Towards A Theory of the Indian Popular Cinema


The present paper attempts to place in perspective the Indian popular cinema in the backdrop of film theories and shows that the cinema in India has a distinct historical context and social reality which makes it difficult for film theories originating the Western world to make sense of the Indian popular cinema. The paper suggests that the popular cinema in India is itself a theory of the reality surrounding it, it is a kind of politics in which the individual agency is exercised to modernize a traditional society and it is a format in which arguments and opinions put forth by the film makers are tautologically resolved as truth in the filmic form. Theories about the Indian popular cinema are therefore theories about the relatedness of cinema to the cultural needs of the times which the cinema tries to capture and when the cultural needs change with changes in the political system, cinema changes too. The cultural needs which the Indian popular cinema covers are basically four; idea of perfect happiness and definition of legitimate social aspirations, the notion of an ideal person as expressed in the star, and the faith that the star will succeed in her/his mission through the exercise of agency. The last can only be guaranteed by a polity and this makes the cinema explore its possibilities within the given political system and not by rebelling against it; this is the fourth component of the theory of reality which the Indian popular cinema carries. The paper suggests that if any of the above changes the cinema changes, either in its idea of utopia, legitimate aspirations of the individuals, the notion of an ideal person and the level of faith that the agency of the individual will succeed in fulfilling her/his aspriations.

Kinds of Theories of Cinema

Theories of cinema are of two kinds. One set of theories emanate from a sense of being disturbed at the popularity of cinema with the masses. The ones who feel disturbed are the contenders for mass appeal; the Church, ideological politicians, intellectuals, educationists and creative artists with other kinds of medium including, in case of India, the makers of realist cinema. The above mentioned people appear to be losing control over the people’s minds when a star studded multi crore worth production hits the theatres bringing in the throngs of viewers. These theories accuse the formula film of being ideological in the sense of promoting social conservatism and status quo and in accepting in an unquestioning manner, the establishment. These theories insist that popular cinema is conservative and it attempts to create elitism by destroying all progressive political critiques.

At the other end of ideological theories lie another set of accusations which say that the formula film is too erotic, too liberal and loosens all kinds of constraints on social behaviour. This is a position of social conservatives who seem to be saying quite the contrary thing vis-à-vis the political progressives.

Feminist theories combine both strands when they accuse cinema on the one hand of constructing the image of the woman in a manner in which her position in society is reinforced into her assigned spaces and yet on the other hand, uphold her body for a free male gaze and thus construct her as an object of eroticism. Feminist theories speak once for the political progressive hailing cinema as conservative and also from the perspective of the conservative saying that the cinema might go too overboard in exercise of free will.

The other kind of theories explore how does cinema create the impact it does with its viewers? A host of theories such as formalism, structuralism, phenomenological, psycho analytical insist that the way parts in the film move towards the whole in which moments of cinema become a holistic text actually creates the necessary appeal of cinema for the medium to be able to influence the viewers. Formalism and phenomenological theories of film intend to tell us the various ways the cinema appears as a meaning to its viewers through organizing the individual moments into a consistent whole. Formalism tries to insist that cinema develops its own “form” by repeating certain elements in storytelling, stock characters and ways in which problems are resolved. Phenomenology, on the other hand treats each film as a unique occurrence and meaning to emanate from within the film itself than from the rules of cinema in general. Structuralism deals with codes, symbols, signs and icons and seems to suggest that the elements of the cinema derive their meanings by invoking the larger cultural texts circulating in the society. Formalism, phenomenology and structuralism together constitute the aesthetic theory of cinema in the sense that they propose that meaning is created in cinema by its parts coming together into a whole.

While the ideological theories and the aesthetic theories seem to suggest that the film makers intend to influence the audience with their cinema, the psychoanalysis theories say that the film maker has no control over how the audience will respond to the film because each viewer watches films differently and according to her own unconscious repertoire of associations and symbols. Psychoanalytical theories do not agree that films are produced and consumed in specific social context and propose that cinema in particular and art in general is non-lingual just as dreams are.

