The role of films in India

These days a lot of controversy has arisen in India over the film Pathan. I have already written some pieces opposing the film, not because I am opposed to Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role, nor beause it shows Deepika Padukone in a saffron bikini, but because the film has no social relevance. This needs to be explained.

Films are a form of art, like literature, painting, etc

There are broadly two theories about art. The first is called ‘art for art’s sake’ and the second is called ‘art for social purpose’.


According to the first theory, art is only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people, and it is not meant to propagate social ideas. If art is used for propagating social ideas it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in English literature, Edgar Allan Poe in American literature, Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ Poets in Hindi literature, Jigar Moradabadi in Urdu literature and Tagore in Bengali literature.


The other theory is that art should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing the people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity regarding the people’s sufferings. Proponents of this school are Dickens and George Bernard Shaw in English literature, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck in American literature, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French, Goethe, Schiller and Erich Maria Remarque in German, Cervantes in Spanish, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Gorki in Russian, Premchand and Kabir in Hindi, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bengali and Faiz, Josh and Manto in Urdu.


Which of these two theories should be adopted and followed by artists in India today?


Before attempting to answer this question it is necessary to clarify that there have been very great artists in both these schools. For instance, Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as playwrights belonging to the first school i.e. ‘art for art’s sake’. Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention of reforming society or combating social evils. Yet undoubtedly Shakespeare is an artist of the highest rank.


Similarly, ‘Meghdut’ of Kalidas is nature and love poetry at its highest. The depictions of the North Indian countryside which Kalidas gives, is astonishing in its sheer beauty. Even Wordsworth, the English nature poet, cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.


On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose in mind – to combat social evils and reform society. Whether it is ‘Major Barbara’ or ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’, or ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ or `Misalliance’ or Captain Brassbound’s Conversion’, his plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Similarly, Dickens in his novels attacks the social evils in England in his time e.g. the terrible conditions of schools, jails, orphanages, the judicial system, etc.


We now come back to the question posed earlier. Should artists in India, including film makers, follow the school of ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? As mentioned earlier, both schools have produced great artists. What we have to think of, however, is which school would be beneficial to our country in today’s historical situation.


In my opinion in a poor country like India it is the second theory (‘art for social purpose’) alone which can be acceptable today. Our country is facing the tremendous challenge of abolishing poverty, unemployment, inflation, ignorance, casteism, communalism, and other social evils, and hence artists must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India, they must inspire the people by their works, deal with the peoples’ problems, and speak out against oppression and injustice.

No doubt people want entertainment, but entertainment can also be coupled with a social purpose e.g. in the works of Dickens, Shaw, Victor Hugo, Maxim Gorky, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Faiz, Sharad Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Munshi Premchandra, etc

As mentioned above, films are also a form of art. People who see them want entertainmement, but entertainment can also be coupled with social themes e,.g. many of the films of Raj Kapooor such as Awaara, Shri 420, Boot Polish, Jagte Raho, etc, the films of Charlie Chaplin such as City Lights, The Great Dictator, Gold Rush, etc. the films of Satyajit Ray such as Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sansar, Ashani Sanket, Devi, Charulata, etc, the films of Sergei Eisenstein e.g. Battleship Potempkin, Strike, October, etc, or the films of Akira Kurosawa e.g. Rashomon, Throne of Blood, etc, the films of Orson Welles e.g. Citizen Kane, and of Roman Polanski..

I submit that films like Pathan, which from its teaser seems to have no social relevance, and is only a thriller taking us into a world of make believe, are only escapism, and are like a drug or other intoxicant, which can only give people a couple of hour’s temporary relief from the harsh realities of life ( thereby serving as a diversionary tehnique ). The Indian masses are facing horrible poverty, widespread hunger ( India has slipped from number 101 to 107 out of the 121 countries surveyed by Global Hunger Index, wiorse than neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh ), massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, etc. Hence our films, apart from providing entertainment, should also deal with these issues, but Pathan does nothing of the sort.

The Roman Emperors used to say ” If you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses ”. I submit that Pathan is just a circus.


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