The problem

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WHAT sort of an object is cinema in India?

In an article in 1995, Ashis Nandy described popular (Hindi-Urdu) cinema as being ‘a slum’s eye view of Indian politics.’ ‘Both the cinema and the slum in India show the same impassioned negotiation with everyday survival, the same mix of the comic and the tragic…’ Even as this article was written, and increasingly so in the years that have passed since, this articulation has become much harder to make.

Present-day heroes, unlike their predecessors, move not from the village or the feudal haveli to the pleasures and dangers of ‘big city’ Bombay but negotiate a ‘return’ after studying in America, starting a big business in London and dancing on location in the Swiss Alps. The vigilante stakes himself, not for the neighbourhood but for the boundaries of an entire nation against the more ambiguous threat of ‘terrorism’, a la Sunny Deol. The mafiosi coordinates the contours of his ‘company’ on a cellphone with its branch offices in Hong Kong, Nigeria and Dubai. Homes become soft-focus saccharine, with expensive furniture and in-house gyms.

Bollywood gone (neo-liberal) global? A ‘new’ Indian modernity? Well perhaps, but then again, maybe not. Let us look more carefully at each of the terms in circulation here (cinema, global/local, ‘Indian modernity’) because it is possible that they elide as much as they tell us. In fact, there are much more cataclysmic and tectonic shifts at work here in the nature of the ‘popular’.

The object that Nandy, even till as recently as 1995, could refer to as ‘cinema’ has completely changed in its shape, form and mode of dispersal. Take the case of a recent film, Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Ghum (K3G). Alongside his transnational presence in the film, Shahrukh Khan flows uninterrupted and simultaneous into to a Pepsi ad on Star Plus, a rerun of Baazigar on Sony TV into an Ericsson ad in The Times of India, only to reappear on the upper left corner of the MSN Hotmail India screensaver. Amitabh Bachchan plays an ageing corporate scion (getting over the failure of ABCL?) and benevolently distributes money and a few minutes of fame to the Indian middle class on Kaun Banega Crorepati. K3G the film, itself appears in only a fraction of the cinema halls in any of the big Indian cities on the day of its release, simultaneously screened with a shaky and uncertain print on TV by various cablewallahs, flooding various electronic bazaars soon after as an easily copied VCD, its songs long-since released (and ‘pirated’) on CD and cassette.

However, despite its seeming hyper-visibility, the importance of a film such as K3G might in itself be deeply undercut by the fact that references to the popular (bourgeois-Hindu) joint family are often not even made with respect to ‘cinema’ as such anymore, instead invoking serials on Star Plus such as Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhie Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. In a word, ‘cinema’ has become radically dispersed.

Analytically, how might one cope with this shift? The term used most often is the all-too-familiar global/local division. Rather than telling us anything about cinema or the popular, more often than not the neatness of this distinction suggests the naiveté of our own conception of what constitutes either end of this binary. Thus, Shakrukh Khan doing a stage show for a largely South Asian immigrant population in Birmingham is the ‘globalization’ of Bollywood, while an event such as the screening of Magpie in the Hand at Nishat Talkies, Kanpur, is merely ‘local’ (this is a film from the Czech Republic, imported by a distributor in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, given a name in English and a suggestively erotic poster, classified as ‘adult’ by the regulatory agencies of the Indian state and finally screened all over Delhi and U.P. as a ‘morning show’).

A similar problem crops up when we approach the term ‘modernity’, an almost absurd shorthand for an explosive diversity of practices and imaginations in operation at the level of the popular, not all of which can be neatly placed under the sign of the nation (i.e. within something called an ‘Indian’ modernity). At the simplest level, an unproblematic movement from ‘Bollywood’ to ‘Indian’ cinema to ‘modernity’ ghettoizes a whole host of actually existing sites of film production and circulation as ‘regional’ in a deeply hierarchical political/cultural geography.

How do we move away from this set of problems? Here is an initial suggestion: we shift ‘cinema’ from its conception as a purely textual object to being a socially embedded set of practices. This is a shift away from the fictionality of cinema as a formal ‘text’ towards its fictive quality, its being ‘made up’ as a form on the terrain of life, labour and language. Here we hold these various terms in tension (local/global, Bollywood/regional, popular/parallel, highbrow/ lowbrow, hit/flop), concentrating instead on the social contexts within which such categorizations are produced and the ways in which they circulate and travel.