Theory and the Historical Context of Cinema

Needless to say that the above theories have originated in the West, namely the United States and Western Europe and expectedly they are generalizations out the contexts and histories of those regions. The emergence of Europe through extensive colonization of Europe by Europeans, the rise of Christianity and the crusades, Reformation, Protestant Ethics and the rise of capitalism, the Renaissance, French Revolution, civil rights, socialism and then aggressive nationalism, one observes the constancy of a conflict and competition and which is between the aristocracy and the commoner. The commoner or the subject rises through a sense of individualism which perhaps Christianity brings about and reinforces with Protestantism, the language of rights and then ideas of citizenship albeit as consumers of public goods. All through such conflict, textual traditions have braced the commoners’ consciousness and helped her rise as a conscious individual. Art in Europe, which ran parallel to religion often arguing with and competing with the Church, also developed sophisticated formal principles especially since the 16th century. European music is composed in notations; its paintings and sculpture have developed formal principles in the studios of Leonardo Da Vinci and Rodin and so on. These formalizations were needed precisely because art was competing with another highly formalized and structured institution the Church and later on the monarchy. Europeans therefore theorized everything; novels, poetry, popular music, folk drama and even Avant garde. Vladmir Propp’s work on formalism wherein he traced formal principles in Russian folk tales bear a political relationship with the modernization, Europeanization and socialism in Russia around the October Revolution of 1911. Propp, like his Western European counterparts was attempting to seek out similar texts to fight the texts of the Orthodox Church and the Czar.

In the United States, adventurers landed on its shores and conquered its lands. The vast wild land of intemperate climate made it hostile for habitation. People had to fight together to establish settlements and this common struggle therefore required larger cooperation on the one hand, but also possibilities of being fairly and justly rewarded for spoils. America was thus both a land of adventures as well as of opportunities where one could change one’s class. Civil space, mutual respect and fair rewards became the cornerstone of America. The main conflict areas were actually between those aristocrats who carried the baggage of their privileges in Europe and the ones who came to America to start a new life with a fresh slate. The racial conflict in America happened actually much later with the country’s capitalists using slave labour in cotton farms and has a rather distinct trajectory of its own. Cinema, when it eventually developed in the 20th century in Europe and America concealed the histories of these nations.

The cinema is audio-visual and aural and it is large in dimension. This is why it acts like everything; a bill board, a spectacle, a pulpit, a road signage. It is at once a recollection and reconstruction of the past as it is an usher of the future. Cinema uses history to foray into the future and hence the form of the cinema depends a lot on the sense of society in which it is located.

Cinema In The Indian Context

The Indian cinema too emanated out of its history, or like in the above instances out of an attempt to write history and construct the future. Unlike in the West, India’s major conflict was with its tradition and hence with the way its society was constituted over ages and since time immemorial. The main conflict within India was the management of modernity while keeping something of its tradition and also to attack its tradition where it blocked the path of modernity. The peculiar form of cinema in India emanated from this context. The present paper attempts to articulate the form of the Indian popular cinema.

What Is The Indian Popular Cinema?

The Indian popular cinema is distinguished from Indian realist cinema which is also known variously as art cinema, as parallel cinema and lately as auteur cinema. The popular cinema is also called as the formula film, with foregone conclusions and expected endings in which the hero always wins, the heroine saved, the villain vanquished and everything neatly ends up in a state of happily ever after. The formula cinema is not realistic in the sense that unlike in the realistic cinema, the dissatisfactions, defeats and disequilibrium of everyday life are neatly overcome in the cinematic narrative and that too through the agency of its protagonists. Realistic cinema finds the ‘hero always winning’ theme of the formula film as absurd and day dreaming; while the audiences of the popular cinema finds the realistic films as being pessimistic and imposing. Realistic cinema is often known by its directors; formula cinema is known by its stars. Realistic cinema is an authorial critique of the society at large; the formula cinema is about theorising problems of the society as constraints on the exercise of individual agency those which must be overcome. In the realistic cinema, the situation and the context of individuals are explored and revealed; in the formula film the individual’s powers and will are redeemed.

