THE lasting and fundamentally Bohemian imagination of the artist as pauperised, angst-ridden and intoxicated is a familiar one that validates the notion that there must be a radical separation between art and money, the artist and the worldly, the visionary and the quotidian. The seeds of this kitschy, contemporised version of the artist as willingly marginal and hence avant-garde lie equally in the Homeric tradition of the wandering minstrel, the medieval vagabond bard, the renaissance itinerant songwriter, the fakir, the sacrilegiously heterodoxical wandering Bauls, among others.
Of course, this relative poverty was implicitly understood to be an active choice, be that a rejection of or indifference to the world, its material temptations and the corresponding depravity and corruption that these brought with them. It was accepted that artistic and spiritual gratification would trump material gain every time, and without question. But more importantly, it was understood that it was only through such an active and self-conscious separation that the visionary became possible.
Interestingly enough, at the same time, there were established and sturdy traditions of patronage, which simultaneously enabled and circumscribed artistic and intellectual production. Not all artists were as fortunate as Picasso was with his patron. Usually patronage left the artist or intellectual in the unenviable position of having to negotiate the contradictory demands of re-visioning the order of things while eating the fruits of that very order, as we see in the case of Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Ghalib, Ravi Varma, and so on. Goya, despite being a court-commissioned artist, was sharply critical of the establishment. This was accepted as necessary to his vocation: the artist was a truth-teller. On the other hand, the perceived efforts of artists like John Dryden and T.S. Eliot or more recently Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk to seek and gain favour with the political establishment—to lesser or greater degrees—have been regarded with some disdain and mistrust.
So it is not poverty, but the rejection of wealth and the worldly in favour of what Walter Benjamin has called the “secular cult of beauty” that has been a key definer of the truly artistic temperament. That is an important and interesting distinction, the implications of which are worthy of immediate attention since there is another less realised way in which art and the worldly come together. When Virginia Woolf spoke passionately to Cambridge women about the need for a room of one’s own, she was talking about the importance of financial means for creative and intellectual freedom. While Virginia Woolf was thinking about women, Mahashweta Devi writes about the tribal people and Dalits, and Varavara Rao speaks about the labouring poor.
Here, poverty is not a choice nor is it artistically motivating; it is a material imposition that most often serves to exclude the poor from the field of artistic production or, as our weavers and handicrafts people know, from recognition. In all these instances, the ways in which the fields of cultural production overlap with the fields of power and money are unmistakable.
In a recent interview to The Hindu , Kalpana Lajmi gestured in this direction when she said that she had been uncompromising about her art, that she preferred not to work than make a film she did not want to. I was not particularly surprised to read that since she expressed similar views when I interviewed her for my book several years ago. At that time Lajmi, like the late Renu Saluja, also remarked on how difficult it was for women to get work or money (the confidence of financier-producers) per se , but more so if it was for an offbeat film.
In The Hindu interview, she goes on to remark on how contemporary cinema steers away from rural India. She anticipates emptiness and stagnation as the result; “It is not even escapism, it’s something worse”. Though she did not say it in so many words, she gestured towards the implicit link between location, orientation, ideology, idiom and money. All of these continue to be seen as being in some way definitive of artistry. To put the question explicitly, what is the relation between money, location, ideology and cinematic practices? Or, what are the possible idiomatic implications of the political economy of Bombay cinema at this historical moment?
In the first place, cinema has for the moment been steered quite decisively toward metropolitan India (notwithstanding the continued robustness of the ‘B’ and ‘C’ territories). Rather than any lament, we hear much about an ostensible creative shot in the arm cinema has received courtesy a new generation of young metropolitan film-makers who are in turn indebted to the financial giants who have waded in to monopolise the entertainment industry of India. There are two points of immediate interest here. The first of these pertains to the nature of the financial and structural changes and the second to the ideological and idiomatic implications of these.
