For all its diversity, India’s vast population is bound by its love of Hindi cinema—or Bollywood, as it is colloquially known. When India became independent seventy-six years ago, the Hindi-language film industry, one of its many regional cinematic businesses, didn’t hold sway the way it does now. Yet, its effect on the populace has intrigued researchers and pop culture enthusiasts for years.
In a 2007 paper published in the India International Centre Quarterly, Rachel Dwyer, author and former Professor Emerita of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London, highlights that “there is no major ethnography of Indian cinematic audiences.” The earliest evidence of an interest in recording the sociological impact of the Indian film industry was through the Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee (1927–1928), which was limited to the opinions of the “elite.” Despite this shortcoming, however, Dwyer gleans some pertinent information from that enquiry, such as the upper-class belief that cinema wasn’t an “important cultural form,” even though some noteworthy early players in the industry emerged from there.
By the 1980s, the elites had shunned Bollywood as its largely populist content catered primarily to urban working-class males. With the economic liberalization of the 1990s giving rise to a “middle class” with greater spending power, Bollywood once again entered the mainstream consciousness. Drawing on Bourdieu’s “analysis of taste in French society,” Dwyer defines the Indian middle classes as the “national bourgeoisie” creating a “hegemonic vision of Indian culture perpetuated through government organizations – academies, universities, museums, etc.,” despite the plurality of its cultures and social mores. The “taste” of these middle classes became cultural capital that determined the popularity of any cultural offering.
Dwyer, however, differentiates the “old middle classes” from the “new middle classes” that emerged over the last century. The latter, according to her, belong to the “upper end of the economic spectrum, they have non-landed wealth…and they speak English as one of their major languages.” This group of consumers has driven the success of Hindi cinema in the last few decades by giving it cultural legitimacy, “contesting the values of the old middle classes.”
The change in economic status was best reflected in the themes and subjects of the movies being made. Dwyer points to the old middle classes preferring cinema that depicted social realities without resorting to melodrama, often focusing on issues of “caste, class and gender.” By the 1990s, the equation changed with the emergence of a fresh crop of films focusing on romance, songs, bright new stars, and the use of better marketing strategies.
She quotes Ashis Nandy, Indian political psychologist, social theorist, and critic, to establish that this new commercial cinema emphasized the perception the lower middle classes had of the “haute bourgeoisie.” Dwyer believes this “culture espoused by the new middle classes, may be close to that of the lower middle classes but differs from it in that its consumerist lifestyle opportunities are those of the rich.” At the same time, the old middle classes may view this perception as a “mimicry of their culture,” which may cause them to look down on it.
Concluding that a study of Bollywood offers a glimpse into the workings of modern India, Dwyer dwells on the major cinematic themes that have been followed in recent years.
“The movies in question are concerned with social mobility, fantasies of wealth and, in particular, with ideas of consumerism linked closely with romance,” she writes, adding the caveat that the dominance of middle-class values in Hindi cinema doesn’t mean that its audience is entirely middle class. Yet this trend reflects widespread social change where the “consumerist fantasies of travel, clothes and lifestyle can be enjoyed by the gym-toned global Indian youth who moves freely around the world.”