Thursday, December 3, 2009

Indian Film Advent Calendar #3: Middle-class is the new poor.

There are very few movies I loathe so much I quit watching them and never went back, and never regretted making that decision. Even if the film stars two favourites.

Ta Ra Rum Pum, a 2007 YRF family film by director Siddharth Anand, is one such film. This film is the grossest example of the problem Qalandari eloquently discusses Kurbaan but more modern Hindi cinema in general in this article of his on OutLook India. Instead of whinging as many do, about whatever happened to the heroes of yore, Big B type heroes, he zeroes in on problems of representation; rich, urban, young North-Indian Hindus (whose religion is barely visible with no temple iconography in sight) are the norm characters, and everybody else, be they South-Indian, Muslim, Sikh, poorer, rural is the Other.

But go read the article, because I'm not focusing on issues of representation. In the case of TRRP, the problem isn't so much that poor people are invisible, but that whoever wrote the script (IMDb gives this name: Habib Faisal) has obviously lived an incredibly isolated life among the elite, without a care in the world about what it might be like not to be super-rich, leading a luxurious lifestyle.

TRRP in short is about the economic downfall (and eventual rise) of race car driver played by Saif Ali Khan. He has a wife (Rani Mukherji) and kids and earns millions, but spends those millions carelessly and when he crashes during a race, he finds himself with no career, no house and his family knee-deep in debt. As the family lives in New York, they are forced to move into a semi-dingy apartment and live a middle class/lower middle class life on the American standards.

Stupid story, but not really a problem, if it wasn't for the way these events are portrayed in the movie. The children are distraught, crying! The palace of a home switched to a dusty, spider-webbed apartment! Saif has to work as a taxi driver! Rani has to work in the lowest tier of jobs as a pianist at private functions (ugh I think I'm going to be sick)! The angst! The woe! The pain!

No, wait a minute. They went from super-rich to middle class. They can still afford to eat. Both of the parents have jobs. The kids can still go to school. As far as I can tell, they're not really struggling to make the ends meet. I mean, sure, it sucks that anybody suffers rough economic downfall and has to reduce their standard of living. But even that doesn't make this supposed tragedy of a situation any less idiotic. Saif's character lost his fortunes because of his own stupidity (even if they sort of try to pin his downfall on the evilness of the white villain). Whoop-de-damn-doo. The angst portrayed of him earning a living in an ordinary profession and not a glamorous, privileged one is just mind-boggling.

I keep thinking how insulting this storyline is to viewers in India really struggling to make ends meet. Hell, it'd be insulting even if this wasn't a movie financed in India, a nation with a visible, horrible problem with poverty. It'd be disgusting if it was an American film. It'd be disgusting just about anywhere in the world. To encapsulate the problem here in three simple letters: WTF?!

Back to the topic of the usual whine; why don't we see heroes with ordinary professions, even lower class professions? TRRP is a terrible film that should be disregarded in most discussions, but in this case it's symptomatic of a larger problem. Why is working in a regular job painted as such an awful fate? Are the Bollywood elite really so out of touch with reality? Again: WTF?!

I should point out I don't necessarily oppose to super-rich characters in Bollywood; they have become a staple of the industry and I've come to accept that. But there is having rich characters and then there is portraying anything but richness as the most terrible thing ever. When it goes to that gross extreme, anybody who's ever worked a lower level job for a day in their lives is allowed to be and perhaps should be insulted.


rossywar said...

Wow. I didn't know it was that bad!! I'm very insulted by that film!

The article you linked to was interesting - but films about a rich elite are not a new phenomenon. In fact, weren't the "angry young man" films of the 70s a reaction against films almost exclusively about an elite? I think the films of the late 40s/50s tended to feature the rich and priveleged.

Anita said...