Change in structure As far as the first set of issues go, 1998 saw a major shift in state policy towards the film industry under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) kept its election promise to the film industry and bestowed “corporate status” on it. It gradually became clear that this meant significant changes in structure, organisation, business models, production protocols and technology.
These included a shift in business models, which resulted in the clubbing together of film, radio, television and music into the Indian Entertainment Industry (IEI). The IEI is now steered by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which is restructuring film and other allied entertainment industries separately and in relation to each other.
The new players in film production and distribution are large industrial houses, and corporate giants like Reliance MediaWorks Ltd, UTV, Studio 18, Fox Searchlight, Reliance Big Pictures, Viacom and Sony, all of whom have moved into all the key film-making sectors. Adlabs Films USA, a subsidiary of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Big Pictures, has entered into a partnership with ImaginAsian Entertainment Inc., to promote South Asian cinema using the 240-screen cinema chain that Adlabs Reliance MediaWorks Ltd already owns across the United States. Reliance ADAG, in partnership with Spielberg, among others, is aiming to become one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates.
All these corporations are globally integrated, and all of them are focussed on vertical integration (for example, advertising, film and music), which enables them to scale up and out easily, absorb risks and increase their margins. Surrogate advertising, which was getting established by 1999 in Indian film-making when Subhash Ghai made Taal , is now the norm. Although Taal did not do very well at the box office, because its production costs had already been covered by Coke and Pepsi’s surrogate advertising, the earnings from its overseas distribution became its profits.
In fact, Bombay cinema was flooded by surrogate advertisements of intoxicants, until the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued show-cause notices on these. While surrogate advertising remains a crucial revenue source, advertisements have to be cleared by the Central Board for Film Certification first.
Increasingly, the box office is an incidental avenue for revenue recovery as investment risks are absorbed even before the film is released. The music sector alone, which sometimes generates close to 30 per cent of the cost of production, is now so profitable that it is being considered a distribution sector in itself. The actual physical convergence of consumer devices such as telephones and computers multiplies the possibilities of this and of profitability exponentially.
While apologists for corporatisation argue that it will clean up film-making and restore accountability, critics feel that this is not necessarily the case, and that the sector’s cottage industry format was what sustained Bombay cinema nationally and internationally. Furthermore, the cinematic idiom itself was locked in with the organisation of the industry.
In 2000, when corporatisation of the film industry had just begun, Girish Karnad said that the uniqueness of the “Indian” cinematic idiom had been in the ways in which narrative modes had to be worked through music and therefore dance. He went on to counsel against adopting the song-less, neo-realistic “Western” style that had been popularised by Satyajit Ray and by himself, if Indian cinema is to survive the onslaught of globalised corporate interests.
Shekhar Kapur shared these anxieties about the effects of corporatisation on film-making. In the first place, negotiating huge corporate bureaucracies was exhausting and secondly, the structural models it proposed inevitably resulted in the loss of individuality and, of cultural and idiomatic distinctiveness. The current inordinate emphasis on the economics of any venture tends, as he put it, “to cost a film its soul, the idea that is at the heart of it”.
Money and industrial art Kapur’s discomfort with the emphasis on money in film-making today is shared by others, and returns us to the fraught relationship between money and art. But what must one bear in mind specifically when negotiating the relationship between money and an industrial art form like cinema? In the first place, notwithstanding the cost-ameliorating effects of digitisation, film-making remains forbiddingly expensive, labour-intensive and market-dependent. The National Film Development Corporation figured this out early on but did not act effectively enough. While it gave (impractically small) grants, it did not bother to market the films it gave grants for, large numbers of which lay canned and slowly got destroyed. And films, unlike poems, rued J.P. Dutta when recalling films he did not manage to get financed, are made to be viewed by audiences; they are not for private consumption. Visibility, then, is of the essence to this medium, as the Ship of Theseus saga illustrates. So, the camera, with its voyeurism, and approximation of and indeed need to surpass the human eye, actually seeks to make us see. Way back in 1913, D.W. Griffith reportedly said, “The task I’m trying to achieve is above all to make you see.” By this he was actually referring to the function of art itself, as was Joseph Conrad when he wrote in the preface to The Nigger of Narcissus : “My task … is before all, to make you see.” Visibility then, is both a literalism and a trope when it comes to cinema. It may have been reduced to a literalism over time.
