The first thing you need to know about this post is that I wrote it back in May. As soon as India started being hit with COVID, I started thinking about class, and how that is going to affect everything, including the reporting on the crisis and the attitude towards who it is affecting. Now Amitabh is sick, and the India (reported) numbers are rising, and suddenly other people are also thinking about class and who matters and who doesn’t. Now, this is a Happy Place, so we aren’t going to get super deep into things here, but it’s a good time to think about how invisible classism effects the way we see the world, and what it takes to wake us up.
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.
The reason I am reposting this in Amitabh week is to point out that when you read an article complaining that Amitabh is getting too much attention and too much medical care, that article itself is contributing to the problem. Classism is a demon in all societies, and it is a hidden demon in Indian society, you don’t attack it by cutting off the result (Amitabh getting good medical care), you attack it by cutting off the heads (media that makes working class lives invisible, uninterrogated truisms that erase 90% of society, willfull blindness to the realities of the situation because it makes you feel guilty and uncomfortable). Limiting it down to Amitabh for a moment, yes he is getting very good medical care right now. He also became famous by acting as the voice for the voiceless in media that still gives them hope. He dedicated a decade of his life to eradicating Polio in India. And he has donated tens upon thousands of crores to everything from flood relief to Corona relief. Perhaps instead of focusing on one of the rich men in India who is most charitable and most connected to the lower classes, we should get angry at some of those hidden rich industrialists and politicians who created this system and are doing nothing to fight it? Or, keeping it focused on this blog, on the film industry that has stopped making Deewar and instead starting making Badhai Ho because Deewar makes people uncomfortable?
“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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.