IT appears that Hindi films cannot bear too much reality. The heroine is raped but apart from a smudged bindi and a tear in the sleeve of her choli, she appears to be undamaged. Heroes are beaten up with rods, hockey sticks and chains but an insult to their mother or sister brings them back up on their feet never to lose the fight again. Children are separated at birth with nothing more than a fragment of song as their patrimony, yet they find each other amidst the teeming millions of India through absent-mindedly humming at the right moment.
The Hindi film is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Moreover, on no account do lovers kiss on screen, no matter that the throes of passion they are undergoing make them fling each other onto grass and take a cold shower in the rain. It is not the eccentricity of the Censor Board, nor indeed some deep seated Indian sense of values, perhaps not even the sense of the ‘private’ (that so-western idea) that the idea of the kiss conjures up.
The kiss is the only possibility of the real happening on the Hindi screen; hence it has to be banished. Two lips have to meet, and perhaps even two tongues may have to probe. Unlike violence, rape and tears, the kiss, no matter the fact that it may carry no more emotion than a faint apprehension of halitosis, is too fleshly, too upsetting of the convention of the relation between art and reality.
The role that the real, i.e. the relation to a reality external to the economy of the space of the film plays in Hindi film, allows us to raise several kinds of questions: about the impossibility of a standard of realism, truth, as also history. We have to read the narratives produced by Sholay or Love Ke Liye Kucch bhi Karega or indeed, Bhagat Singh, in their own space; there is a need for immanence.
Not so long ago, Rajesh Khanna and Sanjeev Kumar portrayed teenagers in college, notwithstanding their gently swelling profiles. It was all about acting; if teenagers played teenagers then where was the art? While Aamir Khan may subscribe to the Lee Strasburg school and evoke Stanislavsky, Govinda’s method, and popularity, lies in his refusal to get real. And arguably, even the characters played by the iconic Amitabh started to appear more and more real as nature imitated art. As young men on the street swept their hair back with Brylcream, growled, and disowned their illegitimate fathers, we looked from screen to person and person to screen and could not tell which was which.
For an explanation, one could go back to classical Indian aesthetics with the actor as a mirror on which emotions appear and vanish; it was about representation not reality. Or one could look at the history of female impersonation in the modern India stage with the sexually ambiguous figures of Bal Gandharva and Sundari. At the turn of the last century, while women were good for walk-on parts and for playing a pari in a crowd, the real art lay in a man playing a woman. Or one could subscribe to the idea of the actor conveying a mode of actorly being, rather than a sense of being in the world. Looking at Shahrukh Khan (that consummately bad actor, asserting with ironic pride that he has five expressions in his repertoire) one sees a stratified history of Hindi film acting. He is the medium summoning up shades of Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Dilip Kumar, and at his best he is Amitabh. But we have been there. We are among family.
Acting in Mani Rathnam’s film, Dil Se, Shahrukh is a disaster, he evokes for the Hindi film aficionado no sense of the familiar, and he is nothing but a real-seeming character. He does not contribute to the accumulating history of gesture, modulation and walk through which the Hindi film inflects the everyday presentation of self. Except the one classic moment where he dances on a train under the shadow of love with heaven under his feet. A moment that enters the history generated by Hindi cinema.
Unlike the Hindi film, one instance of the realist representation of the dichotomy between character and actor can be found in Shaji Karun’s Vanaprastham. Mohanlal plays a Kathakali performer, not in the prime of physical condition but at the peak of his acting prowess. Suhasini plays a wilful and passionate woman to whom he gives his heart only to discover that she is in love with the character of Arjuna that he plays so artfully, not him. This distinction is fundamental to an Indian aesthetic; Robert de Niro putting on weight to play Jake la Motta does not make sense within this frame. It is about reflecting, not embodying; the actor is a glass on which characters fleetingly appear in their fullness. One is reminded of a quote from another time and place. Laurence Olivier, observing Dustin Hoffman psyching himself up on the sets everyday to play a role in Stanislavski mode, wonders why the American actor can’t get by without all this sturm und drang.
Another way into this problem of perception is through looking at the lives and marriage of two sirens: Marilyn Monroe and our very own Mumtaz (now Mrs Madhvani). Joe di Maggio, one of Marilyn’s many husbands, is said to have remarked that she did not measure up to the oomph she exuded on screen. Many years later, Dennis Rodman made a similar ill-mannered remark about Madonna, reflecting the fundamental collapse between character and actor that characterizes method-acting and its relation to reality. Mumtaz made the transition to Mrs Madhvani less traumatically, as had Saira Banu and, more recently, Mrs Nene. The Hindi film has its world and the other world goes on its own way.
