Bollywood’s unceasing fall from grace

While ‘Jai Bhim’ takes on the institutional problems head-on, ‘Sooryavanshi’ unspools like a filmi toolkit of the government. Besides, it miserably fails to do what it had set out to—entertain

Bollywood’s unceasing fall from grace

Namrata Joshi

There’s a dialogue in the Tamil film Jai Bhim that dropped on November 2 on Amazon Prime Video: “The respect a person’s talent gets depends on what they use it for.” It is featured in the film in the context of Advocate Chandru, played by Suriya, talking about how he manages to sleep peacefully on getting to know that justice has been delivered in a case he has been working on.

I was placing it in a different scenario—on how some of the leading Indian filmmaking industries, the big-ticket films and superstars have fared over the last few months of Covid. To what end have they harnessed their talent and how successfully at that.

So, for Diwali, if Kollywood and Suriya looked at caste discrimination, exploitation of tribals and custodial violence by cops, Bollywood, with Sooryavanshi, celebrated the police force as a noble, cute, cuddly and friendly community that also doubles up as conscience keeper of the nation.

Look closely and not much separates the two films. Both are set in the cop universe, both are overdramatised, high-pitched, portray their dramatis personae with broad brushstrokes, are eager to edify the masses and both have righteous men for male protagonists carrying the moral weight of the world on their strong shoulders.

The difference lies in what they are being virtuous about. T.J. Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim is rightly combative in its politics. Based on a true incident that happened in 1993, it is about the case fought by Justice K. Chandru (then advocate) on behalf of Senggeni from the Irula tribe whose husband Rajkannu went missing after being arrested by the police on charges of theft.

Tamil cinema has seen many such searing, powerful narratives, about the systemic oppression of the marginalised at the hands of the brutally empowered, including Vetri Maaran’s brilliant socio-political thriller Visaranai that represented India at the Oscars. But the point of Jai Bhim is precisely its massiness. It’s the ability to reach out and speak to a wider set of audiences directly, mobilise awareness and make them question and talk about all that needs to be debated out in the open.

It does so without any sugar-coating at that. It is able to deploy the charisma of its star with the sense of urgency that the subject deserves. Moreover, he doesn’t hog the show. The film is not about him so much as what he is fighting for and Senggeni does retain her own agency while having him as an ally.

On the other hand, the Rohit Shetty “entertainer” is just centred on one man and his faux bravado complete with several slo-mo walks towards the camera with macho swagger in full display. Not to talk of the lame sense of humour involving his forgetfulness which makes him call a woman named Saraswati, Garbhwati. Jokes can turn so asinine, socha na tha!

More than that, unlike a Jai Bhim that takes on the institutional problems head-on, Sooryavanshi unspools like a filmi toolkit of the State, one that falls in line with the larger narrative currently playing on in the country. So, you have the earlier generation being blamed for the Partition, Muslims being equated with Pakistan and terrorism. There’s the familiar play on the good Muslim-bad Muslim (Kasab-Kalaam) binary and lessons are doled out on Hindu-Muslim unity with zero humility but a smug Hindu upper hand.

A signifier of what the country has become over the years, as much as the industry has been, and continues to be, an enabler in helping create the narrative with its populist, sarkar-sanctioned cinema. But even though you may plug Naya Bharat by appropriating an old Nehruvian song like “Chhodo kal ki baatein...” it doesn’t sound any more than empty rhetoric. What’s more, the boring film doesn’t even manage to do what it had set out to—entertain.

More than a week after the two films hit the screens, people are still talking about Jai Bhim—reams are being written in its favour and also critiquing it. Something a good film always does—generate a debate. Meanwhile, Sooryavanshi and Bollywood are gloating over the crores it has amassed in one weekend. The puffed-up Bollywood is happy that the audience has not abandoned the theatres and money is pouring in, despite the unprecedented economic downturn in the country and the health hazard of Covid.

The latest gung-ho thrust has been the unspooling of the teaser along with the big announcement of the release date (coinciding with Republic Day) of Akshay Kumar’s next; this time from YRF, Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Prithviraj. The showreel of the auspicious havan being done by the team is all over my Twitter feed, so too are the tweets from Akshay Kumar fans aka Akkians lambasting the Khans for eulogising the Mughals while their own Hindu hero will finally get a veer Hindu raja his due on the big screen. But even as its time for chants of “Har Har Mahadev” are growing louder, I wonder between Bollywood and Kollywood who really copped out and lost this Diwali?

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