I hate the term “regional cinema”. There was a time when I only mildly disliked it, but as time passes I find myself unable to ignore the implications of those two seemingly innocuous words.
For a start, “regional cinema” suggests that there is such a thing as a “national cinema” of India, just as the term “regional language” used for languages other than Hindi suggests that Hindi is our “national language”. This column is an examination of a loaded cinematic term and the political insinuations, propaganda and lies built into it.
Contrary to popular belief, Hindi is not India’s national language. While framing the Constitution, it was decided not to impose one “national language” on the entire country. Under Article 343, Hindi and English were anointed the official languages for Central Government work while states were left to choose their own official language/s.
Despite this, the “Hindi is our national language” fiction has been circulated through a mix of political games and media ignorance. Hindi cinema has beautifully and non-aggressively generated goodwill for Hindi among many non-Hindi-speakers, but the language debate has been vitiated by political misinformation campaigns and aggression.
It is not uncommon for Hindi teachers to tell students that Hindi is India’s national language. Politicians too routinely utter this falsehood, as I recall BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra doing last year on a TV show where we were fellow panelists. From his silence when I corrected him, I gathered he was aware of the truth but chose to speak an untruth.
The media further spreads this lie, either due to poor research or because there are propagandists within its ranks too. In 2009, when Samajwadi Party MLA Abu Azmi was assaulted by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena members in the Assembly because he took his oath in Hindi, not Marathi, some newspersons spoke of an attack on the “national language”. This fib has been repeated so often now that it has become a Goebbelsian truth. In a 2005 interview, Aishwarya Rai famously misinformed US talk show host David Letterman that Hindi is India’s national language.
What is the big deal, you ask? You mean apart from the importance of facts? The big deal is that politics and egos have blinded us to our amazing diversity. It is not Hindi but an imposition of Hindi that raises hackles in a country where Census figures show that 59 per cent of the population lists Constitutionally recognised languages other than Hindi as its mother tongue (for the record, Hindi has become an umbrella term for many languages dismissed as “dialects”). Since India is trotting along fine without a designated national language, why alter a harmless status quo?
The term “regional cinema” emerges from this context. India is the world’s largest producer of films, and is unique in that it is home to multiple thriving film industries in different languages that have survived cash-rich Hollywood’s marketing muscle. This is a massive achievement, yet the so-called ‘national’ media usually ignores all our cinema other than Hindi, that is, Bollywood. I say “national media” for the English media, since English is the only language not specific to any Indian region. This media is primarily headquartered in Delhi and Mumbai. Hindi is a language of Delhi, Mumbai is the centre of Bollywood. Combine the convenience of proximity with biases, and you may see why most of them behave as if Bollywood is India’s largest (or only) film industry.
This media largely recruits professionals specialising in Hindi cinema since they are more easily available in Delhi and Mumbai. Unfortunately, many Hindi cinema experts imply through their words that Indian cinema is primarily or entirely Hindi. Then there are those labouring under the misconception that Hindi is India’s national language, who believe it is okay to ignore what they consider secondary film industries.
To be fair, Hindi films do have a wider, pan-India reach and the Hindi industry has marketed itself better than its compatriots. The other side of that coin, though, is that even if a non-Hindi industry wishes to market itself, the ‘national’ media is rarely interested. The primacy of Hindi cinema is now a self-perpetuating myth. As the media ignores other cinema, it plays a role in expanding Hindi’s audience, an audience size it then uses to defend further ignoring other Indian cinema. The Telugu blockbuster Bahubali garnered coverage mostly because Karan Johar of Bollywood backed its Hindi dubbed version. Since 2007, when the ‘national’ media discovered during Sivaji ’s promotional period that Rajinikanth was perhaps India’s highest-paid star, this Tamil film legend too has been extensively covered.
Such selectiveness cannot be explained by volumes. According to the Central Board of Film Certification’s annual report for 2014-15, the maximum number of films certified by the Board that year were in Tamil, followed by Hindi and Telugu. This is unsurprising. For years, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu have been neck-and-neck in terms of number of films produced.
In a country that makes 2,000-plus feature films each year, one person cannot possibly devote equal attention to all film industries. Until organisations start hiring separate critics for at least each of our biggest industries (as they hire reporters for various political beats), the least that an individual film journalist can do is flush that awful term “regional cinema” down a bottomless drain.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad