10 June 2015

Cinema Criticism and Social Class

Art films, middle cinema and commercial films in India all depend on the middle classes for legitimacy and critical acclaim. Even those producers and performers who stridently proclaim the supremacy of popular taste, or denounce the elitism of the art-film critics, are on the defensive when there is a sharp criticism of their wares in the media. Indeed, the way the producers of each of these kinds of movies try to win friends and influence middle-class opinion give the lie to their declared dependence on only the opinions of the 'common Indian.' The common Indian is rarely influenced by what Kumar Shahani says of Manmohan Desai. But Desai was distressed when Shahani took him on while Shahani in turn resents that his films do not get the patronage or support of those for whom his radical ear bleeds, whereas Desai mobilizes such support with casual ease. Nevertheless, there are clear differences in the cultural thrusts of the three; to gauge the appeal or lack of appeal of any of these forms, one must first identify the thrusts.

First, the commercial film tends to reflect and be protective towards the implicit cultural values of the society. If it criticizes traditions, the criticism tends to be indirect, latent or unintended. If for instance there is criticism of untouchability, it is grounded on the traditional concept of a humane society; if there is criticism of religious violence, the criticism invokes not so much the secular values of a modern polity as the perennial values of the religions involved.

Of course, the emphasis on cultural self-expression or cultural self-defense is also simultaneously a defiance and unwitting criticism of middle-class values. The commercial cinema in India does tend to reaffirm the values that are being increasingly marginalized in public life by the language of the modernizing middle classes, values such as community ties, consensual non-contractual human relations, primacy of maternity over conjugality, priority of the mythic over the historical. But even such indirect criticism of middle-class values is cast not in the language of social criticism but in that of playful, melodramatic, spectacles.

In art films and middle cinema, on the other hand, the emphasis on the expressive function of art and the reaffirmation of cultural values tends to be muted. High-brow films usually provide sharp criticisms and deep analyses of the social pathologies associated with tradition, which contrasts markedly with their shallow or superficial criticisms of the violence and exploitation associated with modern institutions. The high cinema in India has never been particularly sensitive to the growing threats to lifestyles, life-support systems and non-modern cognitive orders, or for that matter to the values of those in the 'survival sector' of the society--a sector not primarily concerned with the goal of a good life (as it is defined by modern Indian), but with mere survival and the protection of whatever little the survivor has by way of access to the global commons, traditional technologies, knowledge of health care and community self-sufficiency outside the monetized sector of the economy. The feelings, attitudes and values associated with the survival sector are the ones that the commercial cinema consciously or unconsciously exploits but in the process also unwittingly supports, even if only partially and even while mouthing the slogans of the dominant culture of politics. Commercial cinema romanticizes and, given half a chance, vulgarizes the problems of the survival sector, but it never rejects as childish or primitive the categories or worldviews of those trying to survive the processes of victimization let loose by modern institutions. The makers of commercial cinema cannot indulge in the luxury of such rejection, given the kind of audience they seek. (This tacit refusal to reject cultural values and embrace modernity uncritically also partially explains the enormous popularity of the Indian commercial cinema in parts of the erstwhile Soviet Block which had rich native traditions of art cinema patronized by the state.)

Second, the middle cinema is--some may say was--the true heir to pre-Independence popular cinema and its occasional, mostly unsuccessful attempts to be arty (by which I simply mean the scattered attempts by some movie-makers to turn cinema into a new artistic medium of cultural and personal self-expression in India). P.C. Barua, V. Shantaram, Debaki Bose and Bimal Roy did not make art films, nor did they lay down the basis for future directors of art films. (Satyajit Ray has often claimed that he learnt little from these makers of what were popularly seen as clean, socially relevant, technically competent films; he had virtually to create his own medium and style.) Though the middle cinema is often viewed as a compromise between art and commercial cinema, it could be more appropriately seen as a further development of the style that once catered to the middle-class culture of the 1930s and 1940s. The middle cinema has in fact a tradition to build upon, the tradition of the 'good popular cinema' of yesteryears.

Indeed, the middle cinema can claim to originate from an even wider cultural current--the current represented by a galaxy of well-crafted, less-than-great creative products, from the work of Ravi Verma to Premchand, Girish Chandra Ghose to Prithviraj Kapoor, from Marathi stage music to K.L. Saigal. Viewed thus, the middle cinema caters to that part of the middle-class consciousness which has during the last century and a half played a creative role in Indian society by sustaining a dialogue at the popular plane, however imperfect, between the traditional and the modern, the East and the West, the classical and the folk.

What we call popular cinema today is certainly popular but its links are now weakening with the pre-war popular cinema and the middle-class experiences that sustained that cinema. Popular cinema now (for the sake of clarity I shall stick to the term commercial cinema) has more links with the growing mass culture in India. However, though these links are getting stronger every day, they do not monopolize commercial cinema; nor are they likely to do so in the near future. So do distinctive ways of telling a story, the styles of acting, and the set-piece interactions of stereotypes. Above all survives a structure of myths that has proved remarkably resilient to all demands for change.

Third, commercial cinema has to take an instrumental view of cultural traditions and worldviews and present them theatrically and spectacularly. To do so, it has to generalize the specific problems of its different audiences and then exteriorize the psychological components of these problems. To this extent such cinema is anti-psychological: it presents conflicts as if they were conflicts among social types or products of a unique conjunction of external events. This point is further explored in Ashis Nandy, 'The Popular Hindi Film: Ideology and First Principles' (India International Centre Quarterly, 1981, 9, pp. 89-96) and The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games (New Delhi: Viking and Penguin, 1989, ch. 1).