Thus, while we do not negate the literary/aesthetic practice of ‘reading’ films, the practice of film ‘criticism’ or the theoretical-textual analysis of particular films would appear here as one among several other historically and socially located forms of commentary. As a way of relativizing ‘ourselves’, such a move demands a deeper engagement with the specificities unravelled by historical-archival/ethnographic research and requires that we pay attention to the ways in which these investigations often destabilize the descriptive/analytical vocabulary we might otherwise take for granted. This issue of Seminar hopes to engage this move, drawing upon current research at the intersection of disciplines such as film and media studies, cultural studies, history and anthropology.

Let us discuss this move in slightly greater detail. Arguably, the cinematic form is the crucial structure of affect and mode of cultural experience within modernity. (Here ‘modernity’ might reappear as a useful term. Perhaps the problem with terms such as these is not that they have become too abstract, but rather that they have not become abstract enough.) How do we start unpacking the seemingly ubiquitous presence of the cinematic in our lives? To begin with we might make a distinction here: ‘cinema’, as a form of public culture, is not necessarily the same thing as ‘film’ (since a cinema-hall is now only one of several places where a film or its fragments might manifest themselves). The question of ‘film’ opens out in three intimately related directions: as a technology, as a commodity and lastly, as implicated within diverse modes of sociality. The first two nodes can be said to have a certain logic to them, while the last as a form of experience is perhaps the hardest to grasp. Each has its own politics.

In considering film as a technological form we come up against questions of movement, usage and regulation. Here we might look at the history of film in different parts of India: its entry as a colonial technology and its subsequent domestication; its gradual spatial establishment (in the form of the ‘hall’) in different localities and further, the ways in which these arrangements change, along with its past and present enmeshing with other technologies in the process of production and circulation (the radio, print cultures, television, internet).

At each stage these materialities are intertwined within particular discursive formations: debates on what its ‘effects’ might be, how such a technology could be used or appropriated by different social actors, how it might intersect with perceived ‘indigenous’ aesthetic forms and criteria etc. The node of the state, as a regulatory or ‘visionary’ body is quite crucial here (inspite of the fact that things usually operate far in excess of it). In thinking though these processes, we have a lot to draw upon from the existing work of writers such as Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyaksha Madhava Prasad and Stephen Hughes.

At particular junctures, how does the state envision its relationship to an emergent technological form? This could be in its use as a pedagogic device in the construction of an imagined community (as for example, in the ‘national integration’ documentaries and newsreels which used to be compulsory screening at cinema-halls till a few years back). Or, in the development of a technological national-cultural ‘art form’ positioned against the pastiche and ‘lack of realism’ of the popular (most of the ‘parallel cinema’ movement was financially supported by the state, funding which has all but disappeared in recent times). How do these arrangements shift as the nature of the state alters?

A related question is that of policing and control as particular regimes of censorship are formed and claims to ‘community’ and ‘morality’ are negotiated (as certain images or narratives are classified as ‘obscene’ or ‘inflammatory’). In each case these relationships and regulations are precarious achievements, requiring work to produce and sustain them, liable to shift across space and time depending on the uses to which they are put.

The question of usage and regulation brings us directly to the presence of film as a commodity: ‘cinema’ as a ‘trade’ involving particular forms of transaction, with differing use and exchange-values. What is the sort of social-historical/economic trajectory involved in as simple an act as paying the price of a ticket to enter a hall and watch a film ‘first day first show’, or alternatively in watching it on a TV channel run by the local cable operator? On what basis are relations of legality/non-legality (‘piracy’) constructed in these cases? Further, given the contingency and dispersion of actual viewing practices, how are categories such as ‘hit/flop’ or ‘important/marginal’ configured?

As even a cursory reading of any of the ‘government committee reports’ on film will tell us, any desire for predictability or completeness in our knowledge in this respect is resisted by the sheer size and scope of the apparatuses of film production, distribution and circulation in various parts of India. At best one can follow particular trajectories and their inter-connections. How is it that at a particular point in time, older Mithun Chakrabarty films (classified as the ‘B-circuit’ in film trade terminology) suddenly flooded cinema halls in Delhi four or five years after their release? How does the ‘morning show’ (classified as the ‘C-circuit’) emerge as a category of film viewership, enter cinema halls across various cities and towns and suddenly decline in its popularity? How do we understand the supposed ‘success’ (in terms of drawing upper-middle class audiences) of the ‘multiplex’ form of cinema exhibition in certain parts of India, and the concomitant emergence of a type of film marketed as a ‘niche’ product, just as the economic aspect of cinema was declared to be in ‘crisis’? At what point do music rights and product placements become as profitable a venture for a film producer as box-office returns, traditionally the measure of a ‘hit’?

