Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hindi cinema and the Anglophone viewer: MK Raghavendra on the new Bollywood

[Did this review for Biblio]

Conversations involving movie buffs who grew up in the 1980s often touch on the divergence between the mainstream Hindi films of then and the Bollywood of the past decade. This isn’t necessarily an exercise in rosy-eyed nostalgia, nothing as simple as “things were better in our time”, but it involves a recognition that even as our movies have become more sophisticated – more professionally made, with bound scripts, a variety of settings and subjects, and greater attention to detail – something important has been lost too. It is pointed out that even the tackier commercial films of the 1980s often had a raw honesty, a willingness to engage head-on with the non-English-speaking world, to create an immediate identification between the audience and the characters on the screen; the fourth wall had not been pulled down and replaced by a gossamer veil of irony. Indeed this quality is inseparable from the impression one gets, looking back, that the cinema of that time was clumsy, insular, not attempting a discourse with the cinemas of other countries.

In the last decade and a half, the pendulum, propelled by rapid globalisation and the “India Shining” narrative, has swung very far in the other direction. In a shrinking world (or in a world that upper-class Indians can convince themselves has shrunk), our films have elaborate premieres at international festivals; American stars like John Travolta and Kevin Spacey shake a leg to the “lungi dance” at our award shows; the multiplex culture has seen many seminal movies being targeted at an audience that travels widely and for whom English is a first language. MK Raghavendra’s new book The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium is about this shift in Hindi cinema’s idiom in the years following economic liberalisation. Its thesis is that during this period, films have increasingly been made for Anglophone viewers – so that the underprivileged have been marginalised or ceased to be subjects of the new cinema – and that the state’s withdrawal from the public sphere has had notable consequences for the filmic treatment of patriotism, community, aspiration and politics. Raghavendra proposes that even when the films themselves are celebratory, they carry bleak implications for the idea of an Indian “nation”.

Needless to say, this is a very big topic, and he tackles it by looking closely and in an organised manner at a number of key films released between 2001 (the year of Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan and Gadar) and 2012 (Paan Singh Tomar) – what are their implications and undercurrents, what might they tell us about the post-liberalisation nation? Thus, for instance, the section on the feel-good Lage Raho Munnabhai notes the curious, cynical ways in which Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings have been transformed and re-applied to the imperatives of modern India, while films such as Bunty aur Babli are analysed in terms of how the go-getting entrepreneurial spirit is now celebrated without agonizing much about moral compromises. Overall, the accent is on films that have been successful – to some degree or other – across India, but the choice of movies is also a reminder that the line between the categories “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” is now less clear than it was in the “commercial film vs parallel film” (or Manmohan Desai vs Shyam Benegal) era. There are blockbusters by Karan Johar and Farah Khan (Kabhi Alvida na Kehna and Om Shanti Om respectively) and a stylish, glamorous thriller (Dhoom 2) but also lower-key movies such as Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal and Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live; there are relatively commercial works by respected auteurs (Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, Mani Ratnam’s Guru), alongside the oeuvre of that most self-consciously “socially conscious” director Madhur Bhandarkar.

Inevitably the results are uneven, with some essays being more stimulating and focused than others. Some conclusions are easily drawn: anyone can see that a film such as Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi na Milegi Dobara, populated by posh, cosmopolitan people (three friends on a road trip in Spain), is about and for Indians who are citizens of a global world; largely unconcerned with lives outside upper-class circles. But some of Raghavendra’s sharper observations concern films that, on the face of it, deal with poor people in lower-class milieus – he points out that these films, being made for multiplex audiences, often view the underprivileged with an anthropological (if sympathetic) detachment. Hence Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, though set in a crime underbelly, has the tenor of “a low-life fantasy lived out by the aspiring, upwardly mobile classes”. And though Taare Zameen Par is about an underdog – a boy whose classroom troubles stem from dyslexia – the visuals in an early scene, where little Ishaan imagines aquatic life reminiscent of that in the American animation hit Finding Nemo, are presented in terms that only a well-off, Anglophone viewer can relate to. “The child of a farmer in a hot dry district, for instance, is unlikely to imagine the Sun as a smiling yellow orb.”

Some of these analyses might make you reexamine your feelings about a film. Take Peepli Live, about a farmer in dire straits, who finds himself at the centre of a heartless media circus when he announces he will kill himself. Conventional wisdom has it that this film is empathetic towards the class that the protagonist Natha belongs to – certainly, there is little questioning the filmmakers’ good intentions. Yet, as Raghavendra points out, Peepli Live too belongs to a tradition of Anglophone cinema (the credit titles and the important closing legend are exclusively in English) where a viewer is not encouraged to directly identify with the poor in the
way that viewers of an earlier time might have. And in this context he makes an interesting point about the use of movie stars in commercial cinema. “Film stars are naturally people in whom the public projects itself”, he notes – implying that when Nargis plays the destitute Radha in Mother India, or Dilip Kumar plays the villager driven to banditry in Gunga Jamna, or Amitabh Bachchan follows a similar arc in a more urban setting in Deewaar, there is a level of immersion that an audience might not achieve when watching the unknown Omkar Das Manikpuri playing Natha in Peepli Live (no matter how good his performance or how “authentic” the casting).

