Wealth Issue 2016: Essay

Hindi cinema: The Aesthetics of Excess

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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It’s glorious to be rich in Hindi cinema

ONE OF THE many features of the genre that draws attention to the absence of realism in Hindi cinema is the often lavish lifestyles of its protagonists. Some Indians do indeed live like this—though in a chicken-and-egg situation, I’m not sure which came first, the films or the lifestyles—but film characters endowed with inexplicable wealth is not unusual. I once asked Yash Chopra (1932-2012) why he showed such lifestyles in many of his films, and he said it was to foreground emotions without the distraction of economic or other day-to-day problems. He called this style ‘glamorous realism’. Although this has since come to be seen as normal, wealth has been portrayed in many ways in Hindi cinema.

One the first day of the Diwali festival, Dhanteras, or Dhanatrayodashi, there is Lakshmi puja where wealth is worshipped. On this day, precious metals are bought, the first lamps are lit and footprints of Lakshmi are drawn outside houses. The other deity who presides over wealth, Kuber, is also worshipped.

Kuber, a Vedic deity, is the God of the North who lives on Mount Kailash. He is often seen as the God of Money. Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, ‘The Cloud Messenger’, is the story of a message sent by an exiled yaksha (a demigod), a servant of Kuber. Some commentaries specify that he was punished because he was so preoccupied with his lover that he neglected his charge of Kuber’s garden and groves, and so Indra’s elephant, Airavata, trampled the golden lotuses of Lake Manasa. He is perhaps best known today for lending money to Venkateshwara for his wedding, and devotees in Tirupati continue to pay back this debt.

Lakshmi, the Goddess and consort of Vishnu, appears in the Puranas, and takes many forms, but comes to the house as wealth itself. I don’t recall many appearances of Lakshmi in Hindi films, but in Mother India (1957), the image of Lakshmi in the house of Sukhilal, the evil money-lender, helps to protect Radha when she is offered support for her children in exchange for her virtue.

In the Shashtras, artha, wealth, or material welfare, is one of the trivarga, aims of life, along with dharma (moral well-being) and kama (sexual well-being). Wealth continues to play a role here, dividing the householder and the ascetic, as for the former the accumulation of wealth is a goal while the latter must divest himself of it. Kings showed the wealth of their kingdoms through the display of their person, their palaces and their armies, and the king’s elephants manifested his great status.

No rich family could fail to live in a house which did not have a massive divided staircase which led to a galleried balcony

Wealth is also part of worship, not just in donations but also in the arts which add aesthetic beauty for the deity’s pleasure such as the pichwais of Nathdwara, as well as for building the temple or haveli itself, and for its decoration, while treasuries, such as the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, are said to have thousands of crores of wealth.

Indian cinema has created its own depiction of wealth. From the early days to post-Independence, it was often shown as feudal wealth or colonial lifestyles in imagined mansions. In Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), set in the colonial period, Suresh’s in-laws wear smoking jackets and speak English and dwell in a mansion with a key feature of filmi architecture: the grand staircase. No rich family could fail to live in a house which did not have a massive divided staircase which led to a galleried balcony. This could provide a marker between the private and public space of the house as well as an opportunity for a character to make a grand Hollywood-style entrance as well as perhaps a location for a fatal accident when required by the plot.

As post-independent India developed its socialist ideology, wealth was often seen as something bad. The eponymous mansion of Mahal (1949) brings doom and gloom with its feudal haunting; the rebirth story of Madhumati (1958) brings together feudal, modern and tribal people. Thakurs and feudal landlords continued to appear until the 1990s, with films such as Karan Arjun (1995), although the Islamicate world of nawabs largely faded into history.

In Mother India, the image of Lakshmi helps to protect Radha when she is offered support for her children in exchange for her virtue

Satyajit Ray’s films were as often about feudal wealth, aesthetics and attitudes—Jalsaghar (1958), Devi (1960)—coming into conflict with the modern world. He was famously attacked in a speech by Nargis for his depictions of poverty rather than making films about dams. She had starred as and in Mother India, a film where development offered the solution to villagers plagued by dowry, moneylending, flooding (no dams), agricultural accidents, etcetera. The price she paid was killing her son.

