FILM-O-CONTEXT: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly ki Barfi (BKB) is a typical formula film, which through indirect allusions to aspirations of Millennials caught in archetype small satellite town of India, has managed to create immediate identification BY filmonalyst Sushil Kumar.
The film depicts assertion of the main protagonist Bitti (played by Kriti Sanon) having a decisive say in rejecting stereotyped ascribed roles in relationships within family as well with friends and lovers, though within the boundaries of the established order. One can say, director has ably shown how modernity is modified by the tradition in India. There is no cry for revolution to overthrow the Indian society; just an indirect appeal to change and accept change with changing times (reflecting Dylan’s ‘times they are changing’), allowing children to have fun and choices sanctioned by society and normative order.
In film, one sees how Bitti’s parents (great acting by Pankaj Tripathi and Seema Bhargava with former continuing from where he let off in Nil Batey Sannata) have brought her up with freedom allowed to boys; it is a continuum of what Dangal depicted about gender empowerment through education and sports. In BKB, this issue is taken as given and film goes further in depicting a girl’s choices in lovers and marriage- a strict no no in small town social order.
Basically, (BKB) symbolizes solidification of slow ongoing fragmentation process of Bollywood’s traditional singular business model; of making movies reflecting reality derived from a broader socio-cultural- linguistic matrix, typified by traditional patriarchal society largely of north India. Though earlier few films contained some elements of provincial sub culture within this larger paradigm, yet in terms setting and linguistic flavor, most films favoured use of Hindustani to appeal to audiences across all India. Its best example is (Ganga Jamuna) whose appeal was accentuated by use of Bhojpuri – a dialect of Hindi or Hindustani spoken in UP and Bihar.
Lagaan repeated also used a Hindi dialect, a la Ganga Jamuna, but its colonial context restricted celebration of a popular sub-culture existing in the present. Most films continued to communicate through Hindustani with occasional character speaking bits and bite of Hindi dialect (Dabang), Tamil (Padosan), Punjabi (Vicky Donor, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, even recent Mubarakan), Gujrati etc… Just see how even latest Harry met Sejal (virtual revisit of when Harry met Sally) uses some Gujarati words within overall Hindustani script. Though films like Ishquiya ( Bhopali dialect also used in Sholay) , Dabang and Gangs of Wassey Pur used dialects of Hindi, it was Tanu Weds Manu specially the sequel that became a breakthrough film in Haryanvi dialect becoming toast of entire India ( repeated in Dangal and Sultan ); Tanu Weds Manu films not only used the dialects of Hindi but also used UP/ Haryana small towns socio-cultural-linguistic backdrop and depicted India’s youth or millennials changing aspirations in centuries old traditional social order specially relating to choices in marriages. Tanu Weds Manu including its sequel (using UP and Haryana dialects of Hindi) turned sleeper hits because of their immediate identification by youth of provincial towns caught between contrasting claims and choices of traditionally ascribed role expectations on one hand and modernity driven values on the other.
And remember, India’s population below the age of 25 exceeds 50% i.e. above 600 million and not all of them inhabit metros and big cities. The rapid growth of smaller satellite towns specially in bigger States have greatly weakened traditional village based living. Proximate living to bigger towns, specially in unplanned urban clusters has led to chipping away of centuries long held belief systems, particularly of youth’s interaction with self and others while living, loving and longing. The satellite television and record mobile tele-density covering most population has exposed the youth, as well as old, to changes not only in India but in the world.
The traditional agrarian society prescribed such a strict segregation of sexes that villages were endogamous and all village girls were considered daughters or sisters and there were strict norms governing commensality and conviviality. These values were so deeply ingrained that for many decades girls’ education was totally neglected and their early marriage was the norm. It was only with declining agricultural landholdings and urban migration that smaller towns became viable by becoming satellite townships of industry. And small trades proliferated in these towns and families started disintegrating from joint to nuclear. Films like BKB and Toilet Ek Prem Katha have protagonists running small businesses of printing press, sweets and cycle shops. The penetration of telecommunication and satellite television combined with socio- eco changes completely changed the cultural context and social aspirations of the population specially the youth. These films like Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Behen Hogi Teri, Zor Laga ke Haisha, BKB etc. seem to be touching the right chord and notes with specific social segments undergoing rapid change – specially the youth as evident in series of such films hitting the theatres.
For several decades even after the Independence, most Bollywood films with rural setting continued to depict issues of feudal excessive feudal exploitation like land dispossession, rural indebtedness, rebellion. These films were made in Hindustani lingo with occasional one liners, uttered in local dialect, thrown in for authenticity. Consider how India’s iconic film -Mother India – despite having rural feel and setting, used Hindustani despite most characters living and dying in village and had names like Birju etc. Films like Upkaar portraying contrasting values of rural and urban cultures used usual Hindustani in both contexts. Even Do Beegha Zamin used Hindustani despite rural setting and later of Kolkatta. Ganga Jamuna may have been an exception that it extensively used Bhojpuri and still became a hit all across India; maybe the use of Bhojpuri must have been insisted upon by great Dilip Saab – known for method acting before it became a buzzword through Brando.
