Friday, September 19, 2008


Photo: Courtesy Mahadyuti Adhikary a.k.a. 'Dyuti'.

Issue :

This paper had been presented at the All-India Students' Seminar on 'Gender, Genre, Representation' conducted by Jadavpur University, April 2006.


We bored the Film Studies department to death by seeking repeated permissions to exploit their library resources, text and audiovisual...Debasri and I did most of the writing at the last moment and also happened to be rebuked in a very chilling tone by Prof. Supriya Chaudhuri for being self-centred enough to attend only that post-lunch second half session of the second day of the two-day seminar which included our own paper. Naturally, since we spent the first half in the Reading Room on the ground floor of the Central Library, writing out our final draft for the presentation.

Measure of success :

1) Swapan Da paying enough attention to my reading to point out that next time, a more layman- friendly use of words would help.

2) Supriya Di offering a mini-eulogy and words of encouragement, despite her chastisement.

3) Supriya Di still remembering to hand us our complimentary lunch packets, although we were rude enough to violate standard seminar protocol and arrive breathless, post-lunch (of course, we had had lunch !). Unheard of in JU history. ND's face said it all.

4) SB making a superhuman effort to understand our attempt to disgrace ourselves by diverting our course from 'high literature' to 'low literature'. I frankly, to echo the immortal Rhett Butler, don't give a damn. Analysis is analysis. The common people ( a category which definitely includes me, thank you) also have the right to decide what they want or do not want to think about or watch or feel. I must not forget to thank NG, who inspired me enough to move from what might have been a total disgrace to a tolerable one. From the arena of Mills & Boon novellas to popular media. At least I could sleep well at night, knowing that my paper was original and certainly enjoyed by those who committed the probably unimaginable juvenile offence of watching
'Rang De Basanti', 'Mother India' and 'Ghore Baire'.

Enough said. If you have any interest left, you may proceed to the infamous paper itself.


"Does Bollywood influence society or society influence Bollywood ?"

Posed as the deciding question in the Miss India pageant, 2006 , this reflects the growing relevance of Bollywood and its impact on thee psyche of the average Indian at the moment.
For civil society to operate effectively, information (theoretically at least) has to circulate freely and be equally accessible to all participants. Of course, information has never emerged as value-free or objective in form since it has been created and circulated by interested parties in ways that attempt to persuade as well as elucidate. Located within the contestation inherent in this generation of information is the confluence of audiovisual materials related to live performance, photography, posters and cinema.

The print capitalism that, according to Benedict Anderson, provided access to the same information for any number of readers/consumers, linked many individuals within the same imagined boundaries of the knowable and the known in colonized parts of the world. The resuscitation of oral processes acknowledges their effectiveness in offering occasions for explicitly collective forms of association which leads to social and intellectual empowerment.

The decades around the turn of the century are the moment when a popular commercial art and the mass production of pictures can be said to have emerged. This new pattern of consumption, in turn, contributed in an expanded sense of the public : a public that participated in shaping visual expression both as critics and consumers. As the scale of this new market increased alongside technological advances the interaction between consumer and producer dialogically gave rise to a visual discourse inherently multivocal in its nature. W. J.T. Mitchell in Picture Theory : Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (1994) suggests that currently central to the act of imagining a community is the pictorial image, where spectatorship meets creation in a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institution, discourse and figurality.

Indian cultural denotations of ' Darshan' (processes of knowing that relied on a visual focus for concentration) facilitated the emergence of a nationalist discourse based on the interdependence of the visual and the intellectual. Besides, the expansion of 'Bhakti' (derived from a Sanskrit verb with implications of religious devotion, sharing and participation) conflated the new emphasis on the individual as consumer of religious and nationalist symbols and the larger communities being constituted from collective acts staged by a myriad such individuals. The devolution of patronage from royal courts to new intermediaries/ the middle class and thence to a popular audience, affected the shaping of subject matter and performance aesthetics significantly. The powerful direct gaze of the past has seemingly been replaced by direct financial support via box-office collections and votes cast in 'sms-polls' supposedly determining the winners of certain film-awards ceremonies. However the possibility of an individual as actor whose choices – whose mobilized gaze – profoundly affects the dialogic processes that work to create the 'nation' in specific film genres, remains mostly implausible.

