In pre-EMI days, even owning an Ambassador car was a luxury. Then, the conversation of the elite was about excoriating social conscience. Anything which celebrated excess was aesthetically evil. Indian cinema, which both reflects and influences public opinion, had based its narrative on the socialist ethos of glorifying poverty and portrayed the rich girl marrying the village boy as a triumph of virtuous Indian culture. Arthouse cinema was the intellectual symbol of secularism. Filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen became the ambassadors of conscience, whose world was dark and oppressed by social evils and existential angst; exploited tribals, feminism and feudalism formed their cinematic mosaic. India was too serious those days. Camera cavaliers like Muzaffar Ali and Mahesh Bhatt were the millionaire messiahs exposing the septic underbelly of India—loss and the loser were their main leitmotifs. Entertainment was considered a diversion for the retarded masses and poverty was snobbish in art.
Bahubali—the Beginning, the most expensive Indian film ever made, concluded its first week with a record-breaking collection at the worldwide box office making Rs 255 crore. This is an unprecedented feat in Indian cinema. Even the paid premieres shown in the US set a new record by collecting over $1 million. B-Town is stunned. A south Indian film, produced and directed by south Indians with a cast of south Indian stars, has Bollywood squirming in disbelief. After all, Chennai Express, which spoofed the archetypal south Indian, did put a few more crores in SRK’s designer pocket.
Bahubali is an unabashed canvas of India’s cultural past, where mythology uses special effects to create a blockbuster in which there is no socialist or religious angst, but only the vengeance of Bharat. It doesn’t try to show the secular credentials of Jodhaa Akbar, the doomed beauty of Umrao Jaan or the ambiguous politics of Haider. Unlike PK, the inimitable Aamir Khan’s bemusing film about an alien landing in India and questioning gods and goddesses, which drew much flak from Baba Ramdev and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bahubali is a Hindu tale, drawn from Bharat’s past in brilliant technicolour, where good defeats evil in a spectacular fashion, sans the pathos of Benegal’s Ankur or Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram. The sheer chutzpah of its director and actors infects the audience with a superhuman energy. It’s a bird… it’s a plane… wait, it’s Bahubali, the Hindu Superman!
When art becomes propaganda, the message is that the messenger is the medium. Propaganda films are driven by a national idea, which idealises and idolises the ordinary citizen, who surmounts great difficulties and triumphs in the end to become the epitome of patriotic virtue. Indian art cinema was a form of socialist propaganda that showed only a world of extremes: the powerful rapist zamindar and the helpless village woman. Unlike their flip Bollywood cousins, there is no Singham to take revenge. Their insidious message was: it was shameful to be an Indian unless he or she joined a film club at Alliance Française.
But India is rediscovering a glitzy past, rejecting the post-colonial flea-bitten poverty chic era Midnight’s Children grew up in. At a time when Gajendra Chauhan is being pilloried by intellectually contemptuous students, with support coming even from Salman Khan, liberals consider any expression of nationalism in art as a sign of cultural fascism. But Bahubali—which the social media is joyfully acclaiming as a Hindu film that brings the nation’s heritage into masala technicolour—is a sign that nationalist cinema can go beyond Manoj Kumar and Mother India. It marks the passing of a late unlamented age. The times they are a-changin’.
This is not to say that social introspection is irrelevant, or that poverty, deprivation and gender crimes need not be redressed. The point of Bahubali is simply that nationalism, too, can become a box office hit and be it Bhima or Bahubali, Make in India has given Made in Bharat a whole new meaning.