Star As Theory in Indian Popular Cinema

The sociology of the Indian popular cinema is the best expressed in the personal of the protagonist of its narratives, the star. Films are recognized, remembered, recalled and classified according to stars. Stories are written to suit the persona of stars; music is composed and dance choreographed according to the innate style of the stars. In a popular film, the viewer is expected to enter the film space through the persona of the star. It is from the perspective of the star that the entire narrative is set up. Cinema becomes sociology because of the star; the star is an ideal universal person of the society and must emerge as a concept which at once is seen to create solutions to problems which are most commonly faced. For instance, films which star Amitabh Bachchan are different from those which star Shah Rukh Khan. Amitabh Bachchan’s concerns are more to do with upward social mobility, about the hegemony of law, issues of governance and access to public goods, of enemies and friends, of realization of powers of the self and discovery of higher reason. Shah Rukh Khan’s films are about fulfilment through romantic love, exercise of will, discovery of limits of faith, belief in the Universe and the discovery of a higher justice awarded metaphysically.

The respective stars address rather different sociological needs; Amitabh’s films are located more in the milieu of the displaced and dispossessed, whose life has been thrown asunder by the violence of capitalism and now the hero must rise to conquer and eventually rule those very forces that had ruined him. Amitabh’s victory in the films must appear to be believable and the belief is possible if the polity is geared towards policies and politics in which upward social mobility is promoted. All through the 1970’s and 1980’s the Indian politics revolved around the creation of opportunities for upward social mobility through small enterprises, self-employment, and land redistribution, extension of agriculture and science and technology policies. In an age as the present one in which small enterprises are encouraged to die out yielding space to large foreign investment driven projects, Amitabh Bachchan’s films are no longer believable.

Shah Rukh Khan, on the other hand is a compulsive and persistent person who just wants his way even if that means stalking and nagging. He lives in an age when one must live more as an image, use the various media channels to emerge as a celebrity and is an unapologetic consumer and possessor of both tangible goods and intangible fortunes; the fact that heroes are typical is sociology, but to appear as believable and convincing to the public they need to have polity that supports them.

Stars need two things; they need to position themselves as a person that the society seeks universally and on the other hand they need a polity that helps them attain their goals. Stars change as societies’ idea of the ideal person changes and also as polity changes. Since polities create an environment is which the citizen is ensured of success, cinema cannot appear to be convincing if the polity does not support the cause of the person they seek to promote as universal. The importance of politics and the cinema’s alignment with the incumbent political system makes us say that the cinema is an ideological tool.

Stars are thus neither charismatic religious leader, nor are preachers who deliver through the pulpit. Stars are the egoes of the viewers. The viewer finds himself or herself in the star. The cinema must appeal to an audience across all socio-economic particularities and this is why, audiences irrespective of caste, class, gender and age must be able to identify with the star. It is this strange requirement of universality that disembodies the star and makes him/her into an idea, a concept, a position, a manner of thought, and a way of behaviour. The star’s ability to move out of the body into a generalized concept, a language, an idea, and a discourse makes a star into a world view. Ideology gets invariably associated into a star; it is a certain attitude towards the world which promises the viewer the best possible rewards from her exploitation of social opportunities. The star is sociological precisely because it helps the viewer in her fantasies and dreams to emerge out of her concrete ‘fact’ness into a life where constraints seem to drop off and she gets liberated to pursue her utopian ways. The transcendence of the star from a concrete body into a set of concepts helps the viewer also to emerge at least in her dreams as one who overcomes her socio-economic barriers to attain a fuller life as the one she desires. The overcoming of the social concrete is the sociology of the film; the imagination that by following the star one can get a better life is the fantasy aspect of cinema.

The star is the reason why cinema gets its style; the colours, rhythm, music, dances, fights, spaces are constructed to give the star her/his most apt setting. The star is an actor who lends a distinctive and unique style to every character that she/he plays in. The various characters stars play out may vary widely; some characters may be poor, others rich, some may be young and some old, some grave and some playful, in other words, various sorts of beings but in each of these the becoming is always unique, the problems and situations may vary but the principles of solution out of the problem is invariably the same. This sameness is due to the same star playing out these several roles.

