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Is Bollywood Anti-capitalism?

 
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By: Screen Weekly, IndiaFM
Monday, March 05, 2007
Still from Rang De Basanti Given the contemporary issues and ideological stances adopted by Hindi films these days, Bollywood demands to be taken seriously. Last year's big hits, Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai, have received a fair amount of attention but the recent release, Guru, seems to have been smothered by news of the impending marriage of its co-stars. Which is a pity, because it is a film that needs to be taken note of, not because it is probably the first time an Indian film has dealt in a realistic manner with recent events involving powerful, controversial personalities - the closest parallel one can think of is the fleeting presence of the Modi-like character in Parzania and films such as Nayakan, Company and Black Friday, all of which recreated underworld figures which is perhaps not quite the same thing as making a film on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani - but because, in its blatant ideological thrust, Guru is possibly one of the most unusual films ever made in the history of popular cinema.

The climax where Guru gives a rousing speech, casting himself as a rebel and a man of the people in the Gandhian mould and promising to build the world's largest company.

The parallel is patently specious. It is absurd to imagine Gandhi pointing to material goals as Guru does or using ends to justify unethical means. Yet there is no evidence of irony on the part of the filmmaker. Guru emerges larger than life. Why is this unusual?

For starters try keying in 'capitalist films' into Google. What you would get is a host of websites discussing anti-capitalism films. With some luck and many tries later, you could find your way to a website specialising in 'rare, special films' that have four series on offer: Red Scare on cold war propaganda, capitalist propaganda - all cartoons, Capitalist Propaganda 2 ('some of these have to be seen to be believed') and Yellow Peril, four 'fascinating' propaganda films that come with the warning: 'this is not politically correct'. My point: to root for capitalism in cinema is not and has never been politically correct.

Amitabh Bachan It is hard to think of realistic biopics of capitalists in Bollywood but from the zamindar to the smuggler in Deewar and the upwardly mobile middle class duo in Yes Boss, greed has not been rewarded. Hollywood is perhaps an even more appropriate place to test the hypothesis. Consider the great American films made on the capitalist theme. In Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, the wealthy newspaper owner dies a sad, lonely death. In Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the industrialist is a tyrant ruling over robot-like workers. In film versions of classics like Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and in the archetypal '80s drama, Wall Street, the greedy protagonist meets with a sad end. Pretty Woman, Erin Brokovich, The Pelican Brief and The Insider are just some examples of Hollywood's penchant for casting the capitalist in a bad light. Even the rare films that seem to buck the trend (The Secret of My Success) have a goofy theme which successfully undercuts the triumph of capitalism. In fact, Larry E. Ribstein, professor of law at the University of Illinois, in a 2004 paper entitled 'Why Does Business Look Bad in Movies' claims, "Film's attitude towards business has remained relatively constant despite the changing demographics of film audiences."

Ribstein's explanation for this unlikely phenomenon in the world's greatest capitalist enterprise is that the artist, frustrated by commercial constraints, sees film as a vehicle through which to vent frustration. There is also the belief that with the emergence of new sources of film financing (TV, product placement, venture funding), the anti-capitalist bias in cinema will diminish. So the question is: why did Mani Ratnam decide to make such a break with the past? Was it to reflect contemporary reality or is Guru a harbinger of a new cinematic future shorn of the artist's angst?

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