In Conversation With Rohit Roy: On the representation of Street Culture in Bollywood

In Conversation With Rohit Roy: On the representation of Street Culture in Bollywood

Indian street culture (especially in Indian cinema) has a fascinating appeal. On the surface, they present us with a glimpse of a world we might be familiar with or have seen once. You might have seen the dingy, narrow lanes, or the bustling crowd or the local hawkers or the cramped shops, squeezed in one row.  But beneath this appearance, sometimes, there’s a different world that remains elusive, perfectly hidden from us. This is the world of ruffians, low-time criminals, going about their day, looking after their own survival. Bollywood takes extreme delight in such people and the world. 

Today, we will have a discussion on the matter of representation of this street culture and criminal hood in Bollywood with our guest Rohit Roy. We will be talking about the cinematic representation of taporis.

Rohit is a Ph.D. scholar at Shantiniketan, working on his thesis titled “Crime in Indian Society: Reflection in Mainstream Hindi movies, the 1950s to 1980s”. He has read and studied a lot on the topic and has even conducted personal interviews with some real-life gangsters and criminals for his research. He knows the criminal world better than we do. So without further adieu, let’s jump right in:

Vaishali: Welcome, Rohit. We, at Explore Screen, find the subject of criminals and taporis fascinating. How they conduct their business and go about their daily lives; all of this is just so different from how we go about our own lives. We are also curious how much the movies, especially Bollywood movies, manage to capture their reality perfectly. 

So to have someone who has done a lot of research and study on this particular topic was truly exciting for the whole team of Explore Screen. And I am sure, our readers will be equally thrilled to listen to you speak on this topic. So thank you for accepting our offer. 

Rohit: Hello, Vaishali. Thank you for inviting me for this discourse. It’s always a pleasure to talk about the work that I am currently doing as part of my Ph.D. It is just so exciting to me, you know. 

Buy Mi 11X Pro 5G Cosmic Black, 8GB | 128GB

The phenomenon of street heroes in Bollywood maps out unique ways to historicize the public attitude and culture of Indian streets. Bollywood did the job by presenting the cinematic presentation of Bombay streets and their heroes. Through this conversation, I want to talk about how Bollywood worked as a way of identifying urban street heroes. I will be discussing the meaning of the social context in which they appear. 

Vaishali:  First, can you tell us, what do you mean by “Street culture” and why must this be a course of discussion?  

Rohit: The configuration of the street culture of Mumbai in a third-world country of India is a different kind of evolution from the developed countries. In the cinematic formation, urban streets are the site of the emotion of various communities. It is the space of drama, crime, dance, madness, and freedom. The footpath of a metropolis is a domain where people from all communities come to fulfill their purposes. The street is the organizing ground of different sets of impulses that induces impassioned performance. And a street hero is a performer out in the field. The street heroes later adopted the culture and language of Bombay streets that we know as “tapori”. In the writings of film scholar Ranjani Mazumdar, we can find a detailed account of the cinematic presentation of street heroes as tapori. 

Vaishali:  An old song comes to my mind while discussing this topic, 

"Yeh Bombay meri Jaan.

Kahin building kahin traame, kahin motor kahin mill

Milta hai yahan sab kuchh ik milta nahin dil

Insaan ka nahin kahin naam-o-nishaan

Zara hat ke zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan.” 

In the twentieth century, Mumbai was considered India's financial capital. And epithets like City of Dreams and City of Gold are given to the city. How has the dream of the people of Bombay to be wealthy been shown in the movies?

Rohit: When the migrant workers, from different parts of the country, came to Mumbai, it strengthened the street economy of this city. Most of these migrant workers belonged to a lower social class and they formed the informal labour force: street hawkers, coolies, mechanics, moneylenders. All of them became part of this growing street culture and economy. Historian Prashant Kidambi summaries the description of the origin of this street-based socio-economy of Bombay in Making of an Indian Metropolis. 

Now, there were a lot of daring people who were willing to exploit any chance to make money. They just wanted to rise to the top. It’s because of these ferocious ambitions and the opportunities to achieve them, Mumbai was labelled as “The City of Dreams”.  

