Bollywood Faces Cultural Slap

India 2005

By Troy Turner

June 10, 2009

MUMBAI, India – The arranged marriage is alive and well here. Don't laugh, because local officials and laypeople alike say it works.

Or, perhaps more importantly, the eligible young men and women say it works.

“We can always say no,” said one pretty young Hindu woman dressed in a colorful silk sari. “Think of it as a dating service. Our parents do all the hard work, and we know they are trying very hard to find the right match who will make us happy. And this way, we know the families are happy, and this is important here.”

India's majority population is Hindu, including perhaps as many as 700 million people. The largest minority is Muslim, with up to 300 million. There also are Christians and a sampling of various other religious beliefs, but much smaller in comparison.

The Hindu are strictly conservative, which helps account for an amazing sense of discipline when it comes to theft and other crimes in a country of 1 billion people. The poverty and desperation here would cause chaos in many other nations. Here, for the most part, courtesy rules.

The Hindu do not believe in divorce, meaning once a marriage occurs, it is a lifelong bond.

That makes the mission of finding the right match a sincerely meaningful one for the parents, who will do everything from attending social functions to running ads in the newspaper to solicit the right candidate.

Sometimes, it's a match made in heaven. And sometimes, well…

One man mentioned he had been married for 13 years. When asked if she was the right choice, he replied, “I'm still deciding.”

India lives with a caste system, and interestingly, many here seem content to simply accept that fact. The lower classes provide labor and services to the upper classes, which expect such royal treatment. The wildcard to any changes almost always centers around education.

However, even mandatory education for the young is distant in more ways than geography in many of India's rural areas, and when it comes to university studies, the application lines are long and highly competitive for the limited number of seats available.

Yet, another young woman, a successful business intern, said the only time she and her friends ever talked about the caste system was regarding marriage. “It's very important to marry someone within your own caste,” she said. “You want to marry someone who speaks the same language and who worships the same temples.”

The Hindu worship a holy trinity of their own, including the creator, the preserver and the destroyer. They take off their shoes before entering a temple. They harshly, but lovingly, discipline their children.

It has been this way in India for many thousands of years, and it will take more than the computer age to change it.

But, while the computer may not change the course of history, what about Bollywood?

India produces more movies than any other nation in the world, including the U.S.

Bollywood is located near Mumbai (formerly Bombay), which many Indians affectionately call the New York City of India. This is where anything that is vogue or trend-setting gets its foothold in a country so steeped in tradition. That includes its ideas for entertainment.

The name Bollywood is an obvious takeoff from America's Hollywood, but movie producers here are quick to point out that the common practice of stealing plots and storylines is very much a two-way street.

A big traditional difference that does exist in the plots is the noticeable absence of sex scenes, and the strong influence of dance, music and happy endings that hallmark Bollywood productions.

Rarely will real-life issues of poverty, AIDS, child labor, education woes or anything similar dominate a storyline here.

“Our movie houses are Disney Lands, where you can escape reality and enjoy dreams,” said Mahesh Bhatt, a legendary filmmaker in India with numerous awards and top selling movies to his credit.

He reflected on a conversation with a man who once asked him, “Why should I see something serious and get depressed? I can look at my bank account for that.”

And, until recently, sex scenes were taboo in this conservative society.

“Why did we put songs in our films?…” asked provocative young filmmaker Nikhil Advani. “Because they took the place of love-making scenes. We didn't have the love-making scenes.”

Enter, stage left, the new MTV-era. Indian Style.

Pirated movies sold cheap on the black market, the computer age, and most importantly the transition from one state television channel to a wide spectrum of choices on satellite or cable TV, all are changing dramatically India's entertainment demands.

Only five years ago, the No.1 method of communication in India with someone out of town was, literally, the postcard.

During the last five years, the cell phone industry has grown like kudzu, sprouting roots so fast and so far that even India's poorest working families can afford the cheap rates and costs of owning a cell phone.

Likewise is the television influence. It seems odd to the visitor to be in a shanty town and notice that while there may be inadequate plumbing, poor lighting and no knowledge of something so absurd as bought air (sometimes known as heating and air conditioning), there will be a TV set in many of the so-called homes.

That, say the movie producers, is bringing about an avalanche of change in what viewers demand to match the global competition being beamed into their homes, including a new tolerance level of sex, MTV-type musical video entertainment, and action-type topics in the storylines.

“Suddenly, India was invaded by channels, channels, channels, ”Bhatt said. “Globalization. And the umbilical cord is Hollywood.”

He lamented about how the movie theaters are no longer the monopoly for marketing movies, and how there is a decline in theaters being a great social outing in many towns.

“The home has become the hub even for the poor man,” he said of television's influence and the black market for DVDs and videos.

Bhatt, 55, is a veteran filmmaker and seemed to appreciate the clean, fun escapism movies previously provided. But now, movie producers feel the pressure to change with the times in order to remain successful. More love scenes, though still nowhere near the level of American filmmaking, are including soft porn in place of romance.

That's a far stretch from the days not long ago when even the word adultery was not allowed in a storyline. Changes, they said, had to be made.

“Suddenly the film industry was like an aging whore,” Bhatt bluntly said.

His candid, undisguised and ironic remark seems to shadow a cultural change that, despite arguments from traditional conservatives here who feel confident in maintaining current social values, threatens to make a stark impression in India.

Sadly, unlike in the arranged marriage, no one seems to be able to say no if they want to stop it.