Dude, where's the small in 'small town cinema'?

Bollywood goes to small-town India but stays with the upper castes and classes, says Gunjan Sharma.

shuddh desi romance poster.jpg

Source- Yash Raj Films

If the 1990s in Hindi cinema were all about ‘bade bade desh’ and ‘chhoti chhoti baatein’, the 2010s proved to be all about ‘chhote chhote shehar’ and ‘badi badi baatein’. A new genre? Hardly. A sub-genre? Perhaps. The latest sub-genre brings us stories from the small towns of India. These revolve around the lives of middle-class families that seem very far removed from the glamourized industry that makes them. They deploy humble, slice-of-life-based narratives as against the well-worn larger-than-life storylines. They seek to be relatable in aesthetic and characterization, and try to convince us that we are watching the ‘real India’, ‘the unexplored India’ as if the larger idea were to build a bridge to the people living in the big cities.


“By the end of the previous decade, Bollywood had reached an impasse. Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom had started to wane. Films like Anjaana Anjaani, made on a huge budget and set in exotic foreign locations, received negative reviews. There was a desperate need for a change in the scenario,” says Aswathy Gopalakrishnan, a film journalist.

Exit Anjaana-Anjaani. Enter the jaana-jaani. 

Rohan Naahar, a film critic for Hindustan Times says that these films are about the “relatable Everyman. The stakes in his life are personal, not earth-shattering.”

Critics agree that it’s also the safest bet filmmakers can make today in terms of profit. 

Tatsam Mukherjee, a film journalist says, “‘Small-town films’ really became mainstream with Anurag Kashyap’s Wasseypur films in 2012. The Wasseypur films made the heartland lingo seem ‘cool’, given how colourful Bhojpuri-flavoured Hindi really is, especially the expletives. It became all the more mainstream when young actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao began doing a bunch of these films. It makes monetary sense (I think), less the investment is low, and if you can tip-toe around a social issue, then you’re mostly guaranteed a success. And because it costs less to make, your break-even isn’t very high, and consequently your profits are bigger.”

Some films from this sub-genre of varying storylines are Tanu weds Manu (Kanpur), Zero (Meerut), Haraamkhor (an unnamed village but clearly North Indian), Bareilly ki Barfi (Bareilly), Raanjhana (Varanasi), Toilet Ek Prem Katha (a village in Uttar Pradesh), Sui Dhaaga (Chanderi and other locations), Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (Haridwar), Dum Laga Ke Haisa (Haridwar), Bala (Kanpur), Manmarizaiyaan (Amritsar), Gulabo Sitabo (Lucknow), Badrinath ki Dulhaniya (Jhansi), Shuddh Desi Romance (Jaipur), Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Allahabad), Pati, Patni Aur Woh (Kanpur and Lucknow), Luka Chuppi (Mathura), Batti Gul Meter Chalu (Tehri), Jolly LLB 2 (Lucknow).

zero poster.jpg


Poster of ‘Zero’ which features a famous landmark of ‘Ghantaghar’ in the background, from the city of Meerut.


On the surface, these movies seem like they are giving voices and representation to those people whose stories are not often seen on the big screen where you either lived in a bungalow and drove an Impala in the city or you lived in the idyllic countryside and sang songs about a Pardesiya who had stolen your jiya (a city-dweller who had stolen your heart). Movies made earlier during the 2000s usually showcased small towns but only for their dullness. Think Bunty and Babli (2005) which was all about the central protagonists escaping the slowness of small-town life. The post-Wasseypur movies have embraced that very life. In Manmarziyaan (2018), Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal and Abhishek Bachchan are caught up in a love triangle in Amritsar but never once think about leaving; Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) is about a forced arranged marriage in Haridwar and how it turns to love but no eyes ever turn to the metropolis as a way out.

However, most of these stories are limited to the Hindi language speaking belt of North India and they extend their representation to a specific category of people. The characters usually belong to a middle-class upper-caste Hindu family. 

Source- Red Chillies Entertainment

If we agree that Ayushman Khurrna is one of the poster boys of this genre, then consider the names of the characters he has played. In Shubh Mangal Savdhan he played Mudit Sharma; in Dream Girl, he was Karam Singh; in Bala, he played Bala Shukla; in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, he was Prem Prakash Tiwari: in Bareilly Ki Barfi, his character was called Chirag Dubey; he was Kartik Singh in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Baankey Rastogi in Gulabo Sitabo.

The central character in a Hindi film is usually the hero. And once the hero is upper-caste and upper-class, everyone around him will also ‘belong’. His family will associate with other upper-caste, upper-class Hindus although there may be a token Muslim with a view to the Muslim audiences. This precludes any caste or class conflict. If you don’t notice the poor, if you don’t see the lower castes, how can there be a problem? In reality, these films have only replicated the mindset of old-style Bollywood.

ayushmann khurrana.jpg

Source- T- Series, Colour Yellow Productions

PadMan akshay kumar.jpg

Source- Hope Productions

Akshay Kumar’s character in Padman was inspired by the life of Coimbatore-based  entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, but the story was shifted to North India and Arunachalam Muruganantham became Lakshmikant "Lakshmi'' Chauhan. No one explained why. No one thought to ask why. If a man has to be a success, surely he should be a North Indian male? If Akshay Kumar is going to play him…well, never mind. 