Buy Samsung Galaxy M32 5G Sky Blue | 8GB RAM, 128GB

It has also been nicknamed as the “City of Gold”. This is because of the rags-to-riches story of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the king of opium trading in 19th century Bombay. Once again, reflecting the fact that this city presents millions of opportunities to grab onto and become successful. 

With the influx of migrants, visibility of the tramps in downtown streets and markets had become ubiquitous, and their clashes with law and order often sorted them as a vulnerable threat to the administrators and respectable classes. People come to Bombay to fulfill their dreams, and money is the only way to materialize dreams.  There’s a movie scene from Shree 420 that caricatures the experience of Bombay public life for a novice tramp on a downtown street in the '50s.

Vaishali: Often, we see a continuous trend where the machismo of urban heroes presents itself in the guise of a gangster, or a swindler, or an efficient smuggler. We can consider the '50s Raj Kapoor's movies like Awara, Shree 420; Amitabh's Deewaar, Kaalia, and Bollywood hits of the later period like Parinda and Atish. What was the real-life scenario that supports the representation of the criminal heroes? 

Rohit: The control over the street culture and economy became an issue of concern to regulate and maintain the urban system. Some notorious criminal gangs had been plaguing the streets of Bombay in the years after independence (1947). Around the fifties and sixties, small-time criminal gangs, like the Allahabadi gang, Johnny gang, Ibrahim Dada's gang, Kanpuri gang, Rampuri gang, Jaunpuri gang started to threaten public life. The smuggling activities in the docks of Bombay gained a new height from the fifties, with the rise of Bombay's and India's first celebrity gangster Haji Mastan. Ganglords like Haji Mastan, Kerim Lala, Varadarajan Mudaliar dominated the underworld until the end of the 1970s. Then the new age of gangsterism started with the emergence of local dons, like Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan, Chhota Shakeel, Arun Gawli, Amar Naik, and others in the 1980s. Certainly, they have come from the lower-class society, and they gained manpower for their underworld activities from the working-class people. Veteran crime reporter Hussain Zaidi delineates the existing underworld and mafias of post-colonial Bombay in his works, like Dongri to Dubai, Dawood's Mentor, etc.  

 Here, I present an example of a film street hero to shed light on the matter. Munna, the protagonist of Tezaab (1988) is a street-level hooligan, who takes protection money in his locality, and fights against the powerful ganglord Lotia Pathan. Tezaab presents the popular imagery of a street hero in the form of  Munna.  The movie Amar Akbar Anthony personifies the life of a '70s local dada Anthony who speaks in local Bambaiya. Anthony is a local bully who engages in local public affairs and clashes with other bullies in his area. 

 Vaishali: They share proximity with the less privileged section of the urban working class, and sometimes they appear as a messiah to safeguard the latter. Was there any emotional and material connection between organized criminals and the socio-economically struggling populations of Bombay? 

Rohit: Existing crime lords and gangsters came primarily from the working-class background. Gangsters had enjoyed great control and influence over the streets and public lives. It was a  time when each locality had its dadas. The everyday life of the urban poor remains very low with the filthy surroundings and housing problems. The government failed to improve the lives of the working classes. The city planning was aimed to achieve a capitalist industrial world, rather than solving problems of social needs. As a consequence, the moral standard of the people decreased over the period. In this context, the street heroes of that period appeared on the screen. 

Echo Dot (4th Gen with Alexa)

The working class suffered more hardships during the 1980s. The trade union leader Datta Samanta led a year-long strike for the betterment of textile workers. The strike virtually ended Bombay's textile industry. Nearly 1.5 million workers became jobless, and many mill workers and their children joined the ranks of goondas, mobsters. Later, the movie City of Gold: Mumbai 1982 shows the situation of workers during the period. A part of the movie delineates a moment when the son of a worker's family earns his first money from gangsterism and presents gifts before his mother. 

 Vaishali: We often see street heroes in a carefree attitude, singing, dancing, and making fools to the passer-by. They are not afraid to protest against the inequity. Finally, they devote their lives to saving the moral values of society. So, what is your remark on their mental state and moral character shown in contemporary movies?

