Colonialism and Bollywood

I am again thinking on colonialism whether or not it was a kind of emasculation of India; to my mind, it was not. Indians were not really independent before the British because for most Indians, the long centuries of Muslim rule was really emasculation. The Muslim rulers came in through the sword and it was really not before the Mughals that the Indians who were largely Hindus were allowed any freedom of worship or religion. I do not speak of the common Indians i.e. of the aam admi for they were left pretty much alone but the elites were indeed curtailed in their freedom of worship and belief. The emasculation actually happened in the Sultanate after which there has been a gradual resuscitation of the Hindu pride. Looked at carefully, the Indian-Hindu pride was almost wholly recovered by the time of the country directly passing under the Crown in the aftermath of 1857. The Indian Renaissance was an uplifting moment for the Indian pride because through a reflection on colonialism and Westernisation, there was a recovery of the spirit of the Indian civilization. The train of thought was something like this; why was India colonised? Because the Indian civilization was weakened through a continuous submission to the Islamic rule. The Islamic rulers rather than the British were the emasculating force and the British, by their modernity and rational spirit in fact recharged the Indian mind and enabled it to once again come back on the rails of history. Therefore, the Freedom Struggle was an assertion of a newly freed spirit of inquiry; a newfound argumentativeness with which the world’s greatest power, i.e.Britain was engaged with. The fun of the Freedom Struggle was as much that of good arguments that defeated the British in their own game and a moral high ground. No wonder then Gandhi was so suited to the cause of the Indian psyche. Colonialism was emasculation for the Muslims.

However, for many African and Latin American societies, colonialism was emasculation and so it was emasculation for the Middle eastern countries. Colonialism was emasculation for China. But for India, colonialism in fact helped free the Indians held in captivity by the long Muslim rule. Indian wrath has been more upon the medieval mores of the Muslim rule than it has been against the British. The Indian Muslims on the other hand did face some kind of emasculation. Looked at in this manner, the Muslim ire against the Hindus in the aftermath of the Government of India Act 1935 was to put the Hindus back in place as subjects. For the Hindus, the Government of India Act was the first step towards real autonomy and in this “freedom after centuries” they wanted to be totally free of the Muslims, their erstwhile masters and bullies.  The Partition was in a way also a Freedom fight between the displaced masters, the Muslims and the newly assertive subjects the Hindus.

The Partition brought a sense of shame to the Hindus for the violence it engendered and the lands it lost. The Hindus did not after all have too bad a time under the Muslims especially those who were in the ordinary business of life; but the prospect of Freedom and participation in the Freedom Movement brought many into the realm of power through the anticipation of democracy and this perhaps raised in many Hindus emotions that were braced among their erstwhile rulers! The Hindus tried to reconcile the Partition through moderated behaviour and disciplined civility. This is what really gets reflected in the cultural developments post Partition. Also, much of the cultural activities in the aftermath of Independence was more of management of the Partition. I find it a little funny when people say that the Indian cinema does not reflect Partition; what else does the Indian cinema do if not reflect the Partition?

To the best of my mind, the 1950’s and the 1960’s were decades devoted to the management of the Partition; it was not before the 1970’s with the coming of Mrs Gandhi that India really found itself as a sovereign nation. The age of Amitabh Bachchan reflected that.  A possible reason for the rise of masculinity during Amitabh was the power of the individual; a strong state committed to the cause of the poor and that promoted the professional middle class gave an unprecedented sense of agency to the individual. The economic liberalization undermined that by taking away the very foundation of the power of the individual, a strong state led economic development with secure and safe jobs. With uncertain jobs, precarious income flows and private employer with so called “reformed labour laws” the status of the individual that comes from secured employment crashes out. This is one side of the story. On the other side, the individual is a site of consumption, her body a site for pleasure. Given the two together, i.e. emaciation and consumerism, we get narcissism or self-obsession around the body. Both men and women then put up their bodies for gaze leading to narcissism. Narcissism then has the great effect of reducing the sexual libido, turning it away from the body into the imagined responses in the other. Libido is transferred to the other.