To open up the question on to a broader terrain: how does film get entangled, both in its creation and in its circulation, with other commodity forms? As with other commodities, what is its place in dispersed ‘shadow’ economies? This could be right from the purchase of a ticket in ‘black’ outside a cinema hall, to inflated film pricing by a producer, or even to the alleged links with ‘the mafia’ in the production process of many recent films.

There are many more such questions to be answered and conceived. What we have in each of these cases is the complex entanglement of modes of circulation, film exhibition and distribution. Having said this, it is equally important to remember, as Arjun Appadurai has pointed out, that a commodity necessarily has a ‘social life’. And perhaps more than in any other case, the importance of this insight is crucial for our understandings of film/cinema.

This takes us to our third opening: the implication of film within diverse modes of sociality, forms of experience and ways of being in the world. What are the ways in which people engage with film? How does cinema relate to subjectivity? Once we have disarticulated the cinematic form, as a specific technological apparatus from ‘film’, how might we re-configure that relationship? For example, what do we make of the repetition of images from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on cable TV, their packaging as ‘nostalgia’, or even the constant replaying of their sounds in game shows based on the ‘Antakshari’ format? Might this have something to do with the ways in which ‘public’ memory arranges itself in the entanglements between the ‘past’ and the ‘present’? In other words, might this form of film circulation shape, and be shaped by, a complex relation between cultural time and the image?

Perhaps the main reason that this third node is the hardest to grasp is the lack of a clear political antagonist. While with ‘technology’ there is the overarching relationship with the state, and with commodities there are the forces of commerce, here the domain of the political (or the personal-political) takes us in at least three different directions. To begin with there is the question of ‘ideology’. Here the film writer attempts to speak the ‘unsaid’ in ‘unmasking’ what the cinema assumes or foregrounds in the worlds that it depicts. Having recognized this as a valid and quite often usefully provocative domain (refer to the Roja debate in the further reading list), let us not leave the cinematic form with only one particular version of politics (or philosophy): one that is based on the relationship between ‘truth’ and representation (a question that is not necessarily always relevant to the cinema as a form).

A slightly different analytical emphasis takes us to the level of micro-practices where the political stakes are as crucial. Here we attend to the ways in which people position or embody themselves (or are marked) as bearers of identity within particular social or institutional networks. A parliamentary debate of 1952 on cinema contains a reference to a public petition by ‘13,000 housewives of Delhi protesting the evil of cinema.’ What might occasion such an utterance?

Clearly, there is some indication here between locality and the everyday into which cinema enters as a space and form of public congregation. How do these relationships shift over time? How do different junctures create particular modes of reception, delineate identifiable (or imagined) ‘audiences’ and constitutively shape notions of public culture? Here again, we might draw upon the existing work of writers such as M.S.S. Pandian and S.V. Srinivas on the ‘fan’ phenomenon in Tamil and Telugu cinema respectively or Madhava Prasad’s use of government committee reports and film trade magazines to understand practices of reception.

Having recognized this second domain of inquiry, a different set of problems confronts us as we move to the third opening within the ‘personal’ that I want to outline here, approaching what Michel Foucault has called ‘techniques of the self’. There is a peculiar problem when we approach the sublime, almost inexpressible dimension of ‘experience’, since inasmuch as ‘cinema’ is the object of investigation here, we are equally exploring ourselves. And perhaps, there is no better way to illustrate this than to recollect an image from my own life. I remember, minutes after my father’s death in February 1998, sitting in an ambulance taking my father’s body from the hospital to the ghat for cremation. And my mother, sitting next to me, holding his hand, singing Aanchal ke Tujhe, the Kishore Kumar song from the film Door Gagan ki Chaon Mei. A form of mourning uniquely appropriate to our fondest memories of him, singing that song. A song that is itself strangely ethical in its lyrics and in the affect it produces: it reminds us to care for the world and for relationships.

