Hindi Film 101: Classism in Film Criticism

I just got really angry while writing a review of Bewarchi, and I also got really angry because I just accidentally watched one of those “family family” Telugu movies that make smoke shoot out of my ears. So, while hopped up on anger, I thought I would write a post tearing down invisible classism. Not to end a discussion, but to start one.

Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not Indian, and I am solidly upper class. I am not writing this as one of the oppressed people, or as part of this particular system of oppression, but as an outsider observing. My only right to participate in this discussion is the basic human right of free speech.

“Everyone in India has servants”. “Everyone in India watches movies online”. “Indian Medical care is affordable by anyone”. These are statements we have all heard, yes? Maybe even said. And they feel true, certainly. Every Indian person I know would fit those statements. Everyone who comments here would fit those statements. And yet, they are not true.

“Everyone” cannot have servants, because servants are people too. “Everyone” in India cannot watch movies online because objective data from the government of India shows that 48% of the population does not have internet access (here). And Indian medical care is far cheaper than in America, but that does not mean everyone can access it. If that was the case, the death rate of preventable diseases in India would be low instead of the highest in the world (from a study published in The Lancet here). These “everyone” statements are really class statements.

October: When Varun Dhawan got DESPERATE! - Bollyworm
Something I wish October had dug into a little more is the relationship between working at a luxury hotel and an Indian hospital. The hospitals are beautiful to draw in medical tourists, attracted by the cheap prices for procedures in India. But those same prices are more expensive than most Indians can afford.

Every society on earth has classes. Class, broadly, just means the layers of society who have varying degrees of power. Many have tried, but no one has really succeeded in a totally equal classless society.

Every society also has complications, intersectionalities. In America, there is class. And then there is race. And then there is money. All three separate things. I am upper class, my family is upper class. We go to Ivy League schools, we interact with the movers and shakers of society, most of all we have no fear. If I walk into a room with the richest person in America, I would feel no less than him. If I walk into a room of Mayflower descendants I would say “Hey, how you doin’?” It’s something I carry inside, the sense that I am the equal by birth of any person on this earth. On the other hand, my family is close to but still a hairs breadth away from perfect racial purity. We are white white white, but we are German, not the ideal Anglo-Saxon immigrants that America most prizes. And in terms of money, I have multi-millionaires in my family, and I have people scrapping by paycheck to paycheck. Money, race, class: three different things.

In India, there is ethnicity, caste, religion, and class. Poor class feels like it sometimes gets forgotten behind the other three showier categories. But then, that is why it is so powerful.

In India, one of the most desired descriptions is “middle-class”. It’s an Indian-English term that doesn’t quite translate to the American “middle-class”. It means a white collar job, maybe a servant. But also a family that values education, that teaches their children “cultural” things like classical dance or music, might live in a combined family, that adheres to social norms, that tries to avoid any scandal or drama of any kind. For example, “I was raised in a middle-class home, so of course I wasn’t allowed to wear mini-skirts”. Or “I had a typical middle-class childhood, we could watch one TV show a day after we finished our homework and singing lessons”. It’s better than being rich, even the rich people will say “we had money, but it was a typical middle-class home”. “Middle-class” is really “Highest class”.

The Separate Cinemas of Hrishikesh Mukherjee & Basu Bhattacharya
Hrishikesh Mukherjee excelled at middle-class films. Pleasant houses filled with books, heroes and heroines with artistic interests, one or two servants who did the hard housework, and all conflict dealt with repressed and calm and quiet, no high drama like the “lower classes” would have.

In my review of Bewarchi, I talked about an old news story from 2013 when an Indian diplomat was arrested in America for human trafficking because of how she abused her household worker who she had brought with her from India. One of the most fascinating parts of that story is that the diplomat came from an lower caste. And she was a woman. By gender and caste, she was powerless in society. And yet, by class, she had all the power in the world over her housekeeper. She could go into the world and claim oppression, correctly, based on gender and caste. And at the same time she could turn around and oppress others using the one power she had, class.

