It is only very recently that the popular Hindi film has acquired academic respect¬ability as a subject for scholar¬ly attention. Today, one might call it an almost fashion¬able concern. But this mam¬moth effort mounted by Aruna Vasudev and Philippe Lenglet is to be commended as the first serious attempt, on this scale, to grapple with the phenomenon of the Hindi film —truly a supermarket, a some-thing-for-everybody one-stop-shop, that has given to the vocabulary of Indian English that new and evocative cultural adjective, ‘filmi’.
Without the shadow of a doubt, and whether one likes it or not, the Hindi film is the popular culture of modern India. We cannot wish it away, despite Mr. Kumar Shahani’s confident assertion that it will ‘spend itself by its own logic’. Ideology as false consciousness it may be, but there is no indication that de-mystification is nigh. And so we find ourselves in a situa¬tion where the cinema is the most popular medium of mass communication. People are ‘cinerate’, so to speak, before they are literate. Despite the paucity of cinema halls—espe¬cially in the rural areas—the Hindi film enjoys an impressive reach, less perhaps than that of the radio, but then radio and television today are mere purveyors of its message. The impact of this cinema on the ways of thinking and being of it’s audience is unquestionable: what is to be determined is the nature of this impact and its roots in our cultural history.
There are two historical essays in this volume by Raghunath Raina and B.D. Garga. Mr Raina’s is a brave attempt at linking the history of cinema with socio-economic and poli¬tical factors, as also with deve¬lopments in the other arts. Sadly, it stops just short of being a social history, for the links are not fleshed out, and it remains a somewhat ten¬dentious capsule history, with little to add to what Messrs. Rangoonwalla, Barnouw and Krishnaswamy have already told us. B.D. Garga’s essay is an arbitrarily selective chro¬nicle of Indian film history which fails to live up to its claim of being a ‘diachronic’ perspective.
On the content of the com¬mercial film there are several essays, of which those by Aruna Vasudev, Sanjeev Prakash and Sudhir Kakar are particulary notable. Ms Vasu¬dev has given us a witty, sen¬sitive and well-illustrated ac¬count of the woman in the Hindi film—in her family roles as wife and mother and at work; as sex object and as courtesan. Her essay goes beyond the conventional and the obvious, to study some recent films of this genre which claim a break with tra¬dition in that they deal with the so-called modern Indian woman, in relation to real problems like prostitution, rape, the search for identity and economic independence, and so on. But the old stereo¬types are seen to persist: ‘preconceptions of the status of women which perpetuate male domination in society’.
Sanjeev Prakash’s discussion of music and dance in the popular film, again, comes to grips with the subject better than William O. Beeman in what is probably one of the few essays on this theme (see the India Inter¬national Centre Quarterly, 1981). Prakash attributes the centrality of songs in the Hindi film to the tradition of Parsi theatre, on the one hand, and on the other, to folk theatre in which music was used not atmospherically, or as an embellishment, but as ‘a vehicle for the narrative’ itself. In turn, film music has displaced and replaced folk music, simul¬taneously acquiring an inde¬pendent cultural identity as the only significant form of popular music today.
That the world of the Hindi film is a world of fantasy is self-evident. Sudhir Kakar brings to bear on this question the perspective of the psycho¬analyst, seeing the film as col¬lective rather than individual fantasy. Films, he argues, are contemporary myths in which the portrayal of family rela¬tionships helps to relieve, for the audience, the stresses and strains of family relationships in real life. In this sense, the film is not unlike a fairy tale: expressing repressed wishes, simplifying complex situations, resolving in imagination prob¬lems that are ‘real’, and ending, always, in the resolution of conflict through the destruc¬tion of the enemy.
The other papers dealing with this genre include one on the mythological film by B.V. Dharap, that conscientious score-keeper of film industry statistics; one on the ‘star system’ by veteran film journa¬list B.K. Karanjia; one on the ‘aesthetics’ of ‘contemporary kitsch’ by Professor Satish Bahadur; and two descriptive essays on ‘The Commercial’. Bikram Singh gives an enter¬taining account of the con¬temporary Hindi film and the naive ways in which it comes to grips with awkward (‘realist’) social questions like poverty. The influence of Sieg¬fried Kracauer is evident in Mr. Singh’s observation that ‘The Amitabh persona … is the desperate fantasy of a nation wishing for and dreaming of a strong, uncomplex, dynamic person who can snap his fingers and set things right.’ Monojit Lahiri’s is also an interpretive portrait, focussing on the changed trend from the domi¬nant ‘romanticism’ of the Rajesh Khanna era to the anger and rebellion that characterize the Bachchan ascendancy today. Lahiri also addresses himself, though briefly, to that genre of film which treads the precariously narrow middle path between the ‘art’ film and the ‘commercial’.
