Failure of realism

Print edition : April 04, 2014

A scene from Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali".

Vasudeva Rao and Venkatesh in "Chomana Dudi" (Kannada) directed by B.V. Karanth, one of a series of films in the 1970s depicting the plight of victims of social oppression. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Balraj Sahni in "Garam Hawa", a realist film set at the time of Partition, which uses the conventions and passive grammar of the popular film. Photo: The Hindu Archives

From "The Lunchbox", which illustrates the rise of realism as a commerical option through the independent film. Realistic on the surface, such films replicate the methods of traditional Indian cinema.

Shyam Benegal. Photo: S. Mahinsha

Mrinal Sen. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Girish Kasaravalli. Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

B.V. Karanth.

Syed Mirza. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

When Indian art cinema, with encouragement from the state, began as a movement around 1970, it did not take its aesthetic from Pather Panchali but from Dharti Ke Lal.

NOTWITHSTANDING the obvious exceptions, film art has become inconceivable without an appreciation of the realist aesthetic. This is not because realism is the only way in which artistic truths can be explored but because every kind of stylised cinematic expression—which is not realistic—is also measured and understood in terms of how or why it abandoned realism. Film artists who depart from realism do so only after breaking into cinema through broadly realist exercises, as evidenced in films ranging from those of Federico Fellini ( I Vittelloni, 1953) to those of the Brazilian Glauber Rocha ( Barravento, 1962), who stand on opposite sides of the artistic spectrum, namely, with personal expression and political statement respectively. This, however, applies only to Western film-makers to whom film was an extension of photography. To those in countries like Japan and India, for instance, cinema had a different significance—as a recording of theatrical performance or enactment. Japanese cinema embraced the realist aesthetic extensively only after the War through the work of directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima and the Japanese new wave, and India approached it principally through Satyajit Ray, who was influenced by Italian neorealism. After an early dramatic period, realism as an aesthetic has caught on in countries such as China, South Korea and Iran as well, and this has led to the international success of their cinemas, success which eluded India where realism has had a more tenuous influence.

There are a large number of ways in which the notion of realism has been understood, but the most useful definition is perhaps that it is akin to a frame around an ongoing reality. The frame fixed onto a photograph is different from one used for a painting in that the frame of the photograph masks a reality, of which whatever is pictured is only a portion—like the 10 per cent of an iceberg which shows above water. The frame of a painting, in contrast, contains everything the painting is about. The earliest debate in cinema is between its documentary aspect as represented by the Lumiere brothers and its fictional/illusionary aspect as represented by Georges Melies, and this developed into the two ends of a range in cinema focussing on the reality of the raw material (realism) and the director’s ability to manipulate or modify this reality in the service of expression (expressionism). If aesthetic theories of film largely endorse one of these two polarities, Indian cinema has tended to remain outside the debate because of the innate preoccupations of Indian aesthetics/poetics/dramatics.

Cinema in the West—where it originated—is regarded as being directly derived from photography. If early portrait photographs in India are any indication, photography served a different purpose here. It has been noted (Christopher Pinney; Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs) that early portraiture used the photographic print only to get a good facial likeness of the subject. The photographs were then painted upon and decorative conventions that preceded photography reintroduced. As Pinney indicates, Indian portrait photographs do not seem to merely duplicate the everyday world but are, rather, valued for their capacity to make traces of the person endure, constructing the world in a more perfect form than is possible to achieve if one were faithful to everyday reality. Stated differently, the subjects of these portraits endure as types rather than as individuals—representing “prince” or “landowner” or “matriarch” and other recognisable social categories.