Bourgeois wealth associated with the service classes also showed colonial lifestyles. The club-going, jodhpur-wearing heroine of Andaz (1949), a bourgeois woman, kills her male friend who is misled by her Western lifestyle.

Raj Kapoor’s films often contrasted the goodness of the poor with the venality of the rich. In Shree 420 (1955), Raj is torn between two women, symbolically named Vidya, the teacher, and Maya, the racketeer. As a worker in the Jai Bharat Laundry, he borrows the clothes of the wealthy to move in and out of the two worlds. He sets up a fraudulent housing company with Seth Sonachand Dharmanand, even though noting that his car registration number 840 makes him double the fraudster. Good—and poverty—eventually wins over glamour and corruption.

THE SPREAD OF colour film in the 1960s and focus on travel and fashion presented a new type of consumerism. Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965), whose story of an earthquake and its consequences can be read as a metaphor for Partition, dwells on lifestyle objects. My favourite is Meena’s (Sadhana) house, with its sunken seating areas, red plush carpet, Japanese dolls, wallpaper and more. I was thrilled when I went to interview the great BR Chopra to find his living room was decorated in the same way.

Stories of rich boys and poor girls and vice versa abound in all romances. In Bobby (1973), there was no objection to the Hindu-Christian romance, only to social difference. The world of the Hindi film is mostly casteless (there are the handful of films always cited), so the modern category of class, interpreted as being mostly based on money, is more important than the non-modern category of caste.

The mother in Deewar may love her criminal older son, Vijay, more, but she rejects his offers of a wealthy life to live with her righteous policeman son, Ravi

Money may no longer be evil, but it doesn’t always make you happy. In Deewaar (1975), the mother may love her criminal older son, Vijay, more, but she rejects his offers of a wealthy life to live with her righteous policeman son, Ravi, who understands what true values are. In one of the most famous speeches in Hindi cinema, written by Salim-Javed, the brothers slog it out. Vijay needs many words to describe his vast wealth, but Ravi needs only four.

Vijay: Ufh! Tumhare usool, tumhare aadarsh! Kis kaam ke hain tumhare usool? Tumhare saare usoolon ko goondh kar ek waqt ki roti nahin banaayi jaa sakti, Ravi. Jin aadarshon ke liye tum apni zindagi per khelne ke liye taiyaar ho, kya diya unn aadarshon ne? Ek chaar- paanch sau rupaye ki police ki naukri. Ek kiraaye ka quarter. Ek duty ki jeep. Doh jode khaaki vardi. Dekho! Dekho mujhe! Yeh woh hi main hun, aur ye woh hi tum ho. Hum dono ek saath iss footpath se utthe thhe. Lekin aaj tum kahaan reh gaye, aur main kahaan aa gayaa! Aaj mere paas buildingein hain, property hai, bank balance hai, bungla hai, gaadi hai. Kya hai tumhaare paas?

A British Asian in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge may get up to mischief, but he still knows about Indian cultural values and subordinates desire to duty

(Huh! Your principles and your ideals! What use are your principles? All your principles mashed together can’t give you one square meal, Ravi. These ideals for which you’re ready to play on your life, what have they given you? A police job earning four or five hundred rupees. A quarter on rent. A jeep when you’re on duty. A pair of khaki uniforms. Look! Look at me! This is the same me and this is the same you. We both rose together from this pavement. But look where you’ve got left and where I am. Now I have buildings, property, money in the bank, a bungalow, a car. What do you have?

Ravi: Mere paas maa hai. (I have Mum).

GOVINDA’S CONSIDERABLE charms amount to much more than being one of Hindi cinema’s best dancers and comedians. The Virar ka Chhokra was a working-class hero in Coolie No. 1 (1995), but he could easily pass as a wealthy man with the props of a car, a cheap picnic chair, an umbrella and a bowl of fruit. The picture of wealth in his films was what Ashis Nandy calls ‘the slum’s eye view’, the way in which the rich were imagined by the lower middle classes.