It is not true that stars cannot immerse themselves in the roles they play. Stars often play roles to stun method actors; Nargis’s negative role in Raat Aur Din, Amitabh Bachchan’s role in Paa, Sharmila Tagore’s younger role in Mausam, Sanjeev Kumar in Aandhi are sterling performances by stars who seem to only repeat themselves. The quality of a star is to be able to retrieve their unique persona out of every act and not to merely immerse indelibly into the characters they play in. This is to say that stars carry characters rather than riding on these characters. This peculiar feature of the Indian stardom is essential to the formula of the cinema.

The Form/Formula of the Indian Popular Cinema

When the viewer does not naively believe in the film and instead accepts the cinema as a mathematical model with assumptions and abstractions intended to draw out rules of behaviour and probability of events; the cinema opens out metaphysical possibilities. At this level, the cinema emerges as cultural texts, at par with myths and legends, epics and traditions. The song and dance which are integral to the Indian cinema are linked to this search for a metaphysical aspect. When the cinema is viewed as an abstract model of earthly possibilities and metaphysical assurances the resolution of the individual moments in the cinema into a conclusion must bear two attributes. One, the conclusion must emerge as the logically most complete solution leaving no better alternatives in the minds of the viewers and the other; in this perfectly logical conclusion the processes in the narrative which brings all the separate, distinct, varying and conflicting moments together, law like propositions must be generated. The last are film slogans, like Safal Hogi Teri Aradhana in the film Aradhana; Love is Life in Kabhie Kabhie, or Dil Ki Suno in Dil To Pagal Hai and so on. These slogan like propositions are sometime articulated in dialogues, or songs or appear as writings with credits.

The form of the Indian popular cinema is abstract and hence its dialogues are arguments than aspects of the narrative. The Indian popular cinema needs to be formulaic; its formula ensures that no effort is spent in getting the hang of the narrative and instead on a structure of anticipated events, arguments can be set into sharper relief. The abstractness of the formula film is a vehicle for arguments about world views, morals, desired direction of social change, limits of human liberty and the responsibilities of the individual will. These arguments take place through dialogues and often because these arguments incorporate views of both traditions as well as of modernity in moderation attempting to take a middle path. It is the Indian popular cinema’s refusal to deny an extreme modernist position that often attracts criticisms of being conservative and promoting the status quo.

While the arguments and resolutions articulated within the narrative of films seek moderation, its songs transcend boundaries and seek a new level of liberation. Hence songs are supra lingual; they reach levels of cognition beyond that which can be articulated. Songs are the soul of cinema that genuinely transcends the concreteness of its form; cinema is remembered, associated and in fact circulated via the song. Songs are released before the release of the cinema and the appeal of the music pulls the audience to it. It is interesting to observe that the cinema in its arguments and conclusions seek a compromise between liberty and conservatism but in its songs abandons inhibitions and rises to eroticism. The song in cinema expresses many things; they may help develop the narratives, they may establish images of stars, they may articulate the spirit of the film and set the overall tone.

The popular cinema is organized very much like a mathematical problem, it has a premise and the problem is contained within the premise. The solution is obtained by manipulating and reworking the premise. Interestingly, a song is structured much like this; it has a base, the base is reworked to produce the ascents and descents when eventually the tune returns to the base. Songs of a cinema are very crucially reflective of its core and express its spirit.

Dance is the rhythm of the cinema; it aligns the rhythm of the body of the star to the rhythm of the film narrative. Dance is the medium through which the star is bodily integrated to the film, just as the song spiritually integrates her. Dance reflects the intensity of the drama of the film; the more intense its drama is the sharper the movements of the dance are.

The misc-en-scen or the composition of the film set is also important for setting up the image of the star. Film stars have their favourite backdrops; Rajesh Khanna is best set against open spaces; Amitabh Bachchan is best set in large and imposing spaces and this has helped directors to develop rags to riches stories around him. Nargis was often set up against water; Madhubala was set up in palaces. These backdrops are not accidental; these are frames which hold images of stars.

