The kitsch classic Dharmatma is lighting up the TV set with its white heat. Our ersatz Godfather, it has all the ’70s baubles: gold biscuits, imitation palazzos, purple-tinted fountains in the living room, psychedelic wallpaper, spiral stairs, denim flares, the obligatory pseudo-Afro python dance, drop-dead gorgeousness all around. And, fittingly for a film in which both hero and villain are ethnic Pathans, there’s Afghanistan’s shimmering Band-e-Amir. (This fact ensures the film a footnote in pop history: its shooting schedules prevented us from seeing a Sikkimese Gabbar Singh.) It also has plenty of that other black art of the Bombay school of magic realism: you see the city skyline through the windows (there’s even a Jackal-style sniper attack from the opposite building), but once you step out, whoosh...no city! Just wide open tundra and taiga, cliffs and hillside lakes—a pasteurised, calendar art Promised Land, peopled only by the odd convertible and chopper.
It’s an obvious enough thing about Hindi cinema—a sense of place is not its strong suit. Indeed, it’s almost pathologically deficient when it comes to tying down its story to a credible, real point on the map. After those highway signboards in Mahal pointed to Cawnpore back in 1949—invoking a real geography and spinning a spooky, gossamer atmosphere around it—films have gradually opted to unfold in a curious non-place. Exceptions abound, many honourable ones even, but in a roundabout way even they reinforce the rule. This poverty of feeling for place is partly on account of the roots in popular theatre. Much of cinema never became fully cinematic—the screen is still a crude proscenium, and all you need are picture-postcard stage props. This is at its most acute with pulp films—they’re officially headquartered in cloud-cuckoo-land (with branches in Switzerland). For the most part, their plot never lets us get a fix on one of the five vital Ws: where on earth? It’s precisely one of the modes by which they absolve themselves of documentary-style realism, levitating right out of the real world. Literally, escapism.
But even the less insubstantial films—the mileposts, the main body of Hindi cinema—exhibit a troubled relation with place, a strange detachment, a hovering over, almost as if wary of putting down roots and belonging. Place is never “an organised world of meaning”. The locale is sometimes identifiable, never fully identified with. It passes by, like the scenes outside a train window. The characters are mostly ranged along degrees of ‘outsideness’. ‘Location shooting’ implies no fidelity to place—only a random melange of dams, parks, waterfalls, Dutch tulip fields. For all the frequent professions of love for the motherland, there’s scarcely any lived involvement with the immediate environment—rather, things are faintly topophobic. No one demands authenticity by strict surface fidelity, artifice-as-truth would have served just fine, but Hindi cinema is the polar opposite of Dogme 95. Things have changed since the mid-’90s, with new generation cinema. But the old gene has not entirely been suppressed, it’s mutated, to an excess of foreign locales and superficially globalised stories: a natural evolution for a rootless cinema. An excess of journey, you belong nowhere. Also, Lagaan’s Malwa, shot in Kutch, speaking Awadhi. And Anurag Kashyap’s Jaipur and Calcutta in Black Friday, still skin-deep, summoned up through the token Hawa Mahal and Howrah Bridge.
Now, the exceptions. The frivolous ones—where the place-name is anointed in the title itself (the Paris/Tokyo/ Simla capers)—can be dispensed with easily. Their interrogation of place is about as thorough as that of tourism handbooks. Like bad medicine, they exacerbate the symptom rather than abolish it. Count a couple of period and war films—they show up the general aversion to films based on real people or events (all the rich dramatic potential of pre-1947 events lies unmined, save for a handful of lurid screechfests). Films based on literary works, or made by those ‘inside’ of a culture (whether native to that culture or not), have given us some of the best evocations of humanised geography, staking out an identifiable milieu—Awadh, Bengal come to mind—character, speech, landscape, music, all ‘in place’. Of course, no one will accuse Bollywood of adopting this as its mainstream.
The other exception, of course, is Bombay, and it deserves a full reckoning. Home to the industry (unlike Hollywood, it’s a real city), it plays host to countless film plots. It’s been adopted, feted, fussed over, anthemised. Its curiously bivalent reel/real tie to Hindi films follows an interesting arc: it changed from the big city characters migrate to, to become a natural habitat. The buildings, the seafront, the streets with the milling crowds, made familiar by constant reiteration, have created a specific, real cinematic place (an aura now inextricably a part of the real place). It took decades, but slowly the streetside Bambaiya brogue that only thugs, henchmen and oil peddlers used to speak became the hero’s speech style. Hindi cinema went skaz (though only occasionally with a real gain in credibility). There’s also Calcutta—on Wikipedia’s page for ‘Films set in Kolkata’, there are 128 entries, 18 of them Hindi, including two Parineetas and three Devdases—and Delhi, but they are minor streams, and don’t alter the terms too much. Leaving aside the vexed question of which is more cosmopolitan, their function is the same: they are The City.
