Monday, November 29, 2010

Hindi Popular Cinema



I'm going to hazard a guess that many of the super-cinephiles and critics I respect most -- like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, James Quandt, Dave Kehr, Joe McElhaney, or Chris Fujiwara, to name just a few -- share one thing in common: They've seen a vastly greater number of Hollywood films than they have films from that other large popular cinema in the world, that of India.

There might be at least two reasons for this. First, for several decades after Independence, India officially endorsed and held up for global view only its "art films," while being openly embarrassed of its popular films. This meant that Western access to Indian cinema, through film festivals and retrospectives, was more or less limited to art cinema (Satyajit Ray being its prime example). Second, even after availability of Indian popular cinema became a significantly lesser issue in the US with Netflix (which carries literally hundreds of terrific examples spanning the 1950s to the present), the sheer collective volume of output of this industry proves still to be impossibly daunting, a deterrent to even the most ambitious, adventurous cinephile.

A key reason why Indian popular cinema is worthy of sustained cinephilic and critical interest is the multitude of ways in which it is so unlike Hollywood cinema in its aesthetics. The two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have had a powerful influence on Indian culture -- including its narrative and non-narrative arts -- through the ages. Their mark is also seen in popular films. Standing in contrast to the linear narratives of classical Hollywood, these two epics are compulsively digressive, creating large, dense, and bustling networks of stories and characters; their signature movement is sideways rather than forward.

The influence of classical Indian theatre -- or Sanskrit theatre -- has also been widely acknowledged. This theatre valued spectacle and stylization over narrative, the narratives themselves being highly episodic. Music and dance drove the spectacle, and were vital ingredients of this theatre. Finally, the Parsi theatre of the 19th century, with its heterogeneous mix of wildly varied elements both Indian and Western, was also a key antecedent. K. Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake write:

Stylistically the plays displayed a curious mixture of realism and fantasy, music and dialogue, narrative and spectacle and stage ingenuity, all combined within the framework of melodrama. The Parsi theatre, with its lilting songs, bawdy humour, bon mots, sensationalism and dazzling stagecraft were designed to appeal to the broad mass of people, and they did. Elitist critics used epithets such as 'hybrid,' 'coarse,' 'vulgar,' 'melodramatic,' 'sensational' to describe these plays.

All of these constitutive influences -- the age-old epics, classical Sanskrit theatre, Parsi drama -- bequeath to Indian popular films a super-abundantly rich mix of high and low cultures, a vitality and fertility and creativity that hums through them. At its best, I've always felt, this is a cinema of constant surprise.

For cinephiles and critics interested in exploring Hindi popular cinema, I can recommend no better resource than Philip Lutgendorf's website, which also features writings by Corey Creekmur. Lutgendorf and Creekmur are both professors at the University of Iowa with a deeply erudite and passionate interest in Indian culture. A beginner should first zero in on their lists of top 10 recommended Hindi films. Nearly everything on these two lists is available for rental at Netflix or can be purchased at websites such as Nehaflix.

The film reviews at Lutgendorf's site are remarkable for the way in which they knowledgeably situate the details of the films within a context of Indian culture, language, history, mythology, etc. Let me illustrate -- and simultaneously try to whet your appetites for this cinema -- by sharing a few example excerpts.

-- On Jai Santoshi Maa (1975):

"A classic example of the “mythological” genre—the original narrative genre of Indian-made films—and one of the most popular such films ever made, it gave a new (and characteristically Indian inflection) to the American pop-critical term “cult film,” for viewers often turned cinemas into temporary temples, leaving their footwear at the door, pelting the screen with flowers and coins, and bowing reverently whenever the goddess herself appeared (which she frequently did, always accompanied by a clash of cymbals). Despite tacky sets and the crudest of special effects, the film features a well-crafted script, with witty dialogs that abound in cultural references, and its devotional songs are extremely catchy (for years they could be heard blaring from temple loudspeakers all over India). Overall, the film has a charmingly playful quality, especially in its (often comically unflattering) portrayal of divine personalities, which is characteristic of folk Hinduism."

-- On Pakeezah (1971):

"“I’ve seen your feet; they’re very lovely. Don’t set them down on the earth—they’ll get soiled.” This metaphorical warning-note, penned by a romantic stranger and left between the toes of a sleeping woman in a railway compartment, forms a much-underscored motif in this classic courtesan film...The central theme of the film is the struggle for respectability of a tawai’if, an Indo-Islamic courtesan trained in poetry, music, and dance—a glamorous “public woman” whose career was to be an elegant companion (and potential lover) to affluent men, but for whom a “respectable” marriage and home was out of the question. Her beautiful feet—apart from being an erotic fetish—represent her mastery of the art of North Indian classical dance or Kathak, which tawai’if’s preserved and nurtured for several centuries. The “earth” that such feet must perforce touch, however, is ruled by patriarchal society with its crippling double-standards, which decreed that respectable women (who lived in parda or seclusion) could seldom be interesting to men, and that interesting women were seldom respectable. All courtesan fiction struggles with this divide..."

-- On Lagaan (2001):

"“Cricket,” wrote cultural theorist Ashis Nandy, “is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” In his only-partly-whimsical 1989 book, The Tao of Cricket, Nandy develops this insightful if contra-historical sutra into a lengthy analysis of what he sees as the three great public-arena obsessions of contemporary India: cricket, politics, and the Bombay cinema—further arguing that all three adhere, in significant ways, to the same basic grammar of performance. Whether or not he ever read Nandy, director Ashutosh Gowariker had the genius to combine all three in one allegorical package, and to sell the idea to Aamir Khan, who then produced and starred in the resulting screenplay. The rest is cinematic history, and also one of the most successful Indian efforts at historical cinema: an epic-length (nearly four hour, yet surprisingly well-paced and gripping) parable in which the indigenization of cricket becomes a metaphor for the entire Indian Independence struggle, as well as for the larger and still-ongoing project of (to quote another book by Nandy) the “loss and recovery of self under colonialism.”"

-- On Don (1978):

"Although there are no lack of contenders for the title, this might just qualify as the Compleat Amitabh Bachchan vehicle. It has: international smugglers, subplots aplenty, jokes about Bombay, Banaras, and other films, uproarious action sequences (the credits include “Car Chase Driving: Haji”—who I believe was once my cabbie in Bombay), classic-villain Pran as a crippled safecracker who can walk tightropes, Zeenat Aman at her foxiest, several unforgettable songs, and a totally tongue-in-cheek (or paan-in-cheek) attitude about itself. Practically everything good in the film—and there is a surfeit—comes in doubles: exploding suitcases, Interpol agents, escapes from tall buildings via ropes that are severed, cute kids, lots of entendres, and Bachchan himself, who puts in stellar performances as both the Really Evil Goan crime boss “Don,” who sports killer shades and razor-sharp bell-bottomed suits, and Vijay, his happy-go-lucky desi doppelganger from the banks of the Ganga, who chews paan incessantly, puts surma (collyrium) around his eyes, wears a lungi, and dances on the pavements of Bombay with bells on his ankles to earn coins to support the street urchins he’s adopted. Okay, you see the possibilities here…but you don’t really, unless you’ve seen the film."

-- On Pardes (1997):

"East has been meeting West for a long time in Hindi films, often through the stereotype of a seductive yet menacing foreign Otherworld, wherein Indians lose their culture and fall into debauched Western ways (as in the 1970 film Purab Aur Paschim, “East and West,” which featured miniskirted, dyed-blonde Saira Banu as the locus of erotic interest and cultural anxiety). Such portrayals, reflecting a love-hate relationship with the West and with Indians who have settled there, underwent substantial modification by the 1990s, as Indians came to perceive their own culture as increasingly globalized, and their overseas kin—known in India, irrespective of citizenship or self-identification, as “NRIs,” (“Non-Resident Indians”)—as ongoing participants in it. Indeed, critics have observed that some of the spectacular hits associated with Bollywood’s “romantic revival” in the ‘90s seemed aimed as much at NRIs as at the domestic middle-class audience..."

-- Creekmur on the influences that mark Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957):

"Although the film constructs a distinct vision that would characterize Dutt's remaining films -- especially the explicitly autobiographical Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), about a failed film director -- it's interesting to speculate on Dutt's possible influences when making Pyaasa: at least one song sequence ("Hum aapke aankhon men"), set in a cloud-covered dreamworld and hinting at Guru Dutt's origins as a dancer, appears to pay a modest homage to the famous dream sequence of Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951). More often the film -- especially its final rally for a constructed hero that escalates into a riot -- suggests Frank Capra's similarly bleak Meet John Doe (1941), and a late scene between the unscrupulous publisher Mr. Ghosh and Meena at their breakfast table surely alludes to Citizen Kane (1941). (In Welles' film, the famous "breakfast montage" ends as the first Mrs. Kane silently reads a copy of her husband's rival newspaper; in Pyaasa, Meena holds up an issue of Life magazine with a crucified Christ on the cover.) The film's consistently rich black and white photography suggests not so much American film noir of the 1950s, but its gloomy precedents in French poetic realist works like Carne's Le Jour Se Leve (1939) or Quai des Brumes (1938), which paved the way not only for dark American crime films, but for the existential artist-outsiders who would be Vijay's European soulmates following World War II."