Historical Context of the Star-Centredness of Indian Popular Cinema

The historical conditions of the cinema in India are rather unique. The cinema was born amidst a growing Freedom Struggle in which India was emerging into a new society by embracing new ethos and new ethics of the West and yet trying to keep the best of its traditions. The modernization of tradition was India’s efforts at reforming its society according to the Western ideals of liberty and equality and individualism while trying to maintain the social ties of the family and its emotional bonds. Individuals and individualism were very important to this project and constant focus on personalities and role models such as Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar or Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. These personalities were sources of new morals just as the stars in the popular cinema were the sources of new morality for the people. The star was a personality one needed to emulate; the source of ethics, the source of law. The film space talked of problems which the stars solved to emerge as the source of resolution and hence of new laws. Through cinema, the directors, the story writers and others actually advanced their interpretation of the contemporary reality of India and its future direction. Viewers were expected to be able to take charge of their own worlds and through their being in it, change it in the way the star in a film narrative would do.

Hollywood Stars, Bollywood Stars

The other cinema that works through star power is Hollywood. Hollywood stars are individuals with great charisma; but unlike the Indian stars are not worldviews and consistent ideological systems. Stars are performers with distinctive styles, very much like players in a baseball team. Unlike the Indian stars, Hollywood stars are not explored over a body of work where each film is like a variation in the context to test out the vitality of the star’s philosophy. Unlike in the Indian popular cinema, the directors of Hollywood cinema are not rendered invisible to the stars. We recall our major films by their stars; few would remember the director of Mother India, or of Mughal-e-Azam. The star and the director are in an unequal relationship as each tries to reach over the other; gossip magazines often report stories of star-director ego battles. It is not unusual to see stars starting their production companies in which they will get directors to direct them as they (stars) want.

The difference between Hollywood productions and the Indian popular cinema arises from the difference in the histories of these two nations. The United States were formed out of adventure, exploitation, raids, campaigns and exploring opportunities and subjugating wild lands. Here individuals were fighting unknown terrains and winning unexpected opportunities. While the individual was supposed to be powerful and capable; s/he had no finitely defined game to play. In India, on the other hand, modernizers and social reformers were forever setting out social agendas and individuals could become powerful by setting a social agenda. Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati, Nayanar, Jyotiba Phule and even Gandhi were keen to set the agenda for the society. The film star is an agenda setting individual; but not as a leader but as everybody and anybody. The star is an attempt to make every individual emerge as a leader in herself. One can easily infer the closeness of the star to a participative democracy.

Melodrama versus the Indian Formula Film

Some scholars confuse the form of the Indian popular cinema as melodrama; a form of drama with music and dance and loud dialogues and high strung emotions which originated around the time of the French Revolution. Melodrama, much like the Indian popular cinema had stock characters, expected flow of events, similar arguments over morals and was a vehicle to address and adapt to social changes that were sweeping France. The context of melodrama resembles the context of the Indian popular cinema as well. But the centrality of the star in the Indian popular cinema creates all the difference. The star brings about a sense of individual agency, makes the individual the source rather than the instance of law. The sense of individual agency makes cinema close to politics; pure melodrama would have made it merely into a social dialogue among contending systems of morals and ethics.

Since the star in the Indian popular cinema is a theory of the Universe, the theory needs to be tested against a variety of possibilities. Films are made with varying possibilities in which stars must acquire consistency. This is the inter textuality of cinema where films must refer back to one another to articulate out the star’s philosophy as completely as possible taking into account every possible variation in context. Stars are placed in different roles; serious and playful, moral and immoral; good and the bad, loyal and treacherous and so on, so that each time the star evolves out of the cinema as more refined and better articulated world view, rising above variations into a purer image with more abstract qualities. A star means a body of work which when strung together represents the biography of the star as an image.

The Indian popular cinema is often criticized for not being able to break out of the formula; but the Indian popular cinema does not want to break away from the repetitions and in fact actively pursues the formula. Film directors blame the distributors for declining to buy unique productions and the distributors in turn blame audiences by saying that unexpected formats of cinema surprises the viewers and turn them off. Just as we mentioned above that the formula of the cinema helps to set up its arguments more clearly with a higher level of conceptual abstractions and generalizations, the formula cinema is also helpful for directors to talk among themselves, compare merits against a standardised format. Intertextuality is possible with the standard format of the popular cinema and without intertextuality neither the star nor the director can aggregate their respective efforts at producing discourses. The formula is in the interest of the directors, producers, stars and of course the viewers.