Money is another factor that obscures class. A familiar story I hear, or we see in films more and more these days, is the noble hero who made it by merit. Unlike the “evil” one who was born rich and used his money for everything, our hero studied hard, did extra tuitions, and so on and so forth, and finally got a degree he was proud of earning all on his own. Yes, our hero is not rich. But he does have class. For a parent to know what school their child should go to, what topics he should study, what tuitions he should take, that is a sign of class. If you are the third or fourth generation in your family to go to a university, it does not matter how hard you worked or how poor you were raised, you are privileged. Class is what got you there, it is inescapable.

Velaiilla Pattadhari - Wikipedia
I like VIP and Dhanush in it, but his frustrated unemployed engineering graduate is hardly the most oppressed person in the world.

Ashis Nandy in his famous article “Indian Popular Cinema as a Slums Eye View of Politics” argued that Hindi films were made for and by the lower classes, and therefore are dumb. He both was and was not correct. Yes, Hindi films were made for the lower classes. But he was revealing his own class bias by arguing that therefore they are unintelligent. And a further bias by arguing that only lower classes would bother making films that speak to lower classes.

This is the hidden battle going on in Hindi films in particular today. When ticket prices were cheaper, and theaters were in poorer under developed urban neighborhoods, Hindi films were the place of the lower classes. I have read article after article denigrating the films and all who watch them as thoughtless, uneducated (a classist insult often used in Indian English), and generally without discernment.

In media studies, there is a field called “reception studies” which is largely focused on addressing these prejudices. When a scholar looks at a text and dismisses it as harmful to the audience, have they actual bothered to talk to the audience and discover how they are “using” the text? The few scholars who bothered with reception studies for Hindi cinema found that yes, the lower class audience was “using” the text. They picked and chose which messages to believe, they talked the films over with each other, they ignored parts they found “boring”. Looking at the text alone could not tell you how it was being received. The way scholars ignored the audience in favor of the text and an imagined audience reveals a hidden class bias on their part, it wasn’t worth actually talking to lower class people and finding out what they think, far easier to imagine it.

Today we are seeing the opposite. As Hindi movies are increasingly being directed towards upper classes, they are considered “better”. They are sometimes even considered “more popular”. Because suddenly that same “everyone” who has servants, can afford medical care, has internet, is watching Hindi movies. While before “everyone” did not. The vast mass of lower classes who watched them and enjoyed them in the past do not matter, are erased from history.

Modi govt's showbiz push: Plans afoot to boost screens and film ...
Look at all the nice multiplex people! They look like “everyone”!

Part of erasing them from the audience is erasing them onscreen. In the Hindi films of the past, we had the angry proletariat, the working man who fought his way to the top of society. The Amitabh/Salim-Javed movies of the 70s. Or alternatively, the upper class (not rich, upper class) man who identified with the poor of society. The Raj Kapoor/Guru Dutt films of the 50s. Partnering with them were the pure fantasy films, rich and upper class folks designed to appeal to non-rich and lower class folks. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham showed a version of wealth that would be unrecognizable to the actual rich folks. A daily helicopter commute? A mansion, but only one visible servant? And so on and so forth. And of course, our hero marries a girl from a lower class neighborhood where the film spends a large amount of its time.

What do we have today? Instead of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, we have Dil Dhadakne Do. This is not a fun fantasy of wealth, this is the reality of it as it would be recognized by those who have experienced it. Experienced it not because they are rich, but because they have Class. I’m not rich, but I have met some DDD equivalent folks, because I have Class. So I know enough to know that K3G is a fantasy and DDD is closer to reality. The “fantasy” films now are historicals, upperclass folks dreaming of being Kings and Queens of the past because they are already Kings and Queens of the present.