Ok, so this was a movie I downloaded and that my BROTHER chose to watch with me. He stayed up and we watched the whole thing. How? IT WAS EPICALLY lulz-worthy!!! We did not take a single second seriously and enjoyed the ridiculousness of trash dogs, dancing bears and encouraging bongos. It's the only way to deal with TRRP... :P

veracious said...

rossywar - I think the difference is that in the old days the villain was usually the richest man in the picture. But you're right, the rich elite has nearly always been the subject of portrayal in Bollywood.

I do like his point about how insular Bollywood is as an industry, though. Nepotism and ideas of "film fraternity" may be easy to accept for fans because it means a new face has a connection to an older one, and isn't just Joe Schmo who may or may not be dreadful. At the same time, being more open towards new talent could mean more fresh ideas, fresh stories, better films..

Anita - I think I may have some sort in-built problem with not being able to tune to new bad movies with the same delight as I can with bad older movies (on occasion). I had low expectations for this and while I chuckled at the stupidity of how Rani/Saif romance built (especially Rani going "eek, mera iPod!!!!"), the rest was mind-numbingly dumb.

Also, it REALLY helps to have a person there to mock it with you. Otherwise it can just be kind of depressing. XD

Anonymous said...

Interesting commentary! I think the reason for the super rich heroes in Bollywood films is for the 'masses'. The general theory is that they go to the movie theaters to live vicariously through beautiful, rich and glamorous heroes and heroines in exotic foreign locales. It's not that there are no movies with a 'common man' protagonist..there are quite a few. These are dismissed as art house movies and generally don't make a lot of money at the box-office. You can bet YRF wouldn't touch such movies with a barge-pole.

Kiran said...

In the past the common man more often than not was the protagonist who was fighting against the corrupt system. Amitabh bacchan amassed bottomless goodwill for those portrayals only.
You must absolutely read this brilliant but lengthy piece on what is a masala cinema. I'm quoting an excerpt here:
"K3G: Shahrukh leaves his house with no inheritance. Some years later he’s replicated his father’s lifestyle in London. Hrithik arrives in London. The next day he takes off in his own Benz. It’s plain silly. There is an ideological component here for sure but it’s one that excludes. Trishul was about rich people but the film contained very many real characters and there were unpleasant aspects of life that kept intruding on these characters’ lifestyles, in essence because these ‘rich folks’ had done things for the unpleasant to creep in from elsewhere. Nothing of the sort in K3G. You stay separated for 10 years. At the end of it you pat each other on the back and that’s the end of the deal. No real sense of loss or the ‘irreparable’. Consider masala: sometimes your mother died when you were young, sometimes your family was murdered, all the happy endings couldn’t quite make up for this loss. These strands of narrative or of emotional response made the works ‘universal’. It is not that these films were more ‘realistic’, just that the ’stories’ triggered certain archives of human experience that always involve a sense of ‘cost’ which is very unlike the ‘cartoon’ world of Johar where everything can simply be ‘restored’."

Full piece here:

veracious said...

Anon - I'm familiar with that theory, yes - good point. It's of course uncertain how true it is but it at least seems very logical.

Kiran - Fantastic quote! I'll go read that.

filmbuff said...

Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee movies in the 70s were about middle class indian families with modest incomes - there are many examples. That real feel of an average indian family setting is definitely missing in hindi films of late 90s and 2000s - eg Karan Johar and YRF.

while the average poor indian goes to the movies to escape his poverty - it does not mean that he or she will not enjoy a movie set in more realistic surroundings so long as the movie is entertaining and postive ie not having literal scenes from the chawls (which is their daily life). To say that they go to movies to see how the super rich live is insulting their intelligence. I recall an interview with the late Manmohan Desai where he said that he usually showed his previews of his movies to people from the slums to see their reaction. Many of his successful movies were given a green signal by this section of the audience - eg AAA, Naseeb etc. These movies centered around the positive theme of some one poor making it big in the end thru sheer masala story telling. End of the day message was "nothing like working hard in life"

thanks for a good write up.