Western students of Indian poetics express puzzlement that while literature is not intended to be mimetic, neither does it offer a theory of art being for art’s sake. Both litterateurs and literary theorists acknowledge that literature is not indifferent to the intellectual demands of society or to society itself but is a “fully exploited expression, whose principle is not subordinate to an external standard” (as mimesis would be) but is actually greater, in some sense. Students of the rasa theory have also noted that the theory does not deny that art is mimesis but only adds that it is imitation of a special kind, that rasa does not imitate things and actions in their particularity but rather in their universality and potentiality—which makes the imitation “truer than the real thing”. Given these aspects of Indian aesthetics/poetics/dramaturgy, the transformation of the individual to type in early photographs perhaps correspond to actual things elevated to a “truer” level, which is “eternal”. When Natyashastra enunciates that “drama should be a diversion for people weighed down by sorrow, fatigue, grief or ill-luck”, it is perhaps doing more than suggesting an escape or distraction.

In cinema, Aristotelian mimesis leads directly to the classical Hollywood film with its emphasis on the unity of space, time and action. Indian cinema, as may be expected, took a different path from that of Hollywood. Rather than deal with individual experience, Indian popular cinema uses the typical in various ways. Spaces, for instance, are not unified and contiguous but visually demarcated and defined in terms of their qualities. Hindi cinema traditionally restricted itself to a handful of well-defined spaces—such as courtroom, police station, rich man’s bungalow, poor man’s dwelling, hospital and farmer’s field. The street in Devdas (1935) does not merely link spaces together but is the last refuge of a destitute person. A rich man’s city house usually has a winding staircase made popular by Gone with the Wind (1939). In Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), both the hero (Raj Kapoor) and the heroine (Nargis) are enormously rich and the film uses the fact that the heroine has no mother to visually demarcate their residences. The hero’s residence is first shown with the mother standing in the doorway—it is a house with a mother. Where the temporal scheme of Hollywood insists on a strict chronology and duration (the interval between the first and last event in the story), Indian popular cinema tends to be hazy. One cannot, even after several viewings, draw out a chronology of events for Sholay (1975). Duration in Hollywood is often denoted through appointments and deadlines, and Lagaan (2001) may have owed its international acceptance partly to it having a clear duration—the three months allowed for the two teams to prepare for the match.

Critics have complained about the stereotypes in Hindi cinema, but they follow the same principles in which everything is denoted through a sign associated with its essence—a learned man by his bookshelves as in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994), soldiers by their moustaches as in Border (1997) in which clean-shaven actors sport stuck-on moustaches; in Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), all six convicts are unkempt and bearded. Even the feminine voice in playback singing sought out the essence of womanhood. Lata Mangeshkar’s voice lent itself to the norm of ideal femininity while that of her sister, Asha Bhosle, became “oozing sensuality”. When art cinema—with a deliberate emphasis on realism—began as a movement in the 1970s, it found itself unconsciously following the same narrative logic.

The narrative logic of Indian realism

A key narrative notion in mimesis/realism is causality because only the structuring of events as a causal chain allows for people and events to develop and transform. A type, which is conceived in its “essence”, cannot transform organically. When Satyajit Ray—who was categorical that he owed nothing to any Indian film-maker—adapted Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s classic novel Pather Panchali for the screen, he sharpened it considerably by introducing causal connections. Unlike in the novel, every event in the film is directed towards Apu’s development as an individual and towards his eventual maturity. In the novel, for instance, the old aunt Indir dies in someone’s house when only adults are present while in the film it becomes Apu’s first experience of death.

If there had been a precursor to Pather Panchali with regard to its lyricism, the film was K.A. Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal (1946). Ray was later accused of “peddling India’s poverty”, but Dharti Ke Lal is much bleaker than Ray’s films are. On scrutinising this film we find that its bleakness—in telling a story of small farmers who migrate to the city—has less to do with its politics than with the fact that it cannot conceive of matters except non-causally. What the film does is to subject its protagonists to one cruel dispensation after another—to which their response is always passive. To provide a counter-illustration, Ricci in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is shown doing everything in his capacity to recover his bicycle and he eventually tries to steal another one, which is not the way of K.A. Abbas’ protagonists. In Dharti Ke La l, the protagonists submit helplessly to moneylenders, middlemen and nature—drought and flood. The problem at the heart of the film is that it conceives of its protagonists as victims in essence and their human adversaries as exploiters in essence, and something conceived thus “in essence” has, by definition, no capacity to transform. Dharti Ke Lal was produced by people committed to Marxism with faith in change and the film therefore concludes with a rousingly optimistic song from the exploited sections of society, but the developments in the narrative do not induce optimism.