Or upperclass folks having their reality validated. In the past, the films that were hits showed the working man succeeding, Amitabh rising from the gutters, or Raj Kapoor rejecting his class in order to help the abused poor. Now, we have Badhai Ho and Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan. The characters have enough food, enough shelter, enough physical safety, and enough personal freedom. That is taken as a given, not a fantasy. No more do we have the orgy of eating, the great vistas displaying the large houses, it’s not exciting to the audience, that is no longer a “fantasy” life. Middle class has become the assumed audience, not the aspiration for the audience. What is exciting is to see “their story” onscreen. Fighting nagging families just like theirs, put at the center of a narrative as the most important part.

25 Years of Hum Aapke Hain Koun: 5 Life-changing Lessons From One ...
This used to be the fantasy, not a castle and magical powers, but a big house, a dog, and lots of food.

When you put a lower class person as the hero of your film, you are making a revolutionary statement from that alone. In the real world, the lower classes are never considered first. It’s empowering, to say “I see you, you matter, here is your story”. When you put an upper class person as the hero of your film, you are telling them “you are right, you are the most important person in the world, continue to think that”.

Class travels, since it is something you carry within you. If I am part of the upper class Indian diaspora in the West, while other people around see me as an immigrant, I see myself as still upper class, still the most important person in the world. It’s hard to keep carrying that inside despite the attacks around me. And so I cling ever more to the artwork that says “you are special, you are important, you are the Best One”. Watching one of the new middle-class films gives me that, tells me that my family back in India and my way of life when I was important is valuable. I might never watch a 70s Dharmendra movie with fight scenes and arguments against oppressive rich people, but I will watch a new Ayushmann movie and tell my friends “See? This is the real India.”

Remember Ashis Nandy’s argument? There were two parts to it, that only lower classes watched films and therefore they were dumb, but also only lower classes made films. This is absolutely not true. The Hindi film industry has always been a random mixture of classes, from literal royalty to sex workers. The assumption that it is “lowclass” is another sign of classism. Upperclasses can enjoy making movies for and with lowerclasses. And films enjoyed by lowerclasses can be made by upper classes. People aren’t that different. The hidden class assumption about the industry itself is something else that is changing quickly today as the upperclasses become increasingly vocal about Hindi film.

It’s reached the point where actors have to pretend to have a class they don’t in order to help their career. Ananya Panday talked about deferring enrollment in an American college in order to act. Going to college, especially an overseas college, is a clear class marker. Ananya and her handlers wanted her to have that. Just a few years back, Anushka and Deepika were launched without needing to invent fake college stories, they could just say “we are models”, and what was then the audience for Hindi films would not care to know anything more. Ananya is second generation film, which translates to new money and low class. That’s not acceptable by the audience any more. The people onscreen now have to be “middle-class” and the people behind the scenes too.

In fashion-conscious Bollywood, the dressman needs a makeover
These guys are out of a job, now the costume designers are nice “middle-class” people with college degrees who can pick out clothes that will be appreciated by a nice “middle-class” audience. This image comes from an article titled “In Fashion-Conscious Bollywood, the Dressmen Needs a Make Over”. They aren’t good enough any more.

Class isn’t the only element in Indian society, Hindi film, or Hindi film audiences. And it’s really hard to grasp because it is so invisible. And yet, that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. We should try, as the upper classes (if you are reading this post, you are upper class. The language I use when I write is a class barrier and I am not able to change that) to be aware of our invisible prejudices, to identify the invisible prejudices in others, and to see the people who are invisible to us.

Class is so specific, and so almost subconscious, that I know I got things wrong here. I’m not Indian, there’s bits of the cultural stuff I just don’t see. But I know class does exist in Indian culture, and is separate from ethnicity and caste and money (although interacting with all of them). Hopefully we can start a discussion here and share information and all of us get a greater awareness.