Of course, this evocation of another reality, i.e. the space of the ‘real’ of the Hindi cinema need not necessarily arise from our incomplete modernity, or the absence of an integrating public sphere or civil society. These kinds of arguments would be part of the wail that characterizes the writing of Indian history: we have not had capitalism, revolution, or even Marlon Brando. Realism then would be the space of Ray’s sovereign subjects, to be appreciated by those schooled in the legacy of the Bengal Renaissance and for whom the nouvelle vague is not just vague, but in vogue. Gita Kapur’s acute observation on modernism in Indian art that the ‘modern’ is emblematic in nature provides us with a clue towards understanding ‘reality’ in the same terms. In the Hindi film, reality is a heraldic sign, as can be seen in the different representation of poverty in say, Lawaaris and Pather Panchali; in the former it is the playing at being poor that is of the essence.
One way out of the reality problem has been to celebrate a space of viewing that determines the reality of the Hindi cinema: the slum’s eye view – the space of nature red in tooth and claw. It is Ganashatru vs Company. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all realistic films are alike, but the Other (and we may yet have to find a suitable name for our beloved Hindi genre) is different each in its own way. One piquant instance which brings together the incommensurability of the space of the Hindi film and the space of the desire to be modern is that the first public act of violence by the Naxalites in Calcutta was the attack on a film theatre screening Prem Pujari for its ‘inauthentic’ representation of the Chinese.
If one were being sententious, and perhaps reactive, one could say, that the Hindi film is deliberately modern in that it creates an ‘empty homogeneous time’. The characters live in the time of film, or indeed in the time of the Hindi film, with its own genealogy stretching from Shantaram to Ramgopal Verma, from Harishchandra to Chandu. So we need to theorize the time of the film itself rather than the time in which the film is made. Otherwise, we too easily may read off the nation state, developmental paradigms, Nehruvian socialism and all our pet likes and anathemas into a space that cannot bear our seriousness.
As Althusser said, historians do not have a theory of time; they have a methodology and this generally involves putting all artifacts and ideas back into the linear flow of something called History. So while conservative historians may work on fifty-year periods and the Annales School may work on four hundred year chunks, time itself remains untheorised. While thinking of the problem of the representation of time, a contrast may be made with films like Run Lola Run and Speed which work with a notion of real time: the time of the film is the time of the action.
Within Hindi films there is an articulation of several times, and the time of the real is only one of the many times. The song for instance, is in many instances the hammock in which characters take time off from the hustle and bustle of the film. Editing and the movement of the characters themselves come to be dictated by the rhythms of the music. Characters appear in flashbacks that are never seen again in the film, nor are their existence explained. And references to earlier films, characters, plots, dialogues abound; the attentive can see within every moment of the film a window into another time: Shahrukh’s face as he looks at Kareena Kapoor for the first time in Ashoka takes us back to the grimaces of Shammi looking at Saira in Junglee or Rajesh Khanna telling Sharmila in Amar Prem that he hates tears. Real time is kept at bay.
One telling example is from Naunehaal, made in the 1960s, in which a group of children travel to Delhi to meet their beloved chacha Nehru only to discover that he has died in the meantime. The film then shows documentary footage of Nehru’s funeral to the strains of Mohammad Rafi singing Meri aawaz suno. The problem of the real is handled as simultaneity: meanwhile in the real world… Film time and real time run in parallel; the latter is both subsumed as well as kept at a distance, it is not a supplement.
Therefore, both the project of writing a social history of Hindi film as well as reading history from the Hindi film is a fraught one. One kind of question that can lead us astray is the attempt to locate the audience of the film; who is it made for? At one level this is an impossible task if we are to move beyond prejudiced intuitions or the lie-game of statistics. It can only bring back more familiar, and misleading, questions like ‘is the film the space of the popular imagination?’, or ‘is film nothing more than the product of a mass-culture industry?’ invoking a search for authenticity or alienation, and autonomy or hegemony. And we will be back in the terrain of the commonplace queries of the social theory establishment.