When Indian art cinema, with encouragement from the state, began as a movement around 1970, it did not take its aesthetic from Pather Panchali but from Dharti Ke Lal. It must be indicated here that Ray’s contemporary Ritwik Ghatak, who was a self-professed Marxist, did not subscribe to the realist aesthetic and his films were conceived as melodramas. A key difference between realism and melodrama is that realism posits a material universe while melodrama includes a metaphysical/occult component—often a moral order which rewards and punishes —driving the narrative and manifesting itself in devices like coincidences. In Ghatak’s films, history itself is a “metaphysical” participant in the narratives. But what is true of Ritwik Ghatak is not true of later art film directors who try to make “realistic” films but are caught in the same pitfalls as Dharti Ke Lal.

In the golden age of the Indian art film commencing in the 1970s, there are broadly two kinds of realism operating and both are devoted to social issues. The first one describes the plight of victims of various kinds of social oppression—caste hierarchy in B.V. Karanth’s Chomana Dudi (1975), feudalism in Narasinga Rao’s Daasi (1981), landlords in Syed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho (1984), official apathy in Jahnu Barua’s Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (1987), Girish Kasaravalli’s Tabarana Kathe (1987) and Shaji N. Karun’s Piravi (1989), and the plight of slum-dwellers in Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1991). The second is an angrier cinema and, although it deals with the plight of victims as well, often opts for an agitprop overlay, suggesting resistance. Film-makers who fall into this category include Mrinal Sen ( Calcutta ’71), Utpalendu Chakravarti ( Chokh, 1983) and the early Shyam Benegal as in Ankur (1974). Very often, as in Ankur, the suggestion of rebellion appears tagged on because there is little to suggest that the victims have agency. One will get a sense of how close realist art cinema is to the popular film in its passive “grammar” and conventions if it is pointed out that M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1974), which is set at the time of Partition and heaps all manners of troubles upon its Muslim protagonists, uses the device of the mother staying behind with the son in India to suggest that India rather than Pakistan is the virtuous space. In Deewar (1975), it must be recollected, the mother stays behind with the virtuous son played by Shashi Kapoor. In Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), the mother abandons her adulterous son and remains with her daughter-in-law when the couple divorces.

The difference between the characters from popular cinema and those from the realist film roughly correspond to those from mythology and from the novel, but the latter film does not credibly achieve its ends. If the characters in realistic cinema do not emerge as types as do the characters in the popular film, it is not due so much to the narrative strategies as to the kind of actors who proliferated in it. The actors coming out of realist art cinema–such as Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Anant Nag, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Sadhu Meher, Farooque Shaikh and the lesser known ones of regional cinema—had different kinds of physiognomy than those of popular film stars and used a language of gestures which was not larger than life. Even Balraj Sahni, who shines in Garam Hawa, made his reputation in Dharti Ke Lal and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), which, as already indicated, are precursors to the realism of the 1970s.

These films of the 1970s and 1980s are part of a self-consciously national film movement and addressed the same “national reality”. It is significant that film art which was outside it came from India’s extremities—Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Aravindan in Kerala and Aribam Syam Sharma in Manipur ( Imagi Ningthem, 1981), which depend on elements of local culture/experience and are also not “realist” in the same sense. Adoor’s Mukhamukham (1984), which is about a Communist Party of India (Marxist) functionary, is distinct from, say, Mrinal Sen’s films which espouse Marxism. If “realism” is a frame around an ongoing reality, these films try for expression although this expression is not personal as much as culturally local.

