The other day a friend asked whether the language and grammar of culture were changing. He suggested that three tropes or events anchored the phenomenon of democracy in India. The first was cricket, which provided rules of fair play and the exemplars of sportsmanship. The cricketer not only embodied style and competence, s/he represented the idea of a rule game, of a normative system. In the popular idiom to say “it is not cricket”, is to metaphorically say one is violating the rules of the game.
The second of our great models is science. Science provides a generalised model of truth, objectivity, fairness and the need for rituals of experiment to verify facts. The third model is film, which provides many of the myths and oppositions that a culture must resolve. If one thinks of Bollywood, one thinks of the opposition between public and private, the rule of law and family loyalty, the contest between urban and rural. Sadly, today many of these myths do not dominate Bollywood. In fact, all three anchors of democracy have lost their power or imagination.
Cricketed is a moneyed enterprise, science has lost its sense of playfulness and has become an extension of industry, and Bollywood has lost its sense of mythmaking. One does not have legends today like Mother India and Gabbar Singh. No Amitabh struts on the stage reciting dialogues. As a result of the weakening of these three models, democracy itself has become rigid, electoral and empty. Of these three forces, the decline of film as an imagination is what worries one more.
I was thinking of all this the day Sridevi died. It was not the so-called mystery of her death that intrigued me, but her sense of mystique. When one thinks of Hindi films, Nargis, Madhubala, Rekha, Smita Patil and Madhuri, are the stuff of legend, folklore and gossip. They are mythical creatures in a way the contemporary stars cannot be. Our present lot is too transient; they lack the stuff of archetype. They are not the stuff of characters when a great self, an iconic image emerges but a string of selfies, each forgotten and replaced before the next release.
It is not just that Bollywood and its variations no longer anchor the stuff of myth, the problem is compounded by the fact that the relation between film and politics, the reciprocity is broken. Film seems to have lost the script of politics or even a feel for it. I was watching Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan announce the arrival of their new parties. The introductions smelt like a brigade film.
Rajini talked of spirituality and Kamal about a new politics. Both emphasise a need, a desire for a different definition of the political. Yet both offer hope without content, one almost feels that they have been given poor scripts and are stuttering over their lines. Both seem to be caught in the grid of left and right. Rajini sporting a touch of saffron and Kamal a shade of pink. But their very performance breaks the link between the real and reel politic. One would never see Jayalalithaa, N.T. Rama Rao or MGR in that position. For them film and politics were blends, each resonated the other. In fact, sadly, Kamal and Rajini confirm the break between cinema and real life. In fact, the death of Sridevi raises many of these questions.
She was the last of the legends with Rekha playing an Indian Garbo in retreat. Sridevi was larger than life and yet so life like. She embodied more than anyone else a sense of playfulness, a chutzpah, a zest for life. The rest had gravitas but Sridevi conveyed the lighter side of the celebration of desire, oozing a sense of invitation but stopping short of seduction, being the hoarding, the poster on the wall and the girl next door. Yet one could never dismiss her as lightheaded or lighthearted. She conveyed a desire for life, going beyond any consumer dream, linking the dreams of the North and South in a way few dared. In that sense, Sridevi and Amitabh Bachchan provided the latitude and longitude of Bollywood. They dominated it, defined it and finally transcended it to become a part of folklore, even providing the metaphors for everyday conversations.
Yet they belong to a period that is over. They are not period pieces but fragments of history. But history has changed. Today’s actresses look like fashion models on loan to the film industry. They appear transient. The male characters appear like imitations of the past. It is as if nationalist India from 1947 to the beginning of this century had myths in cricket, film and science, but Modiesque India, by messing around with myths, has distorted them.
There are often other factors beyond politics. There is TV, which has stolen the idea of everydayness from film. Today what haunts domesticity is TV. Old people thrive on it and cinema has become more occasional.
But there is a more tragic problem. The new aspirational India does not have narratives beyond idiot patriotism and a dismal idea of development. Even the search for urban models has come to a standstill. There is a missingness of myth in cinema and daily life. We are trying to survive with fragments of that myth. This is why the death of Sridevi, in what was turned by the media into a filmy ending, signalled not just the passing away of a legendary star, but the end of an era. People realised that her funeral was also an act of mourning for an age.
There are cultural dangers here that we must understand. A society without myths and modern myths that film produces is able to both hybridise tradition and modernity and make a more pluralistic transition between tradition and modernity. We felt that if Sridevi could do that in film, we could perform that in real life. Today culture has dullness because our myths have faded. Modernity has no real myth beyond consumerism. Technology is still not a creative science of myth. At the most it is science fiction, the caricature of a narrative. One hopes the real experiments in film will recreate the unconscious such that democracy becomes less coercive and more inventive.