The audacity of regional films
Regional cinema represents India in a much more holistic and meaningful way than Bollywood
For a long time, Indian cinema has been synonymous with Bollywood. However, the pandemic-driven growth of over-the-top platforms (OTT) has opened up new avenues for audiences to watch and enjoy movies from other parts of the country. Bollywood, which is largely influenced by the ebb and flow of the box office, has often failed to capture the social intricacies of Indian society. It is still quite far from the experiences and sensitivities of the masses. It usually follows an escape approach, where storytelling becomes a commodity. On the other hand, Malayalam, Assamese, Bengali, Marathi and Tamil cinema, to name a few, frequently portray disparities in gender, religion, caste and class.
This does not mean that fantasy, which allows us to break with the gloom of our daily lives, is not an important aspect of cinema. But it is the safe distance from Hindi cinema from hard-hitting issues such as atrocities against Dalits and Muslims, religious majoritarianism, sexual inclusiveness and class barriers that are of major concern.
Push the limits
The cinematic treatment of Bollywood has been stereotypical. Films are inspired by the West or are constrained by the process of globalization. In recent years, Bollywood has produced numerous hyper-nationalist films, films which distort minority communities and films which claim a certain culture, thus advancing the project of majority nation-building.
On the other hand, regional cinema is constantly pushing back the boundaries with experimental shots on social and political issues. In recent years, Tamil cinema has revolutionized art with broader social observations. Filmmakers like Mari Selvaraj, Pa. Ranjit and Vetrimaaran have produced films that explore the problems of the common man. They represent the voice of the subordinates without apologizing unlike their Bollywood counterparts. Mari Selvaraj and Pa. Ranjit are known for making films focusing on Dalit life. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a wave of parallel cinema in Bollywood that talked about the victimization of Dalits. However, in contemporary Tamil cinema, Dalits are not victims; they are affirmed protagonists who actively fight against the affirmation of the upper castes. Through his films Kabali and Kaala and more recently Sarpatta Parambarai, Pa. Ranjith brought us Dalit heroes, rare in the history of Indian cinema. Mari Selvaraj established the standardization of Dalit characters through Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan. These films advance social justice policy in subtle ways instead of portraying communities as pitiful beneficiaries of certain policies and lacking in dignity.
Another regional industry that has resonated with a wider Indian audience is the Malayalam industry. Malayalam cinema is known to reflect on contemporary concerns and anxieties. Most Malayalam films have small budgets, but their impact is immense due to their new approach to common people-centered stories. Jeo baby Great Indian cuisine, for example, can be considered one of the greatest disruptors of work and normative gender relations. While challenging regressive gender practices, the filmmaker uses a layered and minimalist approach to get the point across. On the other hand, the Bollywood approach tends to be loud and sensational, with a greater focus on costume, set design, light, color, and location than the subject at hand. At Dileesh Pothan Maheshinte Prathikaaram, even the slippers of the character played by Fahad Faasil have an important role to play. Regional films are often full of metaphors and symbols.
The politics of majoritarianism
Today, with hyper nationalism at its peak, Bollywood often acts as a tool in the hands of the majority nation-building project. Many Hindi films use the archaic trope of cultural assertion and continue to vilify a particular community while downplaying structural inequalities in society. This trend can be seen in the rise of period dramas and biopics of politicians and sportsmen where the characters are overglorified. On the other hand, certain filmmakers of Bengali and Marathi cinema, by their politically exacerbated content, question the polarization and the threat which weighs on the diversity of India. Aparna Sen in her 2019 movie, Ghawre Bairey Aaj, highlights the chauvinism that prevails in the political ecosystem. Another important film is that of Nagraj Manjule Saïrat which treats caste as a political issue.
Regional cinema has woven narratives in a socially conscious manner and has the potential to dramatically disrupt class and caste hegemony and majoritarianism. He represents India in a much more holistic and meaningful way than Bollywood.
Nehal Ahmed is a university researcher in cinema at Jamia Millia Islamia and Faiza Nasir is a lecturer in political science