Habermasian Public Sphere and Cinema

For Sanil

23rd November 2012


Looking for Habermas in Cinema as Popular Entertainment – Cinema as Public Sphere with special reference to India

Susmita Dasgupta

(references to be inserted)



The idea of public sphere as constituent of the modern society and its politics, as a condition for the emergence of a Constitution based State and eventually for democracy and of the modern welfare State was extensively explored by Jurgen Habermas[1].  The importance of Habermas’s treatise on the public sphere emanates from the extensions of concepts of the various spheres of human activity namely the State, politics, family and economy which intersect one another in the public sphere generating ideas and public opinion relating to the mutuality of the above mentioned spheres. The way these various spheres of social life reinforce or repel one another has important consequences for the modern State and a functioning democracy. The present paper explores the various ideas that Habermas explores in his conceptualization of the public sphere in the context of the Indian popular cinema.

India is the world’s largest film producing nation[2] and its cinema especially Bollywood[3] now underlies the parameters of the global visual culture; it will not be wrong to say that much of the credit for sustaining India as the world’s largest democracy[4] goes to its popular cinema which has produced a cultural and a moral density for people to develop a shared culture and universal norms and a sense of a larger society, if not a nation. It is the contention of this paper that the cinema in India is the public sphere and the interesting manifestations of the cinema have important implications for the shared norms of the Indian society.


What is the Public Sphere?

The public sphere is really not a concrete space but a set of discussions, discourses and reasoned debates around issues in a manner that they are circulated into a circle of people who then emerge as opinion makers. The aim of such public opinion is to contain the absolute power of the sovereign and direct the same towards the fulfilment of interests of the society that constituted what Habermas describes as the private sphere, namely the economy and the family[5]. The public sphere which is actually a set of conversations, discussions, debates, petitions and prayers around and to the State presupposes and inheres the civil society, a term which he borrows from Hegel. For Hegel, the civil society is a set of relationship which accrues among individuals who look beyond their selfish interests and their position of merely being in the society towards becoming people who speak for the society as a whole. For Hegel, the civil society is rooted in the person’s idea of an ideal State and a space where “ideas” towards the Ideal are formed through discussions.[6]

But Habermas adds a few more attributes to this civil society by asking who exactly are its members and how does a civil society come into existence? He finds that such societies come into being through the meeting of educated and literate minds reading literature and engaging themselves in fruitful discussions of artistic products. The people who can access the products of culture are people with money because they are lettered and well-read but also because of their meeting spaces which are at coffee houses, salons and in reading rooms in England, France and Germany respectively. In fact, among the above three, coffee houses of England seems to be the most accessible to the “public”, people at large while salons and reading rooms are often extensions of private homes of the well to do. However, the people who participate are not always the ones people always knew and while property and education were uncompromised qualifications for its members, being a familiar face from the established families was not. Clearly, these spaces of literary circles reflected the emergent bourgeois class, a class in the sense that they defined themselves with respect to property and education, both of which under the circumstances of an emerging capitalist order could be achieved and not inherited instead of being identified with respect to communities, language, sectarian order or positions held in government. Such literary circles were later to emerge, along with the development of the printing press and journals into political spheres via the route of public opinion.[7]

A worthy observation may be made between civil society groups and the public sphere. The groups raise and discuss issues which subsequently inheres the public sphere. Transformations in the composition of the civil society itself change the contents and the structure of the public sphere. It is contention of this paper to suggest that with the emergence of the cinema public spheres appear to have changed all across the board because of deep changes in the nature of civil society and associative patterns of the human beings.

In India royal courts, village panchayats, Hari Sabhas, Vaishnav Akhras, temple trusts and other similar spaces of interaction were public spheres. After the emergence of the printing press, the rise of the novels and the publishing industry, the public space dissolved and inhered in small discussion groups and circles. During the Freedom Movement, public sphere actually rises in its true form. There are groups of ideologically motivated friends, there are women’s social service groups, religious associations like the Brahmo Samaj and the Ramkrishna Mission, there are political parties contending the monopoly of the Indian National Congress and there are various watchdog groups like the Anushilan Samity and other youth organizations that sometimes take active part in communal clashes but equally help in relief camps. Whether the Harisabhas of medieval India or the Anushilan Samity of modern times, these groups, much like their European counterparts in the coffee houses discussed and debated ideas of society, its rules, laws of events. The main points of differences between the European civil society organizations is that while Europe discoursed much regarding the nature of the modern state, discourses in India pertained more towards the ideal society which sometimes contained the requirements of the king is upholding dharma, or what is the same thing the ideal way of being for the society. The role of the cinema must be looked at from these perspectives.