The characters of the film narrative are also abstract; the father represents the protective and the nurturing forces of the society, as men are often seen caressing young children and showing overt affection more than women do; the mother is the social conscience, siblings are the images of the protagonist but without the consciousness of agency. The heroine is the feminine aspect of individual agency while the hero is the male aspect of the same. The protagonist acts according to the spirit of the right; to seek and establish the truth. The villain is one who moves counter to the discovery of the truth and the establishment of the good. He is opposed to the protagonist because he sabotages the prospects of the former’s fulfilment. The villain is bad because he is a saboteur. It has been discussed later in this paper that the Indian popular cinema explores of sexuality as a liberating force of the society. However, like everything else, sexuality too needs moderation and vamps tempt the hero to adultery. Villains often attack the heroine’s modesty, which the hero must protect making the protection of female sexuality as the good man’s concern.

The cinema’s mainstay is drama; but drama is only one ingredient of cinema as the pace of the drama appears to be the main constituent of cinema. Cinema captures the spirit of its times by discovering the pace and the rhythm. In fact, sometimes films are made which intend to capture the speed of the times. Films like Dhoom, Race, Don and other similar productions have often captured the pace. Truly, speed also tests the levels of technical achievements of cinema.

What Does The Popular Cinema in India Try To Attain?

Like speed, the cinema also tries to attain visuality. For this it pursues spectacles, extravaganzas and special effects. These test the technical craft of film making; the directors would like to establish themselves in technical finesse as much as they would like to set social agendas and make money by producing stars. As far as directorial intent goes we can identify three kinds of purposes; one is to show off technical skills by which spectacles are produced. The other is to raise social issues which produce ideological films. The third may just be to help the audiences consume star images in which s/he explores star charisma. Very rarely a director can combine all of the above purposes into a single production. Raj Kapoor has been an exceptional director precisely because of his ability to combine all kinds of directorial intent into single films.

The abstractness of the Indian popular cinema makes it difficult to deal with concrete subjects. Indian directors are not comfortable with real historical events or with biographies of national leaders or historical personalities. The Indian cinema is also not comfortable with adventures and detective genres; this is because although adventures and detective genres also deal with problem solving, they do not deal with negotiations of human emotions. The formula of the Indian popular cinema and its stock characters and expected set of events revolves around human emotions and hence cannot comfortably accommodate genres in which these emotions are not central. One of the most coveted challenges in a popular cinema is the pet animal; it is in the pet animal that emotions in its purest form are discovered. Tere Meherbaniya, Haathi Mere Saathi and Khoon Bhari Mang explore the most heartrending emotions through mute animals.

Controversies of Sex and Violence

Two controversial areas of cinema are sex and violence. The popular cinema brings these issues into the public view. The popular cinema advocates romantic love and through it seeks the erotic. The hero often teases the heroine and then makes her get attracted to him in a way that the Indian popular cinema feels liberates the feminine agency. Conservatives protest that in the images of the erotic, the female body is set up for consumerist male gaze and hence insults women’s sensibilities. This is perhaps true to an extent but sometimes female erotica helps women to feel liberated from many constraints imposed upon her through the curtail of her sexuality by the society. It remains a matter of debate as to whether the erotica is aesthetic or obscene.

Violence is yet another matter of grave concern. Art often addresses violence because it wants to absorb violence and destroy the conditions from which violence emanates. The formula of the film ensures that anomalies are corrected, injustices are evened out and the violence is existentially eliminated. In such cases, even the most violent cinema might bring a sense of peace if the injustices are retributed. However, films even when they do not show anything overtly violent, may invoke a sense of violence among the viewers by not resolving its inner tensions clearly. The viewer may feel a sense of unfulfilment and even meaninglessness which might increase anxiety and invoke violent emotions. It is therefore, very important for tensions to be resolved one way or the other in cinema.