But first, a small desktop experiment. Say you put the whole history of Hindi cinema, or what you know of it, into a box-set. Think of it as one, continuous movie—all digitally spooled into that DVD. Then turn it over, and read the jacket blurb for the credits. First, as befits the existing order of things, the heroes. Taking only the A-listers, we’ll do the cheap and fashionable thing, a quick region/caste census. In a rough headcount, from Punjab we get a dozen Kapoors (give or take a few), a Saigal, an Anand, a Sahni, a Tuli, a Gosain, two Dutts, three Deols, three Khannas, two Nagraths, two Ahujas, a Mehra, a Bhatia, over half-a-dozen Khans from the borderlands. Boiled down, you could say a great part of Hindi film herodom is exhausted by, say, 30 Khatris, two Mohyals, three Jatts, six Pathans...you get the picture. (Less facetiously, a graph of directors might show a similar lopsidedness.) Against this, you have one Kashmiri, one Bihari, six Bengalis, two Gujaratis, three Marathis (four, if you include Rajnikanth), three Kannadigas, one Tamil. And yes, two from UP (one of whom, Amitabh Bachchan, is half-Khatri Sikh).
The ethnography on the female side, of course, offers greater variety. Besides the luminous Mahjabeens and Mumtaz Dehlavis, with a purdah on their real names, you have a profusion of Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Nepali flora and fauna to prettify the scenery and be serenaded. (In Padmini, even a Malayali). Things pretty much conform to the old anthropological idea that it’s via the ‘circulation of women’ that clans create societies. The society of idealised Indian types on screen, thus, came about through exogamous marriage, in its virilocal form—the men stay where they are, the women move, shedding their origins, their language. (You could have said the north is the man, and the rest of India woman, but the transaction is now complete through ‘exchange’ marriages on the other side.)
None of this is trivial. (Nor is this a call for affirmative action in Bollywood!) It can’t be considered an incidental fact that, more often than not, one can locate a Punjabi male mind (actor/director, often the same man) at the ego-point of Hindi film-making, the subject position from whose perspective Indian reality is ordered. There are few auteurs here, and a lot of groupthink. Together, they created the template for popular Indian cinema. Differences in style, theme or talent don’t concern us; their cumulative approach is replete with shared concerns and traits. One shared constitutive element is the thing that goes unnamed in almost all of mainstream cinema: the Partition. Remarkably, no one from that generation touched it, but it serves, in absentia, as the biggest source of thematic impulses. The most persistent symptom is a certain atopia, a placelessness, both in the sense of a lack and the creation of a parallel, standardised pseudo-place. A violent sundering from the original lifeworld produced a refusal to anymore tie meaning-making to environment or habitat. Cinema was a coping mechanism, for blocking out memory, for forgetting: it offers not analysis, but an analgesic. Opiate yourself, numb the pain. In sum, cinema responded to a very modern trauma with a pre-modern optimism—quick, suture the wound, shut it out from thought, carry on, build anew. That’s why it’s infectious.
The blocked reality reappears, however, as a structuring element, in little cues, desires, obliquely realised thematic material. The awara, the peregrinating, rootless hero, searching for a new start in life. The obsessive concern with loss and recovery (the “lost-and-found” genre), dimly remembered childhood trauma and dislocation, the genuinely charming tendency to create a ‘good Muslim’ prototype, as long as he was off-centre in the narrative, laid no serious claim on the real estate and always jumped in front of the bullet. Revenge as a category unto itself—disembodied, almost apotheosised, often a bigger presence than characters (certainly outweighing the lady love in importance).
And yes, the city. It looms large. It’s the magnet, the refuge of the settler. Hindi cinema, in behaviour and style, is urban cinema. Or a cinema about urbanising (with occasional train rides back to an undifferentiated dehaat). Natural or naturalised, the city is the default locus. Even in Sholay, where the two curry cowboys (who have a ‘past’, but no history) bluster through a sun-drenched Indian prairie and encounter a village, the city is implied in their less-than-rustic manner, their denim chic, their social distance from the villagers. The archetypes set in the ’50s wrought much influence down the ages. That’s why it’s foolish to ask why there’s no Punjabi cinema. Hindi cinema is Punjabi cinema, partially deracinated, cosmopolitanised, subsumed into a vaguely composite north-Indianness, speaking the lingua franca, mediating westernity for everyone. At its centre is the male figure, rootless, wandering, often with a broken past, arriving in the city. And instead of place, all the identification is with family, “the one portable soil” where the individual gets a “natural grounding”.