Cinema as Public Sphere:

The cinema is a unique innovation of our times; it is a combination of every form of art which has ever existed for mankind, namely painting, music, art, dance, pottery, crafts, architecture, dress designing, ornament designing, make up and others. All of these are rolled under technology to produce something that presupposes universal appeal cutting across class, culture, creed and community. The universal appeal and the universal circulation of the cinema largely derive from its economics; it is expensive to produce cinema and until and unless it can access a large market, it cannot sustain economically until and unless it collects revenues from large volumes of sale of tickets. Economics and the technology of the large screen and it being an audio visual medium make cinema itself a public space. Discourses and debates in the cinema appear to have had a circulation among the cine going public and cinema has been able to create its own public which becomes active in the public space.

Just as the public sphere has its coffee houses and salons, cinema has its journals, film clubs, fan clubs, film parties, gossip magazines, star interviews and memorabilia all discussing about how some films are good and some could have done better and some are avoidable. What underlie these discussions are sets of normative propositions about what an ideal film should be and how it should appeal to its viewers as universal truth. Film stars who try to experiment with different kinds of roles which challenge their established image among their fans are usually constrained because of such normative hold of cinema over its viewers.

The way in which cinema visually overpowers its viewers, towers over them and grasps all their attention by its projection on a large screen accompanied by loud sound and music in a darkened theatre, absorbs the viewer within its frames. Cinema interestingly loses its frames once the viewer encounters it and the latter makes it a continuation of her life and her journey. The public sphere which the cinema creates interestingly is not one of debates and discourses over ideology though ideology is very systematically the objective of its narratives, but rather styles, attitudes, values and other such attributes which help the individual attain a semblance of respectability as a social being in the public sphere. The crucial factor of cinema being the public sphere rather than as something that invokes the public sphere emanates from its characteristic of losing its frames.

When the cinema loses its frames to its people, it becomes a life to be led by the people as characters and participants in that life. Identification happens with cinema as it happens nowhere else. The risk that cinema carries with it is not that it would influence politics and business but that it might itself emerge as politics and business. Narratives and stock characters help people assume their most advantageous positions as players in their real life, take up apt performative stances. The politics of cinema lies just here; it neither challenges the State nor the society but purports to become a self-contained society in itself. The factors through which cinema acquires this attribute is contained in its very technology.

The cinema presents to us a moving image, a moving image in the scale in which it comes to be exhibited to us becomes the defining pace of our world. The cinema provides us the pace of our times; we tend to adjust our step with the pace in films. The visual culture tends to be dictated by cinema, television serials tend to have similar scale of sets in them and commensurate levels of gloss; the advertisements have similar faces, with similar expressions as characters in our films, our drama tends to be set to the pitch of cinematic drama as so on. Cinema, in a way sets the pace of our societies. This it does by its framelessness, its scale of display and the range of its dimensions.

Scholars have often said that the cinema represents the modern day myths. The crucial difference between cinema and myths is that myths are supposed to be cosmic truths and hence fixed in time. The viewers are fully aware of cinema’s fleeting temporality and regard it as the defining truth of the moment. Myths are truths while cinema should be true. Viewers want cinema to be true while they know that they believe myths to be true. Despite the timelessness of myths and the temporality of cinema, the myth like quality of cinema derives once again from its universality. Cinema assumes that it speaks about everyone though not everyone accepts a film. There are many who have not liked Mughal-E-Azam, or Sholay or even Sound of Music but this does not alter cinema’s intention. Cinema intends to appeal to everyone just like myth does.