The Hindi Film and the Regional Popular Films

The Indian popular cinema, irrespective of the language it is made in displays certain discernible features which make any production in this genre identifiable as a popular movie. We instantly know something as a Bollywood movie, or a Bengali commercial cinema, or a Tamil popular film even if we catch few fleeting moments on the screen, or even when we watch a film poster. The instant recognition of a few audio visual moments on the screen happens because of the manner in which these cinemas use the basic ingredients of film making like movement, rhythm, colour, music and ordering of the space. The variations in the style of films across regions and then the existence of a Hindi film industry which has fairly a universal appeal at least in the rest of India save the North East and the Deccan tells us that India has a vernacular identity as well as a national identity. The self-image of a viewer as a respectable person in her vernacular society determines the style and content of the regional popular cinema whereas the Hindi popular cinema reflects the self-image of the viewer in the national public space. The distinctness and yet the formulaic patterns of regional popular cinema derives from the fact that viewers of Indian popular cinema seek the same kind of agency; the difference in style takes place because the kind of agency in the vernacular society differs from the sense of agency at the national level.

The formula film must create tensions and then resolve them; the conflictual elements must be brought on board and then judged. The idea of the conflict in a popular Indian cinema is one which opposes the fulfilment of the protagonists’ purpose. Sometimes the protagonist might wish to extend his/her will too far and conservative forces in the society must come and oppose; sometimes the society is too constraining on the individual agency, the protagonist must oppose. The conflict of opposing forces is usually resolved into a middle ground where all ends thoroughly well without any loose ends. This happens also in tragedies where the main characters die. In Mother India, Radha becomes the extreme instance of virtue when she punishes and kills her own son for the good of the society, or in Mughal-E-Azam Anarkali agrees to be executed in order to save the Mughal Empire.

Threats to the Film Formula

The form of the cinema which has been so long resistant to change is however under threat in the films which are being made after 2000. We call the present times as the new age of Indian cinema because there are many film directors who want to break free of the problem solving and individual agency type. Clearly the threat to the form has come from a change in the polity where there is little scope for individual agency, the rise of corporations, the dissolving of boundaries of a nation and the migration of Indians to the West. The coherence of the society has suffered as a result of such changes and hence the universality of the Indian popular cinema has also been compromised. The multiplex culture of small screens, the circulation of the video format, the television broadcast of films have extracted cinema out of its time and space context and shorn it of one of the major attributes, the large screen. These changes have struck at the very chord of the popular cinema, namely shared viewing.

Applicability of Film Theories to Indian Popular Cinema

The above discussions of the Indian popular cinema shows to us that the cinema in India is not a collection of individual films which must be theorized in abstract generalizations and then made sense of against a wider understanding of concepts. The Indian cinematic form is itself an abstraction, a high level of generalization of concrete moments. Therefore, the popular cinema in India is itself a form of theory; the very pursuit of form is an exercise at building theory out of a complex and random reality.  The film maker’s own ideological slants and belief systems are presented to the viewers. Here ideological theories of cinema can be applied well. Ideologies of the film maker regarding ideas of utopia, individual aspirations, individual happiness, virtues and social morality come into play through the persona of the star and the formula of the cinema. These ideologies pertain to the constitution of the public space.

The manner in which a rather individual position of the film maker is presented as an absolute truth is a play of structuralism in which the concrete contents in the cinema are rendered into rather abstract ideas which have meaning only in relationship to the whole. The play of these concrete instances to dissolve into a whole and derive meaning only in relation to the whole is the deftness of the script, camera work, music, dance, editing and the star. Here rules of aesthetics are used; Amitabh Bachchan had to die in Sholay to give it sublimity. The vast empty spaces, the clear sky, the bare terrain were already positioned to raise the film into a transcendental realm and with the death of a vital character the mood of the film seems to become as empty as the backdrop. Viewers emerge from the theatre with the epical realization of how war was inevitable but also futile. In Deewaar, Amitabh’s death crushes us into the confined spaces of the temple, the police station, the cramped flats, the underbelly of the urban spaces. The death of the hero puts us down, depresses us and leaves us with an unresolved anger at the world and we finally see the hero’s point and become one with his concerns. Familiarity with aesthetic theory might help us understand these processes within the Indian popular cinema better.

