My mother-tongue is Bangla, an Indo-Aryan language that is the lingua franca of West Bengal, India’s fourth most populous state. It’s the language that I think in, although English is the language I speak in. And yet, as a Hindi film critic, I am required to predominantly engage with films that convey themselves in Hindustani (or the standardised Hindi) – one of the country’s official languages. A language that is alien to me but one I choose to dissect.
Indian cinema thrives on similar contradictions. Like its multicultural audience, it can exist in absolute binaries and just as easily, transform into heterogeneous identities that refuse to be caged in templates. Indian cinema is boisterous and flamboyant as well as muted and contemplative. It is at once, crowd-pleasing and audacious; comfortably flitting between micro-narratives that challenge and inform common perception. In its very essence, Indian cinema – encompassing roughly 22 regional languages – betrays rigid conventions.
Perhaps, that explains the distinctiveness of last year’s slate: An Assamese female-led, one-crew film (Rima Das’s VILLAGE ROCKSTARS) that captured the wide-eyed aspirations of rural adolescence. A Tamil drama (Mari Selvaraj’s PARIYERUM PERUMAL) that took an unflinching look at the aftermath of caste discrimination. A Telugu indie (Maha Venkatesh’s C/O KANCHARAPALEM) that subverted the industry’s predominant narrative of performative masculinity. And a delectable Hindi urban noir (Sriram Raghavan’s ANDHADHUN) that made perceptive humour accessible to a discerning commercial audience.
Yet even with the influx of intrepid directorial voices who see cinema as an art form that can precipitate far-reaching conversations, Indian cinema – especially Hindi cinema – is not without its challenges. A majority of mainstream films continue to be cocooned in their upper-caste universe; more than a handful romanticise stalking as playful foreplay and comfortably exploit violence against women under the garb of issue-based cinema.
Moreover, female representation remains an afterthought on screen while almost all technical designations behind the scenes are reserved for men. Last year, for instance, the Hindi film industry – dubbed the world’s largest film industry – produced 102 feature films for the big screen. Only 23 of them comprised at least one female lead. A mere 19.6% of these films were written by women; 13.7% were edited by women; and only 5.8% were helmed by a female director. Out of 102 films, just four films boasted of female music directors and only one film was shot by a woman.
On the other hand, state-sponsored censorship guarantees crackdown against dissenting filmmakers, effectively burying their films in unending years of bureaucratic labyrinth. India’s Censor Board is in fact, notorious for thwarting the release of films by equating morality with artistic vision. While the country’s ruling government compromises the credibility of Hindi films by reducing them to political mouthpieces from time to time.
In the current climate, I believe Indian film criticism will benefit from critics who can hold themselves accountable for critiquing films in context of the country’s socio-political environment, instead of just passively “rating” films as entertainment vehicles. Yet, it’s unfortunate that a majority of the discourse around Hindi cinema tends to ditch introspective analysis in favour of simplistic, bite-sized declarations designed to serve either trending hashtags or production companies.
At a time when a film review is frequently reduced to a thinly veiled PR pamphlet, my unwavering effort has been towards dissecting Hindi cinema as a cultural product in an accessible, original voice. As one of the youngest Indian female critics, I’m also particularly invested in championing Indian films that rebel against the homogenous narrative in Indian cinema. Because, after all, we get the films we deserve.