* * *

To build upon Lutgendorf and Creekmur's lists of recommended films, I'd like to invite you all to suggest Hindi popular films you've enjoyed. (Perhaps one of my favorite fellow Indian bloggers, Srikanth Srinivasan of The Seventh Art, will recommend some of his favorites too.) Let me kick things off with a trio of my favorites that are not on Lutgendorf's site: Raj Kapoor's Bobby (1973), Ramesh Sippy's Shakti (1982), and B. Subhash's Disco Dancer (1983). In order to contain the scope of this post and make it more manageable, I have restricted it to Hindi popular cinema rather than including all of Indian popular cinema. But if you have non-Hindi cinema suggestions in mind (e.g. Tamil or Bengali or Telugu popular films), please feel welcome to share those as well.

If I might end on a personal note: I left India in 1986, and have followed Hindi popular cinema only sporadically since then. So, any recommendations of films made in the last 25 years will be especially welcome. Thank you.

70 Comments:

Anonymous Surbhi Goel said...

Thank you, Girish, for this post;have waited long for this on your blog.
Top of my head-

Black & White Era
a. MUGHAL-E-AZAM
b. PYASSA
C. SHRI 420
d. NAGIN
e. AAR-PAR

Colour
a. GUIDE
b. ABHIMAAN
c. GOLMAAL
d. JANNE BHI DO YARRON
e. THE BURNING TRAIN
f. SHAAN

November 29, 2010 11:10 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Well, I'm by no means the ideal person to answer this question as I've only seen a couple dozen Hindi films. But of films not already mentioned, I found Om Shanti Om to be more than just a fun, opulent ride, but also a structurally clever and even self-reflexive film. Perhaps it's structure is less unusual than it felt to my outsider eyes, though. Anyone know? I also really liked Shyam Benegal's Bhumika although I'm unclear on whether his films should fall in the "popular" or "artistic" category. I'm looking forward to reading more answers from far more knowledgeable folk!

November 29, 2010 11:21 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Brian, please see Philip's piece on OM SHANTI OM on his site: I think it's one of his best contributions to the site. When we saw the film we immediately added it to the class we teach as the concluding film for the semester!

Girish, thanks for this! My recommended list was intended to welcome in newcomers, but perhaps I'll come up with another "now that you've seen these essentials ..." list! For Hindi cinema a top 10 (only) list seems inadequate in any case.

November 30, 2010 12:42 AM  
Blogger Neepa said...

Speaking of Om Shanti Om, I really enjoyed Karz (Subhash Ghai, 1980). Now that it's more widely available, I also want to recommend Sant Tukaram (Damle and Fattelal, 1936) -- this is before distinctions such as "Hindi" and "regional," "popular" and "art" were meaningful. I regularly teach this film in my undergraduate classes and its visual wit never ceases to astonish me. In a way, I'm the epitome of the "typical" Indian viewer because I have favorite scenes and songs rather than only favorite movies. One such scene is the one from Coolie (is it Coolie?) in which Amitabh Bachchan is following instructions on the radio on how to cook an egg, but his captive girlfriend is secretly switching between the cooking and yoga stations to hilarious effect.

November 30, 2010 1:07 AM  
Blogger Ekrem Serdar said...

Hey Girish,

Not a film, but a book: Cinema of Prayoga, ed. Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Oh! And a Chris Marker-esque documentary by Ranjan Palit named IN CAMERA. Much to behold in both.

November 30, 2010 1:38 AM  
Anonymous Surbhi Goel said...

@ Neepa - I agree on favorite scenes and songs. Amitabh Bachchan has many such scenes to his credit - drunken /mirror sequence in NASEEB, for example. His CHUPKE CHUPKE is a roaring comedy worth a watch ( even if the film belongs more to Dharmendra ).

November 30, 2010 1:40 AM  
Blogger Ekkehard Knoerer said...

Early - Tamil Nadu - Mani Ratnam (and then his Hindi masterpiece "Dil Se") is always a wonder to behold. Especially "Nayakan", a rather breathtaking thriller, "Thiruda Thiruda" a completely over the top comedy. Another favourite: "Amar Akhbar Anthony" from the Manmohan Desai school of cinematic craziness. And I even prefer Kamal Amrohis films before "Pakeezah" to this stunning work. As an outsider recommendation: Sunil Dutt's only film as a director, the ravishingly beautiful "Reshma aur Shera" with my personal goddess Waheeda Rehman.

November 30, 2010 6:11 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Girish,

Hope you had a good time at the conference. Thanks for the pointer and this epic post tracing why popular Hindi cinema is the way it is. You are spot on regarding the influence of Ramayana and Mahabharata. As a friend said, there is an echo of both the epics in every popular film being made in India. But the point about Parsi theatre is equally illuminating. I’d no idea about it.

I’m not, by any stretch of imagination, an expert on Indian popular cinema, but I find it difficult to pin down, as always, where popular begins and art ends. Documentaries and experimental works of filmmakers like Pramod Pati have been popular on TV while certain star-centric vehicles (Govind Nihalani, Shekhar Kapur, later Benegal, Gautam Ghose) at times are regarded as art films. That said, it is also true that the decidedly popular works unmistakably have a lot in common.

Somehow, with a very few exceptions, I can only think of pre-80s films as popular Hindi cinema. That’s because I find today’s Bollywood cinema to have a highly segmented view of the market. The big Hindi movies today are almost always metropolitan in outlook and seem to have forgotten the audiences living in the hinterlands completely. Slick, suave and pretentious are the adjectives that seem to suit most of these films. It is as if it has bequeathed the responsibility of catering to the masses to Bhojpuri cinema and taken over the job of milking the NRI and multiplex markets. Bombay cinema now appears to mean cinema from Bombay and cinema for Bombay, and nothing else. I’m reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s passage in his review of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE:

"Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, movies were supposed to be for everyone — made that way and seen that way — and were therefore social events that involved a diversified community. Some of this universality was undoubtedly mythical, but another part was surely real — and accounts for the continuing appeal of such certified popular classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca, not to mention An Affair to Remember. But movies today, even when they cite such models as exemplary, as touchstones, almost invariably intensify the distances between us instead of speaking to our common situation. They are designed to splinter and isolate us from one another, not draw us together. Apparently someone figured out that more money could be made that way."

Dev Benegal’s ROAD, MOVIE waxes nostalgic about this very loss. You could check that one out.

November 30, 2010 10:41 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

A relatively recent change is the increasing frequency of new Indian films getting theatrical release in the U.S. In Denver, the venue is not always the same, but one multiplex was actually showing two films. There's no consistency so that there may be a gap of time between films, and the need to closely check the listings in Fandango, but I have made a point of seeing at least one new Indian film a year, last year and this year, on the big screen.

November 30, 2010 11:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you so much, all! So many great suggestions and ideas here! I really appreciate your taking the time. I will enjoy responding to them soon.

Let me take a minute to post something unrelated to this Hindi cinema post but interesting nevertheless. Adrian's last column at FILMKRANT draws together a group of recent films (Fincher's ZODIAC and THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Soderbergh's CHE, Assayas's CARLOS) and makes a case for a "minor trend" among these ambitious filmmakers and their attempts to pursue a certain kind of realism.

I just got a note from Kent Jones, who is referenced in Adrian's piece and has written about these films and filmmakers, asking if I might post his response to Adrian's piece. I'm doing so below, in the comment that follows.

November 30, 2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Because of Blogger's restrictions, I've had to break up Kent's response into two parts. Here's part 1:

"My admiration for THE SOCIAL NETWORK aside, I don't do Facebook, so I can't respond to the conversation initiated by Jonathan Rosenbaum over Adrian Martin’s piece for Filmkrant, “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” I don’t have my own website. I don't want to hijack anyone else's, but I do want to respond.

I don’t think there's much of an argument in Adrian’s piece per se. But I'm intrigued by the contention that Thierry Jousse and I are "influential critics." Apparently Thierry represents France and I represent the good old USA. Me, as opposed to Manohla Dargis, who writes for The New York Times and who loved ZODIAC just as much as I did. But, I assume that Adrian is speaking about extremely specific circles of influence, where the cultivation of attention-getting positions is now sadly common. All the rage, in fact.

So...it seems that Thierry and I and our ilk have had enough of "anything angular, off-beat or singular in cinema," that "unreality" and "fakeness" are our declared enemies. In other words, I have come to believe that it is time to put away childish things like the collected works of the Archers and Kenneth Anger, Tarkovsky's MIRROR, my boxed sets of HEROES and THE OUTER LIMITS and Mario Bava, not to mention an assortment of titles from the very directors who are under attack (BENJAMIN BUTTON, DEMONLOVER); for Thierry to throw out his own outgrown transitional objects (Demy? Feuillade? Méliès?); and for one and all to get down to the cold, hard, adult business of good old-fashioned, rock solid, 100% realistic reality-based realism. No more drama or magic or poetry for us. Just the facts.

Apparently, this is all Manny Farber's fault. It takes quite an extravagant misreading of Farber to make such a claim, so extravagant that it's not worth getting into. But maybe it is worth getting into the citation of Roland Barthes, who is also misread. "Didn't we ferret out the ever-changing tricks and veils of what Roland Barthes called the ‘effects of reality', which reached a frenzied peak in the ‘quality' TV productions of HBO (like THE WIRE) before leaping back into cinema?" No, we didn’t. We saw how the reality effect could be employed as a veil or a false bottom, and worst of all as a false guarantor of absolute truth. As could fantasy, melodrama, "post-modernism," or “high style.” Do we really have to denounce realism as a register, and devote ourselves exclusively to films that remind us that the reality effect does not necessarily lead to truth? Should that knowledge actually lead to a moratorium on realism?"

