Seduced by The Familiar (Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema)

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Item Code: IDK839
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: M.K. Raghavendra
Language: English
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9780199456307
Pages: 372 (6 Illustrations in B/W)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.8" X 5.7"
Weight 430 gm
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Seduced by the looks at contemporary social history from the perspective of popular Indian cinema. M.K. Raghavendra interprets a wide range of films – including Sant Tukaram (1936), Baazi (1951), Sangam (1964), Sholay (1975), Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), and the recent Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) – in the context of events like colonial rule, Independence, the Indo-Chinese War, the political conduct of India Gandhi, and the economic liberalization initiated in the 1990s.

Locating his approach within the body of scholarship on the subject, Raghavendra creates the basis for a new reading of Indian popular cinema based on its narrative strategies. He examines Indian popular cinema's 'grammar' – its definition of space, time, and causality, as well as its 'voice' reliance on melodrama, 'aggregate' nature, and moral preoccupations. A large number of films are analysed chronologically in this context to provide a consistent (and often surprising) interpretation of film motifs.

A significant advance for film studies, Seduced by the Familiar makes a vital contribution to the reading of Indian popular culture. Lucid and persuasive, this book consciously avoids the jargon associated with the study of cinema today and is accessible not only to students and teachers of film and cultural studies, but also to lay readers.

M.K. Raghavendra is a freelance film critic and scholar living in Banglore. He writes for a number of international and Indian film journals, and is one of the founder editors of Deep Focus. He has taught cinema in India and abroad and has also been on several film festival juries. He was awarded the 'Best Film Critic Award for 1996- Swarna Kamal' by the President if India.



This book began as a modest inquiry into the transformation of Indian popular cinema in its attempt to become 'global entertainment', but it became apparent quite early that the history of popular cinema in India is a history of such transformations. 'Bollywood', despite its reputed indifference to social issues and its shunning of the 'topical', has actually always responded to the ethos – although in strange ways. This is an aspect that has not received much recognition till fairly recently and, even now, the extent of this 'response' is not fully understood. If the popular model in Indian cinema was long regarded with hostility by the older school of Indian film critics, usually more responsive to the 'realist' aesthetic, it is still less 'appreciated' than interpreted. Film academics, now alive to its importance, tend to regard it as a 'symptom' rather than as a form with an independent aesthetic.

The film industry in India has also not attempted a serious justification of its own artistic choice and even insiders have tended to be apologetic, actually upbraiding audiences for the 'low standards' in film artistry. The term 'commercial cinema' applied to the Indian popular film is understood to be a pejorative one, but filmmakers of the school have rarely contested pointed references to their business aspirations, often being content to be perceived as manufacturers of entertainment. Indian commercial cinema may not have found able advocates even among its purveyors but this does not mean that its case lies beyond the pale of advocacy. An advocate must be found and, in the absence of another, the role devolves upon the film critic regardless of how inclined she/he may be to accept it. Popular cinema has remained faithful to its distinctive path for so long that it may be presumed to address and touch deeper chords; what it means to its audience needs to be explored and articulated.

With the new developments in media studies one is permitted to say that media texts are 'co-authored' by audiences. It is postulated that the 'creator co-authored' (the filmmaker) may initiate the process of generating meaning but that 'consumer co-author' (the audience) concludes it when he/she shapes it through his/her own experience. Once the involvement of the experience contained in Indian popular cinema becomes more assured. If one hypothesizes that there could be a 'natural selection' of patterns and motifs in the popular cinema of any period depending on their pertinence, the role of the consumer co-author is made even more significant and this places a greater value upon popular cinema.

For my purpose, Indian popular cinema's position can be broadly defined in terms of two constituent elements. The first element id perhaps a 'constant' – determined not only by the beliefs and worldview of the people of the subcontinent but also by the role that the arts have traditionally played in India. What the underlying beliefs may have been distorted under colonialism, their stability/constancy can be assumed at least after the advent of cinema, which is a relatively recent phenomenon. The other constituent element is a 'variable' associated with India's changing social and cultural climate. If the recurring codes and conventions of Indian cinema are traceable to the 'constant' element, the manner in which motifs actually undergo transformation may be a function of the changing social landscape. The fundamental codes are stable over longer periods but individual narratives and their constituent motifs apparently address the historical moment.