In its universality and temporality while defining how the world ideally should like at the present moment in the viewers’ life the cinema emerges as the public sphere. Just as the Habermasian public sphere decides what the values should be for the present moment, what kinds of ideals the society should pursue at the defined moment of time the cinema too defines the stance that an individual must adopt towards her world so as to be best fulfilled in her life’s objectives. In the way the cinema assumes morphology like the Habermasian public sphere, it contends politics; but where the cinema becomes anti politics is in the way it renounces any ambition of becoming the State and instead focusses on the individual. The individual addressed in the cinema is a universal individual who is supposed to relate to cinema irrespective of her class, caste, creed and community and in this abstractedness of her being constructed; she is also supposed to become apolitical. In the universalization of the viewer lies her de-politicization.


Political Sphere and Cinema:

Despite the fact that cinema raises political questions, questions political morality and ethics of public life, the cinema is not political precisely because it isolates the viewer from her moorings and absorbs her as a viewer of itself. Yet, interestingly because the viewer is absorbed by the cinema into its frames, the viewer ceases to be merely private and emerges as a social and a public being. The public being of the viewer is not with respect to her real existence but in a virtual existence in which she lives her life as a character in cinema and relates to the cinematic world where she is thoroughly ensconced not in a cocooned space but in active relationships to other virtual characters. This life is virtual and hence non participative in the earthly realm; but it acquires every attribute of a perfectly participative person. This is the greatest contribution of cinema in the de-politicization of its viewers.

In the Habermasian text, the 18th and the 19th century were watershed centuries when the public sphere was formed; the main reason for the public sphere to exist was to negotiate with the monarchical powers, greater autonomy for the emergent bourgeoise class. The bourgeoise class, a section of individuals with capabilities of earning incomes as entrepreneurs, producing goods and commodities by the use of machines and energy a la Kantian lemma of objectifying imagination, now demanded equal political power/patronage to consolidate their economic powers. While the Hegelian idea of the civil society helps the bourgeoise attain a space from which he negotiates with the State, Habermas’s public space is extended to include many values and ideas which the bourgeoise regards as the ideal but knows them to be contrary in the real world. Thus Hegelian aesthetics is contained in his civil society and eventually in the reason of the modern State, Habermas’s aesthetics is under cloud in the real world but surfaces in the novels of the times being read in the confines of homes and among like-minded friends. Reading clubs, book clubs, salons and coffee houses and then the changes in the lay outs of private homes with the emergence of the drawing room in English houses points out to a public sphere which is separated out from the political sphere quite unlike the Hegelian idea of the civil society in which the two are collapsed.  Habermas says that the family becomes the ground in which the fine sentiments of a cultured humanity are played out knowing fully well the market sphere was underscored by greed and other sentiments those are far from being fine or humanitarian or both.[8]

When we look at the Indian scenario, we observe a sudden change in the architecture; it is not so much that homes have changed, but certain kinds of homes are now in the forefront. These are the homes of the rich and upper class individuals who have courtyards at the centre with balconies framing rooms all around the courtyard. This is a sea change from homes that were designed like forts as among the officers and nobility of the Mughal era. Satyajit Ray’s films Charulata and Shatranj ke Khilari show the contrasts in architecture very well. While in Charulata we see a Habermasian public sphere which develops inside the home’s demarcated public area where Charu’s husband discourses with fellow intellectuals about the novels, poetry, and religious texts, in the latter film, we observe two men, placed in the middle of the public sphere of the nobility as upholders of State power sink into the privacy of their own world defined by the game of chess.  The chess board becomes the world and an excuse for the players to withdraw from the world.

The 19th century India was a world where the emerging public sphere as in the Brahmo Samaj or other such associations devoted to social reform and modernity negotiated with the political powers in order to seek support for the State in reforming the society. The exercise of power of such public spheres was over an obscurantist society that seemed to lose its refinement by the day. The Ramkrishna Mission established in the penultimate years of the 19th century actively distanced itself from any political engagement; instead drew upon the rich patrons like the princely states especially Rajasthan to fund its social activities like education, famine relief, education for the girl child, development of professional skills and so on. Therefore, the public sphere in India seems to be placed squarely inside the social sphere, addressing issues of the private life. In a way, the public sphere in India raised the private affairs into public debate. The public sphere during this time dwelled in the reproductive economy of the society.

