Books

back to issue

MAKING MEANING IN INDIAN CINEMA edited by Ravi S. Vasudevan. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000.

THE first question to ask is, of course, what is the ‘Indian cinema’ that is to be made meaning in? Do Assamese, Malayalam and Marathi cinemas not constitute ‘Indian cinema’ as they are not referred to, even tangentially, in this collection? What of the C-circuit cinema and the politics of modern film-exhibition spaces and circumstances? As in all collections, there are only some issues that can be addressed, which makes the grandiose title of this one particularly problematic, especially considering the nature of the articles included. A title as ‘hegemonic’ as this one does not suit a collection largely informed by the work of the Subaltern Studies collective and feminist film theory. Making Meaning in ‘Mainstream’ Indian Cinema, maybe?

As the preface of the book states, ‘This volume was inspired by a seminar, "Making Meaning in Indian Cinema", held at the Indian Institute for Advanced Study, Shimla, in October 1995…’ The book comes out five years later and is hence, dated at launch. The latest movies it speaks of, in the year 2000, are Baazigar and Kaadalan, both dating from 1994.

This may seem like an invalid and quibbling criticism of a scholarly work, but it is not, precisely because of the nature of what the work chooses to engage with. As Ravi Vasudevan says in the introduction, ‘If there is a unifying theme to this volume, it derives from the current drive to understand the political implications of Indian popular cinema’ (emphasis mine). Five years is a long time, especially in a mediascape increasingly mediated by globalisation. To pick two very diverse examples, by the virtue of its ‘back-dating’, two things the volume does not talk about are the political fracas that followed the release of ‘Fire’, and the self-reflexive disparagement of stardom and the institutions of the ‘industry’ in ‘Mast’. For a book with highly interventionist content, the time-lag is fatal.

Where the book is important is in setting an agenda for intervention, theoretically as well as methodologically. Theoretically, there is a distinct trajectory to the book, almost an underlying assumption, which can be broadly characterised as being opposed to the ‘strand of film criticism [which] faults the Indian popular cinema for its failure to be properly realist, and character-centred… for its failure to achieve a "modern" procedure of narration…’ (Ravi Vasudevan). There is instead, almost a celebration of ‘our modernity’, in Partha Chatterjee’s sense of the term. There is a great deal of investment in the ‘local’ traditions of narrative as contrasted to ‘Hollywood’ continuity. Also, a great deal of the work (particularly Rajadhyaksha) could equally be seen as tracing its genealogy to cultural studies’ intervention in film theory from the early eighties onwards in the West, which argued for the audience’s freedom to negotiate resistant and even oppositional meanings to those apparently structured into the text, and has particularly problematized the ‘male gaze’ of Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay.

The redeployments are interesting. For example, Lalitha Gopalan’s work on ‘Avenging Women in Indian Cinema’ draws upon work done on the Hollywood B-grade slasher/horror films to make a case for the sadistic impulses in Indian cinema, unwittingly opening possibilities for cross-gender identification. Ranjani Mazumdar draws parallels (or rather, a ‘constellation’) between Walter Benjamin’s work on Trauerspeil (the mourning play) in the time of the Thirty Years War and the ‘psychotic’ films of Shah Rukh Khan coming out in the aftermath of the Bombay riots.

There is a great deal of concern and work here on ubiquitous presence of the state in Indian cinema (Madhav Prasad, Ashish Rajadhyaksha), which has led to some of the most theoretically formidable articles. For example, Rajadhyaksha takes off from the work of Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj on nationhood and citizenship and goes on to problematize Laura Mulvey to make the point somewhere that the viewer/spectator is free to make (or not make) identifications with the text. This is an extremely crude reduction, but in the text of the article, Rajadhyaksha writes, ‘at moments when viewers are most involved in what they see, the first look suddenly pops up… a more reassuring realisation that one is "only watching a film".’