Traditional Evaluations

The earlier approach to popular cinema began with the film society movement and the founding of the Calcutta Film Society by Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Das Gupta in 1948. the hostility of this group of cineastes to Indian popular cinema is well known and its opinions were later echoed in Das Gupta's book The Painted Face (1992). According to their view the first concession to public happened very early in Indian film history though the genre of the mythological, which pandered to the 'lowest common denominator' in popular taste. Although Indian cinema 'faltered' at its very origins, a more respectable 'reformist' cinema emerged in the 1930s, at variance with the run-of-the-mill amalgam of stunts, spectacle, and magic. This view laments the theatricality of Indian cinema but sees a new cinematic direction emerging in the 1950s and after, with the advent of art or 'parallel' cinema. While it attributes the rise of parallel cinema to the growth of the middle classes, it also detects a decline in the standards of popular cinema and concludes that its later-day avatar is no more than an amalgam of mindless violence and titillation. This viewpoint is perhaps responsible for the lowly status accorded to the Indian popular film as cinematic expression. The difficulty with it is the canonized art cinema that has become the eventual casualty and popular cinema flourishes, patronized as never before by the middle classes.

The hostility just noted is inappropriate in a critical approach to such a popular body of entertainment but its logic must still be understood. The approach surmises that, since cinema is a development of photography and primarily intended to capture reality, it is most productive in its relationship with the real. Critics favouring this viewpoint valorize 'realism' as the mode of cinematic narration most appropriate to Indian cinema. Since the viewpoint originated in the society movement, the prescription is also intended to favour the development of 'good cinema'. The animosity towards the excesses of popular cinema is, however, not founded only on its aesthetic; this cinema is also identified as the possible of distinguishing between the screen image and reality and, therefore, susceptible to totalitarian politics. He cites the demagogic politics in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (that arose out of the respective regional cinemas) and contrasts it unfavourably with the rationalist and democratic traditions of the Nehru era. The aesthete's approach is perhaps anachronistic traditions of the Nehru era. The aesthete's approach is perhaps anachronistic because media critics are now convinced that such a large body of popular culture and contrasting it unfavourable the with 'high art', the approach that has gained ground today is to dissolve the distinction between the 'high' and the 'low' in culture.


Responses to Popular Culture: An Overview

Although much of the theoretical work done in the study of popular culture may not be pertinent to the eventual thrust of my arguments, recent developments in the field have deeply influenced the way Indian popular cinema is useful at least to the extent that it helps me 'locate' my own arguments and will also indicate where they diverge. Generally speaking, five main strategies are current in the way the critic approaches popular culture:

1. The first strategy attempts to find the terms of high culture where you least expect them.

2. The second approach places its emphasis on the aspects of social reality that are unavailable to high art.

3. The third refuses to analyse and opts instead for an enthusiastic study of detail as the foundation for evaluation.

4. In the fourth, the hedonistic approach, the problems with the popular are evaded by concentrating exclusively on the pleasure deriving from it.

5. The fifth method – usually employed by academics partial to psychoanalysis and methods deriving from structuralism – chooses to deal with the division between high and popular culture by dissolving it and declining to differentiate among the objects of study on the basis of such a division.

The late Iqbal Masud adopted the first strategy productively in his newspaper columns. Writers like Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar – whose primary interest is often outside cinema – employ the second one seriously. The third and the fourth strategies are adopted largely in the realm of newspaper or magazine journalism and the writing usually restricts itself to nostalgic articles about films music. It is the last strategy that has been the most productive in recent years and it is also this strategy that is most widely employed by academics to study Indian popular cinema. My own inquiry attempts to combine the first two strategies. It ventures into popular cinema because of its 'proletarian appeal' – although it is more concerned with it as cinema than with its uncovering of social reality. Second, while I do not claim that my study will help popular cinema active the status of 'high culture' inside India, I will to demonstrate that there is more method to it than is traditionally conceded. Its methods are complex and intricate in their production of meaning and they are, consequently, not undeserving of more than a little appreciation. Before I go on to look at the various approaches to Indian popular cinema, I should perhaps examine the direction taken by academic film study in the past two decades – whatever is done in India today relies upon it.

