August 02, 2020
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Billboard Bacchanalia

Mainstream cinema sates our appetite for moral certitudes and linguistic surfeit

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Billboard Bacchanalia
Abhijit Bhatlekar
Billboard Bacchanalia
It is sensual. It is spiritual. Seduction. Salvation. Viagra. Moksha. Kitsch. Art. Reality. Maya. Bazaar cacophony. Soul-stirring melody. If we churn the cinematic sea of our collective psyche, this modern amrit manthan yields the same set of opposite values as the Puranic tale did in the mists of mythological memory. Cinema sums up the Satyam Shivam Sundaram of our collective experience, the new verities for our globalised times. As befits a country of Vedantic abstractions and the dialectics of dualities, our definition of cinema reflects our confused perceptions. Our search for meanings, identities and self-image peeks at cinema's mirror even if we know that by its very nature, all we get are distorted reflections. And how we love these reflections, seeing magic and metaphor in them! The fragmented images scattered over decades add up to our sense of self, national and regional identity in a tortuously convoluted way that eludes the lucid graph of logic.

These distortions may be truer at a deeper level because they reveal and hide our own cultural schizophrenia. Our films enthral and exasperate us. The enthralment comes from the desire to see ourselves as we want to be and the exasperation arises precisely because desire outstrips achievement. We have taken a western invention that's hugely dependent on fast-changing technology and made it our own as we have with cricket and the English language. We pour our artistic aspirations into a hybrid form and expect this mutant to validate the rightness of our cultural expression and collective choices. In short, we demand that our films endorse the A to Z of existence—from the screen idols we worship, to the songs we hum, to our reading of history, the way we fall in love and mourn our dead, our family values and the leaders we elect. Perhaps no other cinema in the world has so many extra-cinematic demands made on it. Hollywood invented genres and rolled them off the studio-belt with assembly-line efficiency to be marketed at home and abroad as unofficial carriers of the American Dream.

We quickly coalesced our nascent genres—the first mythologicals and musical fantasies—into an all-in-one genre from which each viewer takes according to his need and capacity, giving a neat Marxist twist to aesthetic enjoyment. As any film enthusiast will tell you, our films (I mean all our mainstream films though Hindi does stamp its hegemony as the All-India Film) are an organic outgrowth of our rasa-invoking classical theatre, Puranic and folkloric tales, the declamatory rhetoric of Parsi theatre (itself based on the Victorian proscenium stage) enlivened by the robustness of nautanki. The overarching principle is our musical heritage that has a raga for every time of the day and season, and folk music that has a song for every occasion. Such all-inclusiveness allows the coexistence of high and low art, the sublime despair of the unsung poet and the vacuous comedy of a Johnny Walker in the same film. Pyaasa has gone on to become a classic, a true indicator of the Indian temperament. Our later predilection for action and repudiation of the self-destructive Devdasian hero is not irreversible. Let Shahrukh Khan rein in his frenetic energy to give a new interpretation to the passive hero and Devdas may come back into fashion.

Look at what Aamir Khan did to the dhoti-clad nationalist in an age of a global market where product endorsement is part of the sleek urbanised hero's persona, flaunting designer labels with the panache of a cricketer displaying logos on every conceivable part of his clothes and gear.
Hoarding of a Chiranjeevi film in Kannada/ photograph by Satish Kumar
A country torn by so many divisions—linguistic, religious, ethnic, economic—is united by two passions. Cinema and cricket. When Aamir Khan audaciously combines both these passions with such brave simplicity, the resulting Lagaan doesn't tax our willingness to suspend disbelief or find objective correlatives for this uplifting validation of our national identity, the euphoria of beating the White Man at his own game. Our response to Lagaan holds the key to what films mean to us. Entertainment plus an uplifting moral, making us feel good. About ourselves, our life and the inevitability of ultimate success if we work hard enough—and the gods decide to be kind.