27 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Classism in Film Criticism

  1. Wonderful writing Margaret!

    I am just going to write this up just to show where I come from the class issue to give some context, a bit personal, but necessary. Sorry if this is going to be long, there is just really no way I can explain it simply without removing some context or other:

    As someone who grew up part of her life as a Third Culture Kid living in countries in Southeast Asia with maids, drivers and such in a sort of community bubble (literally a gated community) or apartment buildings full of rich people who would call themselves Middle-Class unless they were much higher (think Crazy Rich Asians level) I can honestly say it really is a bubble of thought. Mine was popped literally when we moved back to Finland and basically got some hefty bite of reality with it through many years and I am thankful for it. Personally, I would not have been the person I am now, a better, kinder and more open-minded than if our family had stayed on living in those gated communities till today.

    And now, I have the privilege to live with my parents right now at this point in my life, the security of a basic things and I am a white woman, even if in all honesty I feel a bit removed from the usual white Finn (yes, I know I am generalizing, but we Finns are kinda treated and treat ourselves as kinda lower class common people, than for example the rich used-to-be-elite-and-still-kinda-are Swedish people both that live in Finland and who live in Sweden, it’s a complex history and cultural mindset thing, especially if you are Middle-Class) because of growing up in Asia and basically not being able to relate to the culture I am from completely if at all (the times when I’ve been mistaken for Italian, French or German are numerous and add to that the oddity of both my first and last name), but only really feeling kinship towards Asia more than anything.

    Last time I went to Asia I felt so white I hated myself for somehow becoming a different person there as I talked to the locals, because of the way I treated them subconsciously and the way they treated me because they saw me as a white tourist – which I was but was more returning to a somewhat familiar childhood home rather than just being another photo-taking culturally blind tourist. What I mean to say, I am coming at this from a specific, not the usual, yet the privileged and still not quite as privileged mindset of a Third Culture Kid more than anything else which I’ve written above.

    I will add my ideas on the subject that you wrote about in a comment below because this turned into a bigger comment than I expected it to be.

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    • So about what you wrote.

      I agree completely! It seems like most, if not the most popular, Indian films have turned into multiplex audience-pleasing types, without anything there to contradict it without being seen as either idealising of poverty or just ignoring it completely. I think of the self-congratulatory attitude that kinda seeps into the films with people who live in that bubble that is basically:

      “We are the wisest and the best, the rest of the population or any other people we don’t like or who is not within our view is going to be generalised because we don’t see them as people, but more of a collection of every bad thing ever without acknowledging those same problems manifest in our society too, but we ignore it because it won’t look good in the eyes of society. Any contradiction to this worldview and you are made to shut up and agree or stay silent since no conflict is going to be had at this dinner table with our guests/because we are the guests.”

      I’ve sat through many dinner conversations with my parent’s like this that have made me snap back, only to be told to be quiet or be told off in a tone that said under it to be quiet and not to interrupt while someone was generalizing or being unknowingly (or knowingly) insulting.

      In terms of Indian film or just film, in general, the fantasy is easy to create and since the reality is uncomfortable and the lie of perfection is easy to sell it makes for easily digestible viewing. Then those that veer too close to reality are “social issue” movies or “art house” thus limiting the people seeing them, which are the upper classes who have come to congratulate themselves on the back for seeing this movie and for confirming their prejudices and being thankful for their own luck in the world and all “poor poor people” without acknowledging those movies that are quietly revolutionary in the popular films or those seen as not good or not intelligent since they meant for the “masses”. It’s just the attitude I’ve seen when it comes to these movies.

      Personally, as a viewer, I would rather watch something that acknowledges that the maids, the drivers and the people making the chai on the street are seen as fully-fledged human beings rather than props or there to be vilified in some way because of caste, money or class. I just want humanity as a viewer, nothing else.