The oldest approach in the academic study of popular cinema around the world drew heavily on Freudian psychoanalysis but was perhaps only an extension of what had already been done in literary criticism. Psychoanalysis dominated film theorizing in the West for more than two decades and is still influential – although it is Jacques Lacan rather than Freud who is reigning deity. In the 1980s, a new approach labeled 'cognitivism' also took shape as an alternative to psychoanalysis. Cognitivism is not a unified theory but derives its name from its inclination to look for answers in terms of cognitive and rational processes rather than irrational and unconscious ones. The rationale is that when a convincing cognitive account is available, there can be no point in looking for a further, psychoanalytic account but there is a tendency for criticism to embark upon symptomatic or 'deep' interpretations of a text without acknowledging the primary obligation of a 'surface' interpretation.

Psychoanalysis still strongly informs film criticism in India and the West but the development that is also most influential in the study of Indian popular cinema today arrived with the discipline called 'film studies' in the 1970s. Before 1970 film history was largely treated in terms of canonized films and the reigning conceptual framework was auteurism, which intensified the premise the underpinned much of the traditional aesthetic by positing the director as the supremely important person in any film.

This position came under attack after 1970 from a new theoretical impetus largely initiated by followers of French structuralism. Claude Levi-Strauss was among the first structuralists to be translated and the structuralist semiology of Christian Metz also because more widely known outside France in the 1970s. The most influential structuralist argument with regard to cinema treated it as akin to myth and ritual. According to Levi-Strauss, myth translates contradictions in social life into symbolic terms and, while studying Hollywood genres, it was similarly argued that offered mythical resolutions to binary alternatives such as man/woman, individual/community, and order anarchy. Much of the attraction of structuralism to cinema did not however come from theorizing but from its application to particular bodies of films – like the works of auteurs – or to historically specific genres.

While the influence of structuralism upon film studies was relatively brief, new ideas from Althusserian Marxism (after Louis Althusser), Lacanian psychoanalysis (after Jacques Lacan), and Metzian semiotics (after Christian Metz) soon began to find their way into film studies and formed an amalgam that generally goes by the name 'Theory'. There are two composite streams within Theory and the first, which has sometimes been called the 'subject-position', uses the methods made influential by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who argued that the 'subject' itself is not an absolute but is socially constructed. His oft-quoted dictum. 'The unconscious is structured like language', can be taken to imply that the human mind is not pre-existent but is actually constituted by the language we employ. Lacan can be regarded as having developed a semiotic version of Freud and is important to criticism for this reason. Especially important in Lacanian criticism is Lacan's reformulation of Freud's concepts of the early stages of psychosexual development into the distinction between a pre-linguistic stage of development – the imaginary – and the stage after the acquisition of language that he termed the symbolic. In the imaginary, there is no clear distinction between the subject and the object. Lacan called the 'mirror stage' the movement when the infant begins to identify with his or her image in a mirror and begins to develop a sense of a separate self. For reasons that are not entirely clear the 'subject-position' found less favour with academics after the 1980s. One of the cited reasons is that it because victim to the charge of 'ahistoricality'. The motivating clause of 'symbolic order' used by it was too broad and 'totalizing'. Using psychoanalysis also foregrounded gender difference but suggested no way of dealing with other differences such as race and class, which were also regarded as determining.




  Introduction 1
1. Narrative Convention And Form 24
2. Indian Cinema before 1947 In Search of a Definition 69
3. The First Years of Independence Birth of a Nation 102
4. The 1950s and 1960s The Idea of 'India' 128
5. The 1970s Crosscurrents 173
6. The Furious 1980s Undermining the Nation State 207
7. Towards the New Millennium The End of Conflict 236
8. A Conclusion 282
  Notes 300
  Bibliography 333
  Film Index 341
  General Index 346

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