Where Are Our Heroes?
I doubt too many of you have noticed but there are less book reviews on this website. I’ve been informed that the only book reviews that see any interest from visitors are the (mostly awful) Indian popular fiction titles. At first, I thought my writing was the issue but the quality of my prose wasn’t a problem when I did the occasional film review. Those got hits. Which was when I was forced to confront that awful truth: the only thing that Indians care about is Bollywood.
Those in the print media have known this for years. Advertisers are more forthcoming when a magazine has a film star on the cover or if a newspaper supplement stuffs its pages with photos of pouting actors. Advertisers want Bollywood; the print media needs advertising. It’s a done deal. But the Internet was supposed to be different. Online readership was supposed to be made up of people like you and me, and not just number crunchers from advertising. However, if the statistics are to be believed, it seems Bollywood rules this medium too. In that event, here we go: Aamir Khan, Abhay Deol, Anurag Kashyap, Imran Khan, Imtiaz Ali, Jaideep Sahni, Madhavan. If this column doesn’t make it to the “most viewed” list in a few minutes, the bots are just lazy on Monday and my writing really is hopeless.
I’ll have you know that the above list of Bollywood names isn’t a random selection. Of those men, Madhavan, Jaideep Sahni and Imtiaz Ali were panelists at Mountain Echoes, an Indo-Bhutan literary festival that was held in Thimphu earlier this year. The others were speakers at the THINKFest that took place in Goa this past weekend. Only the truly naïve will question what actor Madhavan was doing at a literature festival. (Apparently, he asked for extra security. The man’s a famous actor from south India; who knows how many crazed fans could be hiding in the literary festival crowd in Bhutan?) Or how Kiran Rao, Imran Khan, Abhay Deol and the other Bollywood names belong on a list of speakers that includes architect Frank Gehry, social theorist Ashis Nandy and author V. S. Naipaul. They don’t. They’re not on that list because their work shows equal promise or similar skill. They’re there because we believe that the only way to sell culture in India is by packaging it in Bollywood. Because we believe these celebrities affect the way Indians think.
But regardless of its sales potential, I’d argue the impact of Bollywood is diminishing and hold up the horrifying deaths of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes as proof of this. What happened in Amboli on October 20 was like something out of a depressingly grim and heartbreaking art film. It may have begun as a Bollywood flick—two boys boys stand up to eve teasers who were making rude comments about their friends—but when the eve teasers returned with knives and sticks and started beating the boys, there was no final burst of superhuman strength, no slow-mo about-turn from the heroes. They died. If Bollywood really did have an impact on people, someone would have helped them. Someone would have joined the fight. Someone would have at least tried to prevent two boys from dying outside a restaurant. Someone would have wanted to be a hero.
But no one did. No one remembered the scores of blockbuster movies in which heroes like Aamir Khan have defended the weak. The people walking past that restaurant in Amboli must have seen at least a dozen films in which the random kindness of strangers has saved lives. Nothing they’ve watched over the years flicked a switch in their heads or hearts. People just watched or walked away, afraid for themselves and uncaring of the terror the boys were suffering. That’s how little effect our popular cinema has. Or maybe everyone was just waiting for someone to yell “Cut!”
Here’s why all of you who avoid the non-Bollywood subjects should try reading the posts in the Culture section of this website and other publications. In good newspapers, magazines and websites, critical writing broadens a reader’s horizons. It makes us think about the world we live in. Pay some attention to them and the books, exhibitions and music that don’t get hits and letters and thumbs-up from advertisers may just succeed in doing something that Bollywood failed to: wake us up to realise what a monstrous, blinkered society we’re turning into.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.