WHAT’S IN THE STARS?

When it comes to the idea of the 'nation' Bollywood is obsessed with candyfloss solutions, wrapped in melodrama: we are one happy, diverse but hierarchical family
Karen Gabriel Delhi

Two years ago, Anil Ambani's Reliance Big Pictures and Hollywood icon Steven Spielberg signed a $825 million deal to make films for global audiences. This unprecedented project was the outcome of transformations in the film industry that were initiated in 1998 by the NDA government. In a major shift in State policy, the film industry was accorded 'corporate' status. As a gradual result, the Indian film industry is now just one part of the 'Indian Entertainment Industry' being steered by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Over the last decade, it has been undergoing steady but dramatic changes in its production, organisation and structural operations.

Corporatisation implied new and legitimate modes of film financing (the IDBI was in the vanguard) and changed taxation regimes (negotiations continue). The big new players in film production and distribution are mainly large industrial houses, corporations, and television and advertising companies. Giants like Adlabs, UTV, Studio 18, Fox Searchlight, Reliance Big Pictures, Viacom and Sony have moved into key filmmaking sectors of distribution, exhibition and recently, production. They are all globally integrated and they all aim for 'vertical integration' (of, say, TV, advertising, fashion and film). This will enable them to scale up easily, absorb risks and increase margin ranges and efficiency. The men with the money - whether underworld dons or corporate honchos - will continue to maintain control.

Understandably, then, director Shekhar Kapur and some south Indian film houses have expressed anxiety about the effects of corporatisation on filmmaking. Kapur believes that it will result in the gradual disappearance of individuality and of culture-specific models of filmmaking that were fostered by our more 'cottage-industry' type model. He may have a point.

Cinema is not just about money-making; it is an art form. Now many filmmakers have both eyes trained on an 'international' viewer. This viewer is not just the diasporic Indian, but, more ambitiously, a whiter viewer. This is a radical change since Hindi cinema has always had an international (multicoloured) audience, but films were always made mainly for local consumption. Song and dance, winding narrative gullies, comic interludes (the entire masala genre), thrived at home and abroad for that reason.

In fact, Bombay cinema is distinctive because of its unique sensibility. It is likely that the idiomatic and stylistic changes that we're already seeing (Krrish, Dhoom 1, 2, Johnny Gaddar, Manorama Six Feet Under, Dus Kahaniyan) may soon be prompted by altogether new target audiences. After all 'international versions' of films are being readied. And film titles are mostly either partly or wholly anglicised. The realist style, sponsored by the global north, is developing in the niche strand but is also morphing as it meets melodrama (Aamir, Kurbaan, New York). The stylistics of Chinese films may also enter Hindi cinema, but via Hollywood (as in Krrish).

What will happen to the powerful, influential and excellent cinemas of the south, the east or the west of India from which Hindi cinema borrows so liberally? Especially, since FICCI informs us that it is already poised to bring the entertainment industries of the varied Indian states together under a single platform. From 'Bollywood Inc.' to another manifestation of 'India Inc.'? 'Hindia Inc.'? And this, just as the multiplex offered some hope of Telugu, Tamil, Marathi or Assamese cinema in the migrant-rich metros of the Hindi heartland.

The multiplex boom - which now accounts for more than two-thirds of the ticket revenue generated by the movie industry and enables the digital delivery of films - is an (infra)structural change that can easily promote such diversity. But only if money is not the sole driving factor. We hope to be exposed to an assortment of cinematic sensibilities. The added advantage is that these cinemas would willy-nilly question the idea of the nation as rendered through 'Bollywood Inc.'.

Moreover, we can reasonably hope that this will also eventually affect the hegemonic body and ethnic types (light-skinned, gym-muscled, size-zero clones) of Hindi cinema, and that we will see a richer variety of beautiful people, in the years to come. But will this happen in 2010 itself? Unlikely: Metropolitan middle-class north India's imagination of itself (and its diasporic cousins) as the nation, must first wear itself out, before this can happen. Hindi cinema, though, is likely to continue to 'borrow' - plots, storylines, music, artistes galore - from these cinemas and from Hollywood.

An important new element in the equation with these other industries is the transfer of knowledge, techniques and technologies of filmmaking. These permitted the making of Koi Mil Gaya and Krrish, and we can almost certainly look forward, therefore, to remakes of Kamal Hassan's Dasavathaaram. While the horror film has yet to appeal fully - despite Ram Gopal Verma's stubborn persistence with it - sequels seem to be a rising fashion, with Dhoom 3 and Don 2 on the anvil.

Will niche cinema allow for radical experimentation? Certainly in the case of cinematography, camerawork, editing, action and stunt sequences. We have seen some extraordinary developments there. Again, old themes have been treated differently (Dev D), new themes and concerns have emerged (Paa, Kurbaan). Nevertheless, the 'Slumdog effect' notwithstanding, this cinema remains narcissistically focused on urban upper and middle-class concerns, and the treatment of these as significant in themselves.