The novels which were written during this time, especially Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay were in total opposition to the values of the Brahmo Samaj; bravado instead of refinement, aggression, revenge, political rebellion against the Mughal powers constituted the major themes of his themes. In the later novels like Bishbriksha, Rajani and Indira, Bankim writes about powerful individuals who are more in the spirit of the Brahmo Samaj. Bankim graduates from political assertion to social reform. What one intends to bring out is that the novel was born in India in a different context than in Europe though Walter Scott and Dickens inspired Bankimchandra to no end.

The birth of the Indian National Congress in the early 20th century brought about sweeping changes in the Indian scenario.[9] The Congress led Freedom Movement was the largest mass movements of the modern world. The reformed individual, infused with values of modernity was now supposed to demand political power for her fuller development. Political agency was seen as facilitating for a holistic development of personality. The birth of the cinema happens in this space; and after some films on mythology and epics, the Indian cinema shifted towards romantic love. Romantic love was seen as the finest realization for human beings; modernizing societies in the process of accommodating and facilitating romantic love. Romantic love was seen as the fullest realization of the self; a self which the politics of the Congress was trying to project as an autonomous political being. It seems that the cinema and the politics of the Congress divided up the personal space between them; cinema took on the intimate sphere while the Congress took upon the political sphere. In both these cases, the private individual along with her privacy was raised to the public sphere; India’s public sphere is about the private lives of individuals whether it is politics or the cinema. The cinema has aided India’s project for democracy through the Freedom Struggle against colonialism by a constant effort of raising the privacy of individual lives into the public realm of shared ideas and values about life and how individuals should ideally behave.[10]


Private and the Public of Cinema:

One of the important ideas of Jurgen Habermas in his work on the public sphere is the manner in which the public and the private have combined into producing the nature of the public sphere. In the context of monarchy, the public was there for all to be seen and hence forts and palaces and other insignia of royal power were part of being public but were produced by private individuals, whose spaces were guarded away from the public. This peculiar production of the public by the increasingly guarded space of the private spells a monopoly of power.[11] The cinema in India is similar to the monarchical power of Europe. It is public for no one is excluded from its viewing but film stars and directors and producers of cinema are hopelessly private people guarding themselves away from public eye, refusing to emerge in the public space and very often also avoiding bringing in any opinion in newspapers, television on political subjects. Film stars have however fought political elections as candidates of one political party or the other but they have used politics to consolidate their social power earned through their public recognition. Such crossover from the cinema into politics has not made them public persons or political leaders. The persona of MG Ramachandran, at once the hero of Tamil cinema and the leader of his political party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, or DMK were two arenas from the both of which he as an individual drew public recognition. His politics and cinema remained separate; his presence in politics was only a reinforcement of his popularity in cinema. As a political leader MG Ramchandran was vital, but he was a very different persona in politics than what he was on screen; politics of Ramchandran did not emanate out of his cinema, though cinema helped him already have a place in his people’s hearts when they cast votes for him.

The intense private space of the cinema makers and the public nature of its exhibition create a kind of monopoly of the cine makers with respect to the production of ideas; there is really no scope of validating of how much the viewers really agree with such productions or whether the framelessness of the cinema hands out to them a set of rules which appear to them as the givens of their lives. Whatever it is, the neatness of the cinematic form, the discovery of pace, the presentation of movement of bodies on the screen present its own logic of solutions make the cinema appear to its viewers as if it is life. The presentation of cinema as life creates its own privacy; people feel shy to admit that they are influenced by cinema and that the cinema has failed to fool them while presenting itself as reality. Outwardly people try to deny that they have been influenced by cinema while inwardly they put themselves down in place of the stars they like. Film stars are our secret selves.

When people feel shy outwardly to admit that they have been influenced by the cinema for the fear of public ridicule, they secretly seek others who have similarly taken to cinema. Fan circles are like secret circles, gossip magazines are circulated beneath the classroom desks, and views on private lives of stars exchanged through hushed whispers and smothered voices. When cinema is publicly discussed or reviewed, it is done in a manner of scrutinizing where the discussant tries to be as removed as possible from the object of discussion, the cinema in this case. This distance is forced upon between the cinema and its fan because the cinema produces a reason which is purer than what the pragmatic reason of reality is. Reason that is put forth by the politics of the modern State and the democratic process of universal franchise often conflicts with the pure ideals pursued by the cinema. The ideals of the cinema are itself born out of public reason and pursued as pure, too idealistic to be pursued in the pragmatic world. People who take cinema seriously are thus supposed to be naïve.

