Prolific and diverse, the Indian film industry produces more movies than any other country – about 1,500 or more annually, which is more than twice as many as Hollywood does. Focusing on the societal impacts of this huge film world, actor/director Prakash Belawadi and scholar/documentarian Shohini Ghosh joined moderator Lorraine Mahia Ali, a culture writer for The Los Angeles Times, to discuss the role cinema plays in influencing and reflecting India’s national dialogues.
Ghosh, a professor of media and a documentary filmmaker, said that because of the wide reach and popularity of Indian cinema, films are often at the center of public debate on issues such as cultural identity, nationalism, religion and sexuality. “Those debates usually center on the negative impact,” she said, “thereby holding cinematic media responsible for a variety of real and imagined societal ills.”
Belawadi, who is based in Bangalore, said that beyond the world of racy Bollywood blockbusters, India’s films are uniquely “divided by identities, territories, language, ethnicities, cost and languages. It is a challenge to reflect an Indian reality.” In fact, regional cinema in languages other than Hindi account for more than 40% of national box office revenue.
One of the industry’s most unique contributions to the Indian media scene, Belawadi said, is through song. The village simpleton character, for example, can say things in song that could not be said in speech. In the end, he said, “Indian cinema reflects dreams and aspirations. And I have hope for the future generation of filmmakers, who will look at Indian reality square in the eye.”
Shohini said that continuing controversies over film censorship have also been the subject of debates. She described a few controversial films that “seek to make informed interventions into deeply contentious and unresolved public debates” around such topics as homosexuality, adultery and murder.
In the case of real-life cases made into films, Shohini said, a court proceeding is often preceded by a sensationalist media trial, driven by unsubstantiated claims about immoral acts. “Such films point to journalism’s failure to maintain fairness, accuracy, viewpoint neutrality and in certain cases, basic professional ethics,” She said. “They bring out the narrative threads that fall through the cracks of mainstream media.”