This is by far the most significant and subtle change in Hindi cinema. While it continues to promote itself as 'national' cinema, it also reduces the idea of India to India of 'Bollywood Inc'. In fact, the understanding of the 'national' in this cinema is becoming more exclusive and distinctly urban upper/middle-class. It is engaging more with the concerns of this class and its global networks, than with the vast majority that constitute the 'off-screen nation'.

So, nationalism will continue to permeate Hindi cinema for a while to come - but, increasingly through its anxieties. For example, the hype of the 'war on terror', or more India-specifically, the figure of the Maoist/Naxalite may haunt the upper/middle-class imagination. Ironically, rural India may stage a cinematic comeback in 2010 through this figure: the imaginatively and literally distanced tribal features as a terrorist/insurgent/Maoist/Naxalite, who threatens the rich and powerful of the metropolitan nation.

Will the tribal replace the Muslim as the 'national terror'? Or will we see an adaptation of James Cameron's Avatar that, for all its problems, looks sympathetically at the displacement of tribal populations by mega mining corporations? Will it be able to address urgent social issues? Will issues of radical disparity feature in 2010?

Perhaps not. These are silences that mainstream Hindi cinema has traditionally maintained. An effective silence on caste or the essentially racial issue of the Northeastern states will also continue, precisely because the corporate interests that are increasingly determining State policy are now also increasingly invested in the worlds of representation. Addressing caste or the Northeastern issue means going up directly against national prejudices: on caste in the one case, and State policies on national integration, in the other.

Moreover, we now have a zero-tolerance climate towards speech on many of these issues. Hindi cinema, eternally vulnerable to censorship, and therefore more loyal than the king even in its noir-ish avatar, has preferred a change-but-continuity approach. It has promoted the politics of 'accommodation' to resolve conflict mainly through melodrama.

This tack came graphically under strain post 9/11 when the 'problematic' male Muslim identity was revisited in a global and national context. Everybody was grappling with the problem of how to 'accommodate' Muslims, even as the community came under siege globally and nationally.

Here, the 'problem' of the nation was renewed. Are Muslims actually Hindustani? Can they ever be Hindustani? How should they be perceived? How should they be portrayed? Indeed, recent films like Aamir, New York, Wednesday and Kurbaan fumbled and turned predictably to clichés.

Redemptive deaths or a disavowal of that identity ('soft' Muslims) were offered as 'solutions'. Maybe the presence of a large number of Muslims within the industry has sometimes forced Hindi cinema to be critical of stereotypical assumptions about Muslims and the nation. Or, maybe, melodrama saved the day. In any case, Hindi film has tended to envisage a somewhat heterogeneous nation, celebrating the nationalism of the slogan 'unity within diversity'.

Thus, the candyfloss solution, wrapped in melodrama, has normally been, 'we are one happy, diverse but hierarchical family'. Cinema often suggested that we need to change the way we think about our nation instead of driving people out. But that has been changing.

Many constituencies of people are vanishing. Will Karan Johar's My Name is Khan which touches on racial profiling (and had Kajol asking "Are you sure you want to do this film?), ride on the King Khan's impeccable commercial record and nationalist credentials and dare? Let us see what happens when King Khan, who was detained at the Newark Liberty International Airport because of religious profiling, meets the king of candyfloss (or should that be spelt Kandyfloss?) this time round.

Interestingly, it has been easier to dare with sexuality, a key area of national hypocrisy. While we are still a long way from seeing male or female nudity on screen, films like Omkara and Dev D brought sexually explicit language out of the public closet while others like Raat Gayi Baat Gayi explored middle-class infidelities a la Astitva and Aastha. The figure of the gay homosexual has become increasingly common, but not so the lesbian, despite voyeuristic ventures of films like Girlfriend etc. This speaks of the machismo in this cinema which is more comfortable with converting other men into objects of sexual desire, than it is with female sexual agency, especially if it is directed towards other women.

These issues will open out some more. The question is will cinema deal with sex and 'other' sexualities (including radical heterosexual practices) imaginatively and courageously, or just as entertaining aberrations to reinforce the hegemonies of upper-caste heterosexuality? So far, the representations of sexuality remain as disconnected from everyday sexual realities in the country (urban or rural), as they ever were.

Certainly, at the end of 2010, the old and disturbing questions that pertain to the relationship between cinema and life, the camera and the world, representation and reality, political privilege and representational space, will get complicated even more by technology and big money.

The writer is Associate Professor of English at St Stephen's College, University of Delhi. Her book on Hindi cinema titled Melodrama and the Nation was recently published by Women Unlimited

 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2010