This belief is underlined by our hopeless addiction to verbal pyrotechnics in a medium where the visual is supposed to be the primary means of expression. Whether it is Sivaji Ganesan's full-throated perorations or N.T. Rama Rao's torrent of sanskritised Telugu flowing like a river in full spate or, most famously, Amitabh's deep baritone whiplashing you with anger one moment and caressing you with poetry the next, the Indian demands "actorly" acting of the spoken kind. Dilip Kumar's measured pause, allied to the deliberated gesture or the pregnant silences of Ghatashradha in the womb-like shadows of an old house, offer a richer meaning than the rhetorical unleashing of familiar phrases. But they have fewer followers. How often do you mentally tell the hero to hurry up now that his gun is aimed at the unarmed villain and not waste time—ours and his—as he lacerates the baddie with words that promise poetic justice. The film could be in any language but the scene is virtually written along the same lines.

Ah, the pleasure of predictable familiarity that is so comforting to a people seeking security! No Tarantinoesque inconsequential chatter and casual violence for us. Every action needs to be spelt out before it is done. Is that our oral tradition reasserting its continuing relevance in the age of machine-gun editing and sound barrier-breaking Dolby? Gadar now sells cassettes of its rabble-rousing dialogue following the precedent set long ago by Sholay's dramatic chorus of individualised voices.

Songs and emotionally loaded dialogues—however cliched—can push our patriotic button any time. From Manoj Kumar's smug homilies to Gadar's inflammatory jingoism, we seek nationalistic reassurance. The trick is to be populist for the all-India appeal. Kalapani (originally in Malayalam) was fairly intelligent, technically well-made, but it couldn't reap the same box-office benefit as Shanker's unbearably loud Indian, or its Hindi avatar Hindustani. A film has to manipulate our sense of loss (of idealism) and offer easy vigilante answers to jingle all the way to box-office millions. Roja is a brilliant exception. Dil Se, Mani Ratnam's other tale of love in the time of terrorism, didn't dent our hearts. Kamalahaasan's daring Hey! Ram—because it came dangerously close to endorsing Hindutva ideology while examining its appeal to a man haunted by his wife's gruesome death—was too rich in ambiguities. It provoked us to rethink pre-packaged patriotism for it to be palatable.We demand xenophobia along with uncomplicated jingoism.

Similarly, we continue to accept women as sex objects without a sense of their own sexuality, to gratify the collective male gaze. Or put them on rickety pedestals as self-sacrificing devis. This is our cultural schizophrenia at its most damning. Woman exists as a complex, individual entity mostly in our 'Other Cinema'.A Thai Saheb—the eponymous heroine's awareness of exploitation, not only of herself but her freedom-fighter husband's low-caste mistress, runs parallel to our political history from the Quit India movement to the Emergency—gets multiple national awards but how many outside Karnataka even know of it?

SO, the divide continues, to be carried across to the Indian Diaspora which waters its cultural roots with mainstream cinema. The ubiquitous Indian store not only stocks pickles and papads, samosas and mithai but caters to the nri soul hunger with video cassettes and dvds of latest hits—mostly Hindi but also other languages, depending on the population profile of the particular area. And nubile girls in sequinned lehangas copy every pelvic thrust and bosom-heave of the latest Bollywood hit at nri weddings. A visitor to the US cringes in acute embarrassment. Around the same time, a Shyam Benegal retro was on at the Smithsonian—scarcely noticed by the nris.

Our addiction to stereophonic sound and empty fury didn't dissuade Shyam Benegal from playing with the very act of storytelling and oral traditions in his most accomplished film to date, Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda. Adoor Gopalakrishnan used the narrative device of two versions of the same incidents from the protagonist's perspective in Anantaram—a brilliant exploration of our schizophrenia in all its ambivalences. But let's face the basic fact of Indian life. The Other Cinema is destined to appeal to a limited audience and you can't judge its emotional impact on our collective psyche with the same yardstick.

