More than 20 years ago, I travelled across India for a book on the fresh energies unleashed in small towns by economic liberalisation and Hindu nationalism. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had promoted a national ethic of austerity and self-restraint. But by the 1990s, his project of collective welfare was in ruins and was rapidly being replaced by a culture of private wealth and consumption.
I had no more thought-provoking guide on my journey than the two highest-grossing Hindi films of the season. In Darr (Fear) and Baazigar (Gambler), Shah Rukh Khan, today India’s biggest film star, famously played a deranged stalker and a murderous avenger, breaking all previous moulds of leading men.
To be sure, the earnestly idealistic India projected by male heroes of the 1950s had been long dead, killed by Nehru’s own ruthlessly immoral daughter, Indira Gandhi. My generation had grown up in the 1970s and 1980s watching Amitabh Bachchan, the “angry young man”, carry the burden of our rage against pseudo-socialist and hideously venal politicians and bureaucrats: In one memorable cinematic climax, he machine-guns an entire cabinet of ministers.
But Bachchan seemed high-minded in comparison with the misogynist anti-heroes Khan played in 1993. As small-town audiences cheered his persecution of innocents (a phenomenon much remarked upon at the time), Khan seemed to be assaulting the Nehruvian elite’s claims to virtue just as, the year before, Hindu nationalists had torn down the medieval Babri mosque – a symbol of that elite’s fatally compromised secularism.
Today, as India’s Hindu nationalist government grudgingly observes Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, commentators seem shocked by the intense scorn among many Hindus for a once-worshippedworshiped leader and his legacy. But then, deep and radical alterations in Indian self-images since the early 1990s have made India a difficult place to read.
Bollywood offers one of the clearest windows on to this evolution. As Rachel Dwyer shows in her superb book Bollywood’s India, popular cinema has tracked more closely than any artistic or journalistic medium the public and private lives of the new India, perhaps because it almost completely ignores such everyday Indian realities as violence against Dalits, once known as “untouchables”. Dwyer describes a broad range of self-perceptions – from class, gender and caste to geopolitics – both recorded and created by Bollywood’s factory of illusions since the early 1990s.
A crucial shift had already occurred in the late 1980s with the nationwide telecast of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. While reconnecting many Indians at home and abroad with their cultural heritage, these much-revered serials also created the basis for a global Hindu identity built around supposedly “Indian values” of “family, food, religion and nationalism”. Dwyer closely analyses the ensuing cultural shifts, such as the widespread adoption in the 1990s of the Karva Chauth fast, which dutiful Hindu wives had previously kept for their husbands in only some parts of India.
“The more incorrectly they present the surface of things,” the great German-Jewish critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote about unreal film fantasies, “the more correct they become.” The 2001 super-hit Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness) shows a religious Indian family living in Blenheim Palace, one of England’s grandest buildings. Travelling in private jets and helicopters while disdaining morally lax white people, these ostentatiously devout Hindus embody a fantasy of global material and moral supremacy that has increasingly seemed realisable to many Indians. The tagline of Pardes (Foreign Land) sums it up: “American Dream: Indian Soul.”
Indeed, Bollywood in many ways prefigured the insistent cultural nationalism of India’s new rulers and intelligentsia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent claim that plastic surgery and reproductive genetics was practised in ancient India might not seem outlandish to those who adored the hit film Bhul Bulaiyaa (The Maze), in which the Indians of the first century BC are revealed as early masters of modern science.
The many successful films in which Indian values heal the pain and confusion of wealthy but uprooted Hindus obviously set the stage for Modi’s Bollywood-style reception in recent weeks by Indian immigrants in the United States and Australia. Those still puzzling over Modi’s claim last week that India is poised to be a “world guru” should go out and watch the blockbuster, Kal Ho Naa Ho (Whether Tomorrow Comes or Not). It stars a mellowed Khan, now introducing Indian values to unhappy white American families.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.