The realist films of the 1970s and 1980s were often fiercely critical of the establishment and some of them are extremely affecting. Still, their success as social criticism can be attributed to the country’s political options remaining open in the 1980s. With the beginning of economic liberalisation in 1991, it was as though there was only one legitimate political option and realism, although it remained nominally operational, became toothless. Since art cinema depended (and continues to partly depend) on state patronage, it cannot take a political viewpoint officially considered “obsolete” by the liberal state.

Realism after 1991

The decline in the political content of the realist film after 1991 is accompanied by an increase in its “humanist” content and issues which can be treated apolitically. Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Charachar (1994) is about the dilemmas of a bird catcher who has grown to love birds. Some favoured ruses are to focus on disadvantage of various sorts, on old age and illness, as does Sandeep Sawant’s Marathi film Shwaas (2004), or deal with pre-Independence India, as do Girish Kasaravalli’s Thayi Saheba (1997) and Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram (2005). It is not that these issues cannot be treated radically, but the films try not to do so as they once did in the 1980s—except in a way that might be approved of by the state and possible sponsors. As an illustration, all stories of illness involve the health care industry and few people who are seriously ill in India can be content with corporate health care, which often treats people based on faulty diagnoses and can be financially ruinous. But films about illness act as though these implications of health care were unimportant and/or not legitimate. Still, Indian cinema cannot be held solely culpable because the world has kept pace—with celebrated films frequently dealing deliberately with apolitical issues like illness and old age ( Amour, 2012), grief and personal loss ( The Tree of Life, 2011) and similar subjects. When the West deals with politics and history, it is usually about matters like Nazi atrocities ( The Pianist, 2002), about which there is as little disagreement as there is in India about the freedom struggle and British rule. The world, it would seem, is artistically less free after it became unipolar.

But the pacification of cinema in the unipolar world has not made it easier for the Indian realist film, which is still stuck in its traditional grammar. As an instance, Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Suthankar’s Astu (2013) is about a former professor of Sanskrit (played by Mohan Agashe) afflicted by Alzheimer’s. A key feature of illness—which an international film like Amour recognises—is the humiliating loss of one’s physical and intellectual powers. Sick people who have once enjoyed authority are now routinely soiling their bedclothes and they have to submit to strangers to be cleaned. Astu is about a learned and respected man but it is as though enfeeblement could not deny him the dignity and respect he is entitled to. The professor is neatly shaved and spotless even after days by the roadside with some travelling entertainers. Since the professor has been typified as scholarly, intellectual and authoritative, he cannot apparently be reduced to a degraded state.

An unprecedented development in Indian cinema is the rise of realism as a commercial option through the independent film. Anuraag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) tries for viscerality but Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2013) and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) were also successful although they were muted in their appeal—something unimaginable a decade ago. These films get their authentic feel by being shot on location in the unglamorous parts of Indian cities and they understand—perhaps from Slumdog Millionaire (2008)—that grimy India is enormously picture-worthy. But when we examine the films, we find that their methods still replicate those of traditional Indian cinema. In Gangs of Wasseypur, for instance, a gangster and his grandson meet (some 50 years apart) the same gun dealer in the same hotel room in Varanasi and the only concession made to temporality is that the gun dealer has some grey hair at his temples at the second meeting. The Lunchbox has a quiet story which might have been told by the French film-maker Patrice Leconte ( Intimate Strangers, 2004) and uses actors who breathe ordinariness, but it is unable to get the narrative to develop and the characters to transform; it is as though its protagonists are stuck in being “what they are” and its open-endedness is merely a strategy to conceal it.

Realism is not mandatory as a form of narration but it is based on the notion of development and transformation as the key—rather than on the meaning of the world as fixed in eternity. It can be argued that in a world as irreversibly transforming as the one we inhabit, realism confers benefits upon film-makers who understand its premises since “realism” means much more than merely being attentive to factual detail.

M.K. Raghavendra is a film scholar who received the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic in 1997. He is the author of Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford, 2009), 50 Indian Film Classics (HarperCollins, 2009), Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film (Oxford, 2011) and Director’s Cut: 50 Major Film-Makers of the Modern Era (HarperCollins, 2013).

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