Filmmakers have settled into a very comfortable process of never questioning the status quo. 

So, are these films bringing out fresh narratives from smaller places or just further stereotyping the common Indian as the ‘Hindu middle-class’ person?

Wrapped around the same crowd-pleasing narrative, we have the similar set of characters, the concerned mother who is almost always a housewife, the emotionally distant father, the best friend for comic relief, and our protagonists who are small-town enough to have the accent but also urban enough. Kriti Sanon’s character in Bareilly ki Barfi has modern beliefs, she smokes and drinks. Again in ‘Luka Chuppi’ she wants to have a live-in relationship with her boyfriend before getting married, to have the wider audience connect with them. “Most of these stories have repurposed their lead, according to the needs of the story. But if there’s one quality in all these characters, it’s their arc from being ‘relatable’ to becoming ‘heroic’ after a point of conflict. Most of them start out by playing buffoons, but ultimately find their cause and go on to become heroes.” says Tatsam. A lot of millennials have migrated to metros, these characters are there to help them remember their roots. 

Film posters of such films carry the unique kitsch style. The fonts and iconography are in line with the aesthetics of truck art, reminiscent of the small town India. 

‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ was able to hold up a mirror to the youth's expectations of love and romance, and appreciated equally by the audience and the critics, but the story of Raghu Ram and Gayatri falling in or not falling in love was a very convenient tale to tell. The caste of these characters is never explicitly mentioned but we are to assume the obvious.

It may be the male lead wearing a white thread known as Janau, worn by the upper caste hindus particularly Brahmins or referring to the elders in the house as ‘panditji’, meanwhile the biggest indicator being that their caste never creates any hurdles or comes into question. 

None of these movies have Muslim or a Dalit holding the central narrative instead of just being a plot device. Gulabo Sitabo (2020) which gathered a lot of interest for being one of the first major online releases during the pandemic was a story told from the heart of Lucknow which did feature a Muslim main character but not as an act of genre subversion but simply because the ‘Haveli’ had to be owned by a Muslim. 

This has been the case with mainstream Hindi cinema for a long time but recently we saw Shah Rukh Khan playing Dr. Jehangir "Jug" Khan in Dear Zindagi (2016) and in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2017) where both Anushka Sharma and Aishwariya Rai Bachchan played Muslim characters. 

These films have established the recurrent formula of setting up a love story with aesthetics of a small-town built around a social issue. The accent, the slang, the repeated imagery such as romancing in and around a temple, voicing an issue that demands debate but not necessarily controversy.  

So, do these repeated representations in films subconsciously help to build a narrative in the minds of the audience?

Rohan Naahar replies “Absolutely. That’s probably why people believe some of the country’s biggest stars are good people. Which is also proven by their insistence on never playing bad guys, because in India, we haven’t evolved enough to understand the difference between the two. It’s sad, these actors know that the audiences aren’t smart, and they pander to them.”

In the film ‘Toilet-Ek Prem Katha’ Akshay Kumar’s character emerges as saviour while the movie was inspired by Anita Narre's true story.  

Aswathy Gopalakrishnan believes that “While it is mostly the men who are caught between the rigidity of the old order and an aspiration to join the new liberal one. None of them are as ambitious as their female counterparts. In all these films, women easily find belonging in modernity while the men struggle with the complexes patriarchy has instilled in them.”

Even the women have their lives stolen from them. Perhaps it is time to recognise that who makes the movie decides a whole bunch of things. Stories like Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly ki Barfi (2017) or Nil Battey Sannata (2015) or Leena Yadav’s Parched (2015) were possible because there was a woman filmmaker on board.

If there were more Dalits and women as directors in Bollywood, maybe we would see accurate representations of gender and caste. 

We have seen only one Dalit protagonist whose caste identity is not used as a trope in Newton while a film like Article 15 which spoke about caste atrocities had a Brahmin lead. 

bareilly ki barfi poster.jpg

Source- Junglee Pictures


Source- Maddock Films

“Bollywood’s clichéd and faulty portrayal of Muslims/Dalits/minorities has, over the years, been creating a sense of otherness. Haven’t we all mastered the art of predicting a mainstream film’s storyline, thanks to years of watching the same plot over and over again? When a UC Hindu heroine falls in love with a Dalit/Muslim man, the love story is going to end disastrously, possibly with the death of one of them.” says Aswathy Gopalakrishnan. 

This may bring us to the question how many Dalit filmmakers occupy a voice in Bollywood?  

These films started out with the premise to offer something different, it was new, it was quirky and filmmakers were not shy of picking up social issues which would be taboo in small cities but they have ultimately settled on being driven by commerce by repeating a hit formula. They have failed to recognize the value of representation in movies which reach such a massive audience.