Rajadhyaksha’s article is on ‘Viewership and Democracy in the Cinema’. What does this mean for me as a spectator of Indian cinema? Or for the other 23 million that watch the cinema every day who are invoked at the beginning of the article, and will mostly not have access to Rajadhyaksha’s article. They already know that they do not need to identify with what they see on screen. They already know, without Rajadhyaksha telling them, that there is an empowering, democratic component to the cinematic experience. (See S.V. Srinivas’s work on ‘Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity’, immediately after Rajadhyaksha’s in the book.) Who then, is this article for?

As was noted before, many of these articles could be seen as tracing their genealogy to western debates on the cinema, and even though the theory is nuanced and refined and has an obvious and political investment in questions of democracy in India, it is still a debate with the West. It is far more exciting and stimulating, and dare I say relevant, when the theory is more grounded in the ‘local’. One of the most exciting articles for me in this collection is Vivek Dhareshwar and Tejaswini Niranjana’s article on ‘Kaadalan and the Politics of Resignification: Fashion, Violence and the Body’. This may not be any criterion, but you can tell they love the film and are excited by it. They see the film as being empowering, as signalling ‘a different set of political possibilities… the way in which an urban popular culture, mediated by global televisual culture, but implicitly marked as "dalit"… creates the possibility for… resignification, of dalit and upper-caste cultural spaces.’ Some of the most exciting theory, drawing upon Gilles Delueze and Gyanendra Pandey is to be found in this article. I am similarly excited by Ranjani Mazumdar’s (From Subjectification and Schizophrenia: The ‘Angry Man’ and the ‘Psychotic’ Hero of Bombay Cinema) and Lalitha Gopalan’s (Avenging Women in Indian Cinema) articles, which are both contextual in nature.

However, it is troubling that only two articles in the collection actually have the voice(s) of people who are actually involved in making films. Ranjani Mazumdar’s essay features Javed Akhtar, and S.V. Srinivas’s actually spoke with Chiranjeevi and other stars of the Telugu film industry, along with the fans of the various fans associations.

His work is the most exciting, for me, in the entire collection. For it gives an entirely new dimension to film theory, away from the analysis of narrative and form along with Stephen Hughes’ historical study on ‘Policing Silent Film Exhibition in Colonial South India’. For here the people who actually see the films, and the material circumstances of film exhibition are considered worthy of academic study – which is a refreshing change.

And a change which has been institutionalised and is reflected in the work now being done by Ravi Vasudevan (the PPHP project – Publics and Practices in the History of the Present) and by Ashish Rajadhyaksha (work on the circulation of movies on low-end digital copies). Which is one of the reasons why, looking back to 2000, ‘Making Meaning…’ seems like an agenda.

An agenda with a long way to go. ‘We would also have to stay alert to cultural histories of advertising, radio, recording and television industries as they intersect with the history of cinema…’ says Ravi Vausdevan in the introduction.

So far, there is no work on ‘Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ that I am aware of.

Anand V. Taneja

 

THE SECRET POLITICS OF OUR DESIRES by Ashis Nandy. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1998.

THE popular Indian film has a curious shelf life. It stands to be repeatedly resurrected in its original ‘authentic’ form or is completely transmogrified and reassembled through varying modes of circulation, percolating into public consciousness in ingenious ways. In the last ten years, one such site of frequent resurrection has been the academic essay. Yet the academic text when compared to the filmic ones it is predicated on has fared dismally in terms of longevity. Not only has it failed to keep up with the constantly shifting and relatively transient nature of the most prolific film industry in the world but has frequently lapsed into, to borrow Vivek Dhareshwar’s phrase, ‘a paralyzing historicism’.

The Secret Politics of Our Desires edited by Ashis Nandy, first published in 1998, is perched precariously on that edge of intimated irrelevance. This symposium which attempts to establish ‘an alternative, non-formal frame of political and social analysis’ for popular cinema and the culture of politics in South Asia is loosely arranged around a schematic that is laid out by Nandy in his introduction: Indian popular cinema as a slum’s eye view of politics. The ‘popular’ as an arena of academic scrutiny is seductively easy to understand if we persist in the belief that we live in a relatively homogenous society and that people are fundamentally all the same. It becomes a much more complex issue when we take into account that most post-industrial, developing societies are composed of a huge variety of social groups and subcultures, all held together in a network of social relations in which one of the most significant factors is the differential distribution of power. Such a view also posits a plurality of points of resistance whose only unity lies in the fact of their resistance but not the form it may take.