November 30, 2010 1:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Part 2 of Kent's response:

"I haven't read what Thierry wrote about ZODIAC, but I'll place myself, if only for an instant, in the esteemed company of Farber and Barthes by saying that I've been misread as well. Adrian himself re-published one piece I wrote on ZODIAC (in ROUGE) and may or may not have read the others (in Film Comment and the LA Weekly), but even a quick skim would indicate that it wasn't the film's "absolute fidelity to the meandering facts" that lured me, anymore than it was what lured Assayas, Fincher, Soderbergh or David Simon and co. to their respective projects. Rather, it was the abandonment of old melodramatic formulae (such as: a movie centered on Robert Graysmith as he hunts down the Zodiac killer; or on the French agents who tracked down Carlos; or about the one kid in the Baltimore projects who makes it out alive and becomes a rap star). The idea that it was plain old adherence to reality that excited me about Fincher’s film is just wrong – in fact, it was what the adherence to reality led to in the construction and creation of the film, which is something completely different. I don’t know Soderbergh but I know Assayas and Fincher, and they would tell you something similar about their own relationships with their material. Adrian sees some kind of threat in these films, which he feels comfortable characterizing as “low-key realistic soap-opera[s] of guns, sex, death, wealth, power ... sticking, as far as possible, to the exact, wayward contours of the original events” – an extravagant generalization, to say the least. Fincher’s “film that feels like being trapped inside a filing cabinet” (a description by a frustrated critic that the filmmaker himself found appropriate) may not have led to any “clear-cut, satisfying resolution” for Adrian, but it did for me. I see ZODIAC as a uniquely haunting experience about human effort, the spectre of absolute certainty, exhaustion and the passing of time (as our mutual friend Quintín put it, “That’s not a movie – that’s philosophy”). I see CARLOS as a film about time as well, but viewed from a different angle – the circumstances that made Carlos and his actions possible receding and dismantling and reconfiguring themselves into a new geopolitical universe that leaves him hovering on the periphery but clinging to the belief that he’s still at the center. And in both films, the accumulation of detail, far from numbing, was (for me at least) entrancing and, at certain moments, hallucinatory. The contention that these movies, along with THE SOCIAL NETWORK, CHE and THE WIRE, amount to a pro forma return to an imagined past is a fundamentally depressing development. But not at all surprising.

I think that Adrian is right to see a link between the films. Assayas was very excited by CHE and by ZODIAC and THE SOCIAL NETWORK as well, and many filmmakers of my acquaintance loved THE WIRE. I don’t really care if Adrian doesn’t like what he sees, and he has every right to portray these films in such a disparaging manner. But I’m obliged to care when my own viewpoint is falsified and misused."

November 30, 2010 1:18 PM  
Blogger Sachin said...

From the last decade, the following titles come to mind even though some of them would push the boundaries of what constitutes popular cinema.

Johnny Gaddaar, Ek Hasina Thi (both by Sriram Raghavan)
Black Friday, Gulaal, No Smoking, Dev D (all by Anurag Kashyap)
Satya, Company (both by Ram Gopal Varma)
Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh)
Taare Zameen Par (Aamir Khan)
Rock On (Abhishek Kapoor)
Dil Chahta Hai (Farhan Akhtar)
Mumbai Meri Jaan (Nishikant Kamat)
A. Wednesday (Neeraj Pandey)
Mithya (Rajat Kapoor)
Welcome to Sajjanpur (Shyam Benegal)
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Sanjay Leela Bhansali)
Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met (both by Imtiaz Ali)
Gangaajal (Prakash Jha)
Omkara, Maqbool (both by Vishal Bhardwaj)
Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (both by Dibakar Banerjee)

I am going to cheat and also include Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer even though it is not purely in Hindi nor would be classified as popular but it includes snippets of multiple Indian languages and should really be more widely seen.

November 30, 2010 1:33 PM  
Blogger Sachin said...

..also want to include John Mathew Matthan's Sarfarosh

November 30, 2010 1:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Here's a great collection of links assembled by Catherine Grant a couple of months ago titled ""Bollywood" for Beginners and Beyond: Introductions to Popular Hindi Cinema Studies."

November 30, 2010 2:13 PM  
Blogger MovieMan0283 said...

Timely post for me, as I'm just beginning to discover Indian cinema outside S. Ray - for a blog project, I've been looking back at films which came out 10, 20, etc. years ago on a given weekend, and in some cases this has led to Bollywood films from the early 80s. This in turn led to an enjoyable blog which I'll link here:

http://memsaabstory.wordpress.com/

It should be noted, given the focus of most of the links here that this is not an academic/intellectual site, rather it's a personalized, populist and extremely prolific (and popular, to use up all the "p"s - quite an abundance of comments on every post) blog.

On another note, I look forward to watching Ankur soon, which I heard about years ago and just discovered online. Not "entertainment cinema" as I'm given to understand but still on-topic.

Thanks for the notes on this bizarre "realism-bashing" thing going on right now. I would seem to share Adrian's misgivings, though his choice of films to demonstrate said misgivings seems strange to me, and I would rather ground such misgivings in aesthetics rather than ideology, as he seems to be doing.

November 30, 2010 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I wish to offer a mild criticism of the claim that "You are spot on regarding the influence of Ramayana and Mahabharata. As a friend said, there is an echo of both the epics in every popular film being made in India." This is an old, familiar claim that has often been made by those seeking to (at last) legitimate popular Indian cinema after decades of dismissal. But it's just not true, and tends to render Indian cinema a "pure" cultural artifact. Yes, the epics exert a strong, persistent influence in Indian popular culture, and yes, they are significantly or sometimes casually referenced in many Indian films. But there are many, many Indian films that do not in any significant way draw upon these models. (And for those who don't know, it's worth noting that there are not definitive versions of the epics, though some are more popular and influential than others: they exist in many, many different versions and are open to constant revision.) The claim is simply overstated, and in its way restricts rather than expands the range of Indian cinema unnecessarily. I'm backed up on this point by my colleague Philip Lutgendorf, who is a world-recognized expert on the epics, especially the Ramayana, on which he has published extensively. Again, the influence of the epics on Indian cinema is strong and important -- but it's not pervasive, and the once-common claim that ALL Indian films derive from them needs to be constantly qualified. Among other things, the claim implies a "pure" and "traditional" (and, more controversially, essentially Hindu) basis for Indian cinema that misrepresents the actual diversity and hybridity that has always characterized it.

November 30, 2010 4:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Corey, I didn't mean to endorse the view that ALL Indian films derive from these epics; rather, I was saying that the epics exert a powerful influence on all of Indian culture, and thus, also on Indian cinema. But you provide a valuable corrective here: Thank you for doing so!

Perhaps I could also reproduce your words from my Facebook page earlier today, which further emphasize and illuminate the multiplicity of influences on Hindi popular cinema:

"...and let's not forget the central role of (what scholars now call) Islamicate influences, most notably the pervasive use of Urdu (cf. Mukul Kesavan), and there's also the consistent influence of Hollywood, with Hindi film a prime candidate for inclusion under Miriam Hansen's category of "vernacular modernism.""

November 30, 2010 5:47 PM  
Blogger Vicky said...

Thank you very much Girish, I certainly enjoyed reading your post 'Hindi Popular Cinema'. I now have some suggestions of films to watch. Kind regards, Vicky Monck

November 30, 2010 7:14 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Speaking of the use of Urdu, and considering how close Urdu and Hindi are linguistically, an interesting subject (and I'm musing here, I know nothing about this) would be to see what kind of exchanges go on between Indian and Pakistani film cultures. Are there figures that straddle both? Pakistan doesn't have an industry as developed as India's, so I'm guessing the influence is more from India to Pakistan, but it would be interesting to know more, since the partition is such an irrational event, corresponding to very little reality on the ground, that some sort of flow must still be going on (and what about Bangladesh, before and after independence?).

November 30, 2010 8:22 PM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Thanks for the correction, Corey. I wasn't referring to the scripts themselves there. I was talking about the subconscious elements of the stories such as fatalism and the need for revenge, which pervade most of these popular films. But the, as you say, this should not necessarily restrict our view of these films.

Cheers!

November 30, 2010 9:13 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for this post, Girish! I have been thinking lately about how long it's been since I've even watched a popular Indian film, and will plan to pop a few into the DVD player once I finish quarterly work ...

Regarding Kent Jones' comment above (via Girish) and the problem of misreading - this is a minor point, but doesn't Adrian in his article link Jones, Jousse & Co. (whoever that Co. may be!) of liking (not having had enough of) "anything angular, off-beat or singular in cinema"? The implicit reason being that realism is felt as some kind of rupture on the smoothed-out surface of convention in film form? I don't have a side in this friendly debate, and I haven't yet seen a couple of the key titles in question, but the impression I got from Adrian's article is that this "realism effect" he's discussing is the consequence of narratives whose size & diffusion begins to overwhelm the sense of a clear narrative structure through the cumulative assortment of facts and "mundane" details. With respect to that UFO-of-a-film Zodiac, for instance, where I may question Adrian's choice of words/focus is in classifying this effect in terms of adherence to the "exact, wayward contours of the original events." But there's no such thing as this! (I'm willing to bet Adrian would agree, if pressed?) So the effect, for me, of Zodiac - which is the most aesthetically & philosophically rich recent example I've seen of what I think our esteemed critic is getting at - is less to do with any new articulation of the reality effect, than of a particular interest (perhaps new?) in texture, aesthetic and epistemological.

