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INDIA'S CELLULOID HALL OF MIRRORS

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World and I
Washington Times, 1994

wfilminrasijamini.jpg
Still from Aribam Syam Sharma's MY SON, MY PRECIOUS

As filmmakers in countries from France to Japan lament that their country's top-grossing films come from Hollywood, the Indian film industry is more than holding its own. Indeed, it might be ventured that within India itself, the popular Indian film, along with its inescapable music, is perhaps the single most important modern force - cricket being a distant second - that has held together this incredibly diverse nation of 850 million speaking well over 200 languages.

WHAT ARE THESE FILMS LIKE?

Remarkably independent, the popular Indian film has its own body of cinematic conventions, stylistic signatures. If one has seen the spectacular song-and dance melodrama that is the run-of the-mill Indian film, one begins to wonder about the tremendous appeal of the Indian film.

To begin with, it is all rather awe-inspiring and numbing. Credits and title music blast your eayes and ears. The hero takes on the food hoarder, dances with the heroine on a hilltop, engages a gang of hooligans in a choreographed fight. There is applause, wolf-whistles, singing and dancing in the aisles. Outside, three-story high movie posters with stars painted in poisonous green, neon blue and lurid pink scream "Every Sinner Has to Pay the Price!", "A Saga of Love Hate and Desire!", and "He Sings, He Dances, He Kills Too!.

The typical Indian film is a star-studded affair with household names like Amitabh Bachhan, Sanjay Dutt, Sridevi, and Madhuri Dixit. (Some like Bachhan and Rajesh Khanna are so popular they are elected to political office.)The film is a melodramatic narrative embellished with an average of six or seven songs and dances. These are arranged in a series of extended sequences rather than in a linear fashion. Stories and themes are repeated film after film: good triumphing over evil, the struggle of the poor, the sins of the big city, and the destruction of family. The stars declaim stylized dialogue accompanied and underscored by background music. The result is a heady mixture of fantasy and exaggerated melodrama that packs the crowds in. The biggest Indian blockbuster "Sholay 1975" ran for five years in one Bombay theater alone.

While the popular Indian film concocts the musical extravaganzas, the Indian film industry also produces films by internationally recognized artists like Satyajit Ray, who was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992 for his masterpieces like "Pather Panchali 1955" and "Jana Aranya 1975". Many directors like Ray, Shyam Benegal, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, make independent films, which, like Woody Allen's films in the US, are seen by smaller, more discriminating audiences.


THEMES AND GENRES

Since the films of directors like Ray and Benegal are the work of individual artists, it is in the popular Indian film manufactured as commercial entertainment that we see the existence of genres.

This was true right from the very beginning. Dadasaheb Phalke, an amateur magician and theater buff made Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian feature in 1912. Released to an enthusiastic audience the following year, Phalke took a page from Indian mythology cannily choosing a story already known to the Indian national collective mind. It was the beginning of a hardy and perennially popular genre of Indian film: the mythological film, usually based on episodes from religious epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and its cousin, the devotional film, about the lives of Indian saints.

Historical films about familiar figures such as Anarkali 1952 and Razia Begum 1924, followed. And as film came to India at the turn of the century when the country was poised on major social and political reform, a more realistic genre called the social film emerged, with its cautious critiques of social evils like dowry and polygamy.

The mythological, devotional and social genres of Indian cinema still survive, sometimes in new, surprising mutations. Common to them all was the structure of sequences of music, dance and drama. In doing so, the popular Indian film latched on to folk theater-performance forms that stretch back 2000 years that developed from dances performed at religious festivals, with added narrative and dialogue. Indian cinema became truly Indian from the start.

THE INDUSTRY

In fashioning the Indian film, Indian filmmakers were basically exercising good business sense. The Indian film industry is big business with about $270 million are invested every year in Indian films. It is the largest film industry in the world, almost three times bigger than Hollywood. and producing over 800 films on an average every year. The budget of an Indian film runs to about 30 million rupees or about $1 million.

A major film issues only 100-150 prints compared to, say, 3000 prints of a major Hollywood release, since there are only about 13,000 cinemas, one third of which are touring cinemas, screening films in outdoor tents. Still, 5 billion tickets are sold every year to 300 million moviegoers. Tickets are relatively cheap. A cinema ticket in an air-conditioned Bombay cinema may cost as much as 20 rupees, about 80 cents, or it may as little as 2 rupees, roughly a nickel, in a touring cinema.

The all-India film is made in Bombay, a city the size of New York. Yet, in this country with over 200 languages, there are five major film production centers in five different states making films in five different languages: Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Bengali and Kannada.

Stars sign up to twenty films at once. Superstar actresses like Sridevi work on up to six films a day, in six different shifts, shuttling from one studio to another, earning them the name "taxi stars". Over 600 film magazines with names like "Stardust" and "Filmfare" breathlessly cover the lives and careers of these stars for hungry fans.

