Decline of Hindi Mainstream Cinema in the absence of a New Wave

While many film industries worldwide gravitated toward realism and social relevance, India's film scene chose to revel in the grandeur of larger-than-life heroes and masala spectacles.

Around 1970, when most film industries across the world were flowing with the tide of the new wave and experimenting with their cinema and style, some Indian filmmakers too joined the movement and experimented with the art form, creating more realistic cinema with bold, challenging, and innovative themes. However, this cinema was categorized as only an alternative cinema and couldn’t take center stage. And so emerged Parallel cinema, also known as offbeat films or art films. Mainstream cinema, however, continued to be the money-making machine with mass appeal and commercial success.

When it comes to content, the mainstream prior to 1970 had seen its golden period with the likes of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, etc., making more thoughtful and socially relevant films. But after 1970, the mainstream saw a steep fall; its content and rationality gradually deteriorated and it continued to do so till now. Only recently, some new indie filmmakers were able to make space in the mainstream, but even they find it hard to make as much commercial gains as mainstream cinema. But why is it? Let’s look at some of the important reasons why, while most industries were transforming and following the new approach with thought-provoking and realistic content, the Indian mainstream began to produce mindless work that was commercially viable, unlike parallel cinema whose fame and exposure were limited to critical acclaim. This divides society into those seeking thoughtful content and those seeking mere entertainment from films, which, to date, holds true, leaving two kinds of audiences in India.

The deterioration of Indian cinema since the 1970s can be attributed to various factors.

Economic Period and Commercial Viability

India had a difficult economic period and it reflects in the mindset of society, and this influence extends to the cinema as well. Producers heavily invest in film production, expecting substantial returns. Economic uncertainties and financial risks make producers risk-averse, leading them to prefer projects with proven track records or established formulas for success. This inclination can hinder the development of experimental or unconventional cinema, as it involves greater financial risks. Adding to it is the country’s diverse audience, with varying tastes, sensibilities, and cultural backgrounds, leading mainstream filmmakers to resort to formulaic storytelling with mass appeal, prioritizing entertaining and crowd-pleasing content.

Socioeconomic Disparity

The period after independence was a tough one for Indian society. In general, society was in survival mode, facing socioeconomic disparities, rising poverty, and unemployment. As a result, there was a need for emotional catharsis, leading to the popularity of movies that could provide temporary relief. While parallel cinema focused on thought-provoking films, the audience was not in the mood for further contemplation as their everyday struggles were already daunting enough. This gave rise to escapist cinema and mainstream cater to it.

Lack of Education

Due to a lack of education, the audience often lacked the emotional or intellectual potential to understand nuances or thought-provoking ideas, leading them to prefer films that aligned with their sensibilities. Mainstream cinema readily catered to these preferences, offering irrational and mindless surface-level content in the form of entertainment. These films demanded less emotional involvement and focused more on commercial gains, which is why mainstream heroes during that time tended to star in 15 to 16 films simultaneously.

Communal Experience

Indian cinema’s cultural significance is evident in its role as a communal experience, where joint families watch films together. As a result, filmmakers often create movies that appeal to a wider audience of different age groups. However, this sometimes leads to the exclusion of bolder, experimental, or challenging topics in favor of commercially driven, masala films that the whole family can enjoy together.

Hero Worship and Star Influence

The concept of hero worship, influenced by years of oppression due to India’s colonial history and the practice of worshipping religious deities, created a mindset in the audience to believe in the figures higher than themselves who would come and rescue them from their miseries and hardships. This mindset resulted in a dependence on larger-than-life heroes who would save them from corruption and oppression by the regime and from the upper class. Filmmakers were quick to learn about this phenomenon when the country first witnessed the popularity of the likes of Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. With the emergence of second-generation of actors like Rajesh Khanna their understanding of this aspect of society solidified and they began to encash their star status.  These larger-than-life heroes later became real-life stars, and so movies were often tailored to their personas to gain commercial benefits. This eventually drew the focus away from stories and led to star-centric films.

This hero-worshipping, combined with economic instability, encourages filmmakers to produce more films, earning the Indian film industry the repute of being the world’s second-largest film industry. However, filmmakers continued creating new stars and then typecasting them in the same roles over and over again. This approach seeks quick money without much risk and minimal effort put into innovative and new ideas, leading to a separation of art from films and, therefore, parallel cinema from mainstream cinema.

The trend that started around the 1970s has brought us to a point where films are now perceived as commodities, and the industry is primarily motivated by commercial interests with the majority of industry focusing on box office numbers rather than content. There is no denying the importance of the opening weekend and total grossing in today’s film industry, where movies have a shorter run in cinema halls, usually limited to 2 to 3 weeks. In times like this, marketing becomes crucial as it already involves a major chunk of the total budget. But if that is the sole parameter for the success of a movie, it surely presents a problem, as what is evolving if not films.

Even now, most of the above factors remain as relevant as they were during the 1970s. However, due to global influence and the rise of digital platforms, audiences have access to international movies with dubbing, posing a risk to the lazy Indian film industry which till now was comfortably riding on its star potential. The industry is now facing a significant challenge with its decades-old approach that is being questioned in the face of constant box office failures. As a result, reform is needed. But any reform takes time and often spans generations. With the ever-evolving cinema and its technology, it will be interesting to see whether reforms can come at the right time, saving the industry from its eventual fall.

However, it is important to understand that such reforms can not be independent of societal, economic, cultural, and political transformation.

Considering the 100 years of Indian cinema, it was not easy to cover everything in one article. Therefore, the prime focus of the article was to highlight the reasons behind the rapid decline of the mainstream after 1970. This, however, in no way diminishes the contribution of films that have inspired and entertained an entire generation, nor does it lessen the impact of influential figures from both the mainstream Hindi film industry and regional cinema. Whether it’s Salim Javed or Gulzar, Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, Manmohan Desai or Yash Chopra, Rafi or Kishore or Burman, their contributions are immense and will remain so.

Pankaj Madaan

A filmmaker and a screenwriter known for his comprehensive knowledge of world cinema and insightful commentary on the Hindi film industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Don't Miss

50 Years of Blockbusters: From Marketing Genius to a Numbers Game

Many cinema lovers may not know that the phenomenon we