Of course, the Hindi film is not an entirely autonomous space; it is made by directors funded by underworld transnational capital, acted out by stars from certain regions and with histories of drug abuse or the shooting of black buck, and peopled by characters who may represent norms such as the Wife who is supportive of her Husband’s Adultery and the Daughter in Law who wins over her Wicked Mother in Law through Pure Devotion. But there is an economy here that we need to understand on its own terms. Films can survive in public memory on the strength of their dialogues alone, or their music (even a single song), or a single character. And as in the case of Sholay, the dialogues existed independently of the film. A Hindi film is the sum of its parts when it is a hit and when it is not each part stands alone. Here again we need to look at how these various elements are articulated within the economy of the film.
There is a parallel here with the writing of history. Braudel has remarked on how different areas within a region may be incorporated into different times and different geographies within the world economy. So for instance while the port of Calicut in the 16th century may have responded to the financial rhythms of Amsterdam, further inland in Kerala, there would have been the time of earlier indigenous political formations, but both were articulated within the idea of the ‘region’. It is like the audience watching the Kathakali performance at temple festivals in Kerala. The cognoscenti understand the intricate grammar being telegraphed by the hands and the muscle movements of the face. Many come there to hear the drumming and singing. They are all watching the same performance: some incorporated within the historical time of the story, some within the time of the manodharma of the performer and yet others within the metrical cadence of the drum.
As has generally been argued, the Hindi film is not about a plotline and inexorable movement towards a climax alone. As Godard once said, narratives are about a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order. One could go further and say that the Hindi film is like the ‘undivided Hindu family’: dialogues, lyrics, plot, music, acting, all living together separately, as it were. And, while the occasional Devdas may go overboard in a celebration of visual excess, films are not necessarily characterized by a visuality, a brilliance of camera-work or images.
The material basis for this division of labour within which the components are kept firmly apart has sometimes been explained in terms of a pre-capitalist economy and a putting-out system as it were. But if we keep in mind that the time of the film is not linear and not based on a reality outside of it, then it is precisely the concatenation of these various elements which can be seen as constitutive of the Hindi film genre. These features need explanation only if the peculiarity is seen in terms of deviation from a Hollywood norm.
And so, on to Bhagat Singh, or rather the several avatars that beset our screens at one go, with both toy-boy Bobby Deol and brooding action hero Ajay Devgan essaying the nationalist Abhimanyu. These were presented as historical films with members of Bhagat Singh’s family testifying for and against the veracity of details and the research teams of both the films relating the lengths to which they went to ensure accuracy. And as one French wit is supposed to have said, comparing translations to mistresses, the faithful ones were not attractive and vice versa. The Devgan version attempted to stay close to a version of historical reality, and like the other versions bombed at the box office. But here is where we return to the aesthetics of the Hindi film again. The question of fact is not so much related to the question of veridicality or truth but to the issue of memory.
History in the Hindi film is about remembering, a comment on reality, and not about verisimilitude: hence the outstanding success of Mughal-e-Azam, arguably the finest ‘historical’ film made on the Hindi screen. And Akbar became ‘real’ through the overblown portrayal by Prithviraj Kapoor. The Mughal Empire and its vicissitudes were recast within the frame of the Hindi film: in which Dilip Kumar and Madhubala aka Salim and Anarkali lived within the space of a song by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. What was shown was the past as it was to be remembered not the past as it was. Bhagat Singh flirted too much with the historical fact; Gandhi (and in a characteristic move, the actor played Kingsley than Gandhi), Irwin and others came with walk on parts and accents to match. This was a history lesson with songs, not a Hindi film. And it satisfied neither historians, with their affliction of ‘fact’ nor the viewers with their abundance of memories.
Yet, as with the conventions of the Hindi film, there were the distinct spheres. The space of the song belonged to the historical Bhagat Singh and his lyrics including Rang de basanti chola, and Pagdi sambhal jatta, drawing upon the memory of both folklore and the earlier Manoj Kumar version, Shaheed. The dialogues reflected the contemporary rendition of nationalist politics as the great ‘betrayal’ by Gandhi. The plot attempted to present a tragedy of youth plucked in its prime and even included a love angle so that the drama of Bhagat Singh’s virginal death could be heightened. And the trajectory was framed by the question What if? What if Gandhi had negotiated with Irwin for Bhagat Singh’s release? With this we are back in the realm of history leaving behind the space of the Hindi film. And as we know, the Hindi film abhors the kiss and reality as nature abhors a vacuum.