Nandy is to an extent aware of these issues and presents his case in an inimitable polemical style using the slum as his defining metaphor. Here the slum as the ‘unintended city’ is configured through two tropes that have parallel resonances within the popular film narrative – ‘the remembered village and the compacted heterogeneity of stranger-neighbours, with the former often providing a frame to cope with the latter.’ Nandy extends his argument to claim that the popular cinema serves as ‘the poor man’s political scientist.’ His lucid yet amorphously structured introduction (much like the slum he invokes) is cautious with generalisations and incisive in its reading of popular Indian culture as not merely mass culture but a constant space of conflict and accommodation between indigenous folk culture, popular middle-class culture and massified global culture. Also his vision of the slum (constituting 25 per cent of the Indian population) in its dual role as receptacle and active proselytizing agent vis-à-vis India’s political culture and popular cinema, should continue to open up avenues for academic research in the years to come.

However, none of the other essays save Anjali Monteiro’s refreshing chapter on official television and the spectator-subject can claim to promise such durability. This can primarily be attributed to the fact that most of the essays in the course of formulating an argument completely disregard notions and processes of spectatorship. One would assume that any exploration of the ‘popular’ would have to be moored at some level to a concept of the ‘populace’. The textual analyses discount the subjectivities inherent in the act of experiencing the cinematic spectacle and assume that the spectators constitute a homogenized polity.

Ziauddin Sardar and Rajni Bakshi’s ‘highly personalized narratives’ on the life and times of Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor respectively are hagiographical accounts masquerading as anecdotal histories that are imbued with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia coupled with a cynicism toward the immediate future of the popular cinema, which mires any extended analysis they may have to offer in relation to the political climate in India in the post-independence era. Sardar occasionally takes the moral high ground and posits the popular cinema as part of the larger malaise afflicting the nation state: ‘Contemporary Indian cinema is not the only culpable criminal but it is guilty of denigrating the cultural excellence that its society can bring forth.’ Both these essays are predicated on the premise that art only refracts a sense of social reality and are largely unconcerned with ideological structures at play.

Conversely, Fareedudin Kazmi’s essay, ‘How angry is the angry young man?’ has as its pivot the mechanisms of the ideological state apparatus. In relation to the Bachchan phenomena he propounds the ‘safety valve’ theory where the state advocates certain tropes of proxy vigilantism through cinematic representations which portray ‘a form of dissent in leash’ working in tandem with state mechanisms to further the discourse for a legitimate authoritarian regime. Vinal Lal’s extrapolation about how Hindi cinema bound by generic conventions does not allow any space for the outsider/Other is unfortunately the most dated piece in the collection, though he does briefly dwell on the possibility of a change acknowledging the increasingly jingoistic pitch of the modernizing project propounded by the nation state and the rapid emergence of the Muslim-as-terrorist construct.

Anjali Monteiro’s study (Official television and unofficial fabrications of the self) of Goan working-class communities in Kamgar Nagar and their constant negotiation with television culture exists in sharp relief to the rest of the essays in the book. Monteiro emphasises the contradictions that inevitably arise through the act of identity reconstitution for the ‘spectator-subject’ vacillating between his/her role as a passive susceptible viewer and discerning agent who uses television as an essential information conduit. Thus, a certain simultaneity of resistance and subsumption to power discourses vis-à-vis the television is established where the viewer responses range from calculated indifference to ‘negotiated acceptance to complete incorporation of the televisual discourse.’ While foregrounding the claims of the ‘spectator-subject’ Monteiro dismantles what she calls two-dimensional models of power such as ‘target audience’ (culled from the development discourse), ‘sovereign consumer’ (from market research) and ‘the falsely conscious masses’ (of cultural dependency). Almost all the other essays in the collection are hinged on such limiting paradigms of power.

