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Demise of the working class hero

By Aman Kanth | Last Updated: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - 13:03
Aman Kanth
Déjà vu

<b><i>“Nobody thinks. Nobody cares. No beliefs, no conviction and no enthusiasm.”</i></b>

<b>John Osborne</b>
When words fail, sometimes silence speaks. Well, that’s exactly what I felt after borrowing (unlike many, I have no qualms in using my chums for diversion) a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s cult classic ‘Modern Times.’ A mix of odd parts, I am a bit of a misanthrope, who often gets infatuated by his sanity (which is often questionable!) and can be easily found day-dreaming, lost in silent soliloquies. Consequently, afraid to lose me (which is also disputable!), my pal did not hesitate and gleefully complied with my repeated insistence.
I have always been a great fan of Charlie Chaplin – the immortal tramp of the silent motion pictures, whose cinema lampoons the evils of society in its full buoyancy. And the 1930s ‘Modern Times’ is still thematically relevant in today’s time for like art, cinema too mirrors society. A critique of modern age, the movie portrays Chaplin as a factory worker and his predicament. Being fed by machines, getting sucked into a big machine, suffering a mental breakdown, getting arrested, running after a beloved and finally contemplating on his uncertain future - Charlie Chaplin presented a clear-cut picture of his age. ‘Modern Times’ has every ingredient that makes it a cult film and an example of comic-cum-subversive realistic cinema. Though a silent film, the movie is a primal cry against the dehumanization of modern civilization and marks the birth of the working class hero.
With a heart besotted by thinking-man’s cinema, I am more inclined towards the genre of realistic cinema. Talking about our own good-old Bollywood, which is celebrated for its colourful song-and-dance sequences and highly charged melodrama - post the Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt era, starting from the 1960s to the 80s, it was the birth of a new wave in cinema that changed the way Bollywood looked way back in the technicolor era. Focusing primarily on the burning post colonial issues of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, racism, caste-ethnicity division, class struggle, inert social system and a disillusioned youth, the movies of that era were not the ‘feel good’ films that portrayed a ‘bell bottom’ and ‘dog collar’ clad hero chasing a ‘polka’ sari wearing girl in the college lawns or singing love ballads at twilight.
Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Ketan Mehta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, MS Sathyu, Saeed Mirza, Basu Chatterjee and Kundan Shah became the progeny of this angst ridden, melancholic age. Moreover, this period ushered in a whole new breed of powerhouse performers like Shabana Azmi, Amol Palekar, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Mohan Agahse, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Girish Karnad, Farooq Sheikh and Pankaj Kapoor that represented the new face of working class hero.
Be it Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’, ‘Aparajito’, ‘Apur Sansar’, ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’; Mrinal Sen’s ‘Interview’; Benegal’s ‘Ankur’, ‘Manthan’, ‘Nishant’ and ‘Junoon’; Nihalani’s ‘Aakrosh’, ‘Ardha Satya’; Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa kyon Aata Hai’, ‘Saleem Langde Pat Mat Ro’, ‘Mohan Josh Hazir Ho’ and ‘Naseem’; Ketan Mehta’s ‘Mirch Masala’ or Kundan Shah’s ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’, these movies were diametrically opposed to the world of glamour, beauty and romance as portrayed in Bollywood and focused on the plight of common man, the working class heroes. Up till now, issues which were shoved under the carpet were all of a sudden brought out in the broad daylight. Extra marital affairs, corruption, materialism, class wars and illiteracy were evoked through the kaleidoscope of realism. These films were hugely inspired by the craft of Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Ingar Bergman and Martin Scorsese and many more.
However, what intrigues me is the sudden decline and finally the death of working class hero in the Indian cinema. Till mid-80s everything was fine till Bollywood got sucked into the vortex of globalization, Hollywood and the arrival of cable TV. Out went the working class hero and all his dilemmas, with the coming of the new generation of stars shaking their booty with skimpily dressed lasses in foreign locales. All of a sudden, the working class hero was pushed aside to make way for the new world order – the changing face of Bollywood where the cinema-goers lived the American dream in their homes, courtesy the cable TVs.
Even today, in an industry ruled by the ‘Khans’ and the ‘Bachchans’, I am sure that no A-list Bollywood star is ready to be a part of non-commercial venture; nobody wants to take up the issues being faced by the common man. Leave alone actors, it’s been eons ever since I saw a good old flick on the working class hero as even satellite channels don’t want to lose their markets by dabbling in non-commercial ventures. Had Bollywood not been blinded by mass consumerism and Hollywood, we still would have kept our working class heroes alive. But we have been a victim of cultural imperialism; ultimately, it’s we who have led to the demise of the working class hero.

First Published: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - 13:03

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