Thus, for instance, the grandiloquent stylization of the Muslim aristocratic traditions of north India, Goan Christian simplicity and love of a good life, Rajput valour, Bengali romanticism; they are all essential to the basic style of the commercial cinema. Thus also the dependence on stereotypical 'external' events or situations to sustain its story-line. Together they allow commercial cinema to 'spectacularize' and de-psychologize everything it touches--violence, dance, music, death, dress and love--and subject every sentiment and value to the judgment of the market. On commercial film as a spectacle in Roland Barthe's sense of the term, see the above cited article, 'The Popular Hindi Film.'

I sometimes suspect that this double-edged 'sensitivity' to culture is one of the few valid grounds for a social criticism of popular movies, not the violence and sex they depict nor what urbane critics say about their irrationality, crudity and use of stereotypes. In fact, the lack of realism and the dream-like quality--the 'cultural dream work,' one may call it--is deployed to deal with the concerns of low-brow viewers, concerns which most art films and middle cinema do not touch upon. The basic principles of commercial cinema derive from the needs of Indians caught in the hinges of social change who are trying to understand their predicament in terms of cultural categories known to them. The strength of the commercial cinema lies in its ability to tap the fears, anxieties and felt pressures towards deculturation and even depersonalization that plague a growing number of Indians who do not find the normative framework of the established urban middle-class culture adequate for their needs and yet have been pushed to adopt it in everyday life.

There can, of course, be political and aesthetic criticism of films catering to the mass culture. But it is possible that public lamentation about the alleged aesthetic and moral failure of the commercial film only reinforces its appeal for its audience which is unconcerned about the aesthetics and the ethics, the absurdity of 'immorality,' because it has the secret code by which to decipher the film's latent social message in the context of its life-world. It is actually willing to read such lamentations as final and satisfactory proof of the commercial film's defiance of culturally alien aspects of middle-class morality.

Fourth, there are differences in the way art films and commercial films, so to speak, see themselves and see each other. The main difference is that for the art film there is a clear artistic break between it and commercial films; for the commercial film there is only a commercial break. The partisans of art films see themselves as champions of a proper medium of individual and cultural self-expression; to them, commercial films are technically competent, high-paying financial ventures with no artistic legitimacy or social relevance. When the votaries of art cinema grant social relevance to the commercial film, they do so in negative terms, seeing the commercial cinema only as an index of social pathology.

To the partisans of commercial films, on the other hand, art films constitute an artistic continuum with the commercial cinema. They hold that the art-film maker is usually careless about the producer's money and can therefore afford to indulge in useless, baroque detailing as a private ego trip at public expense. The applause the art-film maker receives is primarily the work of pedantic film critics pretending to be entertained when they are actually bored to tears. Such art films are distinguished mainly by their cultural inability to gauge public sentiment and their ability to fail at the box office. The situation is actually more complicated. Like Hindu nationalists who constantly speak of themselves as representatives of Hindu sentiments but have never managed to get more than one-fifth of the Hindu vote, commercial filmmakers are not great prognosticators of the public taste. According to informal trade estimates, in India 80 percent of all commercial films fail at the box office; another 15 percent barely recover their costs. Less than 5 percent are hits. Obviously, there is no one-to-one relationship between popular taste and commercial cinema. (To get an idea of what popular taste may be reading into commercial cinema, see Nandy, 'The Popular Hindi Film.') There is also the fact that many famous and commercially thriving film producers have, at some stage of life, approached distinguished directors of art cinema, such as Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, to make films for them.

The two kinds of film-makers also regard censorship differently. Commercial film-makers dislike censorship for the same reasons that businessmen hate social controls on business. They are out to sell their wares to the public and they feel that censorship, reflecting middle-class prudery, interferes with entrepreneurial freedom. Like other sections of the corporate world, they are convinced that what is good for the commercial film is also good for India. However, there is in them a deeper acceptance of censorship, as is evident from their frequent attempts to justify their films by pointing out how standard family values and politically correct public norms are upheld in them and by their spirited denial that their films include pornographic elements and anti-women attitudes or that they promote consumerism and violent vigilantism. Commercial film-makers never argue openly for great freedom to express eroticism or realistic violence or political dissent. They only argue that they are even more conventional in these respects than many others (such as the makers of low-brow Hollywood films that get past the Indian censors).

Art-film makers, in closer touch with the haute bourgeoisie, take a different line. They feel that their work need not be censored, for all art films by definition have mature and responsible viewpoints, unlike the commercial films which are (by definition again) infantile, irresponsible and deserving of censorship. True, art-film makers would like the censorship not to be too prudish or anti-political. But, on the whole, they consider the makers and consumers of commercial films to be eminently educable in matters of public morality and they believe censorship to be an instrument of discipline and socialization. The partisans of art cinema do not deny that the appeal of the commercial cinema lies precisely in its 'immaturity' and 'childishness'; they merely deny that immaturity can be defiance and regression rebellion, for they equate the child with the primitive waiting to be civilized and educated. The champions of the art film cannot afford to keep a space in the public realm for the undersocialized self of the viewer that registers, however imperfectly or crudely, the political presence of Indians at the margins of modern India.

[This essay was extracted from 'An Intelligent Critic's Guide to Indian Cinema' by Ashis Nandy and originally published in The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves (Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 202-207.]

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