Psychological theories do not always hold for analysis of the Indian popular films because of the sameness of its form across individual films. The characters represent points of view which have already been formed in them; for instance the social conscience in Radha, the protagonist of Mother India already inhered in her the values which she projected throughout the film. In Sholay, the characters were already pretty similar all through the film and did not change in their mental profile. There are no inner processes of characters in an Indian popular cinema; this is also why psychological thrillers, science fictions become so difficult for the Indian popular film format to accommodate.

Yet another reason for the irrelevance of psychological theories of cinema for the Indian popular film is that the Indian cinema does not seek to produce dream like features; the light is often uniform, the dialogues are loud and clear, turn of events are anticipated through the use of formula and hence there is little scope to create dream like visuals.

We may not apply phenomenological theories to Indian cinema as well because of the form it pursues across films whereby a film can immediately be identified as being a Bollywood film or a Tamil popular cinema or a Bengali popular cinema. The repetition of patterns takes a film away from being a unique production and pushes it into the realm of inter-textuality where it speaks to other productions. Phenomenology has little use because the cinema cannot be suspended in time and space.

Feminist theories, which assert that the feminine principles are derogated in the Indian popular cinema, are fairly applicable in the Indian context. While the hero is supposed to protect the feminine space, the idea of female agency does not seem to have developed in India. The disappearance of the vamp and the progress of the heroine in the image of the temptress show that while the cinema is keen to explore sexuality of women, it does little in terms of agency.

Can There Be A Separate Theory of the Indian Popular Cinema?

As we have already analysed that the form of the Indian popular cinema is itself a theory. The form has two sources of genesis; one is the faith that individuals can assume charge of their lives and fulfils their aspirations by removing obstacles and the other is that the Universe ensures the success of the values and the virtues that the protagonist upholds. While the former pertains to the sense of individual agency the latter draws upon the overall faith that people have in the system. If either changes, the cinema is bound to change.

The Indian popular cinema seems to be at crossroads of change. While we seem to laud the release of new age cinema which challenge the form of the conventional commercial cinema, we often overlook that through this new wave the Indian popular cinema has lost much of its legitimacy as a bearer of civilizational morals and that it far less inspires a universal viewing. The over powering image of the star, the set out formula of the film with expected twists and turns in the narrative and almost foregone conclusions about happy ends without loose undigested matter gave the cinema its abstractness which helped people across a variety of socio-cultural backgrounds to come to the theatre as a public sphere. The “multiplexisation” of cinema, the toning down of the star, the bringing down of larger than life dreams into the mundanity of everyday life and then trying to achieve the spectacular extravaganza of cinema through the use of high definition camera and speed editing and item songs and sound effects might raise the film into an art form but reduce its political and moral power.

While it is true that the polity of India has changed from a moral space to a consumerist and corporatist one and consumerist aspirations are increasingly shaping families, education, political morality and ethics of national life, it is also true that the film makers are opening up the cinema to more and more of audio-visual sensual consumption. The so-called technical finesse of cinema is an attempt to “feed” the viewer with new senses. The conventional formula film despite its extravagant visuals was flat and presented the content on a flat space under a consistent tonality to the viewer. It was as if the director was placing a case before the judge, the audience being the judge who would then pass a judgment considering all aspects of the appeal made before her. The technological manipulation of today’s director shows that the director wants to gain the better of the viewer, fox and flummox her. The cine director does not care about the viewer as a complete entity and instead treats her like any other consumer.

A part of the new directors’s superiority comes from the fact that s/he has so many audio-visual media to combat with. The television, the FM radio, the DVDs, i-pad, computer, Internet and even the shopping plazas and stage shows gnaw away at the monopoly which cinema had on the minds of its viewers. The cinema, despite the new wave is losing its authority among its viewers.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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2 Responses to Towards A Theory of the Indian Popular Cinema

  1. isha says:

    Hello, I’ve been reading your blog for hours now. You’ve got a commendable grasp of your subjects, research and writing. They’re brilliant. I’m hoping if you can help me in the similar field, please? I’m doing my MA dissertation in Feminism and representing women in Bengali fiction Devdas (Novel 1917 and Movie 1955). I’d be really glad if you can help me with any suggestion, addition, point of view at all. Thank you.

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