Laura Mulvey, in her essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975 ), speaks of the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured the film-form. Woman stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bounded by a Symbolic order, in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman, still tied to her place as the bearer rather than maker of meaning. A common avenue of escape of the male unconscious from castrating anxiety is to turn the figure of woman into a symbol of reassurance rather than danger. Hence the recurrence of woman as Mother(land) as a trope for the nation ,for instance as Bharatmata and the repeated attempts to write over a 'Real' lack with discourses focalized on the Mother's body. The enforcement and acceptance of such discursive formations of power take recourse to a disciplinary regime of the body. Patricia Uberoi in Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art (1990) argues that the sacred and secular poles appear to be mediated by the patriotic, as in the figure of Mother India. The image of mother that creates the continuum also helped to blur the dichotomy between the public and private spheres, thus enabling some participation, if restricted, of the woman in the nationalist arena. This is clearly a notion problematised by the film Mother India (1957), where the story both ends and starts at the point of the protagonist Radha's emergence into a new (?) sense of identity that transcends that of a mere mother. she represents here the dialectic of tension between the Imaginary Mother who nurtures her children like the arable land representing an agrarian India and the Paternal Mother, a patriarchal construct who can even weed them out to sustain a stable system of authority. An explicit imaging of the village as India gives away the nature of the film's dominant discourse. The shared labour that neutralize any gender-specific role in Radha and Shamu's life is drastically undermined by Shamu's abandonment of his family after the money-lender, Lala, ridicules him for eating off his wife's labour rather than living on charity. The loss of Shamu's arms are a metaphoric reinforcement of castrated power especially in direct contrast to the prolonged shot of the lifting of his bride's veil. The bitterness of Radha's "It's difficult to keep playing a role" is overwhelmed by her own idealistic sententious ness in "Honour is the greatest ornament" or "Radha can only be sold for her children's sake". Any feminist celebration of the utterance " I am a woman first and then a mother", just prior to killing her son Birju, is cancelled out by the overt trajectory 'allowed' to Radha in the film. The alignment of writing-as knowledge-as-power generally with men and ignorance-as–verbal with women serves to recontextualise the need for patriarchy at its best and strictly gender-specific roles in nationalism at its worst.

Identifying Bimala in Ghare Baire (1984) with India/Bengal is an interpretative commonplace, invoking the female figure in nationalist iconography leading up to swadeshi. But as Tanika Sarkar argues, the evaluation of this figure became complicated after the emergence of Gandhian mass movements. Partho Chatterjee in 'Mapping the Nation' considers the desire to fashion a 'modern' but non-Western national culture in its inner spiritual domain ('ghare') an effort to neutralize the careful studying and replication of Western material superiority that took place 'baire'. The tensions between modernizing values associated with the world, the nation, politics and the traditional commitments of women to family, husband and home in Tagore's novel are visually paralleled in Satyajit Ray's film. Despite her momentary embrace of nationalist politics (and in the film, her literal embrace of Sandip), Bimala's freedom is short-lived. Her reversion to the traditional wife's role is brilliantly figured in the final image, when Bimala appears with her hair shorn and attired in the Hindu widow's plain white sari. The ideological programme of the nation is revealed as less revolutionary than restorative, manifested in the dichotomy between Nikhilesh and Sandip as male characters.

Nevertheless, it is possible to overstate the role of woman-as-sign in the process of envisioning the nation. In Indian nationalist films like Rang de Basanti (2006), the visual universe in its entirety is often appropriated by discourse to express a pan-Indian idea of the nation. Cinematography pictures a world public in access, conveying an array of public spaces and monuments linked within a single shared vision that reinforces the notion of unity, of nationalism.

In Rang de Basanti, the seduction of the viewer is achieved through gender-specific codes of ritualized normative masquerades, which do not require explanation or justification and which take the form of specific, culturally coded performative postures or embodied gestures. Mr Mckinley, the sympathetic British officer writes in his diary of having encountered three kinds of men in his life – those who go to their deaths screaming, those who die in silence and those whom he refers to as the third kind. The entire film is a delineation of this third kind of masculinity – men who face death with eyes 'clear, defiant, never wavering', men who think with their hearts rather than their heads.

The valorization of the middle class, active heterosexual male regulates the behaviour of the characters. Space is not allowed to a possible homoerotic relationship between DJ and Sukhi. The DJ-Sue relationship represses and constricts it. Sukhi in an interesting way poses a challenge to 'maleness' and is essential for its construction. He kisses his friends and remains literally 'Sukhi' in the fact of being protected by them. However he is the only one to question the effectiveness and the ethics behind the murdering of the defence minister and the only one sharp enough to see behind the mask of Karan – he feels that the act of vengeance on the minister could be a manifestation of Karan's repressed desire to get even with his own father (whose words arouse almost physical revulsion in Karan and whom he later murders). DJ, over the radio, usurping Karan's voice, glosses over the fact that the possibility of a personal vendetta of the latter overwhelms any disinterested nationalistic involvement, thus belying the possible significance of his name. Aslam, having internalized his family's anxieties as Muslim outsiders, tries to manifest his essential Indian-ness by supporting the mission. The deviant Sukhi is brought within the fold with a slap and an embrace by DJ, whose engagement mirrors the desire of the whole group to master life and stand out in the multitude by gaining social recognition, through their radio confession. The inception of the former idea by Lakshman Pandey reflects his habituation to a political tradition of demanding attention for all (mis)deeds done. Starting as the follower 'Lakshman', his national identity is essentially a Hindu one. However, he gradually renounces the Hindu colouring in favour of a more comprehensive one.