Film makers like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalini, Gautam Ghosh extensively used rural setting and sub cultural lingo or dialect (in films like Manthan, Nishant, Ankur, Bhoomikaa, Paar) with simultaneous use of Hindustani. In an era where films had to run across India to recover costs and make money, only Hindustani lingo could be used, unless one was making regional films.
Films like Paan Sindh Tomar, Bhaag Milkhaa Bhaag also used the linguistic flavor of specific area and population. The real breakthrough film of cine realism genre was the Bandit Queen which used the real lingo of the Chambal ravines. In contrast, Sunil Dutt’s Mujhe Jeeno Do though was shot in Chambal, it still contained the dialogues primarily in Hindustani. Films like Peepli Live used the rural setting but the subject of media intrusion and distortion of a village reality was treated with metro mindset.
With nineties came liberalization, multiplexes and the massive middle class that changed Bollywood’s basic business model and mind set of making films having appeal all across India. Films began to be made with subjects and themes that could specifically cater to the middle classes and or aspiring and fast joining middle classes living in the metropolitan and bigger towns.
People sometimes overestimate the role in sudden emergence of Shah Rukh to his charisma and star appeal, forgetting that objective conditions for his superstardom were made ripe by the metropoles, multiplexes and middle class (almost size of entire American population). Actually, Shah Rukh rode this crest of changing times and happened to be right person and right time. The urban population was becoming disenchanted with rural themes and subjects due to direct disconnect. Progressively, the film themes started concentrating on urban themes of love, luxury, living it up syndrome in international style, with brands and conspicuous consumption traits thrown in liberal measure. The existential issues were brushed under the carpet and films became brushed up soft focus images softening rigours and bite of reality and became escapist fare that lasted three hours. The films containing must have shots shot in seven and other wonders of the world became the norm and one could take a round of the world in hundred rupees sitting on a chair.
Though these films were ringing cash registers at the box office, the small satellite towns couldn’t easily connect with such films. Inevitably, the need arose for films catering to this specific socio-cultural milieu. This may explain why film like Andaz Apna Apna bombed at the box office initially but was lapped up on cable channels of small towns and is now celebrated as classic comedy film. The reason for its success lay in portrayal of aspirations and characters from small towns. Most missed understanding of this aspect.
This process could be better understood by comparing to what happened to satellite news channels in parallel. These channels initially catered to the middle classes of metros and bigger cities. It was soon realized that non metro towns clientele wasn’t connecting to these transmissions and slowly one saw similar fragmentation and segmentation of news channels catering to specific towns and languages. This led to explosion of news channels catering to not only to a particular State but to specific segment of that State’s linguistic population. One has lost count of such channels. Inevitably, this procees had to find it’s match in movie making. This process not only saw revival of almost extinct regional cinema machinery in Gujarat and Kolkatta cinema, it also led to segment specialization by making films in dialect itself – Bhojpuri cinema being its best example; the success of this process can be seen in emergence of a superstar of Bhojpuri cinema who now straddles the corridors of power in Delhi.
Mirroring famously economic development as Hindu rate of growth in post independent India, India’s rural hinterland largely also followed a similar process of slow social change and retained its feudal patriarchal practices. Now, after two decades of economic liberalization and rapid urbanization, newer social values are intruding with concepts like friendships between sexes, choosing partners even in arranged marriages, choice of divorce if incompatible etc. There is no denying that small towns are definitely witnessing changes in young insisting on having some say in choice of partners in marriage though sanction of parents and kins is still needed and nothing illustrates this better than these two films – BKB and Toilet ek Prem Katha. These two films show younger generation rebellions against the established order within the boundaries of acceptance of society, eventually if not in the beginning. For example, BKB uses the concept of youth having fun through breakdance, dating, going out for parties and dinners with tacit approval of a traditional family.
The Director continues from where she left after Nil Battey Sannata by making movies belonging to genre of cine realism. Even in BKB, she has concentrated on the role and aspirations of a girl in a traditional society. She needs to be applauded for fusing social comment and documenting creeping social change in small town India without preaching or passing judgement on either side. Actually, she has done that beautifully using the cover up of an entertaining plot and repartee tinged with phrases picked from ordinary day to day life. The setting of small house and congested lane living adds to authenticity. Both Toilet Ek Prem Katha and BKB use small town habitat landscape to convey the satellite town feel much like Dangal (directed by Director’s partner) did last year. The film has outstanding performances by Raj Kumar (fast emerging as serious challenger to Nawazuddin Siddiqui), Ayusshmann Khurana. Kriti Sanon is natural and both friends of protagonists perform quite well.
The film will succeed in demolishing Bareilly’s association with bamboos and jhumka giraa rey too. And true to Barfi flavour, it would leave a sweet taste in one’s mouth while witnessing a girl’s serious struggle in having choices.