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      • Yes! The movies now seem to either ignore the working classes, or be so aggressively About them that they are still clearly not made for them. While the movies actually made for the working class, are dismissed as “popular” or “worthless” or “fantasy”. And when they are “about” social issues, it feels like that dinner party you mention. Generalizations abound, no disagreement allowed. That’s what bothered me about Toilet, for instance, when it comes time to grapple with the larger issue the answer revolves around “people do such-and-such”, like you can easily dismiss them with a superficial generalization instead of a real consideration of what is happening. I would far prefer a story to stay individual and specific than to try to grapple with big issues and fail. Gully Boy, for instance, was aimed at the upper classes (I think) because it wasn’t a full fantasy wishfullfillment story. But I also didn’t find it insulting because it was about this particular individual and his life, there was no sweeping judgement of anyone.

        Does that make sense?

        On Sat, May 16, 2020 at 4:24 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Yes, it does. An individual is a better way to do these things than having some “Magical Akshay” coming to save the poor from his comfortable tower or a “Middle-Class Ayushamann” stating what people want to hear.

          Liked by 1 person

          • But of course if a film is “just” a love story, or “just” a gangster movie, it isn’t good. Huh. Now you’ve got me thinking about that more. Just as the individual member of the lower classes has no value, so do the individual stories of the lower classes have no value, versus the Big stories, in the eyes of the upper class critics. You can’t just make a movie about a poor boy who falls in love and wins the girl and fights the bad guys and so on, it has to have Deep Meaning.

            On Sat, May 16, 2020 at 5:30 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Thank you for such a long interesting comment! Fascinating situation for you personally, the outside-insider. Your class within Finnish society never changed, it sounds like, even when you were living overseas you would have returned home to be an “average” Finnish family? But then when the geographic situation changed, the people like you suddenly became the top of society. That’s something I notice sometimes with films from India set among the diaspora, that disconnect. The idea from India that everyone living overseas is fabulously rich because their lifestyle would be fabulously rich in India. And conversely the shock of arriving somewhere else and seeing that what you think of as extremely important and impressive (like, owning your own home) just doesn’t matter in other cultures.

      On Sat, May 16, 2020 at 3:25 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • And the attitude to others is also much different than it was in Asia. In Asia, there was no escaping it, no way to NOT to acknowledge the class divide in some form or another in daily life, while in Finland the Middle-Class attitude is that it doesn’t exist or it is not talked about at least in the circles my family is in.

        Then again, there are people in Finland who see Romani beggars as just thieves working for Estonian mafia bosses with no sympathy in their tone, while being worried for all the poor grandmothers begging in the city streets of Russia. That kind of hypocrisy just makes me mad, because it is like the acknowledgement of humanity is only for certain people, but somehow not for all even if they are in the same situation???

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        • Does it feel like sometimes Hindi films are trying to create a world where you can escape the class divide? They take place only in places where the lower classes would be invisible, inside homes or luxury restaurants and so on. If you watch 1970s movies, just the street scenes have such a variety of people hanging around, even through to the 90s, but now they are just gone, and you can pretend everyone in India is that “Everyone” that I describe.

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          • It does feel like. It really makes the question come to your head like: Are we not going to acknowledge the majority of the population here who might not have the luxuries you have??? It feels like whitewashing the “unwanted” while pretending it isn’t doing so, which seems unethical to say the least.

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  2. I don’t agree that Ananya Pande had to go to acting school because she is “ second generation film, which translates to new money and low class.”
    I believe she/her handlers chose to send her there in order to avoid the high class privilege/nepotism debate..

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    • I didn’t say acting school? I talked about the controversy over whether or not she was really accepted to an overseas college.

      And the reason the privilege/nepotism debate came up is because she is new money and low class. Vicky Kaushal, for example, is also second generation film, but his presentation is more acceptably “middle-class” so it does not come up.

