Cinema pulse

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Outside a theatre showing Mani Ratnam's "Bombay". A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

An interesting and thought-provoking book on seeing India through its cinema.

VAMSEE JULURI is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. He went to the United States after a terribly unhappy attempt at studying engineering. He became passionate about films and rose to his present position by dint of hard work. It is ironic that in his childhood, his parents actively discouraged him from seeing films possibly because of the detrimental effect it might have on his eyesight and the distraction it would be from his studies. His actor-mother Jamuna was a leading star in Tamil, Telugu and, occasionally, Hindi films for over 20 years from the late 1950s.

His parents believed that education came first for their son. His desire to become a writer was encouraged by the distinguished film critic the late Iqbal Masood, whom he met in New Delhi as a 15-year-old when his mother was on the National Film jury. Masood told young Vamsee that in order to become a writer, he would first have to read widely to learn the craft and to know the world. He did just that. In effect, Juluri had his cake and ate it too. He became a film studies expert, anchoring himself in Indian cinema, with an accent on Telugu cinema. His book Bollywood Nation is proof of his passionate interest in the subject.

His area of expertise is, however, a minefield because film studies scholars underpin their understanding of cinema in various ‘isms’ such as structuralism, post-structuralism and hermeneutics. Earlier, film studies experts interpreted their cinematic findings through psychoanalysis and even clinical psychiatry. There are others who use plain sociology as a base or even social anthropology. Each approach cited can lead to a stimulating discussion in the classroom. Cinema along with its language, syntax, grammar, and indeed its raison d’etre, gets lost along the way. Cinema then ceases to be a source of pleasure, instead it turns into a game of intellectual one-upmanship.

Juluri tries to steer clear of all the intellectual gamesmanship that goes on in the media studies departments in the universities of his adopted country, but he cannot avoid it all together; if he did he would lose his job. Academia in the U.S. is guided not only by the talent of the individual scholar but also by his/her ability to shed blood, sweat and tears in great quantities. Any scholar who tries to reveal the mystery and the beauty of cinema to students in an atmosphere of cultural dubiousness can be sacked summarily.

Juluri takes the safer route; he acquaints his students, most of them probably of Indian origin, with his version of India through commercial films in Hindi and Telugu and with comments thrown in on the epics, mainly the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and, of course, Indian politics.

He quotes from Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: “... so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive.” It is a lovely schoolboy thought that may not survive a test of logic. It is true that the Hindi film songs written and composed between 1935 and 1965 did become a unique art form, perhaps the only one in the history of independent India. The songs in contemporary Hindi films are divested of melody and interesting rhythm. They are copied from Western pop music and reflect the aspirations of the information technology generation in India. Whether these tuneless songs will be sung by the masses tomorrow or India will survive in an un-truncated form is a moot point. About the Guha quote, one can say that it is a charming conceit, no more.

Bollywood Nation is divided into four parts, namely, “God”, “Country”, “Home” and “World”. In his introduction, Juluri says, “People around the world are now left with new conditions to live in—cities instead of villages, anonymous communities of strangers instead of extended families, frozen foods (or famine for the other half) instead of local produce, bio-bureaucrats instead of healers, and, most of all, strange new mass-mediated ideas about one’s own self and one’s place in the world. That, in a few lines, is the big picture against which what cinema means to India is best understood. Indian cinema is a story not just about modernity, but postcolonial modernity.” The first part of his statement is valid but when he sets the context in which Indian cinema is to be seen and understood then problems arise.

Cinema for most Western and Indian scholars is an excuse for foisting their not-always-clear ideas about politics, society and philosophy, among other things, on impressionable students and munificent academic bodies. There is a living to be made, and given the context of sinking capitalism and virtual reality, no pun intended, an understandable one. Juluri quotes both from historians and film critics alike. In a country where social justice is an illusion for 80 per cent of the population, Hindu mythology with its plethora of gods takes the place of reality even now.

The author quotes noted film scholar/film-maker Chidananda Dasgupta in the context of Indian cinema: “Previously, the country of the gods had existed only in the mind’s eye... now, suddenly, these imagined scenes were on the screen, as reality.” Another quote from Dasgupta, about an open-air screening of a mythological film in a mofussil setting, reinforces the previous one, “As the screen lit up in the vast night in the open... a primeval dream unfolded before the eyes in which the gods lived... for the devout Hindu, it was almost like the traditional glimpse of God in a dream.”

The reality of everyday India was harsh. Of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India in the 1970s, he says, “Despite electoral and military successes in the years to come, her regime came to be characterised by the early 1970s with a hard cynicism. For the first time, power became a singular pursuit in itself without the broader sort of vision that leaders like Gandhi and Nehru had brought to it.” The historian Sunil Khilnani was more direct when he likened the Congress to an “unaudited company for winning elections”.

