There's an interesting dichotomy to the reactions of the English-language and the Marathi-language sections of the media to the Maharashtra government's latest controversial decision: enforcing the screening of at least one Marathi film at multiplexes during prime-time i.e. between 6 pm and 9 pm.
The English media has been unanimous in panning the decision, widely regarded as another fascist decision by the Devendra-Fadnavis-led BJP government in the state after the infamous beef ban. To make matters worse, columnist/author Shobhaa De has been asked by the Shiv Sena to apologise for her reaction to the move on Twitter.
All of these reactions point to what many people in the state have been becoming increasingly fearful of: an overbearing state that quietly and continuously strips people of their rights and privileges while imposing its own provincialist agenda on the unsuspecting public.
"In 2014, the number of Bollywood films released outnumbered Marathi films by roughly four to one: 201 as opposed to 51."
The other narrative, predictably, paints a different picture. Marathi filmmakers were inundated with calls from journalists who expected jubilant reactions to the move from them. The Marathi media, in general, seems to have welcomed the move more favourably.
As is the case with most issues that involve some form of affirmative action, both parties are right about some points and wrong about others.
"[A]n overbearing state that quietly and continuously strips people of their rights and privileges while imposing its own provincialist agenda on the unsuspecting public."
Let's take a step back and really look at this picture, 'cause it's a big one. Mumbai happens to be home to the Hindi film industry. It also happens to be the capital of Maharashtra, which has a thriving Marathi-language film industry as well as the home state of Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema.
However, as is evident to anyone not living under a rock (or, my new favourite pop-cultural reference, a Mole Woman), Bollywood has, over many decades, emerged as the dominant choice of moviegoers. In 2014, the number of Bollywood films released outnumbered Marathi films by roughly four to one: 201 as opposed to 51. Given their undeniable popularity, Bollywood films tend to get the most number of screens during the best show-timings at multiplexes.
This gives the general impression that since Bollywood films are what the public undeniably wants, the state is taking away from their rightful revenue by forcing exhibitors to screen stupid, boring Marathi movies that no one wants to watch anyway. Amiright, guys?
Except it isn't really as black-and-white as that. A look at 2014's Bollywood box-office figures are telling: out of 201 films, only 15 were considered hits or super-hits, which indicates a shamefully low success ratio of approximately 7.5%. Moreover, while the Marathi industry produces its fair share of mediocre slapstick comedies and unbearable melodramas -- just like their Hindi-speaking brethren -- there have also been a number of highly watchable films that have been and continue to be made.
In 2015 alone, aside from the acclaimed 'Court' (which is technically not a Marathi film, since more than 50% of its dialogues are in Hindi, English, and Gujarati), we can look forward to Avinash Arun's Crystal Bear winner 'Killa' and (perhaps) 'Sairat', by Nagraj Manjule, who made last year's award-winning 'Fandry'.
The difference between the Hindi and Marathi industries, aside from that of popularity, also boils down to financial power. Despite 85-90% of Hindi movies running to near-empty theatres, Bollywood studios have the financial might to ensure that films find distributors, get promoted, get written about in mainstream media outlets, and reach a larger audience.
Meanwhile, while Marathi movies do play at multiplexes due to long-standing political pressures, they're often -- just like indie films -- given terrible show-timings in the middle of the afternoon or late morning. With people finding it impossible to attend 3 pm shows in the middle of the week, these films, naturally, run to empty theatres.
In this regard, I do feel that giving the Marathi film industry a teensy-weensy slice of the pie isn't the worst thing in the world. If you consider a multiplex with 5 screens having 10 'prime-time' slots they can program films into, giving up one or two of those to Marathi films doesn't seem all that bad. At worst, they will play to empty theatres anyway just as 90% of all Bollywood films do; at best, they'll attract a certain kind of audience that wants to watch these films, but hasn't been able to because of inconvenient timings. Either way, this issue certainly doesn't warrant the disproportionate amount of outrage that it has received.
(I can already see you typing out 'Bro do you even Twitter?' in the comments section. Stop it. I'm a journalist. We have to state the obvious sometimes.)
"For all we know, this decision could even help the revenues of multiplex chains. "
Those who have been critical of the move to allow Marathi films this tiny slice of the pie have pointed out that this decision strips the ticket-paying public of its power to choose what they want to watch. To them, I would like to ask: how empowered do you feel when a Rohit Shetty blockbuster comes along and takes up all the slots at your local multiplex, thereby pushing the Hollywood or indie film you really wanted to watch out of theatres and into oblivion?
One of capitalism's greatest tricks is its ability to seem as though it is the fairest and most democratic of all systems by pretending as though the playing field is level for everyone. However, when the power of money comes into play and things are decided by virtue of commerce, the resultant decision on your part, as a consumer, is already out of your hands. What we end up with very often when we mix commerce with art, therefore, is the illusion of choice.
I am no supporter of enforced decisions in general. The ongoing beef ban in Maharashtra, for example, is a travesty. Censorship needs to go. There is no doubt about this.
However, affirmative action, by its very definition, is an act of positive discrimination. There are shades to it and it is imperative that we understand the differences between them. If the government had mandated that, say, 50% of all prime-time shows would have to be Marathi films, then that would've been a much better reason to outrage. But they haven't. For all we know, this decision could even help the revenues of multiplex chains. But we won't know until we at least try it out.
We must understand that levelling the playing field is necessary in a society as complex, unequal, and multicultural as ours. To assume that there is no need to do so is also, in its own way, an act of oppression.