FOR ADULTS ONLY

What is so 'Adult' really about LSD or Dev D? And how are they any more adult than other Bollywood films? 
Aakshi Magazine Delhi

My teenager cousin told me that her friend was shocked by Dibakar Banerjee's Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD) -because it showed everything. When I think about it, she probably meant the blurred out sex scene. 

On a news channel, censor board chairperson Sharmila Tagore commented on the absurdity of the film's director, Dibakar Banerjee, wanting a 'U/A' certificate. She said she "knew" what is and is not acceptable for children and youngsters. This was said with a sense of finality not misplaced coming from someone who heads a body that has the power of too much interference in all fiction and non-fiction films seeking a release in India. With the moral-legal backing of being in "societal interest".The same censor board certifies as 'universal' regressive worldviews on everything - women, love, sexuality, class and caste - every Friday in a theatre. The accepted-acceptable ideas for whose perpetuation the board functions are these dominant ideas of our time that are defended in the name of "societal interest" even though they are oppressive to so many people and desires.

What is so 'adult' really about LSD (or Dev D)? And how are they any more 'adult' than other Bollywood films?This interests me more because when I was growing up, 

I did not really have access to films that were offering alternatives to conventional and inherently oppressive ways of being in the world. I grew up on the Bollywood of the 1990s. At one point, I remember my friends and I saw Aditya Chopra's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) several times. What this must have done to our sense of the world, I don't completely know yet.  I am still unlearning. 

I did not grow up on today's mainstream Bollywood that knows sophisticated ways of masking its inherent conservativeness. Most of these films function with the facade of being 'progressive'. One of these facades that has been gradually mastered over the years is to do with gender. Here, the presence of women  characters who seem more in control than before and more confident in displaying their 'sexualised bodies', only ends up endorsing regressive ideas on female desire and gender roles.

For instance, Fashion is a paranoid look at the fate of middle-class girls who dare venture into the evil world of 'fashion'. It unhesitatingly upholds suffocating ideas on women and morality - middle-class defined. It seems to argue that women can't handle professions where they are in control, are sexually confident, and have all the fame and money that men in the same profession are incidentally shown as easily handling. Why Kangana Ranaut's character becomes a drug addict and how it's linked to her career as a ramp model, remains unclear. 

Throughout the film, a link is established between the act of smoking and the evolution of Priyanka Chopra's character, as she moves from being innocent to corrupted by power and desire, and, devastated by a sexual encounter (because it is with a 'black' man - outrightly racist), to, finally, make a reformed and middle class morals intact fight back into the industry.

Another film: Kambhakt Ishq. Kareena Kapoor's apparently liberated 'modern' confident character is a man-hater - that alone makes her a 'feminist'. This character justifies her so-called feminism because her father had left her mother when she was young. Only to realise later that her mother had lied to her and it was the other way round! This makes her sum up the film's misogynist politics in a monologue: "Mujhe maaf kar do... mujhe laga tha ki main apna khayaal khud rakh sakti hoon... lekin main galat thi..." (Forgive me. I thought I could take care of myself. I was wrong.) 

Indeed, because this is a character who embodies comfortable and confident sexuality, this dangerous film masks and misrepresents its politics as a 'modern' progressive one to its audience, especially to its most vulnerable watchers - young people - for many of whom these films are one of the sources from where they get their ideas of the world.

This is where he counter to these narratives becomes significant. This is also why these counter-narratives raise discomfort. What is disconcerting about a Dev D, for instance, is not its easy references to sex, because even mainstream Bollywood does that now. It is the subversion of gender roles, especially when it comes to sexuality and existence of female desire that makes it necessary for the dispersion of these films to be monitored and controlled. Your young male cousin will still be allowed to see the film, but not your female one.

It is much easier to let kids watch conservative trash that passes the censor test with ease, because it doesn't disturb the status quo. This is why the same parents don't have a problem with kids watching 'sexualised' bodies in 'item songs' because at least here the woman is basically a desired and not a desiring body (though they don't realise that these songs constantly subvert this logic, that women actually enjoy and assert themselves and their sexuality). 

Of course, in an 'everything's downloadable and piratable age', a censor certificate doesn't really mean anything. But the problem is that the censor certificate is not the only way in which the board tampers with a film. Scenes are deleted, dialogues censored, continuities-discontinuities messed up. The most interesting aspect of the censor board's intervention in LSD was completely played down in the media. The love story of a young couple, a Dalit boy and an 'upper' caste girl, ends in brutal murder of the lovers by the girl's 'upper' caste family. Thus, perhaps, becoming one of the few recent films to document caste in contemporary urban India. And yet, the sanitising of the word 'Dalit' from the film, misrepresented caste as class, a reality more acceptable to the film's urban, middle-class audience. The term 'Dalit' cannot be used in Bollywood films, as per censor regulations, explained Sharmila Tagore in the same programme. Earlier, the film's producer Ekta Kapoor said, "I had a very interesting journey with the censor. They were very understanding. The film has very few cuts." 