Not everyone would subscribe to the equivalence, suggested by Chidananda Das Gupta, between art cinema and ‘good’ cinema, on the one hand, and commercial cinema and ‘bad’ cinema, on the other. This is to make of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ approximately what utilitarian morality does. Nevertheless, Mr. Das Gupta is quite right to insist that the Indian film¬maker must possess a social conscience, an awareness of unpleasant realities like poverty and privilege, exploita¬tion and the denial of human rights. Some of the more recent films dealing with these issues are what would popu¬larly be called ‘art’ films. However, one cannot but agree with Mr. Das Gupta that, in this context, the slogan of ‘art for art’s sake has a touch of the obscene about it’.
There are, today, film-makers who use the cinematic medium as a means of intensely per¬sonal self-expression: Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani are the names that instantly spring to mind. Mr. Shahani adopts an engaging aphoristic style to clothe a thesis that is neither profound nor novel. The argu¬ment that the film is a cultural artefact manufactured accord¬ing to the rules of the bazaar, as a vehicle of the dominant ideology, is a well-worn one. The only possible mode of cul¬tural intervention is, in his view, ‘indirect, sporadic, gue¬rilla in character’. Meanwhile, he is confident that the Hindi film is not worth wasting time on, for it will spend itself.
There is, indeed, a growing support for the view that the new middle-order films, incor¬porating elements of both the art and the commercial cinema, are likely to alto¬gether replace the popular Hindi film in the foreseeable future. This new intermediate stream of film-making is un¬doubtedly stronger today than before. Equally certainly, it deserves to be encouraged. But to see it as the dominant cinematic trend of the future appears to be both false pro¬phecy and misguided hope.
Mr. Mani Kaul’s essay is the¬oretical and might seem abstr¬use to the lay reader. In con¬trast, the interview with him further up in the book is both accessible and interesting, for it brings him out as more tolerant of ‘several traditions’ of film-making than one would have expected, as concerned not to address a mass audi¬ence, but to build up a steady, discerning one for his own films. On Madan Gopal Singh’s ‘Technique as an Ideo¬logical Weapon’, the influence of Walter Benjamin and Louis Althusser is unmistakeable. But once one has cleared the thicket of semiological jargon, the thesis is an adventurous one: that the Hindi film is a form of ‘cultural fascism’ which manipulates the techni¬ques of cinematography to communicate essentially ideo¬logical messages. One wishes there had been more concrete examples from the Indian cinema to lend the argument more credibility.
The remaining essays in this volume are informational, rather than reflective. I have in mind especially the papers on short film-making, the Films Division, Government interaction with the film industry at many levels, and the film society movement and the prolific film press. These essays seem—rather like the footnotes throughout the book and the glossary of Indian mythology at the end—designed with a view to a foreign readership.
The question of the Govern¬ment-film industry relationship could have been explored more imaginatively, to show how the Government volun¬tarily provides props for the film industry through the other media at its command; how its virtual stranglehold over documentary film-making in the country has all bat killed any talented initiatives in this area; and how the politics of censorship operate. Even where the Films Division has sponsored worthwhile films like Meera Diwan’s Gift of Love (a film on dowry), appall¬ing facts have recently come to light these films are either not exhibited at all when re¬leased to the cinema houses, or only the last few minutes are screened so that the limited time before the main feature-film can be put to more lucrative use through advertise¬ments.
The second half of this book consists of interviews with a varied set of film personalities— from Feroze Khan and G.P. Sippy through Shashi Kapoor and Shyam Benegal to Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. There are interviews, also, with one-time policy makers like I.K. Gujral and Vasant Sathe. These conversa¬tions throw further light on the art/commerce and good film/bad film distinction, through the perceptions of film folk themselves. This section is also important in that it brings up, repeatedly, the ‘bazaar’ aspect of the film ¬industry, not dealt with in the main body of the book. The enormity of investment in the industry is, as the appendices reveal, staggering; and the control of financiers, producers and distributors over the director and cast emerges as a major constraint. The econo¬mics of the film industry leave little reason to wonder at the large numbers of addictive, tranquilizing films that are produced in the name of entertainment. Though very marginally, the question of the welfare of technical workers in the industry comes up, as does that of the incongruity of entertainment tax revenue going to the State governments while the censorship function is performed by a Central government agency. On the treatment of women, the views of Nargis and V. Shantaram, counterposed with those of Shabana Azmi, reflect changed times and terms of reference, despite broader continuities.
The book has a useful set of appendices, which include a chronology of film history, some data about the scale of production, employment and investment, and excerpts from laws relating to the cinema.
Anyone interested in the Indian film would be excited by a first glance at the table of contents. And Philippe Lenglet’s excellent, perceptive intro¬duction—one wishes it had been longer—whets one’s appetite for more. In spite of the fact that all the essays are not of a uniformly high quality (a fair number of them being quite indifferent), this is a landmark volume, worth dipping into, even though -to extend the metaphor in the title—decidedly upmarket.
Niraja Gopal is Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Miranda House, University of Delhi, Delhi.