Consciously or otherwise, we demand the certitude of a moral fable from entertainment. That is why, commercial cinema, for all its thought-numbing simplifications, continues to hold us in its thrall while the bleak ambiguities of our art cinema survives in the film festival ghetto. If mainstream cinema, specially the homogenising All-India Hindi Film, comforts us with its slick certitudes and glamorous packaging of feelgood banalities, the personal works of auteurs disturb the superficial calm that lulls us into a sense of security. Mainstream cinema mints new mythologies for a people to whom myths are a part of the daily idiom, a ready-reckoner for meanings and easily identifiable types. Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man may have mirrored the inchoate angst of the uprooted pouring into the teeming cities but when the hero of a Trishul or a Deewar comes haloed with the bitter angst of a Karna cheated of his legitimacy, the resonance sets off mythical reverberations. Similarly, when the gaggle of female vigilantes got into the bandit outfit of leather trousers and a red bandanna tied in the famed Phoolan Devi style, all they had to do was invoke the image of Shakti. Sridevi in Sherni was called Durga just in case you missed the religious sanction. So you get icons, not individuals. And we seem to never have too many icons, now that even the supposedly liberal Bengalis (one expects them to have imbibed some degree of Marxist scepticism) have joined their Tamil brethren in building a temple to Amitabh Bachchan.

The Other Cinema tries (and most often succeeds) in creating histories of individuals who have not only an identifiable local habitation and ethnically specific name but a credible psychological kit than can be deconstructed for motives and moods. Shaji Karun's Vanaprastham is a leisurely but intensely dramatic delving into the many layers that link myth and reality.The angst-ridden Kathakali artiste who plays Arjuna with such passion that an aristocratic patroness of arts, a writer with a fiery imagination rooted in mythology, falls in love with the actor's Arjuna but not the man who plays the epic hero. The sophisticated stylisation of Kathakali is complemented by a richly ambiguous dramaturgy. There are no facile myths for mass consumption here. You can perceive Jalsaghar's melancholic hero as an elegant specimen of a fast vanishing feudal class and empathise with his contempt for the nouveau riche arriviste. Jalsaghar's elegiac tone meshes a sensitively drawn individual with his background and Ray's perfectly positioned camera explores the decaying mansion with a dispassionate sympathy that is hard to surpass. The new star of Bengali cinema, Rituparno Ghosh, reveals a few traits imbibed from the master, in the way he creates characters and explores the space they inhabit.

This creation of a particular place and milieu, its sights and sounds, turns of speech and nuances of body language is the forte of the Other Cinema where we find vignettes of authentic India. But we would rather be suckers for romance, which feeds on song and dance. There is something uniquely Indian in the way we respond to the first darshan of the beloved, a precious moment etched in film time. We love the sentimentality of Pakeezah, when a note is tucked between Meena Kumari's beringed toes by the stranger in the night and its ironic pathos: "Inhe zameen pe mat rakhiyega, maile hojayenge." The unveiling of a statuesque Madhubala with an arrow in Mughal-e-Azam; the veil blown off Manisha's face in Bombay and Dil Se by an errant breeze,# all have an echoing resonance.

We're also captive consumers of philosophy beautifully encrypted in simple songs. Mother India's archetypal image of Nargis heroically shouldering the plough is reinforced by the call to stoic endurance: Duniya me hum aye hain to jeena hi padega. Or the simple injunction to be truthful in Mukesh's nasal velvet voice: Sajan re jhoot mat bolo, khuda ke paas jaana hai. We might right now be captive to the instant tunes pillaged from all sources but an ennobling musical can reclaim pride of place for classical music. Purists might gnash their teeth at the hybrid kirtans in Shankarabharanam but the towering protagonist Somayajulu reinforced pride in the greatness of Carnatic music to a guitar-wielding generation indulging in imitative pop. Ironically, Somayajulu's iconic stature couldn't compete against calendar art. When he was cast as Thyagaraja, South India's collective perception of the saint-composer as an emaciated bhakta rejected his strapping frame—although research shows that Thyagaraja was well-built.

For an ancient civilisation which elevates all national achievements to a divinely ordained Vedic age, our perception of history doesn't demand rational authenticity. We got gaudy claptrap and rhetoric in the name of historicals right from the days of Pukar. Is our collective indifference to the blatant rewriting of history by Hindutvawadis any surprise? People get the historicals and historians they deserve. Just as we get the films we deserve, when collective compulsions subvert personal intentions.

(Freelance film critic Maithili Rao is on the editorial board of South Asian Cinema, a London-based quarterly, and has contributed chapters to the forthcoming Bollywood (published by Dakini, London), Frames of Mind (iccr, edited by Aruna Vasudev) and Rasa (edited by Chidananda Dasgupta).)
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