This is a thoughtful argument, one that extends beyond the scope of this book, in its regarding of stars with established personalities as “signifiers”. In fact, Raghavendra often draws attention to such signifiers – little filmmaking decisions that in some way or the other affect a viewer’s responses to a story and its characters. In writing about Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti, he notes that the central characters – the people whom the audience must, to some degree at least, root for – are played by urbane, westernized actors – Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Arjun Rampal – while the more rustic Manoj Bajpai (“who was born in a small village in Bihar”) plays their adversary. The film itself, being amoral, doesn’t give us any particular reason to think of the former set of characters as “good”, but the casting subtly affects our attitudes.

Elsewhere, he observes that even though Bhandarkar’s Page 3 is “less bleak in tone” than Govind Nihalani’s 1980 film Aakrosh (the former is a stylishly told, mass-audience-friendly narrative; the latter is sombre and hard-hitting in a manner characteristic of the “parallel” movement of the early 1980s), it is Page 3 that is essentially more pessimistic. And this difference has to do with the changed situation, Bhandarkar’s film having been made in a climate where capitalism runs rampant and true justice for the poor – in this case, sexually exploited lower-class children – is a fading dream. (“The characters are implicated in a situation which is irremediable, that is, increasing dominance of the market over the state […] there is no authority to which one might appeal.”) Similarly, 3 Idiots, which presents itself as a “triumph of the underdog” tale, doesn’t attempt to explain how the Aamir Khan character Phunsukh Wangdu has risen from the servant ranks to become an internationally respected scientist; the film simply tells us this has happened and allows us to leave on a feel-good note. “In this inability to imagine Wangdu lies an uncomfortable truth: that such a person is unimaginable. It is unimaginable that a servant’s child in India will become a celebrated inventor. Elite educational institutions are not for his kind even when the institutions have been established by the state.”

These propositions are open to debate, of course. One might paraphrase a famous truism about India: “For every observation you make about Hindi cinema, the opposite can also be shown to be true.” It can also be pointed out that many of the conscientious “art-film” directors of the 80s lived cushy, cosmopolitan lives at a remove from their downtrodden subjects. (Nihalani’s excellent 1984 Party, about a group of bleeding-heart artists and armchair activists at a house party, can be viewed as a caustic self-interrogation.) And if Peepli Live is classified as a mainstream film for the purposes of this study, would this also be true for, say, Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday or Rajkumar Gupta’s Aamir, which do offer a chance to directly relate – in the case of the former, almost to a dangerous extent – with the frustrations of the helpless “common man”?

The fact that each essay must ultimately veer round to the big thesis about the Anglophone audience makes this book heavy-handed and forced at times, and the dry, mostly impersonal writing it represents is not for all tastes. But it is possible to quibble with Raghavendra’s broader conclusions while appreciating the quality of his engagement. Within the broad church of academic work on film, he is one of the better writers and thinkers around, worth taking seriously for the quality of his insights, and his analyses of individual films are always worth reading. Whether making an intriguing connection between two different sorts of movies (the fictionalised Dhirubhai Ambani biopic Guru and the caper film Bunty aur Babli) or pointing out how locales in Gadar are subtly placed at the service of patriotism (“India is always assisted by the film’s cinematography – with views of the countryside in which wheat fields are conspicuous – while Pakistan is portrayed through the city […] India is evidently the more fertile and democratic space”), he is consistently perceptive about the underpinnings of popular cinema. Even if you don't agree with everything he says about the state of the nation, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some of these films through a new prism – and that is one of the most valuable things a critic can do.


  1. It may sound a bit funny, but I feel, at least for me, even the acclaimed films made 2000 onwards teach me nothing about realities of India apart from realities of those who make it and those who watch it. But, when I watch the so-called serious cinema of 70s and prior, works of people like Benegal, Ray, Nihalani, Bimal Sen, I feel that they made movies with an intention to educate the audience. I mean education in a good way, as in I would rely on their take on India and not the text-books which we read in schools and later to know more about this country. I guess this might be because a number of those directors were left-leaning. But, that is not the case with most good movies made 2000 onwards. Well, one would argue, why should it be the case in the first place?

  2. " Socially conscious" Director Madhur Bhandarkar.That was a nice touch. :)