Kabir, the unrivalled expert on Hindi cinema, believes propaganda was skillfully disguised: "The cinema really did stoke the desire to be independent, to be rid of the rulers, but the messages were hidden under the entertainment. Everybody in the audience understood this."

Songs were another form of resistance. Kismet had a song with the refrain "go away you invaders, India belongs to us". Censors were clearly asleep in the heat.

Hindi films have always promoted integration. Films made in the Thirties and Forties addressed the injustices of the caste system. Devdas, everlastingly popular, is a poignant story of a man born into an upper caste family who is not allowed to marry his childhood sweetheart Paro because she is from a poorer family. He self-destructs and dies at Paro's doorstep. Kabir sees links between life and art: "The lower caste men identified with the hero. Politically this film was very important for the development of the idea of equality."

Most connoisseurs believe the Fifties were the golden age of Hindi films. Political leaders were portrayed as idealists capable of great self-sacrifice. Gandhi despised this mass entertainment but films promoted Gandhian Indian values - simplicity, of authenticity, of faith and family. In some ways they were socially very conservative, and felt they had to be to reclaim the country's corrupted selfhood under colonialism. The West was always portrayed as bad, promiscuous, alcoholic. Varma sees this as a moment when India was re-imagining herself and was bursting with hope, a time of spirit and innocence.

Perennial in Hindi movies is the narrative of the little person facing appalling abuse from the rich and powerful. Chadha admires the "long tradition of socialist values" which has inspired the most unforgettable Hindi films. They evocatively dramatise social evils - the position of women, feudalism, starvation. Mehboob Khan's Mother India, made in 1957, is still seen as one of the greatest Hindi films ever - it was even nominated for an Oscar. The heroine, played by Nargis, was a tormented yet proud mother in a village controlled by cruel landlords. It roused the nation and rekindled debates about justice, the human spirit and much else.

Although Bollywood remained dominant, other interlopers emerged in the Sixties to challenge its formula. A new generation of directors started to make serious films without the froth of Bollywood, but which still brought in audiences. The award-winning director Shyam Benegal was at the forefront of this new wave: "India was going through a very difficult period from the late Sixties - early post-independence optimism was exhausted. I was responding to this environment. I realised we had to change as a society, move towards equality." His films were quiet, subtle but more intolerant of the India which was emerging, its many follies and hardening heart.

By the Seventies, disillusionment with Indian politics descended like a choking fog on the subcontinent. Now the politician is the film villain, untrustworthy, as bad as the landlords and capitalists. The angry young man arrived in Hindi films, punching and kicking his way to glorious victory. This was the dark period when Mrs Indira Gandhi had turned off democracy, a state of emergency cut into the biggest, most passionate democracy in the world.

The Eighties were not good for Hindi cinema. Television and then satellite arrived, and the film industry went into decline. Populist programmes without politics or moral seriousness swept across urban India. Dumbing products were devoured like junk food.

Soon actors turned into politicians. Currently 12 film stars are in parliament. The actress and politician Shabana Azmi says: "We are respected and loved. Actors don't need bribes. We can use our power for social good. Cinema is in our genetic code. It certainly has this power of huge influence."

The first part of 'Political Bollywood' is repeated on Radio 4 on Monday at 12.15am; the second part is next Thursday