Is it a stretch to say this default ‘ego’ perspective is essentially Punjabi (even in a qualified sense), and not located elsewhere on the ‘Hindi-speaking’ continuum? Look at those distanced from it, through ethnic typing, accomplished through a technique right out of the Natyashastra manual for distinguishing caste/region origins: “Thou shalt use dialects....” Or in our case, accents (and dress). The southerner, of course. And Bengali/Gujarati/Parsi/ Marwari/Muslim/Englishman/ Nepali. Also, interestingly, the Brahmin and the Sikh (for all the flak Gadar got, it was historically significant, filling a long gap in giving us a Sikh hero). If you think this logic through, the great Indian Gangetic plain village falls mostly ‘outside’. It’s full of markedness, and at quite some distance from the ‘neutral’ city. Proceed by this negation, and only a small cultural zone remains...a cosmopolitanised upper-caste Punjabi, levelled off, broadened, rough edges and angularities taken off, conflated with and shading off into other urbanising upper-caste types of the north: Rajput, Kayasth. Makes sense to cover your tracks on screen (off it too) with catch-all surnames like Kumar.
It’s not entirely cinema sans verite, for it had a self-fulfilling influence on the audience, who gave it flesh and blood ex post facto—materially, through standardised urban spaces, decor, dress styles, and otherwise by adopting its imagination wholesale about who (and how) we are as a country. It created a desire for an urban mode of being, equidistant from folk and regional, not to mention classical (which was the sum of ‘culture’ till then). So effective was it that it’s difficult to disentangle cause from effect now. Did Indian cinema create the Indian people? The myth of escapism, of being momentarily transported, gives lie to what cinema actually did: it’s more constitutive of us than we think. It’s half a century of identity formation for a society mediated by images. You don’t just go to the movies, the movies give you a place to go to.
Its menu of beautiful people, grossly universal themes, catchy music, all of it does produce a certain elan. And, increasingly, after Russia and the Middle East, it seems the West is slowly “getting it”. If they’re still sceptical, it’s because they’re used to a surface adherence to documentary realism, to time and place—even their fantasy films (ghosts, big lizards, superheroes, aliens) come with a dateline. Once you flash New York City, AD 2042 (or whatever), or Pandora, as the case may be, other transgressions of logic are excused. But now, beyond srk and Bollywood dance, witness the growing community of Bollyphiles on the net, and their total and joyous immersion in brown trash, as proof of universalism... BethLovesBollywood, MemsaabStory (with a thing for Ranjeet the Hot Villain), Bollywhat?!, SoTheyDance, FilmiGoris, even a frankly lesbian perspective in FilmiGeek. Some come with a Hindi/ Urdu glossary, others tell you how to identify Iftekhar! Once they get the hang of a certain brand of illogic, they relish it as much as anyone else.
Regional cinema should have had no use for placelessness; they didn’t have to simulate a place, they were already somewhere, quite rooted, identified strongly with the homestead. Sure enough, wherever it was strong, they held out against a wholesale mainstreaming. But this ignores how values crept in, how they created mini-versions. Floating above reality is an infectious feeling, it liberates you from provincialism. The sheer looniness of Rajni in Endhiran duckwalking in the Andes, among bewildered llamas, shouting “Kilimanjaro! Mohenjodaro!” does more than outrank KJo’s discovery of hills around Chandni Chowk. It’s an outright celebration of the abolition of spatial logic, of the natural syntax of the world.
But we must wonder, what would Indian film have been if not for this pervasive quality of aloofness from real India? This is what distinguishes Dharmatma from Sholay. Schematically, they’re identical. Like they said Jaws is actually a Watergate film, these are both Emergency films, speaking to the need for restoration of order in the face of internal sources of anarchy (one actually mentions MISA). But Feroze Khan’s film is a pop curiosity in the Museum of Kitsch. And Sholay has an afterlife, and then some. Was it only the actors? Unlikely, they’ve had many duds. It even found an admirer in Ray (who had his own ‘remembered village’ moment with Pather Panchali). Was it partly because the place had a presence? A touch of something approaching reality? In little cues—roughly approximated accents, a comic named for Bhopal, an allusion to a bidi factory in Jabalpur—it evoked the badlands of Madhya Pradesh, though Ramanagaram looks nothing like the Chambal. Sure, it’s derivative, infamously so. And conservative (the widow doesn’t get to remarry; and like in the Ramayan, it stops short of the woman’s honour being sullied in the villain’s den). For all that, it just about staves off the accusation of being a film set between a rock and a non-place.