Rohit: These film street heroes stand at the intersection of morality and evil. He appears to be the benchmark between the legal and the illegal. His strength lies in his ability to recognise the various tensions produced by the urban experience in  Bombay. He uses this to his own advantage. Sometimes, he is dabbling in petty crime. He emerges as the protector of certain moral codes of his neighborhood. Lacking a home but longing for a family, the street hero occupies the middle space between the crisis of urban life and the simultaneous yearning for stability. Movies are effulgent with these characters hobnobbing into petty crimes and mayhem in public life. We can see that the movie protagonists of the '80s and '90 are small-time street-level thugs who fight against the outrageous gang lords.

It is a cinematic male persona that represents the public life of urban streets. They perform masculinity on the streets. “tapori” is a unique code of smartness in the Mumbai streets, a stylized creation of Bollywood to represent the streets of Mumbai. Amir Khan's character in Rangeela and Ghulam resonates with the contemporary tapori lifestyle in Bombay. In Rangeela, he earns money by selling movie tickets at black market prices. In Ghulam, he is a street-smart lumpen who commits petty crimes but fights against the exploitations of a notorious gangster of his locality. This scene from Ghulam reflects the wittiness and humor of tapori characters.

(To further illustrate my point, take a look at this scene  from Tezaab, reflecting the cinematic presentation of street-smart taporis hoodwinking the public.)

Vaishali: Street heroes represent the youth's desire to break the barriers. There is no suppression, but an outlet. We often contextualize their expressions from their material appearances. We can identify their characters with their costumes according to their roles. So, how would you describe the evolutionary trend of costumes in Indian street fashion during the 20th century? And, how did Bollywood carry forward the street fashion of urban heroes on screen?

Rohit: Street heroes of Bollywood configure the cultural trend of the existing Indian youths. Street style in India is growing on its way by following the fashion regularly from the Bollywood movies. However, from colonial times, the outfit of Indian citizens has been passing through the gradual acceptance of western-style within the Indian context. In the colonial past and before the coming of the Bollywood culture, Indian society experienced Sanskritization (when the lower-class people followed the norms and behavior of the upper class) and westernization (when educated civil society adopted the behavior of the western world). Over the period, changes happened in  Indian street fashion.

Take a look at this image here I present it from 1906. This displays a native street of India. We can see most of the people wearing indigenous costumes. Caste distinction is visible, an upperclassman using an umbrella and others are shirtless. However, a man denotes the difference. He is wearing a tunic while everyone is wearing indigenous costumes. He is different from the country type. It indicates the new age of education and westernization.

In Conversation With Rohit Roy: On the representation of Street Culture in Bollywood

Image credit: Indian on film discovery plus show

The next video is from a movie, Awara (1951), which displays the public life of Bombay-streets in the mid-twentieth century. We see people hanging around wearing western suits and shirts. Women are in saree and blouse. It is a busy public life on  Indian urban streets, and a tramp picks pockets of the passers-by.  Here is a middle-aged man wearing a suit and tie with traditional dhoti and turban. His presence signifies the adoption of western clothes in Indian lives. 

Vaishali: In post-colonial India, Bollywood became the innovator of fashion in Indian lives. From the '50s western culture was combined with Bollywood and presented through the adoption of western clothes by the actors. How do you define the role of western clothes in shaping their characters?

Rohit: In the decades after Independence, the status in public life was dependent on the category of costume. Western suits were the exclusive dress code of the gentleman class. We can justify the phenomena by the examples from the 1950s popular films. Awara and House No. 44, movies of the '50s, project two street heroes as the protagonists of stories, Raj and Ashok, respectively. Raj tells how criminals hide in the guise of a gentleman wearing first-class suites. And through the character of Ashok, we see the excitement of wearing gentleman suits stimulates the mind of an urban tramp. You can see these glimpses from an episode of a Discovery plus show, India on Film

In the 70s, we see protagonists of popular movies transform their costumes after becoming wealthy. They leave their casual shirt pants and start to appear in colorful suits and dinner jackets. Two examples: Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) in Deewar and Bharat (Manoj Kumar) in Roti Kapda Aur Makan.

