22 November 2012

Indian Cinema between Calcutta and Bombay

During the nineteenth century, writers, social reformers and intellectuals in India fought the impact of colonialism by turning aggressively to their own cultural traditions, even if in some cases it meant the unconscious absorption, and the duplication, of attitudes introduced and perpetuated by the colonizers themselves. An analogous situation developed in the persistence of certain 'high-cultural' attitudes to the cinema in the early years after independence. Parag Amladi has called it the 'All India/Regional film paradigm' in which the cinema of a particular region, Bengal in this instance, and the films of Satyajit Ray in particular, was seen as the genuine thing and culturally rooted, while the Bombay film came to be regarded as un-Indian, escapist and extravagant. Indian film criticism seems to provide a cracked mirror-image of the 'nationalist' debates and conflicts of definition.

India being almost a continent in terms of the various regional cultures and languages that (try to) co-exist within its geographical boundaries, its nationalist movement, particularly the 'cultural wing' of it, had organized itself initially around regional identities. Of these, the figures of the Bengal Renaissance of the latter half of the nineteenth century had had the most impact. Bengal's culture also found a powerful, dominating voice in the multi-faceted artistic achievement of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who combined an upper-class ethos and romantic sensibility with a deeply spiritual and universalist strain. Bengali filmmakers of the fifties like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, irrespective of their political commitments, felt themselves to be the cultural heirs of Tagore. Bengal had also had its own prominent and distinct role in the independence struggle, with its 'terrorists,' its political challenge to Gandhi's leadership and the Congress in the form of Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, and its 'history' of partition. When Chidananda Dasgupta, Satyajit Ray and others formed the Calcutta Film Society in 1948, they were united by common objectives of spreading awareness of the 'serious' cinema among Bengali viewers whom they considered better educated in the understanding of cinema and more sophisticated culturally than viewers of the Bombay film.

Bombay, by contrast, had far less homogeneity in terms of its population. Being a port city, it was dominated by business interests and its cinema reflected this factor. The birth of the Indian film industry took place in Bombay through the efforts of an artist-photographer called Dadasaheb Phalke, and Phalke as well as subsequent Bombay filmmakers were fully exposed to commercial considerations and profit maximizations from the very beginning. The 1930s are said to be a stable era in terms of the emergence of a few major studies and film companies which addressed a primarily middle-class audience. With the second world war, however, and in the post-independence era, the audience had substantially changed, and was composed mainly of the lumpen proletariat (factory workers, daily wage earners, migrant laborers, rickshaw pullers, the pavement dwellers) of the cities. The average Bombay film catered to the 'entertainment needs' of this public, as earlier it had tried to create a linguistically homogeneous audience by popularizing Hindustani. As songs and dances increased in number, charges of the Bombay film being un-Indian, culturally rootless, imitative (of Hollywood films) and exploitative became vociferous. After 'Pather Panchali' (aka 'Song of the Little Road,' 1955), it became usual to contrast Ray's dedication, his cultural rootedness, his authentic filmmaking with the kitsch productions of Bombay.

Yet there has never been a serious challenge to such sweeping denunciations, nor an attempt to place the Bombay film at the conjuncture of history and politics. In other words, there has been no attempt to see the regional and the Bombay film as 'non-synchronous' developments (to borrow a socio-political concept) that do not necessarily operate on the same principles of internal coherence and that serve different ends and purposes. The all-India/regional dichotomy bears interesting parallels to the high culture/mass culture debates that are so familiar in the West and have arisen in the context of every new medium with a wide audience.

