Book Extract: from ‘Bollywood’
August 4, 2016
Bollywood, part of the series, Oxford India Short Introductions, is a comprehensive look by well known film scholar M.K. Raghavendra at the mainstream Hindi film: its beginnings, its unifying role in the history of the Indian nation, the grammar and aesthetics it subscribes to and their origins in traditional culture, its production and distribution, and where globalisation is taking it today.
From the Introduction: “The Hindi Film and its Significance”
In speculating about why Phalke used the ‘frontal’ camera instead of using a more naturalistic style closer to Ravi Varma’s pictures, we need to take his claim that his films were ‘realistic’ seriously. Obviously there were not realistic in the way that the Lumière films were realistic and they do not even promote illusion the way Méliès’ films do, because they are shot on tacky sets with men playing female roles, and this is not true of Baburao Painter’s films which are closer to the Lumière kind of realism. An explanation offered by theorists is that the frontal style depended on the concept of ‘darsana’ in which the deity or the priest has to give his/her blessings to the devotee who faces him/her. When Phalke tried to provide the public with ‘real’ manifestations of their beliefs and to ‘bring the known alive’ he chose this frontal mode of film-making since that was closest to the sacred temple encounter. What being ‘realistic’ meant to Phalke was that audiences would recognize preexistent truths from their understanding of mythology and the sacred texts when they saw the films. While realistic cinema in the West mimicked what was apparently real in the world, this reality was felt only to represent ephemeral or passing truths because there were sacred truths which were truer than everyday experience. If cinema was extension of photography for the Lumières and Méliès, it was a recording of sacred performance for Phalke. It was a different kind of mimesis — that of the encounter between the human and the divine.
This crucial aspect of Indian cinema takes it away from Aristotelian mimesis (which tries to replicate the world perceived through the senses) and implies that the notions of realism and expressionism are not applicable to its popular variety. At the same time, cinema is not ‘art for art’s sake’ but corresponds to mimesis of a special kind posited by classical poetics in India. India’s dramaturgy may be more pertinent to a study of cinema than to its poetics. Rather than a hypothesis of art for art’s sake, the traditional view is that literature is not subordinate to external reality but actually greater. Where the novel deals with ordinary people engaged in actions credible at the everyday level, mythology deals with larger than life situations with the characters occupying a higher plane than that of everyday life, and popular cinema has tried to imitate only the latter kind of ‘truth’. The frontal style has been largely abandoned but it still tries to make every situation and every act exemplary in some sense – whether portraying good or evil.”
From Chapter 4: “Global Bollywood’
The 1990s represent a period of transition for Hindi cinema because ‘Nehruvian socialism’ ended with the economic liberalization of 1991and Hindi cinema changed track significantly after that…. While it is difficult to determine the trajectory of the Hindi film from the smaller kind of cinema the task becomes easier when one confines oneself to the big films determined by budgets and the presence of stars. The first aspect of this new cinema to invite attention is the weakening of melodramatic motifs and the reason is that the moral side (implicating the notion of loyalty) is scarcely in evidence. To illustrate, friendship prevails in 3 Idiots but loyalty to it is not brought to crisis as a melodrama might have it; such films are not ‘morally legible’ as mainstream Hindi films inevitably were, and this can be contrasted with the friendships in Sangam (1964) and Sholay which demand extreme sacrifices. As if to compensate there is a new ethic of personal aspiration entering in 3 Idiots, Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Guru (2007) and Kaminey (2009). These films celebrate enterprise, but in Bunty Aur Babli and Guru an aspect that deserves special notice is illegality being installed as a legitimate component of enterprise. The mood in these films — and much more so in Kaminey — is celebratory when they describe ‘aspirations’ of this kind.
Alongside this representation of (amoral) private initiative is a decrying of the state as corrupt. The motif of the corrupt police officer acting for his own benefit has been virtually instituted by films like Kaminey as filmic convention, and one traces it to the weakening of the Indian state by two decades or deregulation without a corresponding enforcement of laws/regulations. The justification for illegality is that it a ‘global ethic’ since the state is shown to later enlist the fraudster protagonists of Bunty Aur Babli to use their expertise outside India. In Dhoom 2 (2006) the story begins with the protagonist stealing the British crown jewels and the implication is that since the British stole the Kohinoor diamond in the first place the act is legitimate. A contradiction often seen in the films is that these films are also patriotic even as they upholdi illegalities and decry state corruption. It is as though unprincipled entrepreneurship can strengthen the nation. Guru suggests this when the protagonist declares his intent of creating a ‘world-class enterprise’ and the film equates shareholder wealth in India with that of the nation. Sports films follow the same logic when sportspersons overcome obstacles created by the state and accredit themselves well as in Chak De India (2007) and Paan Singh Tomar (2012). State rewards are deemed worthless but a signing fee from a private sponsor in Iqbal (2005) rescues a cricketer’s family from debt; acknowledgment by the market is considered more valuable than state recognition. Apart from celebrating aspiration new cinema also takes pride in the capacity of the rich Indian to spend, especially abroad and in Europe. Many of the films appearing after 2010 make only a pretense of having a story — those like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (2013) only have characters splurging. In Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) the happenings are on a Mediterranean cruise — during a wedding anniversary on a rich man’s yacht. ‘Having fun’ is a key notion in many of these films and this is compatible with parties, songs, dances and foreign locations. Needless to add these films are poor in the signifiers which might have implied the nation — since little appears to matter except romantic attachments in the midst of abundance.
M.K. Raghavendra is a film scholar who has authored three previous volumes of academic criticism from Oxford University Press and two books of popular film criticism from Collins, including one on international cinema.
We acknowledge Oxford University Press, the publishers of Bollywood by M.K. Raghavendra, which is part of the Oxford India Short Introductions series.
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