CHARACTERISTICS AND IMPACT

Because it is such big business, the popular Indian film has evolved several characteristic features. It is these features - formulaic filmmaking (colloquially referred to as "masala" filmmaking, a term derived from the mix of spices that go into an Indian curry), melodrama, lack of regional cultural specifics, non-sectarian, and music and dance - that have made the Indian film industry so powerful in India today.

The perfunctory attention often paid to the script in the sequential style of the Indian film is very much a response to India's post-independence economic policies which finances a social program for education, industry and agriculture with high taxes and tight controls on industry. As much as 60% of all box-office receipts went into taxes of one sort or another. Under these heavy taxation rates, producers turned to distributors who demanded tried and true formula films: major stars, six dances, seven songs and so on. Popular stars began working in several films at once, script values began to suffer and the melodramatic formula film became ascendant. The resulting "masala" film makes for high entertainment values, and reliable escapist fare for the average Indian audience.

Melodrama itself, with its sensational, emotionally overwrought, romantic and violent character is eminently suited to being the prime form for popular entertainment. Hollywood itself, or any soap opera worth its salt in tears, provides as much. What the Indian film provides without parallel are Indian dreams based on Indian situations acted out by Indian character archetypes. In a popular film such as Mani Rathnam's Bombay, a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl fall in love are forced to escape their village for the relative secular anonymity and safety of Bombay. The familiar Indian archetypes make for easy representation and identification of the viewer.

Because the Indian film is designed to attract the largest number of viewers, and mainly in towns and cities, the all-India film has no regional identity. Its story, sets, costumes, and language are devoid of the cultural specificity of the different linguistic and ethnic regions, say Bengal or Kerala, that actually make up the country, although all these aspects tend to be dominated by the numerically dominant culture of Northern India. Though generally called the Hindi film, the all-India is actually in Hindusthani, a vernacular mix of Hindi and Urdu, effectively making this North Indian hybrid India's lingua franca. It is this film that is seen pretty much all over India, contributing to the linguistic unification of India.

The national market for the Indian film also resulted in non-sectarian values, which its lack of regional specifics makes possible in a country where religion is extremely important. Apart from the religious themes of mythologicals, most Indian film characters have only a broad identification with Hinduism, the overwhelmingly predominant religion. Many of them, such as Amar, Akbar, Anthony 1977, about three brothers separated as children to brought up as a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, espouse communal and religious harmony, so as to give them the widest reach possible, to ensure a stable environment for business and effectively serving as a unifying popular cultural force.

The use of music and dance is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Indian film. With its songs that dominate the Indian music industry, the Indian film industry is like Hollywood and rock music rolled into one huge behemoth. Because of the absence of differentiation between the two industries, the signing up of singing stars like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle is essential to ensure investment for a film. The soundtrack of a film, often released before the film itself, determines to a great extent the film's performance at the box-office.

The songs are composed by hot music directors such as A.R. Rahman and Rahul Dev Burman and set to lyrics by some of the country's finest poets like Kaifi Azmi and Gulzar. The very enjoyment of music and dance in an Indian film is often based on the use of classical Indian dance, traditionally performed in temples or royal courts, or the ring of familiarity of a raga-based song. In a "masala" film today, sitars, synthesizers, pianos, and violins provide a score that moves effortlessly from classical Indian ragas welded seamlessly to Mozart, to hip-hop and rap music. Every taste is catered to, while creating a bridge between East and West, and between traditional and contemporary cultures.

Music in Indian cinema not only entertains the audience but establishes dramatic development, emotional continuity and emphasis, and often to step in for the kiss in a society where public displays of intimacy are frowned upon. Ironically, many Indian film evolved extended sequences of "wet-sari" sequences, for instance, infinitely more suggestive, originally to skirt an actual ban on kissing, but now more as a stylistic convention even after the ban was revoked.

When it comes to using songs to advance plots, director S.S. Vasan's 1948 Chandralekha though using Busby Berkely-inspired choreography, actually preceded Hollywood's musicals. When filmmaker Ketan Mehta made his version of Madame Bovary, Maya Memsahib, without songs for non-Indian audiences, a noted critic mused that it no longer had a place for the eyes and ears to rest. Since song and dance was instrumental in winning instant and wide acceptance for the Indian film, it enabled for a minimal reliance on scripts and for its essentially melodramatic structure.

MIRRORS TRICK AND TRUE

Spectacle, music, melodrama, romance and action only go a little way in explaining the allure of the Indian film however. A typical Hollywood studio product provides as much.
More to the point perhaps is that the popular Indian film tells stories of good over evil in a basic Indian situation. The mythological, like the extraordinarily successful Mahabharat and Ramayan epics on television in recent years, are direct extensions of the traditionally ritualistic and oral tradition of Hinduism into the medium of the moving picture.

But even an average musical melodrama unconsciously but powerfully reflects a basic Indian reality, however distorted. line Manufactured as commercial entertainment and based on tried and true formulas, the Indian film is inevitably the product of contemporary Indian psyches and is a psychological index of a society. In Beta social corruption is depicted by a step brother masquerading as a doctor and social and political narratives are integrated into familial ones.