Indian politics had/has become terribly corrupt, but films in Hindi and other regional languages could depict only some of its mechanics, that too with unbelievable crudeness. To expect a profound director like the Italian Francesco Rosi to appear over the horizon, in the Indian context, would be foolish. A film-maker or any other artist for that matter arrives only when the sociocultural conditions are right. India is suffering from a huge economic and cultural crisis. There is a mind-boggling amount of money with a microscopic minority who controls 98 per cent of the country’s natural resources as well as the destiny of over a billion poor people. Juluri’s book must, therefore, be placed within the experience of the upwardly mobile, educated Indian middle class: to do otherwise would be unfair to the author.

His take on Rama, the protagonist of the Ramayana, or the moral/ethical ideal for humanity is interesting. “Rama falls from the high affection of his stepmother Kaikeyi for no reason other than her conspiracy with a disgruntled maid. He goes into exile, leaving behind his grieving father, distraught brothers, loyal subjects, and, of course, the throne. In his little hermitage, his idyll is shattered when Sita is abducted. He searches for her like a madman. He does battle many times. Even after he returns, he is bound by his duty to send away his beloved wife” (page 29). What kind of duty is that which forces a king to send away a pregnant wife into exile, and then on her return force her to put her finger in the fire in the presence of “learned”, “realised” ones to prove her innocence? Sita registers her protest by exhorting Mother Earth to swallow her up. Her wish is granted. So much for Maryada Purushottam—Ram!

Juluri quotes Bhikhu Parekh on Mahatma Gandhi thus: “Gandhi saw God as one formless entity (as truth, to be precise) open to comprehension from multiple paths, whether of ‘organised’ faiths or otherwise. Gandhi’s view of God reasserts the primacy of one principle, although allowing for the existence of different approaches to it: Truth has no form. Therefore, everyone will form such an idea or image of Truth as appeals to him, and there will be as many images of Truth as there are men” (page 43). Ramakrishna Paramahansa had said a similar thing earlier, but more simply, Jauto mauth, tauto pauth (There are as many paths [to truth] as there are seekers).

Juluri’s concerns are more about the content in a given film than about the craft. It goes without saying that one complements the other. In this respect he is no different from a lot of his colleagues. His area of interest is the Indian commercial film with its trappings of melodrama and exaggeration. He is, however, willing to seek “truth” or its approximation and even beauty within the limitations imposed by this kind of cinema.

On Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, he observes, “Bombay broke a long-standing taboo in Indian cinema about inter-religion romance between characters, and the subtle power play involved in choosing a Hindu man and a Muslim woman rather than the other way around was analysed closely. On the other hand, other films of the time continued to make moral points about Hindu-Muslim unity rather more plainly.” He then cites an example from Amar Akbar Anthony in which the trio give blood to their mother to save her life. Bombay was, for most part, an engaging film, very prettily shot by Rajiv Menon, with fine performances by Manisha Koirala and Arvind Swamy. A.R. Rehman’s music was melodious.

He is nettled by the following observation made by the retired diplomat and writer Pavan Varma: “Indians are not non-violent per se. The myth of Ahimsa or non-violence, as an intrinsic part of the Indian personality, was sold by Mahatma Gandhi and conveniently bought by the nation.... Indians are capable of a great degree of violence” (page 178). Juluri responds, “Is Ahimsa merely a ‘myth’? Did the Mahatma do nothing more than peddle us towards freedom on the strength of a euphemism? Our limited understanding of non-violence and our seemingly endless litany of examples of real-life violence both would suggest that there is some basis to such a cynical view.” Indians are indeed a very violent people. During Partition of India in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs on the one side and Muslims on the other slaughtered each other. According to British statistics, 1.8 million people died. Three generations were psychologically maimed, unspeakable violence was done to women, there was huge loss of property, and the largest displacement of human population [10 million] in the 20th century history took place.

He makes a nice recovery by saying, “There has simultaneously been a co-option between the global and medieval in India. Recent years have also seen the rise of wealthy and powerful people. They are the sort often highlighted in ‘dowry harassment’ cases, even as they might not hesitate sometimes to abuse the dowry laws if that was more profitable for them.” However, Juluri cannot resist playing on the semantic seesaw, suggesting that the depiction of violence in American films and television is naked, raw and an end in itself, whereas in Indian films it ends in catharsis, and coming close to the Gandhian ideal of non-violence.

This is an interesting, thought-provoking book, though attempts to live up to its subtitle, India through Its Cinema, are not always successful.