This brings us back to the earlier point about textual analyses that is completely removed from the matrix of the ‘spectator-subject’ and hence poses the threat of being fairly reductive in its readings. Film studies as a formal discipline emerged out of literature and history departments in universities over the last fifty years, as a consequence of which a certain primacy was attached to film-as-text analyses. As an account of which film studies as an evolving category continues to accord a centrality to narratology and relies heavily on semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalysis and other western literary theoretical models but at the same time tends to be completely divorced from the working mechanisms of the industry that produce the text or the economies (financial and cultural) that sustain it. This automatically leads to a narrowing of the scope of inquiry and results in frequent tautological lapses.

Thus, in order to keep the discipline vibrant and dynamic there is a need to scramble to new vantage points of analysis. Already certain shifts are discernable over the last few years and new areas of academic investigation have begun to coalesce: the film distribution circuits; the phenomena of film piracy; the subcultures of cinema halls; trade journals; film posters; the investments behind star personas; the strategies of film technicians; the politics of representation through satellite and cable television networks, and so on. These investigations if nothing else, will unpack new vistas of information that may well serve to rescue textual analysis from its atrophied nature and finally reveal secrets about the Indian cultural polity and popular cinema in yet unimagined and desirable ways.

Ankur Khanna

 

COLONIAL INDIA AND THE MAKING OF EMPIRE CINEMA: Image, Ideology and Identity by Prem Chowdhry. Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2000.

THE work under review is a reading of three ‘empire films’ of the 1930s and 1940s. This reading, the author, Prem Chowdhry claims, ‘is the result of an unexpected beginning.’ It was actually ‘a freak reference regarding the outcome of a riot in Bombay in 1938 in the wake of the screening of a British film’ that motivated her to explore this territory of cinematic experiences. For a text of film studies, this is an unusual starting point. However, for a social historian (Prem Chowdhry proclaims herself in this role) this entry point is quite understandable. Any dispute or event provides a rich mine of data which social historians or social anthropologists love to explore. Even for Braudel, ‘event’ can be studied as a litmus paper, which reveals the structure of the culture.

With this dispute, a resistance against the colonial screen, a methodological field of enquiry opens up with its colonising gaze, empirical structures and gendered scopic regimes. What is more crucial and refreshing is an attempt to study the multi-layered responses and resistance to this empirical cultural venture directed to control not just the native eye but also the body politics of colonies.

The book tries to locate this reading of three empire films – The Drum, Ganga Din and The Rains Came into their respective historical frames. The term, empire cinemas, means both the British as well as Hollywood cinemas made mainly during the 1930s and 1940s ‘which projected a certain vision of the empire in relation to its subjects.’ The shared common view points among Hollywood and British film industries and the acceptance of certain ideological concerns and images in keeping with this empirical vision have been assumed here. These shared features include: the defence of India as the pivot on which the plot revolved; the North West Frontier Province as location; the late 19th century as the historical period of reference and the military venture of pax-Britannica for the protection of innocent tribals against few corrupt and crooked members of the same community backed by the classical enemies of British empire, i.e. the Russians or Germans. From a social historian, it was expected to problematise and critically evaluate this ‘shared and common viewpoints’ a little further than what has been offered in the book.

The issues raised by the author cover a wide terrain. She claims, ‘This work establishes the live, volatile relationship between Indian audiences (with varied identities, as active consumers and receivers of the cinematic enterprise) and the empire films through an exploration of the ways in which cinematic and other discourses were negotiated for meanings’ (p. 9).

The selection of films in the book is significant as they interact with the changing and complex colonial ideological structures of their historical time frames in very interesting manners.

In the Introduction, Prem Chowdhry sets out the agenda for the study. Contextualising empire films on a popularity graph, she provides statistical figures to back her argument that ‘the audience for western films, especially for the high-adventure genre, was clearly not limited to the educated middle class but drew its viewership from different segments of Indian society.’ By 1939 there were 1265 permanent cinemas in India and 500 touring ones. She has identified the nature and level of participation of the Indian audience with empire cinema. Apart from educated middle class urban viewers, this Indian audience included plantation labourers of tea gardens, serving army men, rustic villagers travelling to the city etc. The Indian audience was thought of as being ‘child like’, ‘deficient of character’, occupying a position of ‘ignorance and moral corruptibility.’