It is in the internationally better-known cinema of artists like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Shyam Benegal that we see a conscious exploration of these psychological states and social phenomena. In Ray's Devi 1960, for instance, a richly perceptive and nuanced Freudian tragedy about a wealthy man who begins to perceive his young daughter-in-law as the incarnation of a goddess, as controversial in its depiction of Hinduism and its impact on individual lives.

Starting with his famous Apu Trilogy1955-59, Ray opened the eyes of young aspiring filmmakers in India to films that were true to an Indian reality and possessed with remarkable artistic integrity. For his films, Ray dug deep into the immense riches of Bengali literature, Indian classical music, and international cinema, in particular the humanism, style and the use of outdoor locations, amateur actors and inexpensive technology of post World War 2 Italian Neo-Realism. Yet Ray's films appeal basically to only the urban elite of India . The commercial Indian film industry quite frankly felt that Ray's in truthfully depicting the realities of the Indian society, as in his celebrated Pather Panchali, only provided despair for the filmgoer who actually needed escapist entertainment.

A new generation of filmmakers, inspired by Ray, sought initially to develop a cinema in reaction to popular cinema's escapism to deal directly with the realities of modern India. These filmmakers of the New Indian Cinema sought to portray recognisable characters with inner complexities and social identities in situations close to life. Some chose to work in regional Indian cinema, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan with his Elippathayyam set in his native Kerala. Others like Shyam Benegal made classics like Bhumika in Hindi, the language of the popular film, retaining and reworking the familiar elements of song and dance. And in a third skein, filmmakers like Mani Kaul, with films such as Siddeshwari 1986 and Kumar Shahani, whose latest film is Bhavantaran 1996, display a consummate experimental style in re-working film narrative.

The New Indian Cinema, which started in the lates 1960s, is basically the cinema of the urban, educated baby-boomers of India. Their films, both in form and content tended to be politically progressive, interpreting and reflecting the world around them through the eyes of the modern Indian. The social critiques of these films, say, the lingering of feudal values, or the oppressed status of women reflected the modernizing ideology of post-Independence India. Many, like Benegal with Bhumika, for instance, often incorporate elements from the popular Indian film, in particular music and dance in order to broaden their appeal. The difference is that for once there was a conscious effort to weave these elements into the story and characterizations of the film. So it is no surprise that many of these films got funding from India's state film corporation or by state television.

An emerging alternative, especially for filmmakers who are based abroad or have been educated in the West, is to secure international finance from Europe, Britain, the United States and even Japan, in order to produce films that appeal not only to their traditional urban constituency in India but also to the international art film market.

It is not surprising that many of these international co-productions have favored certain subjects and treatments of Indian themes. Of course, the themes themselves are of interest to the Indian filmmakers. However, the resonance with widely-prevalent images of India in the West such as poverty, exoticism and the caste system were probably not lost in the international financing of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay 1988 about street children, or Kama Sutra 1996, her forthcoming erotic fantasy, or the exploitation of a low-caste woman in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen. 1994 The Merchant Ivory team built its early career on the clash of eastern and western worlds in Shakespearewallah 1965, a film about a traveling English theater troupe in India and The Guru 1969, for instance, a satire about Westerners coming to India, a subject that was given an updated spin in Pradip Krishen's satiric Electric Moon 1992.

The Indian film industry is today an immensely and increasingly varied world with filmmakers like Mani Rathnam and Ketan Mehta using creatively and confidently hallowed conventions of the popular cinema in a film like Rathnam's "Bombay" while dealing with actual contemporary political situations, to thinkers in film like Mani Kaul who extend and re-create the boundaries of the film. A range of styles, conventions, schools of realism and experimentation now exist together with the glitter and gloss of the ever-popular musical melodramas to make up the great Indian film bazaar.

A new generation of filmmakers, inspired by Ray, sought initially to develop a cinema in reaction to popular cinema's escapism to deal directly with the realities of modern India. These filmmakers of the New Indian Cinema sought to portray recognisable characters with inner complexities and social identities in situations close to life. Some chose to work in regional Indian cinema, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan with his Elippathayyam set in his native Kerala. Others like Shyam Benegal made classics like Bhumika in Hindi, the language of the popular film, retaining and reworking the familiar elements of song and dance. And in a third skein, filmmakers like Mani Kaul, with films such as Siddeshwari 1986 and Kumar Shahani, whose latest film is Bhavantaran 1996, display a consummate experimental style in re-working film narrative.

..........

The Indian film industry is today an immensely and increasingly varied world with, at one end of the spectrum, filmmakers like Mani Rathnam and Ketan Mehta using creatively and confidently hallowed conventions of the popular cinema in a film like Rathnam's "Bombay" while dealing with actual contemporary political situations, to thinkers in film like Mani Kaul who extend and re-create the boundaries of the film, at the opposite end. A range of styles, conventions, schools of realism and experimentation now exist together with the glitter and gloss of the ever-popular musical melodramas to make up the great Indian film bazaar.

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