November 30, 2010 11:26 PM  
Blogger Kent Jones said...

Zach, I'm afraid the debate is not so friendly.

Actually, we're both sort of wrong on the "angular, off-beat or singular" point. In fact, Adrian is saying that Manny Farber took anything that fit said description and translated it into "a code of scarce, fiercely desired reality." In my haste to respond, I made the error.

December 01, 2010 12:50 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

My favorite film at this year's 3rd i festival was Umesh Kulkarni's sentimental Vihir (The Well, 2009), though I'm not sure it could be categorized as Hindi popular cinema since the language spoken is Marathi? I presume it would more accurately be considered Marathi cinema and warrants a separate topic unto itself.

In past editions of 3rd i, some of the offerings that have most amazed me have been the 1929 Hindi-German silent classic Prapancha Pash (A Throw of the Dice), precisely for its dramatizations of the Mahabharata (as you've highlighted); K. M. Madhusudanan's 2008 Bioscope (which, acknowledging tradition, includes footage of Dadasaheb Phalke's 1918 film Shri Krishna Janma / The Birth of Krishna); a special program "Snakes, Sirens & Vamps" paying tribute to Indian Cinema's silent film corpus; and Rajesh S. Jala's 2008 documentary Children of the Pyre (though, again, I'm not sure a documentary can be deemed popular Hindi cinema).

Earlier this year as part of their 2010 Speaker Series (made possible, in part, through a grant from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences), 3rd i also offered a presentation by Robin Sukhadia—"Battle of the Bollywood Maestros"—an immensely entertaining evening of music and mayhem illustrated with film clips pitting two Bollywood giants, R.D. Burman (of Sholay fame) and A.R. Rahman (of Slumdog Millionaire fame), against each other in a musical face-off.

Finally, I recently came across a garage sale where I walked away with a pile of movie magazines that were going for a quarter apiece. I consciously chose several of them for their in-depth essays on Hindi and Bollywood cinema and—inspired by this entry—I'll focus on them and report back. Until then, thanks for all your efforts.

December 01, 2010 2:52 PM  
Blogger Guillermo Krain said...

I’m with the Adrian Martin contigent on these. There is something oddly affectless about these movies which I think we might just be able to call complacent. What I’m missing here is what’s evident in the original model…here’s what I wrote about it before the whole AM brouhaha:

1961. Rosi decisively re-invents the Process movie. Salvatore Giuliano is a film where a protagonist, even a story is mere pretext for exploring discharges and flux in a socio-political force-field, in history too. Protagonist-as-ghost, whose non-existence in conventional terms of narrative realist practice, is a structuring absence that makes other, more secret, things appear. The film is relentlessly anti-spectacular, wedging open spaces in its' narrative, even in Narrative itself. Rosi's film and the others that follow are ultimately poetically mysterious, a-definitive, requiring completion, even perhaps, action.

“The raw material I had to work with when shooting Gomorrah was so visually powerful that I MERELY FILMED IT in as straightforward a way as possible, as if I were a passerby who happened to find myself there by chance.”

"I didn’t want to make a film against “the System,” but about “the System.”

2010. The process movie (Trafik, Zodiac, The Wire, Gomorrah, Che, The Social Network, Carlos) is now the fashionable realist symbol for complexity. These are coffee table movies, laced with moral and factual "demi-biguities" but whose energy, in the final analysis, is exhausting, neatly totalizing. They don't BURN, either. Their factualist fatalism is not earned, not a worldview, but just a style to meet and surpass their apathetic audiences.

These movies make us zombie-voyeurs of zombie-systems.

The complete post is here:
http://semtexfollies.blogspot.com/2010/10/rubbernecking.html

Sorry, back to Indian Popular Cinema!

December 01, 2010 8:30 PM  
Blogger edo said...

"2010. The process movie (Trafik, Zodiac, The Wire, Gomorrah, Che, The Social Network, Carlos) is now the fashionable realist symbol for complexity. These are coffee table movies, laced with moral and factual "demi-biguities" but whose energy, in the final analysis, is exhausting, neatly totalizing. They don't BURN, either. Their factualist fatalism is not earned, not a worldview, but just a style to meet and surpass their apathetic audiences."

Guillermo, this comment is blindingly ignorant. Have you ever actually watched THE WIRE? Because unquestionably that work has a worldview. It's a very insistent one. One might even say that it's a very limited one, but that doesn't change the fact that it is undeniably there.

As for the other films, I have not seen CHE or GOMORRAH, but I have seen CARLOS, which also clearly has a worldview. You might want to read some Guy Debord, and then acquaint yourself with Assayas's other films. He ain't posturing is all I can say. He knows exactly what he's implying when he sets Carlos's first bombing to New Order's "Dreams Never End", and it's not that Carlos the Jackal is so cool he requires a post-punk soundtrack.

I suppose it could be argued that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a more ambiguous case, because the film isn't about urban crime or geopolitics. But it is about human nature, and a devastating study of a generation's emergent personality types.

December 02, 2010 12:23 AM  
Blogger David said...

My knowledge of Indian cinema is nill, but a word anyway for Ashish Avikunthak, a film professor (and assiduous film watcher) in America and experimental filmmaker in India. Word was Robert Beavers was an admirer of his recent feature.

He also helped organize a program last year, "The Avant-Garde in the Indian New Wave," that unfortunately has yet to travel: http://www.yale.edu/filmstudiesprogram/conferences/Indian_New_Wave/Participants.html

Thanks all for suggestions.

December 02, 2010 1:47 AM  
Blogger David said...

And I know I avoided popular cinema, but not popular cinema needs its words too.

December 02, 2010 1:48 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

David,

Avikunthak is one of the most - or probably the most - challenging and exciting Indian experimental filmmaker I've come across. Thanks for mentioning.

He deserves a wider exposure.

Cheers!

December 02, 2010 2:40 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

One of Avikunthak's films is included on lowave's Re:frame DVD of Indian avant-garde, which I haven't bought yet but have been planning to.

http://www.lowave.com/?language=FR&section=shop&display=focus&focus_ref=LOWAVE038DVD

Their first Résistance(s) collection, on Arab avant-garde film-making, is very much worth having, and I intend to get volumes 2 and 3 at some point as well.

December 02, 2010 4:09 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Again, my criticism was a "mild" one, seeking to resist a recent tendency towards overstatement about the impact of the epics on contemporary Hindi cinema -- and I was thinking of comments not made here, but which I thought some comments made here could reinforce. And, may I note that I'm amused by how often discussions of popular Hindi cinema veers into discussions of films that require the qualification "well, it's not really popular cinema, or Hindi for that matter ..."! A common detour, it seems, but perhaps one that speaks to the exceptional heterogeneity of Indian cinema, which exists at various extremes, in multiple languages. I'm also amused by the montage of the discussion of Indian cinema and the "new realism" in these comments: what fascinating cross-cutting!

December 02, 2010 8:29 AM  
Blogger Guillermo Krain said...

Edo,

Speaking of my ignorance, do yourself a favor and don't confuse a thesis with a worldview. I really don't understand those fanatics that are making wild metaphysical claims for The Wire; its humble pleasures lie somewhere between the Scylla of Stanley Kramer and the Charybdis of Sidney Lumet with more than a little of that other great writer-producer Budd Schulberg thrown in. I think you'll find it's gonna look like Roots in a shockingly brief amount of time.

The fatal problem with The Wire is that it is, naturally, keyed to white middle class nostalgia over globalization. It weepily wishes it was the Kennedy administration again and we had those great steel, dock and shipbuilding jobs, and the unions were strong and mom and apple pie ruled. It's kind of canny, audience wise, but what's really odd about it is the, uh, structuring absence of the 1968 insurrection and its suppression and subsequent trauma. The war on drugs is the problem? Check. You go to Baltimore, and people know what happened. 1968. Simon and Burns know this.

It's over-determined nature as a thesis film, with yes, admittedly a great deal of topological structuralist jazz, zolaesque screenwriter birds-eye empathy, and realist psychogeography "torn from today's headlines" (to stop people from questioning too deeply the self-evidence of the thesis) is to me part of the fake fatalism of this flavor of process film. Is it too unfair of me to compare the sublimity of The Wire to Jia's films about China?

Guy Debord? Did he write a couple of episodes in season two?

December 02, 2010 9:42 AM  
Blogger edo said...

When a thesis pertains to the state of affairs in the world, I think that merits being called a worldview, Guillermo. A worldview does not need to be cosmic ala Stan Brakhage in order to be a worldview. It can also be more limitedly social or political as in the case of THE WIRE. As I said, call it limited if you like, but that's a worldview.

As for the 1968 riot, it certainly haunts THE WIRE as do many events in the nation's history, but I fail to see how it assumes the stature of a structuring absence on its own. No doubt the social effects of the riot's aftermath were immense and lasting, but THE WIRE is analyzing the results of decades of systematic change, not the fallout, however significant, from a single event. It's far from that simple.

Your characterization of the whole project is pompously cynical. Dismissing its own, very raw mourning for industrial America as commercial canniness? It has nothing to do with nostalgia. The tone is funereal, not sentimental. When does anyone weep for apple pie? You can mourn the loss of a time without bemoaning the loss of all its accoutrements. Fatalist? I'm not so sure. It is surely pessimistic. It doesn't offer us an easy way out.

December 02, 2010 10:24 AM  
Blogger edo said...

On the Adrian piece itself, I'd just like to put a few things forward.