Prem Chowdhry has been cautious in not treating the British/English audience as a monolithic and passive bloc. She has shown the awareness on the part of the British officials regarding the political potentiality and reception of cinematic images. It is crucial to know that the degree and nature of this awareness changed along with political developments taking place within India, a point well made by producers and filmmakers. Alexander Shaw, a British film producer wrote, ‘Indians don’t laugh about you anymore; they take you seriously.’ In fact, all three films chosen for study reflect important shifts in British cultural policy.

The agitation against The Drum forced the government to withdraw the film and compelled the Congress to reconsider its stand on cultural representations and articulation of new cultural traditions. At the level of semiotics and the content of the films, this shift has been analysed vis-à-vis the representational spaces of women agencies depicted in empire films. While The Drum was overwhelmingly a male film, The Rains Came places miscegenation centrally on the colonial screen. The reading of gender politics moving in the cinematic frames of empire cinema is crucial to the whole study and opens up new and valuable possibilities.

The significance of the book lies in widening the field of film studies and incorporating sources like publicity material, official documents, newspaper-magazine reportage and correspondence into the discourse of cinema. However, when reading the agitation post the screening of The Drum, a better treatment was expected. A potentially rich field of day-to-day media coverage of this agitation has been clubbed together in a mere footnote (f.note: 107, p. 120). This attempt to contextualize cinematic codes within a historical time frame lacks the complexities and the richness for which the social history of colonial India is known. At many instances, the relationship between representational codes and socio-historical agencies appears to be moving merely on the flat dimension of a discourse analysis, too straight and directly corresponding to each other. Also lacking is the treatment of mise en scene and decoupage which differentiate the reading of moving visual images of cinema from a literary text.

Nevertheless the work forcefully charts out the shift of cinematic codes and the multi-layered contested domain of responses. It makes a social historian believe that it was always possible for colonial society to colonise the colonising camera/screen.

Sadan Jha

 

FEMININE FABLES: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema by Geeti Sen. Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2002.

Geeti Sen takes the title of her book from a fabulously evocative painting by her friend, the painter Arpita Singh and within that purview draws a medley of writers, artists and photographers who have made womanhood the subject of their analyses. Her recent work has the steadfast authority and depth that one associates with long years of engagement with a field, the outcome of serene years spent as a Nehru Fellow at Teen Murti.

The first chapter is called Bharat Mata and locates the political debates around Abindranath Tagore’s painting where the chaste and educative iconography of the serene/controlled woman of India is projected around 1902-05 as the catalyst for shifting the image from Bharat to Bharat Mata. The debates around this symbolism and the song Vande Mataram are carefully etched to provide some understanding of our present turbulence. As a child growing up in the ’60s I remember Vande Mataram was continuously played on All India Radio and no one felt it was a political signature tune. The lotus appeared everywhere as long back as I can remember and has only recently been appropriated by right wing groups.

Sen’s work locates symbols historically without being judgmental and that I think is the greatest contribution of this seasoned work. Every library, domestic or public, should have a copy, and particularly for blind students the text will appear very rich because works of art are described by the author in rich and stunning detail. Geeti Sen has a fine sense of how words sound so while the pages are luminescent with the rich colours of the art tradition, spanning calendar to kitsch, ‘classical’ folk and abstract art, words are carefully woven to create a parallel descriptive tapestry. Works and lives are clearly juxtaposed and women’s dream and energies are the prime focus of her text. If men appear as photographers or film makers or writers, sometimes as painters, they do so only in as much as they energise women’s lives through their reflection.

Somewhere in Sen’s work the real world of men’s inter-textuality falls short of the overpowering sexual and creative energies of women. Is patriarchy the only mediating term, then, against which women appear in menacing or assuaging terms? This could be a dangerous flaw of the book, clearest in the photography and film section. The intermeshing of men and women’s worlds sounds just that little bit brittle and too many issues, too many worlds are compressed. The last chapter entitled ‘The goddess within’ also has some blurred parts as if there are more issues and people than the author can control.