The desire of sceptics to regard cinema in terms of everyday plausibility tries to put a frame around the medium. Academic studies of the cinema are basically concerned with placing this frame. Fans, on the other hand are readily dissolved into the frames of the cinema. Cinema is not reflective of the public sphere, it is the public sphere. It generates a certain level of private within the private self of the individual in which it then creates its own “publicness” in which fans unseen to others find a role for themselves in the world upon which they impose the reason of cinema. Cinema divides the fan’s self into a private and public; there is at first a retreat into the private from the socially defined roles for her and then within the private self searches for the public. The entire business of cinema becomes a secret life which emerges into the open with vengeance when it finds an opening like the persona of MG Ramchandran who enters the more pragmatic sphere of politics.

The private of the cinema which is a private sphere within the private becomes public when a film is popular. Films as the ones made with social messages or are openly critical of the society like Shyam Benegal’s Ankur does not seem to be able to create this vast public of secret private selves. Shyam Benegal is a film director of great reputation but not quite regarded as a popular director with box office collections. Another film, Zanjeer, released in the same year gave India its megastar Amitabh Bachchan. Ankur and Zanjeer were both placed against the social classes with entrenched privileges, both films ended unrealistically with the protagonist fulfilled and vindicated. Yet Zanjeer’s hero could take charge of his life and actively bring about solutions; solutions happened to the protagonist of Ankur. The main point of difference between Ankur and Zanjeer appears to be the fact of social agency and the forms of these films differed because the latter had to make individual agency seem believable while the former did not have such a task to undertake. Zanjeer’s speed of events, its form of developing an entire biography of the hero instead of making him a social type, reducing the supporting cast to stereotypes created by cinema produced before it, positioning of a problem and the imagination of a solution and then pursuing the imagined solution as the inner dynamics of the film makes Zanjeer have a distinct formula. The formula which is a typical arrangement of the form of the narrative ensures that the hero always wins, whether actually or as in Deewaar where the hero dies, morally. The victorious hero becomes the victorious “I” of the viewer who then takes the stance in her own life as if she is the hero in the story of life.[12]

Popular cinema is marked out by the stars; fans recall films by its star cast and not by its directors. Directors place frames, stars work inside them and it is only natural that recalling cinema by its stars is the natural way to be. It is through film stars that cinema unites the privates of the private selves of people, binds them into a secret community of believers and thus secures their orientation towards a consensual sphere. The consensus that a successful democracy requires comes not from ideology of the political sphere but from cinema through the identification of people with characters in films which are viewed universally. The cinema offers people a common game to play and this creates a sense of society where many differences in ideologies and even interests are tolerated. The cinema cuts across differences in politics, straddles across differences in society. It sometimes unites people with diverse backgrounds into a communion. The power of cinema is to generate a new sense of life, a kind of a “Book” to live by its rules.


Transformations in the private and public in cinema:

Just as the public sphere undergoes a transformation in the Habermasian schema as the relationship of the private and the public changes, cinema too undergoes transformation with a change in the public and private aspects in it. Cinema became the monopoly that it is because of the use of technology, an expense that few could afford and which kept the production of cinema into the preserve of a privileged few. The increase in the affordability of technology especially the digital camera helped more people capable of affording the use of the cinematic medium and films of all kinds proliferated. The privacy of the small group of filmmakers collapses as more and more directors and producers come in the fray. The monopoly now shifts from producing and directing cinema towards distribution. Small film makers do not get viewing spaces and abnormally high rents of theatres or television spectrum makes film distribution difficult. As the cinema production becomes public, its viewing is confined to being more and more private. The monopoly over what gets shown is compromised; instead the monopoly extends now to those who exhibit films. Film theatres increasingly take on the appearances of private salons, tickets are prohibitively priced and the audiences exercise choices in viewing. Accordingly cinema has now become varied; showing various kinds of new compositions and the formula of the cinema that revolved around the protagonist’s problem solving programmes is now giving way to many new ways of accessing the world of the cinematic characters. The variety in cinema however takes away from the medium its consensus building property. Cinema is therefore, no longer the other side of the coin for democracy.