1.) The idea that ZODIAC jump-started a trend is fairly preposterous. There have been a lot of what Guillermo terms "the process film" in the past two decades, though I wouldn't call it that myself. Paul Greengrass's Bourne films and UNITED 93, Michael Mann's films, specifically ALI, THE INSIDER, and more recently PUBLIC ENEMIES. To lasso them all and brand them "process films", or, as Adrian sees it, films that embrace a fuzzy, undigested concept of realism achieved by orgy of factual evidence, is to ignore how different these works are from one another in what they seek to mine from the facts they deploy.

2.) The Manny Farber view seems a stretch. I think Andre Bazin is the real target here, and Adrian has criticized his views on realism in the past. More than any writer I can think of his concept of realism fits exactly what Adrian wrote: "anything angular, off-beat or singular in cinema" For Bazin, realism wasn't really an aesthetic, it was an ethic, a conviction acting behind the camera, a moral regard suffusing every image. Adrian seems to wish he just hadn't used the word realism when he praised such conviction. In fact, Adrian seems to think the word realism just shouldn't be used at all. I believe it's a useful concept, because it's an ideal, much like God, the signs of which one can identify in anything. This means there's a lot of potential for sententious bullshit, but then there's a lot of potential for epiphany too. So I guess I'd say to Adrian, "please let's not throw out the baby with the bath water."

3.) Kent's view is indeed distorted in Adrian's piece. It's conflated with the realism business, which is in turn conflated with Farber. The article is just not very rigorous, and that's the problem. In the end, I think it's just bad writing, which is often difficult to argue with, because like play-doh it tends to change its shape whenever you try to grasp it. And not in the good, Farber way...

December 02, 2010 11:03 AM  
Blogger Guillermo Krain said...

Edo,

Ok, now you're hedging. If The Wire is "haunted" by the riots, I need a medium. "I feel the table moving" is not an argument.

"It's not that simple" and therefore, "sit back and we will explain it to you", is the ideology of these films. I have a hard time accepting the closedness of the system. And yes, for me a worldview has to be cosmic, that is it has to express an ontology, a praxeology, an epistemology, ideally that turns back on itself, and it has to do these things FORMALLY. These films relativise in a lineage that comes direct from Intolerance -- I could be wrong but it seems to me that a weltanschauung is the opposite of the relativising tendency, which, and this MAY SHOCK YOU, can be a reductive approach as far as art goes. So Fritz Lang and Herman Melville and Jancso and Ford have a world-view, and it's possible that Fincher meets the conditions, but perhaps too soon to tell. He's not very interesting as a person, he seems like a rather bland technician, a whiz keed. Assayas is a very good filmmaker, and certainly an artist, but there is a little too much anxiety of influence. But, that's probably the case with most modern filmmakers.

I've given the two positive counter-examples of Rosi and Jia, but I'm sure we can think of others working today. If you can't tell there is a difference between those guys and David Simon I can't really help you.

To put a rosier construction on it, what these films all have in common is that they dramatize the failure of the individual as agent, and their very form encourages spectation. That might be backed by a sort of zeitgeist feeling out there, a despair of misplaced faith in technocratic systems, but the cinema also has a responsibility to be utopian, to reject the conditions of the world. The polar opposite of this sort of film would be something like Borzage or Peter Ibbetson or Wild Grass.

December 02, 2010 12:33 PM  
Blogger edo said...

I'm hedging? Excuse me if I have a less monolithic idea of THE WIRE than you seem to have, and if I can't accept the contention that the structure of a work as vast as a five-season television show boils down to one specific historical point of reference. Indeed, excuse me if I find it silly and facile to package it up that way. It is easy to dismiss something when you don't look at it very closely. It's also easy to polemicize about a broader "ideology" that is apparently endemic to a whole strain of diverse, individual works, stretching all the way back to INTOLERANCE (Really? Really? You're trotting out Griffith now? Let's pinch ourselves for a moment so that we can all remind ourselves that, as thirty years of diligent scholarship from the likes of Tom Gunning has endeavored to show the cinema did not actually begin with THE BIRTH OF A NATION) than to attend the specific ways in which each has been constructed.

Take THE WIRE. That's a work which has such a clear ethical stance, such an aggressive political orientation, I am frankly nonplussed at how you could earnestly corral it into a (dubious) category of contemporaries that supposedly advocate moral relativism, while throwing their hands up at the complexity of it all. You seem to have acknowledged that THE WIRE has a thesis at the very least. If not a thesis about what is rotten in capitalist societies today, then what exactly? A thesis that all moral behavior is relative? I'm sorry, but that's not THE WIRE I saw. (And I do believe that, at the very least, there is indeed a praxeology in THE WIRE, if by that you meant a logically coherent view of the determining factors which govern individual activity and behavior.)

For the record, I do believe that Jia is a far greater artist than Simon, and, as I do believe I indicated twice before this, I think Simon's project in THE WIRE is limited, both ideologically and formally, but at the same time I don't think Simon was aiming for the eternal and the cosmic, so it's difficult for me to really hold that against him and his whole team of writers, actors, and technicians that made that show such a pleasure to watch. As you have acknowledged, the cosmic baseline can be as reductive an impulse as any (and it doesn't really shock my feeble mind to hear you say it, I'm afraid). THE WIRE does things that Jia doesn't. Why do we need to choose between them, when we have them both?

The cosmic impulse is as fine as any, so is the op-ed journalistic impulse that informs Simon's work, but in the last full measure I think less lofty standards govern one's greatness. It all comes down to talent and vision. You can shoot for the cosmos and not make it past the thermosphere. What puts Jia over Simon is the depth of his talent and the breadth of his vision, and vision doesn't simply mean cosmic or utopian, I'm sorry. There are great, great artists who have looked at the cosmos and met only the echo chamber of the self, oblivion, and relativism. Let's talk about Orson Welles.

December 02, 2010 2:11 PM  
Blogger edo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 02, 2010 2:11 PM  
Blogger edo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 02, 2010 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and I was so looking forward to a discussion of Hindi popular cinema.

December 02, 2010 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Omar said...

Hi Girish

I always feel as though I am joining discussions a bit late but here goes. I have just finished writing a book on Indian cinema which covers 14 chapters, focusing on key films from the 40s to the present day. Some of the films I have looked at include die hard classics like Deewaar (The Wall), Lagaan, Dil Se (From the Heart) and what for me is one of the key films of last ten years – Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, which was directed by Sudhir Mishra, one of the most overlooked and under rated of Hindi film makers working today. Mishra’s films include Dharavi with Om Puri and Shabana Azmi which acts as a precursor to Slumdog Millionaire, Chameli starring Kareena Kapoor & Rahul Bose whilst a recent commercial flop like Koya Koya Chand (Lost Moon) looks at the studio era. Alongside Mishra who does try to aim his films at a mainstream audience, the opportunity for more genre oriented cinema has emerged more prominently since 2001 when the Hindi film industry was finally recognised as an industry. Not only did this effectively do away with all the black money that had left the industry in disarray and under a cloud of underworld violence, but it has led more inward investment and the appearance of corporate film banners including Pritish Nandy. I recently put a list of hard to find Indian film on my blog which now totals 40 films which are accessible on youtube: http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.com/p/indian-cinema-on-youtube.html
In addition, here is a list of films which I feel are strong examples of recent Hindi cinema, though I have to admit some of them would probably fall short of being deemed populist: (I think we probably need to consider diaspora film makers in this list as well including the work of both Deepa Mehta & Mira Nair)

Some interesting Yash Raj films that have slipped undetected through the studio gates include Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, Chak De India! and Kabul Express
Dil Se, Yuva; any of Mani Ratnam’s Hindi films
The work of Abhay Deol in films such as Road, Movie and Manorama, Six Feet Under
The Iconoclast that is Anurag Kashyap; No Smoking, Gulaal, Dev D, Black Friday
Johnny Gaddar
Parinda, Eklavya – both by director/producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Firaaq; the directorial debut of Nandita Das
Vishal Bhardwaj; Kaminey, Omkara, Maqbool are all great films
Ab Tak Chapaan, Satya, Sarkar, Company; Mumbai Noir
The epic cinema of Ashutosh Gowariker – Swades, Lagaan and perhaps even Jodha Akbar
The comedy of Dibakar Banerjee; Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!
UTV Motion Pictures have also brought a certain marketing finesse to many of their films; A Wednesday, Aamir, Rang De Basanti.
Mira Nair with Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!
Deepa Mehta’s Elemental Trilogy
I do like Farah Khan’s work so far – unpretentious and one of the few who understands postmodern cinema; Om Shanti Om and Main Hoon Na

I have focused on the past decade really as I feel the eighties and nineties in terms of Hindi popular cinema was pretty poor and technically incompetent in many respects; of course the exact opposite was evidenced in the Indian art film which seemed to flourish at the start of the eighties.

December 03, 2010 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Will S said...

I think bringing The Wire into this discussion has confused the issue beyond comprehension. Whatever connections one could draw between the features mentioned, The Wire almost certainly doesn't apply.

The whole thing reminds me of A.O. Scott's "neo-neorealism" piece a few years back and the dull arguments that generated. Why this persistent need to periodize the present?

December 03, 2010 4:15 PM  
Blogger Guillermo Krain said...

Multiple choice test for Will S.

The Wire doesn't apply to the Realism Sucks discussion because:

1) It's not a work of realism?
2) it's not totalizing?
3) It's not richly "ambiguous"?
4) It lacks an oblique main character or no central character...?
5) it's not really long?
6) it doesn't deal in "entire social strata in tumult?"
7) it's not concerned with systems or bureaucracies?
8) it doesn't have pretensions to the historic..?
9) it has a "clear cut and satisfying" resolution?