Is there a real world out there, Sen seems to be asking, after having travelled much, seen much, spoken and written in many parts of the world. By bringing these idols/ideals, and the craftspersons who continually experiment with forms closer to us, Geeti Sen can rest content because the book has great beauty and resilience. One remembers only the fruits of labour and not the anguish that often goes into years of research. In that sense the inconstancy of our emotions and the turbulence of our years and days are set aside when we capture in print the large canvas of others’ dreams. Interesting that so much of the symbolism of women’s lives is set in religious metaphors, which do not seem alien to Sen but are part of ongoing debates about democracy and politics.

Susan Visvanathan

 

CINEMA OF INTERRUPTIONS: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema by Lalitha Gopalan. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003.

IT has long been a source of wonder to me that a discipline as interesting as film studies should be in the stranglehold of film theory, that most amorphous of theories, (a mish mash of linguistic and psychoanalytic reading strategies) and one which, while foregrounding the process of viewing, often loses sight of the text and its relationship with social reality. Lalitha Gopalan’s book, Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema, is a peculiar mix of the worst aspects of film theory, a daring attempt to get beyond what she calls at one point ‘the vagaries of the Oedipal scenario’, along with an insightful analysis of particular directors and their respective ouvres.

Gopalan outlines her methodology early in the book: she exhorts us towards cinephilia rather than film criticism. Cinephilia draws ‘attention to a system of signs beyond the central narrative – gestures from actors, mise en scene details and even throw away shots – that the obsessive film viewer reads as special signals from the film maker.’ She then quotes Paul Willemen approvingly: ‘The relationship between psychoanalysis and film theory has been reversed: instead of using random bits of psychoanalytic theory to generate readings of films, now bits of films are used to introduce readers to psychoanalytic theory.’

However, Gopalan draws from other sources as well through this book, and it is here, ironically, when she uses a sound textual and political reading of the film text, that she emerges most successful. This is why the central chapter, on the films of J.P. Dutta, is the most incisive, and the reason why her chapter on Avenging Women in Indian Cinema is muddied and confused. Before taking a look at some of her formulations in the main body of the text, it would be worthwhile to note that Gopalan premises her readings on some crucial features in Indian cinema. Seeing it as a cinema of interruptions, she isolates the song and dance sequences, the interval and the fact of censorship as defining our viewing: ‘Indian cinema is marked by interrupted pleasures’ (italics hers). She goes on to argue that action cinema demonstrates the connections between local and global styles as well as displaying ‘a confidence in film making that is most visible in the strengthening of local conventions even as they overtly engage with the structuring of anticipation and pleasure found in genre films.’

In the chapter on women , Gopalan follows the puzzling strategy of contextualising violence in Indian cinema, historicizing censorship, and then, in her analysis of a variety of films that fall into the category of rape and revenge, overturning these categories. Talking of Zakhmi Aurat, a film which centres around rape and the punishment that follows (castration), Gopalan concludes: ‘Critics have lambasted this film for offering an improbable resolution to rape; however, such a reading assumes that films have an indexical signification to political reality instead of examining how their narratives repeatedly stage various fantastical possibilities of these realities.’ Besides this, Gopalan’s reading of sadomasochistic pleasure into films that deal with rape seems highly problematic, drawing as it does on the work of revisionist feminist theorists.

A naïve understanding of censorship also informs this chapter; pleasure, according to Gopalan, is derived from the viewing of the female body in its more titillating aspects, and this body is arrayed, as it were, on the screen in the way it is because of censorship. However, surely it would be safe to conclude that this is part of formulaic narrative, not due solely to censorship? (After all, in cultures where censorship is not stringent at all, one still has the production of popular texts which rely on fantasy and titillation.) Gopalan ends her chapter with an interesting analysis of Vijayshanti, the popular star of Telegu cinema: ‘Each of her films overturns several conventional associations between femininity and aggression’; it is also true that they constitute a genre which foregrounds ‘the female star economy’.