In India the genre of popular cinema has undergone a sea change; while there are box-office formulaic films such as a Dabbang or a Rowdy Rathore, there are films like Khosla Ka Ghosla, English Vinglish and the entire genre of crossover cinema which are realistic as a contrast to being formulaic[13]. The space for a variety of cinema is made possible by the entry of a new class of film producers and directors made possible due to the wider affordability of the film making technology. The wider bouquet of offers have cut through the universal audiences and the rise of the multiplex that caters to smaller but a niche audience shifts the power from the films to its viewers. Such a shift in power from the film to the viewers has curtailed the cinema’s power to be an overarching reality and hence of being the public sphere itself; instead there is now a frame around the films, discussions on cinema and views of critics taken ever more seriously. Film studies rises as a discipline which objectively dissects cinema as if it were an object, distanced, out there, to be consumed. Cinema as consumption has risen before us almost as a cult and has punctured the power of being a reality for its viewers.

Nowhere is the culture of consumption more evident than in the progressive closeness between cinema and advertisement. Music directors, play back singers and film directors would work for advertisement films ever since advertisement film making emerged; Lata Mangeshkar’s voice would ring out for the anacin tablet Saridon. But never before making advertisement films became a reason for producers to fund director’s projects or working in advertisements became a path to making it big in cinema. Models are incubating film stars and directors like Balki and Pradeep Sarkar are essentially advertisement film makers.[14] Such closeness would not have been possible if films were also not projected as consumables rather than machinery for expressing the soulful angst of its protagonists. The crash of the song in cinema, its relegation into a background music, the rise of “item numbers” which are stand-alone dance performances and the use of camera angles and cuts and of colours show that the cinema has moved beyond the spectacle and inheres the space of visual aesthetics pursued together with advertisement films, hoardings, shopping malls, luxury hotels, landscape gardens, high end apartment blocks, town planning, and civil constructions such as bridges, fly overs and airports.

The films of today are far cries from the days when camera persons pursued aesthetics by tracking the loose tresses of hair across Meena Kumari’s face or eye lashes on the drooping eye lids of Madhubala; cinema today focusses on bodies. The actors no longer invest in coiffeurs; instead they focus on six packs. The face is today passé; the body with its six packs is in focus. The proliferation of gyms across cities even in small towns caters to the private world of individuals in which they wish to emerge like film stars. The focus on bodies rather than on emotions, the focus on consumption instead of ideology has strangely brought cinema into the world of objects where it is far freer for an individual to publicly acknowledge her alignment with the medium. Films have all along dictated fashions for the society as a whole; today designer brands define fashion for films as well as its viewers. The filmic world and the viewers world are today in tandem with very little reason for cinema to take over the lived in space. The viewer no longer has to make a secret of her wish to be filmic; she does it openly by organizing theme parties, or pursuing not fashions but the brands that films endorse.

Apropos to the above, film stars are no longer ensconced in their high privacy; they are now everywhere. They endorse advertisements, appear for private functions, dance on the stage and entertain people in reality television, in short, far beyond what they do in films. The film today exists beyond its frames and instead of absorbing the world into itself, the cinema now walks into the wider world to mingle into its daily conundrum. There is now a reverse effort; there is an effort of the world to look like the cinema. Wedding parties, birthday parties, the digital camera, mobile phone video cameras, the uploading of photos on social networking sites

These changes have affected the public sphere of public opinion on politics and the performance of the political class. The rise of the Hindutva or the Islamic terror where each side competes with the other in putting up equally spectacular riots and bomb blasts, where each side recruits secret soldiers, runs secret governments much along fan clubs and reading clubs show that the privately endorsed views of which there exists no public legitimacy are now being increasingly put up for public display. In a manner in which the cinema before the present millennium used to be made by intensely private individuals and then set up for public gaze these acts of civilizational clash are also put up for public display and hence attempts to hold a monopoly over the “show business”. The space vacated by frameless cinema is now attempted to be taken over by the civilizational terror industry.