Oh yeah, maybe you're RIGHT!!??? It's none of these things!! It's just a cop show. on HBO.

December 03, 2010 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Will S said...

Multiple choice test? Sort of needlessly patronizing, no?

Haven't seen Carlos, but the others were "realist" in that were based on actual events, even historical records. The Wire was not. This is probably enough to disqualify it alone.

Also, McNulty is often singled out as the show's major character, but he is certainly not as central to the show as those films' protagonists are (and in many individual episodes is not particularly highlighted compared to other characters). The Wire is much more of a "network narrative" than any of the film's mentioned.

To say that it has a "lengthy running time" (Adrian's phase) is too easy. What TV show wouldn't apply to this criterion? And there are other medium specificity issues that shouldn't just be collapsed here. In any case, it's stylistically much closer to something like The Shield than to The Social Network.

December 03, 2010 9:07 PM  
Blogger Guillermo Krain said...

Will,

I'm a bit slow. It's just starting to hit me -- The Wire is the Atlas Shrugged of another entire lost generation. It's not a TV show, it's religion.

But really, you can't shut David Simon up about how the show is based on millieux that he and his partner (the Baltimorean insiders) actually experienced (police & city politics beat, drug dealing, teaching, journalism -- it's part of the "authenticity" aura that reinforces the realist code of the work.

p.s.

Here's how the aesthetic merry-go-round of cinematic realism works:

(Polarity 1) People live inauthentic lives. They think that real life is something that happens somewhere else, like, say, in the movies. What they need is a drug of some kind.

(Polarity 2) Images provide and complete the missing authentic that is sought by the subject. Their heightened and stylized "messiness", which is a source of pleasure and aesthetic contemplation, gives an intense rush of sensation and brain chemicals. And that is the ultimate reality effect. Then repeat...

December 03, 2010 9:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Please continue with this "realism" debate; we can cross-cut, as Corey says, back and forth between it and Hindi popular cinema.

David, Srikanth, Nathan, I'd never heard of Ashish Avikunthak: thank you!

Omar, I don't know Sudhir Mishra's films at all. And perhaps you could post a link here with publication details of your book when they become available. I'd love to look at it. Also, a question for you. When you speak of the "Indian art film which seemed to flourish at the start of the eighties," which films and filmmakers do you have in mind? (Benegal, Nihalani?) If you'd like to post a list, however small or large, of recommended films from that period, I would welcome it.

I have a question for Corey, Omar, Srikanth, and others. For several decades starting from the 1950s (in Bengali cinema) and the 1960s (in Hindi cinema), there have been clear distinctions drawn between "art cinema" (or "parallel cinema") and "popular cinema." I think these distinctions began to grow starker starting in the late 60s and early 70s, with films by Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and others -- this DESPITE the presence of a "middle cinema" (Basu Bhattacharya, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, some Basu Chatterjee, Gulzar) that operated somewhere between popular "masala" cinema and "art films." But at some point (late 80s? 90s?), these distinctions between Indian art cinema and Indian popular cinema began to slowly dissolve. I'm wondering: who were some of the filmmakers and films (of that time and of today) that work in this 'in-between space' between art films and popular films? Does the category of "art films" even mean anything in today's Indian cinema? Are there Indian "art films" being made today? Just a lot of thoughts and questions on this relationship...I'd love to hear from you about any of this.

December 04, 2010 10:02 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Girish,

I'd love to know the answers too. AFAIK< there's a sizeable provoative, middle ground cinema being made (Kashyap, Banerjee, Bhardwaj, Chaubey, Motwane, Rajat Kapoor etc.), but it's the old auteurs who're still making bonafide art house films - Adoor, Kasaravalli, Gautam Ghose etc. Of course, there are experimental filmmakers such as Dutta and Avikunthak, but I can't think of any new Indian art film director, leave alone Hindi.

December 04, 2010 10:12 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, I'm especially grateful to be turned on to Philip Lutengorf's informative website, which I've enjoyed exploring. It's great to read his work, along with sampling more of Corey's. Thanks for the pointer.

Omar, it's an equal pleasure to discover your site Ellipsis by way of the comment thread. Who published your book? Are review copies available?

I feel blessed to live in a multicultural haven like San Francisco where I've had the opportunity to take advantage of the great samplings of Hindi popular cinema that 3rd i's Ivan Jagirdar and Anuj Vaidya have curated at their annual South Asian Film Festival. Everything I've learned about South Asian cinema in general, I've learned from them. At The Evening Class, I've been equally blessed to have such competent writers as Frako Loden and Michael Hawley previewing 3rd i's lineups these past few years, tweaking my meager knowledge of these films. You cue me to index their entries, Girish.

Among the bounty I've seen at 3rd i, Pyaasa (Eternal Thirst, 1957) has been one of the most memorable. As I mentioned in an earlier comment on your site, I was immensely moved by the scene where poet-protagonist Vijay (Guru Dutt) wanders the misery-laden streets of Calcutta singing a heartfelt reprimand of the rampant inequities in India's class and sex hierarchies. Not only did 3rd I screen the final existing 35mm print with English subtitles of Pyaasa on the Castro Theatre's giant screen but they added value to the experience by soft titling the lyrics to the songs. Pyaasa is unquestionably a world classic.

December 04, 2010 4:30 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

3rd i also screened Mohammed Sadiq's Chaudhvin Ka Chand (Full Moon, 1960) starring Guru Dutt. His son Arun Dutt introduced that particular screening and to this day I regret not getting around to transcribing my conversation with him about his father (it was one of the recordings I lost when my hard drive crashed this summer).

Committed to presenting vintage Hindi cinema, 3rd i followed suit this year with a rare 35mm screening of Bimal Roy's Madhumati (1958), again with soft titling to compensate for there not being an available print with English subtitles. Present to introduce the film was Manoj Shailendra, son of renowned Bollywood lyricist Shailendra, who was generous and forthcoming with his remembrances and insights (I'm negotiating to interview him in the near future after I've reviewed more of his father's work: recommendations?). He indicated that one of the most important aspects of Madhumati is that it was one of the first films to narratively explore reincarnation (in thematic distinction to a ghost story, let's say) and he likewise mentioned that Om Shanti Om (2007) owes a huge credit to Madhumati, as do the comic antics in Sholay (1975).

Om Shanti Om, incidentally, is—to date—my favorite Bollywood musical, with Lagaan (2001) in close pursuit. The title number of Om Shanti Om is one of the most exciting pieces of cinema ever! I wanted to get up and start dancing down the aisles.

I also enjoyed Dil Bole Hadippa (2009); but, walked out of this year's entry I Hate Luv Storys, which was more a parody of a Bollywood musical than an actual Bollywood musical.

December 04, 2010 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'll admit I've found it hard to weave through these shifting threads, now addressing (to me) at least 3 (or 4) distinct topics! The focus on popular Hindi cinema seemed to persistently motivate a discussion of "non-popular" Indian cinemas (talk about return of the repressed!), and the discussion of contemporary realism morphed into -- to me again -- a rather different discussion of THE WIRE (of which, Girish knows, I am a great admirer). I'm motivated to defend THE WIRE but that will have to wait for another day. Anyway ... I do think the once apparently stark differences between Indian popular cinema, "middle cinema," and art cinema have now become more vague than ever, though it's unclear that the latter two actually survive as viable categories. (And again, Indian cinema breaks up into Hindi and "regional" cinemas as well as the popular/art distinction. To be really precise we should identify any film with multiple terms, such as the Bengali popular cinema, or Malayalam art cinema, for instance ...) I think it's worth considering that the categories were never entirely defined by qualities of films themselves, but also by sources of funding (presumably no popular films received National Film Development Corporation funding), exhibition venues (including international festivals, where some Indian films were more easily seen than within India), presumed (and actual) audiences, etc. In other words, the distinctions were often as much institutional and cultural as formal or stylistic. Are Ray's two Goopy and Bagha films -- comedies with songs -- nevertheless art films simply because Ray made them? Or are their "popular" elements exactly what has more or less kept these unknown in the West, which seems to only prefer Ray as a realist? Another factor in the past few decades is Indian national television, where many of the earlier generation of art or parallel or middle cinema directors (such as Shyam Benegal) have worked when the production of art films for cinema exhibition became very rare. What needs to be fully factored into the more recent period is the "multiplex" film, a sort of art/sort of popular type of film commonly understood to appeal to a single group, the growing urban middle class that frequents India's rapidly growing shopping malls. Are films defined by a middle class audience art films, popular films, or in some middlebrow location? Just some quick thoughts, but I do think it's crucial to recognize that the categories are much less rigid that they are often assumed to be. People often identify a film as clearly belonging in one category or another, but I suspect there's room for things to shift.

As for the "new realism" in popular Hindi films ...

December 04, 2010 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Guillermo,

I'll ignore the fatuous Ayn Rand reference, as (A) I never made any value judgment about The Wire, so it's worse than irrelevant, and (B) at this point, invoking Rand constitutes something like the Godwin's Law* of pop-culture discussions.

As to its "aura" of authenticity, The Wire probably was in many ways inspired by some of the experiences Simon had years ago (or his first book was, which was then adapted into Homocide). But the characters are based on 'types' and the dialogue and events are fictional (e.g. there is no specific referent for Carcetti's election, or for McNulty's absurd serial-killer stunt). The thing is purely fictional in a way that those films just aren't. Countless good and bad films and tv shows have been loosely based on actual experiences--this just doesn't match up with Adrian's exacting "historian" impulse.