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      • I think the nepotism debate comes up a lot for Ananya though because of her association with Dharma and Suhana and Gauri, not necessarily her father. Actually I didn’t know Vicky Kaushal came from a filmy background. But his dad was a stuntman and action director, he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. If Vicky Kaushal was launched in a Dharma film and really good friends with Aryan Khan and other nepokids, he would probably get hate too. Chunky Pandey is more well known, not a superstar, but I think everyone in India has heard of him. But Ananya would probably have the career of Nutan’s granddaughter Pranutan Bahl if she wasn’t friends with Suhana and her mom friends with Gauri Khan. It seems like they’ve been friends for a really long time and it looks like a genuine friendship but that probably did prompt Karan to take a look at her for his film, that combined with perhaps the fact that she might be considered more glamorous than Pranutan Bahl. And the fact that she was launched opposite an outsider, Tara Sutaria, leading to natural comparisons and a want to support Tara and put down Ananya, simply because people are sick of nepo-kids.

        But it is like you said “new money and low class.” People can accept Sara and Janhvi more because their family has a name. Ananya’s doesn’t and she and her team actually created a mess with all the college talk. But I think the college talk didn’t matter to most film-watchers, only people who really pay attention to gossip noticed it. It was that she claimed to be a “struggler” or something of that sort that is getting her so much hate now.

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  3. Interesting.
    Aside from DDD and other films like that, aren’t there an increasing number of films showing characters and problems that the lower or lower-middle class Indian population can relate to? Like Badrinath Ki Dulhania- he is lower class, but his family has more money and power. She’s educated but they don’t have as much money. His character is pretty common amongst a lot of North Indian households. Same for Sui Dhaaga, Udta Punjab, Gully Boy. I feel in the early 2000s and maybe the entire first decade of the 2000s, films completely skated over the working class. NRI characters were preferred and rich/ educated lifestyles. But now in the last 5 years atleast I can think of more of films that show either low class or a low socioeconomic status.

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    • In my opinion, regional films such as Marathi/Malayalam do a much better job of representing lower classes in The films, as compared to Hindi films..

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      • I agree. And I wonder if that is related to the way they are released and critiqued without as much attention by the higher classes. So long as the audience is still primarily lower class, the films will do a better job appealing to them.

        I would add some Telugu and Tamil films to this, although less in recent years. For example, the action hero who was raised on the streets and punches instead of asking questions. that is a classic lower class hero and he used to be a staple of Hindi films, but now has disappeared.

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      • For a while I was obsessed with the Telugu film Parugu partly because of the servant / protagonist relationship. It seemed to show something that was hidden in most of the Hindi films I had seen. I don’t know enough about India, class, or servants to analyze it, though I did spend about two weeks trying before I gave up.

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        • Yes! Mostly servants exist, but are invisible, at least it feels like that in the new movies. And I guess in the NRI movies it’s actually accurate, because we don’t have servants like that in the west. But then there are other movies where servants are part-of-the-family-but-not. Like, they are your friends, but when it gets down to it your needs are greater than theirs. Unless their need is very very great for some reason. It’s your story, they are just following along behind. I still prefer that to making them invisible, because at least you have to confront class if the servant is there onscreen. Dear Zindagi, the Rajshri movies, most Mukherjee movies, the servant is an important character who has intimate conversations with the lead and gives their opinion on their life and so on and so forth.

          On Mon, May 18, 2020 at 3:51 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I don’t know about that. If we think of “working class” as literally doing manual labor for a living, the only characters who qualify are Ranveer in Gully Boy and his family working as servants, and Alia in Udta Punjab working in the fields. Varun in Sui Dhaaga, for instance, was a salesman.

      This is actually part of what I see as the problem. If these characters are considered showing low socioeconomic status or low class, than the reality of the actual working classes, is erased entirely. Previously the “NRI fantasy films” were understood to be just that, fantasy. With the reality of the world existing outside of them. I would rather a fantasy that is openly clearly a fantasy, than a fantasy that presents itself as reality.

