Some years ago the famous Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin came to India to release her book Tender Hooks, based on her column in The Friday Times.

I attended the launch in Mumbai of the work, described as a social satire, along with my friend the novelist Neel Mukherjee, who was nominated for the Booker prize a few months ago. Mohsin spoke eloquently and well about Pakistani society and the reason why she chose to write in the style that she did, which was as a diary written by a wealthy Lahori housewife. While she was comparing Pakistan and India, she made a throwaway remark on Bollywood. The quality of its films was poor, she said, and it wasn’t really needed. We could live without Bollywood. Iranian films were actually of much better quality.

I am paraphrasing her, but I think I have accurately got the essence of what she said. I am not sure about the Iranian films bit, and I have seen some quite awful and boring Iranian movies, including Nasser Zamiri’s With Others, shown at the Bangalore Film Festival in December, but I was more interested in what she said about Bollywood.

Something similar was said by Saadat Hasan Manto many years ago. In my translations of Manto’s non-fiction writing, there is an essay on the first 25 years of Bollywood. The essay is originally called Hindustani Sanat e Filmsazi Par Ek Nazar. In it, Manto talks about the craft of Bollywood and writes:
We want good films. We want great films, such as we can put up against the work from other nations. We want every aspect of India to shine... But for the last 25 years, made of 9,125 days, what have we got to show? Can we put on display our directors? What about our writers, who exist by ripping off the writings of others? Can we show our movies – all of them copies of American films – to others? No.

In my opinion Bollywood’s importance to India and farther afield is not from the quality of its art, but something else which I will come to later. I thought of this subject when I read that the government had appointed a new Censor Board chief, the producer Pahlaj Nihalani. On being appointed, Nihalani, who has made such movies as Aankhen, starring Govinda, and Talaash, starring Akshay Kumar, said two things. He said he was a Bharatiya Janata Party man and that the prime minister was his “action hero”.

This was fine. After all it is a political appointment. However, Nihalani also said that there was too much nudity on television and that it should be controlled. I have not seen any nudity on television, though I may be watching the wrong channels. I think what Nihalani meant was obscenity.

And this is what I wanted to link to those comments about Bollywood’s quality.

The truth is that Iran produces some fine and sober cinema because its filmmakers are not allowed to make popular entertainment. They may not be explicitly banned from doing so, but popular entertainment can only be produced on the cusp of obscenity. Iranian and Pakistani laws on obscenity and the general state of their society and culture will not allow them to show explicit depictions of the man-woman relationship or even of basic romance.

Spreading message through films

This higher tolerance for obscenity in Mumbai, which is India’s most liberal place, over other Indian cities, and the higher tolerance for obscenity in India over other countries in the neighbourhood is what makes Bollywood the centre of South Asian entertainment. There was a time not long ago when Bollywood was dominated by individuals from Lahore and other parts of what is today Pakistan.

But despite having the talent, which I presume it still does, Lahore could not produce a film industry of the calibre of Bollywood because the talent was not allowed to make popular entertainment. India has been fortunate in having very open-minded people at the Censor Board and it is their actions (or I should say lack of action) which has kept the film industry buzzing. An actively engaged censor worried about too much nudity and obscenity would make Bollywood the sort of place whose films resembled those made in Iran or Lahore. They might be moral films, and some of them might even be very good art, but they are unlikely to be particularly entertaining. There is a reason why Bollywood and Hollywood are the two places which generate both obscenity and entertainment.

Manto writes in that essay: “There are many ways of educating a nation, but there is consensus that film is an important one. It is easy and efficient to communicate a message, even one that is complicated, through movies. Texts weigh heavy on the individual, and for most children, so does schooling. It is no different in college, of course. But the message that might take months of studying to properly understand, however, might be passed on in an instant through films. India needs entertaining movies that also educate, exercise the mind and introduce us to new ideas and new thinking.”

He wrote this in 1938, when he was only 26 and in the early stages of his career in the film industry. Though he did not touch the specific subject again in his writing, his view on tolerance in society towards obscenity is today well known because of his short stories. Manto understood the function of Bollywood and recognised that its openness and tolerance, more than its artistic quality, was its greatest attribute.