There are many ways to discuss realism, and the dimestore Baudrillard in the second half of your post is a legitimate approach (if a bit ill-supported in this particular context), but lumping these disparate works together doesn't encourage much precision.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

December 04, 2010 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Omar said...

This debate is suddenly getting very interesting. As this comment is very lengthy I am going to post it as three entries:

PART (1): PARALLEL CINEMA

Firstly, I want to deal with my point in regards to Indian parallel cinema (also referred to as New Indian Cinema as started in the late 60s by Mani Kaul) – I have taken the following from a post on my blog titled ‘Introduction to Parallel Cinema’ (http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.com/p/indian-parallel-cinema.html) which underlines some of the key films that were produced at the start of the eighties, many of which could be deemed Indian art films:

Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, Govind Nihalani, 1980),
Anantram (Monologue, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1987)
Ardh Satya (Half Truth, Govind Nihalani, 1983)
Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Take, Ketan Mehta, 1980)
Chakra (Ravindra Dharmaraj, 1980)
Ghare-Baire (The Home and the Word, Satyajit Ray, 1984)
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Who Pays the Piper, Kundan Shah, 1983)
Khandhar (Mrinal Sen, 1983)
Paar (The Crossing, Goutam Ghose, 1984)
Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1988)
Sati (Aparna Sen, 1989)
Tarang (Wages and Profit, Kumar Shahani, 1984).

Of course, this is merely a sample of parallel cinema. Unlike today, parallel films released during the period between 1969 and 1979 which were funded in part by the state in the form of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), the ideological content was strongly anti establishment – of course this was largely due to the turbulent political situation at the time. For more on parallel cinema – I have a number of entries on my blog including ones on Sudhir Mishra and Saeed Mirza: (http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Parallel%20Cinema)

December 05, 2010 7:40 AM  
Anonymous Omar said...

PART (2): BLURRING BOUNDARIES

In regards to your second point on the blurring of boundaries between what constitutes art cinema and popular cinema, I would argue that if one was to even go back to the 1950s and look at the work of Bimal Roy, much of which preceded that of Satyajit Ray it is clear to see how in a film like Do Bigha Zamin, the practise of mixing traditions of the European art film (neo realism aesthetics) with more familiar mainstream conventions led to an interesting marriage between art and commerce. The existence of a middle cinema is a little more complicated and whilst the cinema of Gulzar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and others is still associated with this category, the distinctly art house films directed by Shyam Benegal have also been positioned under the problematic heading of middle cinema. Here is a quote from Benegal on middle cinema:

‘The term ‘middle cinema’ stuck because Ankur was both commercially successful and a critical success. Some of the films that were made at that time were not commercially successful at all. So the term ‘middle cinema’ came to imply some kind of compromise between the mainstream that came out of the film industry and those that seemed like independent films of personal expression.’

If this is the case then perhaps a lot of Bimal Roy’s films would fall under the label of middle cinema. Of course, my position is that most of Benegal’s early films would undoubtedly be classified as art cinema – they were largely oppositional in terms of form and content in many ways to populist cinema of the time. I have my doubts about the term middle cinema when it comes to Hrishikesh Mukherjee – was it not simply the case that he was a brilliant auteur in the tradition of Hollywood studio directors like Billy Wilder so why label his films as middle cinema? I think out of all the different ways of trying to categorise Hindi films, middle cinema is the most problematic – I think we need a clearer debate about what this exactly constitutes in today’s discourse on Indian cinema?

December 05, 2010 7:41 AM  
Anonymous Omar said...

PART (3). INDIAN ART CINEMA

So here is the second part of two entries and this largely addresses the question outlined by Girish - Does the category of "art films" even mean anything in today's Indian cinema? Are there Indian "art films" being made today?

I think first we need to define what makes a film an art film? Here are two academic positions:

The first is by Susan Hayward and is taken from her book: Cinema Studies, The Key Concepts (96, Routledge) and for her entry on art cinema, Hayward has the following to say:

‘This term refers predominately to a certain type of European cinema that is experimental in technique and narrative.’

The fact that she labels art cinema as European is certainly important because Indian cinema has always struggled to embrace the term art cinema as it brings with it a plethora of strong western and Eurocentric associations. Perhaps this explains the endorsement of parallel cinema over art cinema in much of the discourse we regularly read from important Indian film scholars like Ravi Vasudevan and Ashish Rajadhyaksha. Hayward goes on to reiterate many of the classic hallmarks of art cinema:

‘Narrative is disturbed, no seamless cause and effect storyline, characters behaviour appears hesistant, absence of heroes, subjective view of events, social realism…’

Professor Mark Betz in his book ‘Beyond the Subtitle: Remapping European Art Cinema’ (2009, University of Minnesota Press) also offers a brilliant redefining of art cinema, choosing to interpret the evolution of European art cinema as an institutional practice. Here is another position on some of the characteristics of the European art film:

‘In the languid, seemingly directionless trajectories of much of European art cinema, the question of meaning is even more achingly evoked. As plot winds down and character motivation becomes null, the so-called dead time (temps mort) and apparently empty narrative spaces of art cinema may create discomfort for viewers who, accustomed to clearly motivated action or dialogue or movement, feel pressured to fill the image with their own thoughts or mental images.’

I do agree with Srikanth’s point that many of the art films still being made in India come from Adoor, Kasaravalli, Gautam Ghose but in some instances I would categorise the work by Kashyap, Mishra and Dev Benegal (Shyam’s Benegal’s nephew) as art cinema. I think the case that Srikanth makes for middle ground cinema is equally important in light of the emergence of an educated cine literate middle class Indian audience and the increasing number of cinema screens. Here are some contemporary examples of what I would argue are Indian art films:

(Interestingly most of these films share some common characteristics; political content/dark themes, authorial status, low to mid range budgets, financed outside the system, experimental in terms of narrative, dismissed by audiences, embraced by critics, absence of stars, indebted to parallel cinema)

Road, Movie (Dev Benegal, 2009)
Firaaq (Nandita Das, 2008)
Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004)
Gulaal (Anurag Kashyap, 2007) – this is by far his most experimental film
Barah Aana (Raja Menon, 2009)
Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Sudhir Mishra, 2005)
Tahaan (Santosh Sivan, 2008)
Raincoat (Rituparno Ghosh, 2004)
Emotional Atachyar (Akshay Shere, 2010)
Well Done Abba (Shyam Benegal, 2010)
Before The Rains (Santosh Sivan, 2007)
The Terrorist (Santosh Sivan, 1999)
Aamir (Rajkumar Gupta, 2008)

December 05, 2010 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Maya, I'm glad to hear of your enthusiasm for PYAASA as well as the brilliant but rather neglected CHAUDHVIN KA CHAND, both of which I've written about for Philip's website: and I've published a longer (and, I hope, better) essay on PYAASA in the recent Wallflower Press book in the 24 Frames series on India, edited by Lalitha Gopalan. Let me humbly suggest that you may find it interesting.

I'm curious that Manoj Shailendra would simply note that OM SHANTI OM owes a debt to MADHUMATI, since there was in fact some controversy over the recent film not openly crediting the earlier one. Some people felt that the allusion bordered on plagiarism, though the history of such borrowing within Indian cinema is dense.

May I offer a mild critique of one of your points? I've argued in a number of places against the category of the "Bollywood musical" since the latter term is almost never used within India, and since this does not designate a distinct genre in Hindi film. As I've argued, the logic is either that all (or almost all) popular Hindi films are musicals, or, since songs are shared by comedies, romances, action films, or (the Indian terms) historicals, socials, and mythologicals, there are no distinct Indian musicals. I tend to follow the latter route -- if (almost) all popular films contain songs, none function as musicals in contrast to other non-musical films. (By the way, this is of course another major way in which many Indian films are designated art films: no songs! Ray himself even wrote a notable essay bemoaning what he identified as "those songs.")

December 05, 2010 3:58 PM  
Blogger Bat Mite! said...

I'm surprised that Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara hasn't made anyone's list.
I love it, I love that it exists, and I love that it eschews the poetic language of typical Bollywood Cinema for a crass, vulgar dialect that was at times untranslatable.

Golmaal, is my comfort food movie of choice. I make it a point to watch it with my father atleast once a year.

And I really liked Dev, Benegal's Road, Movie and truth is, while it wasn't fantastic, it was charming at points I suspect that has to do with my love of "Duniya Dekho" cinema machines.

-Vivek

December 07, 2010 1:47 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Bat, please note that Philip Lutgendorf's site (which motivated Girish's initial post) has a very positive entry on OMKARA, which he thinks very highly of. I do too, but prefer MAQBOOL myself.

December 07, 2010 8:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Omar, Corey, Maya, and others ~ Thank you!

December 07, 2010 8:49 AM  
Blogger Sachin said...

Hi Vivek, both I and Omar had mentioned Omkara above. And I really liked Road, Movie as well.

Girish, just some other notes. Like Omar, I loved Mishra's Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and found that it forms an interesting pairing with Govind Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa in terms of depiction of political ideals. Also, Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin is one of my favourite Indian movies and that film in a way predicted the gangster depictions/conversations found in RGV's Satya.

December 08, 2010 5:59 PM  
Blogger Bat Mite! said...

My original comment got timed out. Alas.