The current (Western) critical emphasis on popular culture's relationship to politics, gender and high culture may provide some of the terms for understanding critical evaluations of Indian 'popular culture.' While the issue of film and gender has not been raised except in very preliminary and 'empirical' ways, the other two relationships have been the focus of considerable, if problematic, attention. Indian cinema's relationship to mainstream politics is becoming quite significant in terms of the number of film stars who have become powerful political figures, starting from south India and progressively moving northwards (for example, M.G. Ramachandran, N.T. Rama Rao, Amitabh Bachchan, Sunil Dutt and others). Many critics have tired to explain this phenomenon by seeing how these heroes have represented ideal-typical characters on the screen and hence have provided models of leadership. The view of a gullible audience is perhaps the most tenacious feature of mass culture critiques of India's commercial cinema, the roots of which are to be traced to the fifties. The sociological variant of it sees the movies as providing relief and escape from drudgery and hopelessness for the half-starving millions. The Bombay cinema is so divorced from 'reality' because the audiences demand escape, they seek a form of cheap entertainment. This view is one that is most often voiced by filmmakers themselves, and has led to versions of what some have called the 'proletarian appeal' and the 'hedonist fancy' in Indian film criticism.

The notion of Indian audiences as unsophisticated and clamoring for the circus was widely subscribed to in the fifties by writers, film critics, public officials and upper-class viewers of foreign films, and was grounded in ideas of elite and folk culture. Nirad Chaudhuri, writing in 1954 in The Illustrated Weekly of India, expresses his disgust for the 'rabble' in these words:
The Indian cinema is still held in its foreign leading strings and is totally unrelated to any tradition in Indian culture, old or new. In actual fact, what the Indian cinema is doing is to force Indian sensibilities into alien molds. Its disruptive effect is going to be, and already is, far-reaching among the common people. It is rapidly destroying their folk culture and converting them mentally into a typical town rabble, a disgusting plebs urbana always crying for the circus.
A similar conception of the post-second world war Hindi film as catering to the uneducated masses was a strong ingredient in the arsenal of Chidananda Dasgupta, the most influential of Indian cinema's 'traditional' critics. A friend and early champion of Satyajit Ray and the regional cinema, in Talking About Films (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1981), he chastised the Hindi cinema for not being Hollywood:
Diligently, the Hindi cinema has perfected its one and only formula. It has had no John Ford turning out Westerns, no Milestone making memorable war films, no Hitchcock to hold us in thrall, no Minelli, no Donen to make ti by music alone. It has no genres. It is impossible to make, in our national cinema, anything like 'Judgment at Nuremberg' or 'Advice and Consent' or 'The Best Man,' although our guru has been Hollywood. It makes no adult films for the literate middle class.
More recently, in the wake of the exposure of audiences in some international capitals to Indian films, through festivals and retrospectives, critics like Derek Malcolm have come up with a third term to denote the work of some Bombay filmmakers who are being 'rediscovered' and celebrated. They belong to the 'middle cinema,' having neither the 'unity' of the regional cinema nor the 'vacuity' of the 'typical' Bombay product. A form of 'auteur' criticism, this stance would basically conceive of Indian-cinema as a few names worth knowing in a vast ocean of anonymity and kitsch.

But, the notion of 'audience' and how it is inscribed within Indian film texts, what this audience is like and its cultural moorings - these questions are persistent and refuse to go away. Apologists for the Bombay cinema have finally hit upon a way to connect it to something concrete in social life and a way of seeing its positive impact on audiences: this cinema is unifying the nation by popularizing Hindi as the national language where all efforts and legislation have failed. Cultural pessimism is thereby countered with 'sociological' optimism. But the cultural pessimism, in addition to being rooted in a view of the undiscriminating audience, has two strains that bear on the elite/mass distinctions. The Bombay cinema is a hybrid, a garbled borrowing of diverse elements and thus distinct from the more authentic older arts, but it is not like Hollywood either, and therein lies the rub. It can become elite in a circuitous way if it subscribes to 'world standards.' Thus the pure/impure debate becomes permeated by the national/international debate in complex ways. The Bombay cinema has two 'others,' one internal and the other external, and in disregarding both it is seen to be forever caught up in its own mirage.

[This essay was extracted and slightly edited from 'Identity and Authenticity: Nationhood and the Popular Indian Cinema, 1947-1962,' a PhD dissertation by Sumita Chakravarty (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1987, pp. 24-30). Chakravarty expanded upon this topic in the book National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987 (University of Texas Press, 1993), and she is currently Associate Professor of Culture and Media at The New School in New York City.]

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