May 25, 2020
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No Space For A Cigarette Trick

Short accounts of the four cinemas of the South discuss threadbare the caste and political realities underpinning them. Only, a colossus is missed.

No Space For A Cigarette Trick
No Space For A Cigarette Trick
Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas Of South India

Edited By M.K. Raghavendra
HarperCollins | Pages: 352 | Rs: 499

M.K. Raghavendra is known for trenchant views of cinema he does not appreciate and in the introduction of this alm­ost-­fine history of South Ind­ian cinema that he has edited, he does not disappoint. For instance, “the Kannada films of Upendra—such as A (1997)—often display the raw agg­ression of toilet graffiti and can make genteel spectators apprehensive about what they could be seeing”. Raghavendra’s chapters on Kannada cinema, under ‘A Political History of Kannada Cin­­ema’, are the most fascinating.

After moving on from mythologicals, many films made in the early years of the cinemas of South India dealt with the vag­aries of caste, and Kannada cinema was no different. Raghavendra points out the shorthand Kannada cinema used to delineate caste. “Landowners denoted as gowdas or sowkars may be taken to be Vokkaligas; when people pursue vocati­ons which require education—doctors, teachers—they are usually Brahmins,” writes Raghavendra. He writes about the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956 and the formation of Karnataka from the erstwhile princely state of Mysore and parts of surrounding states.

Raghavendra shows how in the Kannada film School Master, the village refers to Mysore, and the outside to all India. This, he says, is a motif in many Kannada films of that era.

It is here that he presents an absorbing theory—where some films represent Greater Mysore and others all of India. In the case of B.R. Panthulu’s School Master (1958), he postulates that the vil­­lage in the film refers to Greater Mys­ore, and the outside to all of India. The titular school master is a local, but has acquired his reformatory skills outside and could be “an agent of Nehruvian modernity”. He applies this theory to film after film with telling effect. Of course, no history of Kannada cinema is complete without the overarching presence of Rajkumar and Raghavendra exp­lores the late actor’s inf­luence and characters in some depth.

The book begins with N. Kalyan Raman’s chapters on Tamil cinema­—‘Dream world: Reflections on Cinema and Society in Tamil Country’. After the usual mythological period, Raman looks at how the political scenario in Tamil Nadu over the years, beginning with how the Dra­vidian movement and its various offsh­oots had a direct effect on cinema. The effects of caste on Tamil cinema are also explored. In all, for those unfamiliar with Tamil cinema, history, society and politics, Raman’s chapters are almost a perfect primer, a stepping stone to deeper reading, if you will. Almost curiously, Raman chooses to ignore the biggest phe­nomenon ever in the Tamil film industry—Rajinikanth. Though the star system is present and accounted for and all the important stars are duly name-checked, Rajinikanth is mentioned precisely once. “The sway of big-budget entertainers starring Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan took hold of the viewers from the mid-’80s, and the conservatism—both political and social—inherent in mass-­market ent­ertainers with a lot of investment at stake pushed all dissent to the margin.” That’s it. Nothing about the ref­lection of Tamil society and politics in Rajinikanth’s films, nor the actor’s overtly political messages in his later work.

Elavarthi Sathya Prakash’s ‘Telugu Cinema: A Concise History’ is precisely that. Apart from tackling the social, political and caste themes, as in the other chapters, Sathya Prakash also explores the music of Telugu cinema, a subject not often explored in English writing about the industry. Trivia hounds and quizzers would do well to read these chapters, as they are crammed with information that can be parsed into questions. Like with Rajinikanth in the Tamil chapters, there is a glaring omission—there is no mention of S.S. Rajamouli or Baahubali.

Meena T. Pillai’s ‘Bearing Witness: Mal­ayalam Cinema And The Making Of Keralam’ is an efficient look at Kerala’s cinema history (with emphasis on gender politics) and the shaping of the state’s cultural and political identity. The writing is so evocative that you’ll find yourself reaching for YouTube to see what exactly Pillai is writing about. The only minor quibble—while writing about J.C. Daniel, the founding father of Malayalam cinema, Pillai omits to mention the existence of Kamal’s Daniel biopic Celluloid (2013).

Returning to Raghavendra, his introduction uses 2012 statistics to illustrate that Tamil and Telugu cinema has relegated Hindi cinema to third place. If he had bothered to look up 2016 statistics (surely the minimum requirement for a book published in 2017), he’d find that of the 1,907 films certified that year, Hindi had 340, Tamil 291 and Telugu 275. If these and such minor niggles, as pointed out above, are addressed in the next edition, this book will be a valuable addition to any South Indian film buff’s library.

(Naman Ramachandran is the author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography)

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