Corey,
Sorry, I must confess to skimming the list before rattling my sabre in indignation. Whoops.

I must admit, I'm curious that you prefer Maqbool to Omkara. I found Maqbool a little rough and the pacing fragmented. I suspect that might be the trappings of Othello talking, and Bhardwaj's need to capture its nuances faithfully, making it feel roughshod in place.
Omkara felt more seamless, with Macbeth simply being a framework with which to explore its universe.

Sachin, Omar. I saw your comments minutes after I clicked submit. Apologies.

-Vivek

December 09, 2010 11:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you again to all: I've learned a lot from this discussion!

At Jonathan Rosenbaum's blog, he posts a fascinating 1989 essay on a film I'd never heard of: A WINTER TAN, featuring (and co-written and co-directed by) the actress Jackie Burroughs, who passed away earlier this year. Here's the opening:

"A WINTER TAN is startling because it mainly succeeds in its aims though they’re based on at least three dubious premises. The first is that a volume of letters can be adapted into a plausible dramatic film. The second is that the letters in question — an American woman’s descriptions of her sexual adventures in Mexico, written before she was murdered, probably as a result of a sexual escapade — can be seen as exhilarating and life-enhancing instead of just depressing. And the third dubious premise is that a film made collectively by five directors can come across with a singular voice and style, a consistent meaning and purpose."

December 12, 2010 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Sudhir Mahadevan said...

Girish

I'm coming very late to this discussion and am not going to repeat the Dibakar Banerjee, Vishal Bharadwaj, Amitabh Bachchan films, Parinda, Satya, Khamosh, many already mentioned, all of which are worth watching. I'm mostly restricting this list to movies from the last 20-odd years. This is in two parts.

1. Private Detective (1997) and Raghu Romeo (2003) both by Rajat Kapoor

2. Om Shanti Om which is one of the best movies to come out of Bombay in the recent years - I love it.

3. Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (Shimit Amin).

4. Ab Tak Chappan (also by Shimit Amin) - I find the occasionally unreliable narration and its use of the mechanics of surprise and suspense noteworthy, if not absolutely unprecedented - as opposed to narration in mainstream Hindi cinema that almost always imagines the spectator as one who arrives at the film with an excess of foreknowledge and cultural familiarity.

5. Sehar by Kabeer Kaushik (2005) gangster film like Ab Tak Chappan, but set in the UP heartland)

6. Chennai 600028 (Tamil), and Subramaniyapuram (Tamil) are both worth watching.

December 13, 2010 1:49 AM  
Anonymous Sudhir Mahadevan said...

Part 2

7. Peepli Live

8. Sumitra Bhave's Doghi (2005)- Marathi - I lent Doghi to someone who never returned it. Despite being a "social problem" melodrama, the songs are basically abhangs - or devotional poetry and the imagery is striking, as if we are watching Arun Kolatkar's poems from Jejuri come alive.

9. Paresh Kamdar's Tunni Ki Tina (1997) - one of the last films i saw in India before leaving for the U.S, have never checked to see if it's available on DVD or VCD.

10. I increasingly find Awara (1951) a more riveting and formally rich cinematic experience than Pyaasa, which as brilliant as it is, is too..perfect. But I'm probably just looking for a fight.

11. Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi, as well as Khamosh Pani (the latter is Pakistan-French co-production).

12. For very local and unusual fare, I would recommend Angrez, a comedy that targets US. based Indian silicon-valley types, to hilarious effect. But more significant, the language is Hyderabadi hindi/urdu, which is very distinct, for those of you who speak Hindi/Urdu, and the movie is also simultaneously an extremely endearing love letter to the city of Hyderabad (including a song sung in rap in praise of Hyderabad). But this requires knowing the language to get much of the humor, since the comic narrative situations are not particularly brilliant or original. I like to see this film as a kind of ethnographic comedy, like Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.

December 13, 2010 1:50 AM  
Anonymous Sudhir Mahadevan said...

Part 3

13. LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (Love, Sex and Betrayal), also by Dibakar Banerjee - phenomenally interesting film about contemporary cyber culture that is structured in 3 acts.

I've wanted to see Ranjan Palit's In Camera for a while now, so if someone knows where to get hold of it, I'd appreciate more info.

When I was in Delhi, I had a chance to watch one short film by K. Madhusudhanan at his house (History is a silent film)- he's an extremely impressive filmmaker - Unfortunately, I could not - and still haven't been able to see his feature-length film, Bioscope:

http://www.madhusudhanan.com/index.html

For those interested in documentary work, Anand Patwardhan's films are easily available. Another phenomenal recent doc was Shernaz Dastur's Manjuben Truckdriver - a beautifully photographed film that really leaves us seeking a new semiotics of gender and queer identity, and of labor, because none of the familiar ones seem to apply. You can see a bit here in this 10 min, low-def youtube extract:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7vy1-r2tRc&feature=fvw

I have not seen Supermen of Malegaon yet, but I have heard only good things about it.

Corey's point about Ramayan and Mahabharat is very well taken.

December 13, 2010 1:51 AM  
Anonymous Sudhir Mahadevan said...

Apologies for the multiple postings- please delete subsequent ones - I thought I had to break up my responses since it took me to an error page repeatedly.

December 13, 2010 1:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sudhir, I want to thank you for taking the time to post this valuable list! Apologies for the Blogger nuisance about comment length!

December 13, 2010 5:15 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Sudhir, thanks for these suggestions: I know some of the films you recommend, but will now be seeking out many others.

PYAASA vs. AWARA? Are bhai, that's a battle of the titans! I declare a tie! "Too perfect" is of course an odd complaint, but I think both films could withstand that accusation. While of course lighter in tone, I find SHRI 420 in the same category. For me any Guru Dutt vs. Raj Kapoor discussion is like the choice between Howard Hawks and John Ford, or Ozu and Mizoguchi, or Keaton and Chaplin. I demand the right not to choose, but to have both!

December 13, 2010 7:55 AM  
Anonymous Sudhir Mahadevan said...

Actually Corey saab,

"Too perfect" was the wrong phrase to use for Pyaasa - I meant too consistent. A unity between subject matter and style that is so...apt that we are mesmerized, drawn in, into a solipsistic universe. Not that I have any complaints against this.

Awara on the other hand, leaves us outside, gaping at its audacious, somewhat rough-edged, and decidedly outward-directed, exhibitionist combination of soviet montage, german expressionism, poetic realism, neo-realism, IPTA-style progressive realism and much more. In its stylistic heterogeneity, it really brings alive the classic definition of the moral occult, the Brooksian one: it "is not a metaphysical system, it is rather the repository of the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myth. It bears comparison to unconscious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and inner dictions lie, a realm which in quotidian existence may appear closed off from us, but which we must accede to since it is the realm of meaning and value. The melodramatic mode in large measure exists to locate and to articulate the moral occult."

The location of Pyaasa's critique is very much this-wordly, a question of giving voice to the disenchanted everyday under modernity, and to register all of modernity's assaults on perception (literally), authenticity, subjecthood, all in this world, here and now.

The location of Awara's critique is not that clear - to me at least. At the very least, I like to think it accesses a realm beyond the quotidian - think of the repeated invocation of Rita's photograph as an animated totem, the disturbing sado-masochism of his interaction with Rita, and so on.

Anyway, all this is generalization, I know. I'm letting loose some interpretive fancy. As for the other comparisons, I think Stanley Cavell has the last word on the Keaton vs. Chaplin comparison in his "What becomes of things on film" essay - and I think he comes down on the side of Keaton and I'm inclined to agree.

December 14, 2010 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Sudhir saab (right back atcha), you convince me why post-Independence cinema really needed both Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor to explore the impulses of that generation to simultaneously move inwards and outwards, to anticipate the future and remember the past. In any case, a fascinating take on AWARA (which you should develop ...) For similar reasons, I would be glad to have the glories of either Lata or Asha, but having both really fills out the options for the female voice in Hindi cinema!

I also don't want to make a choice in the Chaplin/Keaton debate! Cavell was of the generation that "rescued" Keaton from Chaplin's previous status, which had been overwhelming when the two were active filmmakers. Keaton was claimed by a generation of cineastes to be more "cinematic" than Chaplin. But more recently (yet a while ago now) Kevin Brownlow's UNKNOWN CHAPLIN demonstrated how precise Chaplin was in his formal(ist) concerns, though this is less evident on screen than Keaton's consistent reflexivity. I'm a Pisces, so perhaps I always must retain rather than split up pairs!

December 15, 2010 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Discussion on this thread seems to have died down (will I provide the final word?) but I can't help but note that the divide Girish made the initial focus on this discussion is once more confirmed by the regular appearance of end-of-year "best" and "worst" film lists: while most of these boldly demonstrate that those who compile them and vote on them are cosmopolitan film viewers whose consumption of films is international, Indian cinema (good or bad) remains invisible on such lists: FILM COMMENT has just released its 2010 list of 50 films, and while it's possible that no Indian film was found worthy by the critics who produced the poll, my guess is that they actually didn't see any of the Indian films that might have been considered worthy this year. The Indian film critic (also a prominent screenwriter and director) Khalid Mohamed has just released his best and worst list, focused on Indian films exclusively. What will it take for Indian cinema and the notion of "world cinema" to merge and appear on the same lists? Aren't we supposed to be well past the Kipling-era dictum that "never the twain shall meet"?

December 18, 2010 8:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Corey. Let me post a clickable link here to Khalid's list.

December 18, 2010 11:14 AM  

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