Rang de Basanti is historically specific. As Hindu fundamentalist forces occupy a major place in discourses of liberal Hinduism in India, an anti-colonial bourgeois nationalist project is redefined within the parameters of the state and the secular subject reconstituted differently. The question of national integration becomes central in a different register, here the MIG air crashes. The West, demonized as the other, is offered respite in the figures of the sympathetic Mr Mckinley and his grand-daughter Sue who holds the threads of the narrative together, yet remains an outsider, both as woman and as white. The de-stereotyping of the West, however, must be juxtaposed against the othering imposed on the Indian state apparatus.
The film shows a striking valorization of male comradeship leaving little space for any enriching heterosexual bonding. Bhagat Singh prioritises the exterior over the interior, asserting 'Mere dulhan to azaadi hei', thus positing as almost irrelevant domestic responsibilities. The feminine characters accept as natural the prioritization of social recognition by men, even encouraging it. The woman's desire to complete the other leads to her own celebration of her sacrifices in the private sphere as exemplified by Mrs Rathod. DJ's mother asserts : 'Qurbani to khoon mei hei hamari', thereby sustaining the Sikh militant tradition.

Masculinity gains its symbolic force from a series of hierarchical relations to what it can subordinate - power over other men, women, own bodies, machines and technology. Technology, for instance guns, helps to complement the lack in the self, whose external manifestations as violence may be said to be an outlet for repressed sexual desires, as exemplified in the enforced celibacy of Bhagat Singh et al. The Gandhian tradition of passive protest is revived in the symbolic commemoration of Flight lieutenant Ajay Rathod's death only to be presented in favour of the extremist militant tradition.

In spite of Sonia inviting possible mutilation of the body by participation in the peace march which turns violent and in spite of her being the primary mover behind the concept of killing the enemy (both in the inset and in the immediate film), she is deprived of any substantial share in the carrying out of the outrage. Sonia, a secularized version of Durga Bhabhi, raises a sawalon ki ungli but is denied a role in the jawabon ki mutthi referred to in the song ' Khoon Chala'. Along with Sue, she remains a passive survivor who lives to tell the tale. The inset film is the combined version of Sue and Sonia, yet in its realization, the men are foregrounded. Sue literally and figuratively takes a backseat. The repeated framing of her at subliminal points is significant in that it is a position she sustains for the rest of the film. However she is the one who nurtures the revolutionary potential of the generation who awakens and this is explicitly figured in the scene where she mothers DJ. In a marked aberration from convention, the male body instead of the female becomes an object of display – well-toned male bodies reach for an areoplane overhead in the promotional clippings, as if in celebration of male aspiration and beauty.

In the TV show, 'Just Pooja', the director, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, speaks of his desire to raise questions rather than provide answers. Appropriately the film text of Rang de Basanti itself hints at the aporia in the discourse.

Catherine Belsey's essay 'Constructing the Subject, Deconstructing the Text' points to the arts as an ally of the educational Ideological State Apparatus that help to represent and reproduce the myths and beliefs necessary to enable people to work within the existing social formation. Again, Lacan's reading of the decentring of the individual consciousness axiomatises the production of meaning in the post-Saussurean linguistic scenario by the individual only by adopting the position of the subject within language. The Imaginary Order posits identity, subjectivity, thus as a matrix of subject positions that may be inconsistent or even in contradiction with one another. Classic realism/naturalism is characterized by 'illusionism', narrative which leads to 'closure' and a hierarchy of discourses. All these collectively offer the reader a position of knowingness which is also one of insidious identification with the narrative voice. To the extent that the story of the film first constructs and then depends for intelligibility on conventions shared by director and reader, it confirms both the transcendent knowingness of reader-as-subject and the 'obviousness' of the shared truths in question. Useful critical modes like deconstruction challenge these concepts and question the particular complex of imaginary relations between individuals and the real conditions of their existence which helps to reproduce the present relations of class, race and gender. The need to transcend genre-based monolithic discourses in Bollywood and bridge the gap between mainstream/popular and critically acclaimed/elite cinema is evidently imperative for polyvalency to be realized.

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