No contradiction then that someone who has been the producer of the most regressive serials in the history of Indian TV, has also produced LSD. She seems to have not really understood the meanings the film could generate, beyond the obvious 'bold' and 'realist' intentions, empty words that are so often used for both LSD and Dev D. The reference here is only to sex, just like that of my cousin's friend. Most reviewers too use these words when they don't know what to make of these films. And this doesn't end here.

Dibakar Banerjee's second film, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, was surprisingly loved by 'one and all' in the blogosphere and 'intellectual type' middle class circles. The film got Banerjee the national award for the 'Best popular film providing wholesome entertainment'. Why did everyone love this film so much and how was it providing such wholesome, nutritious entertainment?

It was thus an epiphanic moment when in a film festival I heard a film scholar introduce the film as a 'playful' look at Delhi in a discussion with the director. In response, the director made it a point to disagree.This is because to see Oye Lucky as 'playful', to see it as a 'wholesome entertainer', whatever that means, is to miss its anger, tame its angst, its documentation of the 'Luckys' who don't find a place in the air-conditioned auditoriums where this film festival was taking place, and in the 'sophisticated' English-speaking, incestuous circles in which the blogging elite writes and comments. I remember when I had seen the film, in the interval, someone sitting behind commented that it's a comedy - but a 'real' one. In whatever language was available to him, he had easily, already, cracked the code that the scholarly could not.

This is not to say that films will not always be interpreted differently by different people. The point is about a certain kind of reading of a film that seeks to neutralise its politics. Films that challenge basic ideologies of a society will be sought to be tamed in different ways, whether it is through intervention in narratives or through certain kinds of interpretations of them. 

Banerjee has a remarkable gift of sharp observation and an equally remarkable one of translating these observations into apt dialogues, characters and situations. And because his observations are not from the perspective of those comfortably placed at the centre of elite India but about those aspiring to get in, his films become interesting for those looking to understand class and exclusion in contemporary times, especially in the urban context. There are times when this style seems to be in danger of becoming an entertainment gimmick because it ensures an assured reaction from the audience. This became evident in the way LSD's girl in the department store talks about her boyfriend in Russia and how the pop star shows off the 'hot and cold' tap water in his vanity van. Banerjee seems to be aware of this danger: "I know most of my audience laughs at my characters, not with them." 

This is an indication of the potentialities and struggles of these new films. Like everything else, these have contradictions, being neither exclusively progressive nor only regressive. There was something missing in LSD. Maybe it was the absence of a gendered lens that made its take on voyeurism and sting journalism moralistic. 

DeV D, In contrast, was gender conscious and created liberating woman characters. And yet, the perpetrator of the MMS scandal was a stereotypically portrayed 'Yadav' whose English accent insinuated that he was from a 'lower' class background. Why couldn't he have been from the girl's school itself, considering that elite schools are so incestuous?

It would be interesting to see a pattern, if any, in what these films are silent on, what they are not progressive about. For that, we'll have to wait and watch. What is clear is that the milieu in which the contemporary films function is neither egalitarian nor are they even pretending to.

And that is the system that many say has made the existence of these films possible in the first place. Unlike the 'New Wave' cinema of the 1970s and '80s, the harbinger of today's new cinema is the multiplex and new corporate sponsorship. This has meant the entry of new people as script writers and directors into the film industry, those who come from the new elite and have benefited from liberalisation. 

The multiplex is representative of a certain kind of modernity which is problematic, because it is excluding and conservative. At its most basic, it is an excluding movie-watching experience that makes clear choices about who should and shouldn't be allowed in. And in its quest for monopoly, its impact is not restricted only to its intended target audience. By converting every Rivoli to a PVR Rivoli (as in Delhi), it has gained legitimacy for the idea that the right to have a public movie-watching experience in urban India should be decided on the basis of one's class (which is also caste in India). Many people in urban India just don't have the luxury of watching films in theatres anymore. 

This system's aim may or may not be new cinema, but profit is. In its quest to please the audience, it will naturally dictate what kind of concerns should be represented and in what ways. This would be as far from a vibrant, questioning, new cinema that one can get. People living in a universe consisting only of others like them who have benefited from the economic and political system will have to struggle hard to step out of the air-conditioned theatre and accept the existence of those on whose displacement this system prospers. 

Perhaps one of the struggles of these films, if they have to explore a world unconstrained by a system and ideology as exclusive as this one, would have to be a struggle against the logic of this system itself. Till then, to a multiplex audience, it will always be easier to see Oye Lucky only as an 'entertainer'.

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