The idea for the present column first came to me after I watched (again) the 1975 Bollywood cult movie, Zanjeer. As most would know, Zanjeer is the story of the angry-young-man-Amitabh Bachchan who is witness to the traumatic twin murders of his parents which orphans him as a child and how he takes revenge for that in his youth. Zanjeer established the hegemonic genre of “angry young man” films and put Amitabh Bachchan firmly on the road to superstardom. So domninating was this genre that it rapidly led to the eclipse of the romantic hero and forced everyone with “heroic” aspirations in Bollywood to enact “dhishoom – dhishoom” roles. In the post-Zanjeer era of Bollywood, only the angry-young-man character could deliver blockbuster hits. Exceptions like Love Story or Ram Teri Ganga Maili were precisely that – exceptions. Almost all other genres and characters were confined to niche audiences or forced to become supporting characters to the angry young man. Other hero-aspirants quickly learnt the new rules of the game and moulded themselves into similar screen personas.
The typical Bollywood plot of the 1970s and 80s consisted of the villain killing the future hero(e)’s parents / family or kidnapping the young boys before the first reel of the 18 reeler was out; only to face justice and meet their maker in the last reel. The plot would generally have the orphan growing up with a loving semi-family, finding a sweetheart after some aggressive skirt-chasing and energetic song and dance routines, discovering his true identity and/or the true identity of his family killer and then proceeding to take revenge.
Small divergences were often put in to make a particular film “different”! The love interest of this angry young man could be rich or poor, his siblings could be his partners or oppose him or even be his rivals, the context could be rural or urban, but one of the near invariants of the angry young man screen persona was that he was effectively an orphan. So the question which came to my mind was, “Why were so many of Bollywood heroes orphans”? What was it that made orphan-hood such a powerful idea in Bollywood stories? Another way of asking this same question would be, “Why did millions of film watchers identify so closely with the orphan to convert his stories into blockbusters”?
Interestingly, most film reviewers and writers have identified the angry young man with the anger of the young and restless generation which was born after independence and was unhappy with the system, with the continuing poverty and with a failing, corrupt State. The secret of the angry young man’s popularity has been analysed in the semi-proletarian urges of the youth. While this is surely important, I have a feeling that the deep resonance of the angry young man with his audience was founded on his being an orphan – the hero who had no real ties with family or caste. In fact, this hero persona – orphan with no real ties to family or caste, goes back much before the emergence of the angry young man. Most of Raj Kapoor’s abiding heroes were similar orphans – his global all time hit being Aawara (vagabond). Other popular heroes too were similar orphans. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the orphan-hero is the most abiding screen persona of the Bollywood hero.
It is difficult to provide any easy answer to why this is so. I feel that we need to understand the role of popular cinema in India to understand the deep resonance of the orphan-hero. Celluloid stories are infamously stereotypical and celluloid characters are gross caricatures of real humans. But it can well be argued, as has been by scholars like Sudhir Kakkar, that stereotypes and caricatures build a world which enables the audience to project their selfs onto the screen. For the three hours inside the film hall the viewer is living a dream, transferring themselves onto the personas on the screen. The story and characters are not supposed to be “real” but rather fantasised versions of how we perceive reality.
If this is even partly true, it implies that the persona of the orphan – or the hero without family or caste ties – enables mass identification by millions of people who are aspiring to be unshackled by the ties of family and caste which bind them so fiercely in real life. Breaking with the real ties of family and caste impose an unacceptably high cost as is experienced by Devdas or by Raj of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. The family and caste does not allow either the hero or his fan in the film-hall to live a life of his choice. The celluloid orphan-hero undergoes the pain of watching his family being killed, an act which is voyeuristically consumed by his fans in the film hall who then proceed to inhabit his persona to the extent of mouthing dialogues, getting haircuts and stitching clothes which identify them with the orphan-hero. This orphan-hero is free from all primordial identities and free to make his own life as he chooses.
The deep resonance of the orphan-hero was a cry of millions of Indians who wanted to break out of the suffocating ties of family and caste which they found themselves bound by but had no idea of how to escape. The three hour film provided that escape and they returned repeatedly to relive the liberatory experience that these films were. As a leftist looking back at this slice of our cultural history, I cannot but feel that we failed to identify this cry and longing of the multitudes and failed to initiate any programmes for social reform and cultural transformations which could have given meaning to this and led to real change in peoples’ lives. We merely condemned the film-viewers to crass culture; for their addiction to crass culture.
Today the issue of caste is increasingly being addressed by the left. It is still unsatisfactory and ad-hoc, but a clear beginning has been made. Unfortunately, the family remains still uncritiqued and untouched. There is not even the beginning of the realisation that the uncritiqued family of South Asia is the real foundation of reactionary politics, regressive ideas and oppressive practices so prevalent. Whether it is honour killings, sexual choice, property inheritance, dowry, female-foeticide, nepotism or corruption, the family and kin are at the centre of each of them. It is pertinent to remember that one of the most important intellectual and political movements which eventually led to the anti-colonial struggles which gave us independence started by a radical critique of the extant family by people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Henry Derozio, Pandita Ramabai, etc. It appears that this tradition of critiquing and transforming the family ended after Ambedkar’s valiant efforts to push in the Hindu Personal Law in the immediate aftermath of independence.
Today the movement to change and destroy the Indian family is an orphan. The Zanjeer (chain) tied to Devdas’ feet remained shackled. Even Bollywood has moved on and now celebrates this same family. But that is another story, or column!
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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post on Wednesday, 10 September, 2008.