Also, with the status and even the self-image of an individual collapsing and the rise of the female agency, there is now a greater equality between the sexes. The equality that begins in the public sphere seeps into the private sphere and makes both sexes equal claimants of sexual desires and thus breaks the initiating male and the accepting female divide.  Such equality and loss of hierarchy also plays a part in the obliteration of differences between the sexes paving way for the unisex or same gender sex. Homosexuality has never been as well accepted as now. Gay rights, legitimacy of lesbianism, rights for the transgender are now more securely rooted in society than ever before.

We now come to your second question namely why the popular Indian cinema has been aural for so long and visual only in the past one decade. The first visual cinema I can think of is Hum Aapke Hai Kaun and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. My suspicions that the cinema in India is aural first arose when in a class appreciating Sholay, the blind students made many pertinent comments and observations. It was then that I realized that were I to watch cinema blind I could get a perfect feel of films only by listening to them. The film music which is said to have an independent life of its own is significant precisely because of this aural quality. Try “listening” to a Ray movie or a Rituparna Ghosh cinema, you will find that they make no sense because such films are visuals. But the popular cinema is distinctly aural. A part of the reason for this lies in the fact that the Indian culture is aural rather than visual. But a part of this reason also lies in the history that much of the cinema used to be advertised by travelling bards across the cities and villages far away from locations of film exhibitions. The radio came in much later, in fact only in the 1970’s to advertise or air film based programmes.

We now must discuss why is the Indian culture aural? A possible reason for this is that India has always sought a kind of a social unity that exhausted its spatial geography. This is why, if culture had to travel it had to travel across space and only voices and songs could carry such culture in the absence of cinema, or performative arts and so on. In fact, travelling theatres or circuses also have been rarities in India and not before the rise in opulence and cultural freedom of the zamindars which happened paradoxically only during the British who did not interfere in the cultural affairs did the circus travel out of smaller kingdoms especially of southern India. The Indian cinema relied on emotions and portrayed them in loud acting which may have looked rather dramatic on screen but when only heard, made an equal impact.

Aural cultures predominates inclusive and plural cultures and sometimes even secular cultures. Visual cultures are more primeval, attuned to getting into order a primitive and impulsive set of people, more oriented towards control and desirous of outward assertion. Aggressive nationalism, tribal societies, migrant people and others move towards the predominance of visual cultures. Visual cultures homogenise and exclude and hence seek defining boundaries with which to identify the self and the other. Aural cultures on the other hand are more alluring, more inviting, and participative and depend on aesthetic appeal.  

I would defend my position that the cinema used to be aural but is now visual by citing the kind of cinema that now gets made with lot of tactility through the camera movement, visual frames, use of special effects and so on which may fall “blind” upon those who can only “hear’ cinema. Cinema no longer looks towards itself being heard but is only seen. This change is in part due to many of the functions broadly two, metaphysics and morals, have been taken over by the television soap operas, or shall we say fairness cream operas? The cinema is actually marginalized; its multiplexization is its marginalization. The cinema addresses issues that are left out by the television soap; its exploration of the male sexuality as well as drawing the woman out into the asexual public sphere as in the film Queen. Male sexuality is not championed but somewhere the men are repeatedly assured of their sexuality, a hint for us to imply that the male libido has got a beating as a constitutive force of the public sphere. Strong visual cultures wherever they have appeared have tried to present a sexual libido, which works as an assurance of identities severely beaten down.




About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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3 Responses to Colonialism and Bollywood

  1. ashaydnaik says:

    Sorry, this is not a commen on the article itself.

    Just wanted to convey to you how inspired I feel by your comment written on 31 Jan 2013 in response to Oishik Sircar’s post. I suppose those who endorse compliciity and contamination as many on the Left appear to do will not truly appreciate your advice. But what you have said truly encapsulates the idea of an intellectual. It is a tough and thankless profession that exhilarates but often wearies the soul and there is no point in entering it unless one is truly prepared to embrace the eternal.

  2. Well said, it’s scary how blurred the lines are between what actually sells and what the film industry wants to sell. I guess it is reflective on our perception of entertainment and the crassest denominators it caters to. For every Robin Thicke, we have a Honey Singh. Sigh.

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