Images of Hindi cinema

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film by Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; pages 240, Rs.650.

IS it not the law of the market that when demand outstrips supply, supply, in turn, grows exponentially until it satisfies demand?

Suddenly, it appears, the Hindi film industry is in great demand in the United Kingdom. People there, we are told, are lapping up the stuff. A couple of years ago, Filmfare organised its popular awards function in London; in 2002, a leading store celebrated Hindi cinema and various events got organised around this; and in the last few years films like Lagaan have run to packed houses in mainstream halls in England. Indian film producers are delighted. Exchange rates between the rupee and the pound sterling being what they are, even small exports reap large returns. Producers therefore find that today it is possible to earn profits even if a film does not do well in the Indian market, so long as it does reasonably well in the overseas market.

If the demand for the films themselves has grown, so has the demand for literature that explains this cinema. After all, what the viewers in India take for granted may appear strange and quaint to those who are not trained in reading these cultural texts. Song and dance is, of course, the obvious example. But there are all kinds of other codes, conventions, stereotypes and so on that can seem strange to the uninitiated. For instance, while there are films all over the world that have the lost-and-found theme (siblings separated at or soon after birth), to my mind only Hindi cinema has turned the theme into a formula. As a result, the plot of a Manmohan Desai film may take all kinds of absolutely incredible twists and turns first to separate the siblings and then, in the end, to unite them, but Indian audiences will watch all that with complete equanimity, and even delight in what would appear to others as absurdities. Or consider the films that get categorised as the `Muslim social'. Today, of course, this category has disappeared totally, but even when it existed in Hindi cinema, it depicted a world that was pure fantasy: those poet-heroes, nawabs, burqa-clad heroines, courtesans, havelis and streets never existed in quite that way in real life. The `Muslim social' gestured towards a culture that developed among the ruling elites of 18th and 19th century Awadh. It transported that culture to the mid-20th century and then reimagined it in fantastic ways so that the filmic culture had nothing to do with the culture the film was supposed to mimic.

This process has peculiarly dialectical results. On the one hand, people who are familiar with the original take the film representation for what it is, a more or less fantastic take-off on reality. For example, I doubt if any resident of Lucknow in the 1960s ever considered Mere Mehboob an accurate representation of his or her city and its culture. On the other hand, however, for vast numbers of viewers across India, films like this helped form their notion of what Lucknow, Muslims and poets were like. I am always struck by the fact that though I am fully aware that a courtroom never looks anything like what I have become accustomed to seeing in Hindi films, my mental image of a courtroom is still very much conditioned by those innumerable scenes I have watched in Hindi films.

IN other words, Hindi cinema has its own unique visual culture that takes off from reality but also helps shape our notions of reality. The filmmaker Yash Chopra has a lovely name for this: `glamorous realism'. The book under review, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film, seeks to explore and analyse this visual culture and make it intelligible to a readership that may not be very familiar with it. One of the two authors of the book, Divia Patel, curated the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition of Hindi film posters and other publicity material in London in 2002. The present book is clearly a result of that work. The other author is Rachel Dwyer, a scholar of Hindi cinema who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The authors jointly write the first chapter, which is an excellent survey of the history of Hindi cinema and the development of its various elements. The next chapter, by Rachel Dwyer, is an exploration of two aspects of mise-en-scene, the setting and the costume. She looks at locations (the city, the village and so on), sets and spaces where the main action takes place (nightclub, kotha, log cabin, staircase, domestic and religious spaces, courtroom and so on), dream sequences, clothing (the sari - wet and otherwise - the swimsuit, designer sportswear and so on), and fashion, and outlines, in broad strokes, the changes these have seen over time. Rachel Dwyer's overview itself is useful and charts out a hitherto unmapped territory. She admits that "the audience is not so naive that it fails to notice" that "the settings shown in Hindi films are not necessarily presented in a realistic way", but concludes: "The films' appearance arises from the function of melodrama, which makes settings show inner feelings and emotions and which places characters socially and hierarchically." This conclusion is unnecessarily narrow, since it does not recognise Hindi cinema as a site that projects fantasies of consumption by a very small class. Indeed, Rachel Dwyer herself, in her analysis of Dil to Pagal Hai, comments: "The setting allows the audience to enter into a lifestyle of the super-rich and enjoy vicariously the pleasures of conspicuous consumption."

The following chapter is a delightful survey of the art of advertising by Divia Patel. From the earliest handbills and booklets, to lobby cards and posters, to hoardings, to recent websites of individual films, Divia Patel looks at (and reproduces for us to look at) the publicity material produced by the film industry. The chapter is also a tribute to those masters whose art is unfortunately underestimated - the creators of the visual images that lure people into paying money to watch a film. Men such as Baburao Painter, S.M. Pandit, D.G. Pradhan, M.R. Acharekar, J. Mistry, Diwakar Karkare, and others brought to the art of film advertising tremendous skill and imagination. Divia Patel discusses the influence of Raja Ravi Varma, as also that of the art school, on film publicity material. In the following chapter, she looks at how these images have helped the construction of star images and defined male and female sexuality on screen. She also looks at the work of some artists who have commented or drawn upon the visual culture of Hindi cinema in their work.

In the context of the criticism levelled at Hindi cinema that it objectifies the female body, Divia Patel argues: "The images of Ravi Verma ... emphasised the physicality of the female form... The mass production of his work led to distortions of his original paintings and resulted in a vulgarity defined by an excess of colour, a flattening of depth and crudely suggestive female figures,... and a strategic emphasis on swelling breasts and hips beneath layers of drapery... A consequence of the realism of these images and their proliferation through mass reproduction has been their increased accessibility to the male gaze that implies a sense of possession of the subject. It is because of this that sexual objectification becomes the defining characteristic within these images."

Frankly, analyses like this leave me mystified. Reading this, one would imagine that the sexual objectification of the female body in the visual culture of Hindi cinema is the result of some more or less impersonal impulse that follows from the adoption of certain art styles and so on, rather than the result of a deliberate construction of the female body as a sexual object in order to sell a mass cultural commodity. This unwillingness to call a spade a spade mars what is otherwise a useful foray into a hitherto neglected area.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director and playwright with Jana Natya Manch. He works as editor in LeftWord Books, New Delhi. He also teaches part time at the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Milia Islamia.

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