Though I never saw the film, my father told me numerous times: in the film, this is a song Kishore Kumar sings to Amit Kumar, his son in ‘real’ life. This was a fact we all considered important, for no reason in particular. Here is experience in its barest, albeit most complex and multi-layered form. ‘Life’, as we rarely feel it, usually in its abrupt proximity to death. And here is cinema, so pure that it lives not in ‘ideology’ but in the deepest recesses of our beings: in how we learn to express and inhabit intimacy, in the ways in which we are produced as subjects of life and language. And further, here is something singularly unique to cinema in India. (Can we imagine Hollywood or even the acclaimed French new wave cinema providing any one with such kinds of emotional/expressive resources? Perhaps, but that would involve a completely different form of life.)

Speaking of ‘our unique’ capabilities should take us back somewhat naturally to Ashis Nandy who, in fact, is probably the first to show us this very dimension of Indian cinema as a ‘resource’ in his essay, ‘The Discreet Charms of Indian Terrorism’. A different and perhaps more intricate way into this set of questions is offered by Veena Das in her piece, ‘The Making of Modernity: Gender and Time in Indian Cinema’ (refer to the further reading list for these references). In further understanding the question of cinema/experience we might learn a lot from writers such as Gilles Deleuze, Stanley Cavell and Steven Shaviro (or even Walter Benjamin on the ‘image’), who have, in their explorations of European and American cinematic forms, considered the ontological status of film as a visual-aural form of human negotiation. The cinematic ‘machine’, as Deleuze has called it, that produces concepts, percepts, affects, forms of life and modes of being-in-world.

In the above cases, the theoretical impulse comes from within a set of (western?) philosophical problems in their relation to the cinematic, as a form of expression within modernity. Can such frameworks illuminate the peculiar contours of the cinematic within India? At present it is best to leave this question open, recognizing the degree of complexity posed by it. What is important is to find ways of addressing these complexities, since if there is anything at all that we do know about ‘Indian’ modernity (even if we are opposed to it being conceived of as any one thing), it is that cinema is a crucially important node within it, perhaps even the crucial node of the ‘popular’ imagination, figuring far more centrally here than in any other postcolonial context.

In this case, there is good reason to be optimistic about our own as yet nascent intellectual tradition, since the corpus of writing on cinema in India already constitutes a formidable body of work. Apart from the writers mentioned above (Vasudevan, Rajadhyaksha, Pandian, et al.) whose work in any given text cuts across at least two of the three broad domains outlined here, there are several others: Tejaswini Niranjana, Moinak Biswas, Lalitha Gopalan, Rosie Thomas and Ranjani Mazumdar are only a few of the people who have been writing for some time now. My own engagement with the cinema emerges from a brief but intense involvement with a media/urban studies project, ‘Publics and Practices in the History of the Present’ at Sarai-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi).

In the context of this emergent approach, let us reiterate the kind of move that is being addressed i.e., the ‘problem’ we are trying to pose for writing on cinema in India. While drawing upon forms of analysis which consider questions of ‘textual’ address and relational/possible subject positions (in terms of a ‘look’ or a ‘gaze’) there is a somewhat different impetus here in trying to move away from the purely interpretative stance that those engagements invariably involve. Instead of revelling purely in the mastery of the film writer as an adept ‘reader’ of cinematic ‘texts’, we hope to multiply and alter the set of questions as anthropological/historical (or philosophical?) ones in order to ask: how have people spoken about and lived with the cinema? Since inasmuch as people produce cinema, a cinema can produce them. And this is perhaps the most crucial question of all in understanding the place of cinema in India.

In addressing the complexities of these various circulations we might also learn from people ‘within’ the apparatus of film, broadly conceived, in order to understand the kinds of knowledge they generate and draw upon in their diverse localities and positions. This could be anyone from a film writer or a poster designer to a film distributor, a booking clerk or a cinema-hall manager. In my own ethnographic engagements in Delhi, cinema-hall owners and managers regularly complained about the decline of the cinematic form, the ‘death’ of cinema as a viewing practice and their own decreasing importance as ‘public’ figures in their respective localities. It is within these subjective perspectives that we might be able to trace a deeper relationship between the cinematic and the social. It is with these multiple directions in mind that this issue of Seminar hopes to start a conversation.