Gopalan locates J.P. Dutta’s films in the genre of the Western, but sees their playing with the ‘indigenous’ genre of ‘daku’ or dacoit films. While defining Sholay as the definitive synthesis of these two traditions, she also makes the important point that it privileges an upper caste point of view; Dutta’s films, on the other hand, most noticeably Ghulami and Batwara, ‘challenge Sholay’s premise by inverting the conditions structuring the dacoit genres found in Hindi cinema, an inversion that rehabilitates an engagement with revisionist Westerns.’ The reading of these films that follows is embedded in an understanding of social relations, class and caste antagonisms and homosocial relations, that allow, Gopalan argues, for an equal understanding of the conventions of the love story in Hindi cinema and their displacement onto more violent narratives.

Again, the analysis of gangster films in the same chapter has an interesting analysis of trains and their significance; for example, in her analysis of Dutta’s Batwara, Gopalan points out that by using trains in the mise en scene, the suggestion is that ‘the feudal rural areas are not self-contained universes that lie outside the post colonial state; rather, they display a tenuous relationship with the state, whose promises of democracy and freedom are far from complete.’ Finally, using and then, interestingly enough, discarding-psychoanalytic mappings of masculinity, Gopalan concentrates on defining ‘local manifestations of masculinity’ and their relationship with modernity and the state.

The rest of the book deals with, respectively, Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda and lastly, the impact of digital technologies, using Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey/The Waves, and Kamalahasan’s Hey! Ram as examples. In a compressed discussion on these chapters, it is important to note that Gopalan does not deal with Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya at any length, an omission that seems striking given this film’s encompassing of several of the themes she deals with in the preceding chapters – from cityscapes and modernity to homoerotic bonding and the implicitly tragic fate of the protagonists of the genre of the gangster film. On the other hand, she devotes a whole chapter to Parinda, dealing with it in excruciating detail. Despite insights like this: ‘Parinda explodes any idea of a safe place for a heterosexual couple in a gangster genre that is more routinely managed through homosocial bonds,’ the detailed look at the flashback and its multiple uses, and a close look at how editing serves to ‘exploit spatial and temporal disjunctions,’ the chapter could be twenty pages shorter and lose nothing in the process.

On the other hand, Gopalan’s analysis of Ratnam is far more interesting, (perhaps because, while it offers a close reading of Nayakan, it also deals with the director’s ouvre) offering insights into his characteristic song sequences as significant interruptions. Gopalan inserts Ratnam’s use of songs into a succint history of the song in Indian cinema. Gopalan also deals again with the interval: ‘In Indian cinema, the first eighty to ninety minutes usually stage the primary conditions of the narrative. Nayakan, however, rewrites this convention by favouring the opening sequence.’ Following a discussion on the film as part of the gangster genre, the director’s preoccupation with cars and the ways in which cars from different eras signal different and changing functions in the postcolonial state, Gopalan also comments on the erasure of the Muslim figure in Ratnam’s films and concludes that the ‘jagged representations of Muslims in [Bombay] and other films limit the topography of Ratnam’s films, reminding us of their provincial reach as they write the nation state.’

The last chapter has no place in this book; the discussion on Hey! Ram speculates pointlessly on the sexualizing of the male body, the discussion of The Waves appears even more forced because while it might use digital technology, its thematics are entirely different from the rest of the texts explored. Gopalan does, however, pithily sum up her own method: ‘Each chapter has a double focus, exploring how a well-worn genre is reconfigured in Indian cinema by attending to local cinematic conventions.’ These conventions, she concludes, make Indian cinema well-suited for ‘forays into digital technology’ – most notably, the interval and the use of different effects, the virtual journeys possible in song and dance sequences. State censorship, Gopalan indicates, may also find it hard to ‘catch up with the subversive possibilities inherent in digital technologies.’

This is a book that yields insights as you battle through the discursive spaces of Gopalan’s critical universe. What is endearing is her genuine love for Indian cinema.

Ira Singh

top