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Hindi cinema and style

A feature article in Screen (India) has reported about the recent trends in style and fashion, or image, as a major component of popular Hindi films. Producers take great care to plan and execute the look and feel of the film right down to the extras.

I would like to argue that style and fashion in Hindi films is more a representation of the sociology and economics of contemporary India than it is a cinematic uniqueness.

To arrive at this conclusion, one should discard any discussion of the generally understood role of costume designing in cinema. We understand that costumes are merely a part of the cinematic whole, which seeks to faithfully represent a “reality”, whether real or imagined.

In popular Hindi films the selling point is “haute” style, most often the kind that originates from Milan, New York, London, Paris etc and is identified and consumed in “global cities”. This highlights the differences Indian cinema has with other cinemas. The consumeristic and urban settings of Hindi film plots allows these symbols to be used as a) a signal of the quality of the film (after all directors such as Karan Johar declare that his films are conceptualised on a lavish scale), and b) problematically as a signal that these films are now one with flows of symbols and images in global cities. For the audience it is an aspirational world of external chic that is appropriated by the plot into a narrative of Indian moral framework. I understand that the term Indian moral framework is too vague a conception, thus it is conceptualised here as one informed largely by patriarchy and conservatism.

Sidestepping normative arguments, it is interesting to note that unlike in other global cinemas, costumes in Hindi films can be a whole by itself. Costumes, image, and styling are not symbols by themselves but are conveyed through the stars and it is interesting how stars appropriate imagery from one successful film and carry it forward into other films and even their public persona, for example Abhishek Bhachchan carried the look given to his character (stubble and unbuttoned shirt) into his public persona as well as other films.

There are two issues here: a) Will this be a unique cinematic quality of popular Hindi cinema; or b) is it merely a short term trend that will be given up at the appropriate time.

Given that the haute couture is not a widely established culture, popular films and stars remain the vessel through which these ideas are circulated. As Indian society reaches a critical mass of consumerism, the clamour for realism should soon set in. And that may see the end of this trend.

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