      And there’s also the open question of if these films are intended for the people similar to the characters they show. If I am truly a struggling unhappy former tradesman, do I want to see Sui Dhaaga that accurately reflects what is happening in my life, or do I want to go watch Sultan and escape into a fantasy? there’s a difference between a hero who I can identify with who goes on to ridiculous fantastical satisfying success, and a hero who goes on to success so similar to what I am struggling with in life that I end up just remembering my own problems instead of escaping into the film.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m going to latch on to one small part of what you wrote because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – the idea that we don’t get many working class stories, and when we do they tend to be overcoming adversity stories. This kind of narrative is one I’ve been confronting at work, it’s very comfortable for the middle class audience to see characters from harder economic circumstances in stories where they are trying to move up and away, usually through some exceptional characteristic – intelligence or talent or courage. (There’s the same dynamic with race in the US but sticking to class for now.) This kind of story says what everybody really wants is to be more like me, and once they attain that they are happy. But if you look at who is telling these stories, it’s often the privileged telling the story about the less privileged. When working class people tell stories about themselves, the stories are often different, or if they do follow the overcoming challenge narrative, the happy ending is more complicated, with value placed on what was left behind.

    I just finished watching the two seasons of My Brilliant Friend with my husband, who comes from a more working class background than I do. We both loved it but he really responded to all the details and nuances of the characters and the relationships and the setting. Part of that is that it’s really well done, part is that the setting has echoes of how he grew up. But it also reminded me of this piece a former coworker wrote about how rare it is, if you come from a working class family, to see yourself onscreen or in books in a way that feels true.

    http://www.vidaweb.org/14629-2/

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    • Yes! This is what I was getting at with K3G, kind of. The rich people in K3G weren’t about reassuring the middle-class that the lower classes will turn into “them”. they are a dream of crazy wealth and fun and stuff. Very different from Hichki or Super 30 where the dream for the poor people was to become respectable middle-class engineers.

      It’s a hard balance because I also don’t necessarily want a movie that ends “We don’t need money, everything is fine”. But there is a way to give your characters a happy ending without losing their class identity. Gully Boy did it perfectly, for me, having it end with our hero returning to his neighborhood and his people.

      On Mon, May 18, 2020 at 11:40 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I just finished Bharat last night, that’s as good an example as any I can think of recently. That’s not a story of triumphing over poverty. It’s a story of honor and endurance. The point of Salman’s character arc is not that he worked very hard and in the end achieved middle class respectability. In fact, he gives up his chance at the railroad job that could be his gateway into the middle class in order to keep his honor – in the form of his promise to his father – and to hold his family together. Those values are more important than achieving the markers of middle class (including marriage). His character journey is to learn to let go of the hope that his father will come back and to live in the present instead of the past. It’s a different kind of narrative than the one you would tell about that character if you were framing the story as “poor person overcoming adversity”. Economically, Salman hasn’t really shifted classes by the end of the movie. He’s married his sister off well, and he’s made enough that he and his mother and younger siblings aren’t scrambling to eat. But his professional stagnation and sacrifice aren’t painted as failures, and the strength of his character isn’t in what he has attained but in what he has experienced and endured. It’s a different value set than the middle class striver value set.

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        • Oh wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but you are absolutely right. Yet another reason to love Bharat! I already loved it for the way it side-stepped the “typical” heroine and love story, and here is another thing I hadn’t even noticed it doing.

          It also has interesting cross-class relationships with Katrina’s character being a higher class than Salman’s, and each of them having moments of considering moving classes for the sake of the relationship, and then seeing that it isn’t necessary. Salman at first tried for the railroad job and then gave it up and did what made sense for his family and the needs of the moment. Katrina temporarily stopped her professional career to help at the shop for the sake of the family, but then picked up the strings of her career again and rose even higher. The relationship survived and thrived perfectly well straddling the two classes. Very different from the typical “rich girl marries poor boy and becomes happy with his simple life” or “poor boy marries rich girl and in-laws make him rich too” ending.

          Salman tends to have a lot of fans from the lower classes, and I bet you have put your finger on why. Bharat makes it clear with the way time passes and yet he remains firmly the same. But even in an action film like Dabangg, he is an “educated” upper level police officer, and yet enjoys hanging out with his constables and living a simple life with few servants in a small house. Even married a lower caste/class woman.