The many “Griffiths” who have understood vision and visibility as inextricably linked in art identify challenges that are specific and peculiar to this medium. Who will film the soul if no one agrees to market it? Award-winning director B. Narsingh Rao used his own money when financiers turned him down, but said that he was fortunate enough to have money. Now more than ever before, film financiers look at the financial viability of a project. During the days of the studio system, the economic eye was much kinder to art and artists, and the reign of the politically backed underworld in cinema that followed it unexpectedly retained some of that kindness out of sheer indifference to the product itself, provided it laundered money or supported a favourite.
But this does not account for that additional issue that Shekhar Kapur raised—the loss of soul. Now film-making is no longer about a film. It is about TV, mall footfalls, overpriced food and tickets and urban eyeballs. But what is the film going to be about? Even if a film that is paid for by Adlabs is about corporate greed and corruption, does that make a dent in the structural and infrastructural organisation of things? The question that was raised by industry in relation to the state at the time that privatisation of media was being lobbied for now returns to the private owners of the mass media: are the media not being used to promote their specific class and ideological interests? The mass media and cinema in particular have always been viewed with considerable suspicion by the men with the clout and money, and have always been targeted for content control. If the Indian state was embarrassed about caste, and ordered Shyam Benegal to preface and end his 1975 film on feudalism, Nishant , with a disclaimer that caste did not exist anymore, before screening it abroad, the corporatised media appears to have done one better. It has gotten rid of these problem segments not just from the screen but from the cinema halls as well.
After all, the multiplex phenomenon that now accounts for two-thirds of the ticket revenue was initially promoted as a development that would promote diversity on screen. We would get to see the cinemas of the country and the world. What has happened instead is that rurality has gotten wiped off the face of a cinema that is now stridently obsessed by the narcissistic self-presentation of the deracinated, urban, public-school-educated, upper-caste, upwardly mobile, Hinglish-speaking yuppie. But even worse, the multiplex is now filled with this group, to the exclusion of the very people who built that multiplex. The irony of that kind of blindness, of that extent of invisibilisation in a medium whose central trope is visibility, is intense.
Of course, there is no sign that reads, “dogs and poor not allowed” (although Gurgaon is getting there), but most multiplexes are located in plush, up-market malls, in which the place for the poor is to serve the rich.
Nishkanth Kamath addressed it in Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), through Irrfan Khan’s character Thomas, who is humiliated and thrown out of a mall simply because he is evidently lower middle class. This film, and film per se , reminds us of how old and troubling questions that pertain to the relationship between cinema and life, the camera and the world, representation and reality, political privilege and representational space have been complicated even more by money and technology. It returns us again to the problematic of how to preserve the function of art, irrespective of changing and aggressively predatory business models.
The question is not just about what the idiomatic future of this increasingly expensive, market-based art form will be, and whether it will uphold and validate fundamental tenets of art. It is as much about the “hows”. How does one sell the soul at an auction? How do we visibilise it and how do we keep the inner eye fixed on the delicate complexities of beauty and truth through the glitzy hubbub of figures, graphs and pie charts? How will cinema keep its feet on the ground? Or will it lose its way in the plush corridors of power and crass consumerism? If it does, it will no longer be art, a status it had fought for and earned through the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Ritwik Ghatak, Ray, the Makhmalbafs, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Charlie Chaplin. It will simply be mediocre entertainment.
Karen Gabriel is Associate Professor, Department of English, and Director, Centre for the Study of Gender, Culture and Social Processes, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. Her book Melodrama and the Nation: Sexual Economies of Bombay Cinema 1970-2000 was published by Women Unlimited in 2010.