What’s Hindi cinema’s attitude to old age?


What’s Hindi cinema’s attitude to old age?

The question arises out of a guest post on the substack Joining the Dots by a former BBC colleague Henri Astier. He wrote about French cinema’s relatively recent obsession with dying. Click here to read his piece.

Hollywood, as I recently wrote off the back of Henri’s piece, seems fascinated by youth and this is reflected in the films it churns out. With notable exceptions such as Nomadland, Hollywood doesn’t seem to work overly hard to portray seniors as real people with real lives. Instead, it prefers to lapse into cliché or comedic moments that marginalise the old. Click here to read the piece on Hollywood’s attitude to old age.

But what of Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry? How does it portray the organic process of ageing and the lives of people who are no longer young and all that sprightly? Not being a film buff, I can’t rattle off the names of every Hindi film ever that has senior characters. But even from a sociological perspective, it’s fair to say India’s attitude to old people is very different from that of the West.

Indian academic Tannistha Samanta, who specialises in gerontology, explained it very well in 2018: “Although the Indian Hindi film industry has been known to be considerably less gerontophobic than the western popular culture (Hollywood, in particular), our aging Naanas and Naanis have been often represented as either able keepers of family ‘sanskars’ or hyper-ritualized subjects (with added effect if in some diasporic setting) or as self-sacrificing elderly parents to prodigal children (or ruthless grandchildren).”

‘Sanskar’ means tradition and it’s true that Hindi cinema often relied on the stereotypical widowed mother in a white sari to convey the strength and supposed sacredness of the Indian way of life. Hers was the path of sacrifice, iron self-control, duty, devotion and drudgery. It was rarely possible to see her as anything other than “ma”, “amma”, the maternal centre of gravity of the emotional world as well as the workaday one of meals and household chores. It was a position of responsibility and respect but not a full picture of a person’s inner life.

As for the older man, perhaps the living, breathing husband of “ma” (in which case she wouldn’t be a widow in a white sari) Hindi cinema has long been a bit more flexible in the portrayal. The old man could be one of many things. He could be a stern taskmaster, a stickler for rules, inflexible but secretly soft-hearted. Or he could be a bit of a gambler and no good. Or he could be wise, sage-like, lovable. There were multiple variations possible but mostly, older men signified generational authority.

As Professor Samanta explains, Bollywood’s new age senior movies see an evolution in the portrayal of the male retiree. “…we see male protagonists in leisure pursuits – listening to music, socializing, gardening, doing tasks around the house, purportedly, keeping busy. In the process, it resocializes (older) men and reconfigures masculinity in newer ways”.

Add to that Bollywood’s changing attitude to older stars, both male and female. Some of the men (notably Amitabh Bachchan and until his recent death, Rishi Kapoor) never retired. Some of the older women are also onscreen with strong parts that go beyond “ma”.

Several recent Hindi movies reveal the shifting attitude to the portrayal of old age. I haven’t seen them but I believe Waiting (2015), Piku (2015) and Mukti Bhawan (2016) are good examples.

What other, more recent Hindi films do you think change the script on seniors?