          On Tue, May 19, 2020 at 12:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Is English a part of this class difference? Karan only speaks to his kids in English, and makes fun of Crazy Actress because she doesn’t speak it well, except didn’t she grow up in a palace or something? In certain movies, HNY, and Daawat-e-Ishq, speaking English well made men more attractive.

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    • Yes, absolutely. Except with a lot of subtlety to it. In urban areas, the globalized upper classes speak English routinely. So people like Karan who were raised in Bombay among kind of global people speak it casually and well. The “middle-class”, the cultural elites, have the ability to speak English but may choose not to because they value the artistic/cultural import of Hindi and other native languages. So Amitabh Bachchan is more than fluent in English (his father had a PhD in English lit from Cambridge), but tends to speak or write in pure high Hindi as much as English. And then the more struggling average middle-class person wants to learn English, and wants their child to learn English, as an economic advantage and a more minor class barrier.

      Irritating because everyone calls themselves “middle-class”, but they aren’t. So I’ll invent new names for them. The long term city dwellers tend to speak English casually, kind of “Hinglish” style, because it’s the language of the streets and business and parties, they don’t even think about it. The true cultural elites are often fluent in English to a level of “oh yes, do you want me to analyze this Shakespeare sonnet? I can do that” but would be fluent in high classic Hindi (or other Indian language) to a similar degree and can seamlessly speak in both. And then the rising average middle class person struggled their way through English classes in school in order to have English they can use for basic job purposes, but wouldn’t necessarily choose to speak it casually at home. The “crazy woman”, Kangana, was raised in a very rich family in a rural area where there just weren’t that many people you could speak English with. Her English is not the same (accent, fluency, slang) as the urban city English speakers like Karan and Shahrukh, for example. It’s class crossed with urban/rural divide.

      I guess you could almost make the same distinctions with Spanish in America. Amitabh’s fluency and ability with English is along the lines of someone who can read and discuss Don Quixote in the original. Because that’s how he learned it, not on the streets and not in a classroom, but by being around people who were true scholars of the language. Shahrukh and Karan’s ability is more along the lines of someone who grew up in a Spanish speaking city neighborhood, they learned it as kids on the street, picked up words here and there organically, and then had it fleshed out through classroom studies and increased usage. And then Kangana would be along the lines of someone who grew up with no native Spanish speakers around her and painfully tried to gain the language through classroom studies only, and now resents the people who just had it in the air around them.

      And of course there’s also just the inborn talents for language that are part of this. That’s something we tend to see in the film industry, an ear for the rhythm of languages makes you a better actor. I guess same as England in that case, the whole thing about accents being part of a character so a good actor can seamlessly cross classes in England by shifting their accent. In India, being able to speak English like a casual international person, versus like someone who struggled to learn it in school, versus like someone who doesn’t understand it at all, is part of your acting toolcase. Shahrukh and Amitabh in particular have a lot of fun playing with their English abilities as needed for the character. Think of “Surinder Sahni Lighting Up Your Life” versus Shahrukh’s English dialogue in JHMS.

      On Tue, May 19, 2020 at 9:16 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Comparing it with Spanish is interesting, as Spanish as a language is looked down upon often, in the U.S., while English is elevated, throughout the world. I’m not saying English deserves to be elevated, but it is. I understand you point, but it just highlights to me the bizarre worth of languages.

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        • YES! The on the ground reality of the various ways people might learn the language seems the same (street usage, high level poetic usage, beat it into you classroom usage), but the value of the language being learned is so different.

          I do wonder about it with Spanish sometimes because I have absolutely no facility for language, and I have never studied Spanish so I don’t even have basic classroom usage. It’s already an occasional problem for my life in America, and it’s just going to get worse. At some point will I be “lower class” or at least have to accept a lower income because I can’t speak Spanish? Will I be like some of the older folks in India today who never thought English would be that important?

          On Tue, May 19, 2020 at 3:00 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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