The rise of terror and the decline of cinema in its frameless avatar reveal a new crisis in our civilization. It tells us what our action cinema was trying to convey since the past four decades that our ideologies and institutions, our judgments and opinions emanate from and circulate within a narrow band of society in full control of its privileges. The desire of a certain section to gate keep privileges out of wider segments of prospective claimants also lies at the core of our institutionalization and institutionalization in the Habermasian schema is a certain way to shrink out the public sphere. The rise of institutionalization is the death of the public sphere.

Film scholars in India have often observed the modernization project of the popular cinema in India; it is evident that cinema stood in lieu of institutions which could carry the modernization project in the Indian society. The rise of terror as a visual spectacle and the decline of cinema as a routinized object of consumption show that technologically cinema seems to have exhausted its visual capabilities. Today audio visuals are everywhere; the Internet, downloadables in the form of you tube, electronic photo frames, live shows, television and so on. There is perhaps nothing further to be attained; terror being perhaps the newest form of visual and which absorbs every individual into its frames by making them possible victims. This scale of Thanatos[15] is the greatest challenge of our present civilization and a curse spelt upon us for pursuing our visual culture far too much.


Reorganization of the Private and the Public:

Despite the flak that television draws from the civil society, it is perhaps only the television that can help us redeem ourselves from the failure of the cinema as the public space. Unlike the cinema which is finite, the television is continuous. It has no beginning, or middle or end. It runs just as well in the background. It is invisible because it goes on in the background and satisfies fully the addiction of viewers to the visual culture. In it being always on, the television is today frameless. The framelessness of the television is nowhere better observed than when viewers mistake the footages of terror attacks as clips from some action films. The television is a one stop for everything; one watches films in discs in the television screen, one can use the screen to blow up images from i-pads and mobile phones, one can use the television to do one’s shopping and even take lessons in English and mathematics. The television actually frames us. We tend to be raised into the television; television at once is installed in our privacy and even more so now because each member has her own set and can watch television on lap tops and i-pads and yet it braces us as consumers and through this again sets us up in the public sphere. The public sphere which emerges out of numerous homogenized individuals all aspiring for a uniform set of consumer products can have opinions only as consumers and not as political persons. The consumerist public sphere throttles every kind of social and political public sphere into the institutionalization of democratic politics where politics becomes a consumer product, ideologies as shopping carts.


As a conclusion we might say that the public sphere is threatened by the global and universal rise of the audio-visual culture. The audio-visual culture has the ability to relegate people into privacy, sometimes also into secrecy and manifest their publicness as exhibitions like terror attacks and exhibitionism in the social media and social space by private individuals instead of as opinions which relate to politics and the State. Consumerism is promoted while democracy is thwarted with such transformations of the private and the public.


[1] Jurgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. MIT Press. USA. 1991.

[2] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_industry

[3] Bollywood is a term to denote the Hindi commercial cinema, or the Hindi popular cinema produced in Bombay, now renamed as Mumbai.

[4] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India

[5] Habermas, op cit 1. Pp 25-37

[7] Habermas, op cit 1. Pp 47-52

[8] Habermas. Op cit 1. Pp 151-157

[9] The birth of the Indian National Congress was in 1885.

[10] Popular cinema during this time referred to are Vidyapati, Chandidas, Street Singer, Gramaphone Singer, all produced between 1925 and 1937.

[11] Habermas, op cit 1. Pp 10-12

[12] Ankur, directed by Shyam Benegal was released in 1974. Zanjeer is directed by Prakash Mehra and released in 1974. Deewaar is directed by Yash Chopra and is released in 1975.

[13] These are popular films. Dabbang released in 2010, Khosla Ka Ghosla was released in 2006. Rowdy Rathore and English Vinglish were released in 2012.

[14] Balki directed Cheeni Kum (2007) and Pa (2009). Pradeep Sarkar directed Parineeta in 2005.

[15] Thanatos is the Greek God of death.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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2 Responses to Habermasian Public Sphere and Cinema

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