The Yash Raj and Dharma Productions diasporic romances from the 1990s onwards have had images of vast wealth, displays of beautifully styled excess in overseas travel, fashion and lifestyle. As the spread of media coincided with the rise of India’s new middle classes and the increasingly important diasporic audience, new ways of showing full-blown consumerism arose. Yet, they were linked to the old. The most excessive of all, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), showed extreme consumerist opportunities of helicopters and supercars, mansions and schools set in palaces. This was framed by the first family get-together being a Diwali party where Lata Mangeshkar sings Sanskrit shlokas, the family patriarch is Amitabh Bachchan, the family and friends splendid in their elaborate clothes in their palace, to which the family travels in helicopters. The story also drew from India’s epic traditions with the exile of an adopted son whose brother comes on a quest bringing him home. As the younger son arrives in London, a display of designer brands is followed by the singing of Vande Mataram, presumably more to mark India’s presence in London than hailing the motherland.

These films mark a new Indian modernity. They have Western- style consumerism supplemented by Indian fashion and festivals, all underpinned by Indian values or Hindu Family Values. Almost half a century earlier, Raj Kapoor argued that Indianness was not threatened by consumerist items, such as Japanese shoes, English trousers and a Russian hat, because his heart was still Hindustani. Indianness may no longer mean being born or living in India, or having Indian nationality, but it means having a cultural, emotional and often religious connection to Bharat. A British Asian such as Raj in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) may get up to all sorts of mischief, but he still knows about Indian cultural values and subordinates desire to duty.

A street thug like Munna Bhai shows remarkable social mobility in his desire to become a doctor in Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), and then a professor of History in Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). Love can do more than an education and his jaadu ki jhappi seemed a rather appealing holistic approach to Western medicine while Munna’s Gandhigiri spread the word better than an academic paper on the subject could.

The biopic genre has moved beyond nationalist leaders to heroes of the new middle classes in the last ten years. Guru (2007) showed the inexorable rise of India’s great businessman, Dhirubhai Ambani, and how to make a fortune and democratise shareholding while engaging with the morality of creative business practices during the Licence Permit Raj.

The wealthy youth, meanwhile, were preoccupied with questions of how to live and love in films from Dil Chahta Hai (2001) to 3 Idiots (2009), perhaps looking for political solutions in Rang de Basanti (2006). The star figure of Aamir Khan drew on these issues, providing him with a basis for his social-issue television programme done in a filmi style, Satyamev Jayate.

Even the working classes seem to have access to money now. One can only wonder at the kind of corruption Lalgunj’s favourite policeman, Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) was practising in Dabangg (2010) for his luxury honeymoon in Dubai.

Multiplex middlebrow films such as Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi (2003) and Lootera (2013) left me with nostalgic longing for old-style wealth and style, while many recent movies have created a distinctly more middle-class atmosphere in Haridwar (Dum Lage ke Haisha, 2015), Jaipur (Shuddh Desi Romance, 2013) and Delhi (Band Baaja Baaraat, 2010). Rani of Queen (2014) may have come from Rajouri Garden, but her solo honeymoon was in Paris and Amsterdam.

EXCESSIVE WEALTH REMAINS visible in Karan Johar’s films, while the sumptuous productions of Sanjay Leela Bhansali leave no surface unadorned with exquisite detail in a magnificent display of wealth, from Devdas (2002) to Bajirao Mastani (2015).

Wealth in Hindi cinema is no longer associated with ill-gotten gains, crime, exploitation and low moral standards. Today such dodgy characters handle their new found wealth with aplomb and are exposed to little else. Moral opprobrium is now directed towards the poor who have become invisible in many films.

A new type of film, whether in Hindi (Masaan) or other languages, often Marathi (Fandry, Saikat, Gabricha Paus), show gritty issues of characters who may not be poor but are not rich and not necessarily even middle class. Caste operates in their worlds, sections of Indian society that no longer feature among the images of the new successful nation.

Money does not bring happiness or make happy families, but a basic standard of living is necessary to avoid the serious stresses of poverty. As we are now more concerned about the diseases of affluence, we can sit back and watch films which reveal to us ever more luxurious lifestyles which, as Gandhji said, will only fuel further desire for consumption.

May Lakshmi shower her blessings on us all. Happy Diwali to you and yours.

The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of Essays, click here