Further, the costumes of street-class heroes and taporis of Bollywood tend to incline towards Hollywood and western culture. We see the availability of leather jackets, jeans, shoes, sunglasses. The neckerchief was a fashion trend of 20th-century street class heroes. Neckerchief became famous with the scout movement originated by Robert Baden Powell in 1907. It resembles the wilderness.

Buy Mi 11X 5G Cosmic Black 6GB | 128GB

Vaishali: Further, the liberalization of the Indian economy brought free flaw consumerism in Indian lives. There are changes in fashion from the 1970s and 1980s heroes to the emergence of a new consuming hero of post-liberalization. Now male protagonists of Bollywood are demarcating their appearance with physical fitness, grooming, and cosmopolitanism. The importance of fashion brands and designer labels are emphasizing commodity consumption in Bollywood depictions. What do you think of the current scenario of street style? And how does it impact a country like India? 

Rohit: In this new age of the 21st century, street fashion has changed and globalized. Street-friendly wearing became convenient in public life, like T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, etc. The poor people of a third-world country like India can't afford branded clothes. So over time, clothing industries have developed the production of copies of original branded products to fill the desires of the plebeian masses. This kind of pirate economy is an outcome of new-age multi-national brand culture. It depends on the street economy, where copy products of popular multinational brands are available in markets.

A retailer of copied costumes from the city of Durgapur postulates it is almost impossible to identify the difference between the original products and the first-grade copy products (Copy-A). He claims their production chain always follows the trending costume, which depends on social media and Bollywood culture. And retailers like him take screenshots of costumes from the e-commerce sites like Myntra, Amazon, Ajio, Flipkart, etc., and send them to their dealers to order for their next consignment.

Vaishali: How do you see the relationship between Bollywood and street fashion in this new age of brand culture and pirate economy?

Rohit: This video shows the street culture of public life in countryside India. In the age of the pirate economy and brand culture, street-friendly wearings like t-shirts, jeans, sneakers, etc. have become common. We see a religious gathering of Muharram, two men fighting as part of their religious norm, wearing t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. T-shirts have the print of 'Apna Time Ayega', famous words from the recent Bollywood hit, Gully Boy. A song by Nadeem Sarwar, a Pakistani religious singer, is playing in the background. This video signifies the public life of countryside India. The emotional connection with the Bollywood hit glorifies the passion of the working class. The message 'Apna  Time Ayega' is part of the daily life emotion of the unprivileged youth, and T-shirts are common with this generation. Since both come together, as a result, society accepts it readily. 

In today's world, there is less class distinction between the categories of clothing. There is no exclusive dress code available for any class. Distinction counts by brand value and originality. A costume is judged by whether it is original or a copy of an original. A lyrical formation of a rap battle from the movie Gully Boy can exemplify the phenomenon when an opponent of the protagonist (Murad) slurs him for his poverty and fake T-shirts (a copy of the original).

Vaishali: Rohit, we have had a very wonderful discussion about this. Thank you for sharing your meaningful insights with us, Rohit. I am sure, our readers will also have gained a lot from this today. 

Rohit: Once again, thank you for inviting me. It was a pleasure participating in this discussion. 

Vaishali: If you liked our discussion or have any more questions for Rohit regarding this topic, feel free to reach out to us at our email. Or leave a comment on our social media pages. We will try our best to contact you back. 

Author’s Biographical Note: Vaishali is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of History, University of Delhi. She has received a post-graduate degree in Modern History from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is associated with Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an Editor. 

Related post: On VFX/Visual Effects: In Talk with Kamal Hingorani and Mukul Rawat

The Importance of Being Soumitra Chatterjee

In Conversation with Mohd Khaliq

In Memory of Kathak Legend Pt. Birju Maharaj: His Work and His Legacy

Revisiting ‘Ram Teri Ganga Maili’: How Raj Kapoor made an entire film on just one song  

From Around the web