Pleasure, middle-class cinema, and reflexivity
Mass media texts are a fertile ground to mount inquiries into middle-class (or the bourgeoisie) India’s relationship with the global and local. Market mediated texts are rooted in specific ideological pleasures and the study of successful texts is revelatory. These texts, for example media discourse, films, music, advertising and promotion campaigns, which are aimed at segmented consumption often carry ideological symbols. The easily accessible motifs encode meaning which are rooted in the wider norms of the particular audience. In public analysis, it is often the texts that are criticised for being overt in their political position that attract scrutiny. For example, we can clearly locate the ideology that informs filmmakers such as Rakesh Sharma, Michael Moore and we often critique them for their content and presentation. The public often enjoys such bouts. Besides the voyueristic pleasure, it has the unintended consequence of developing the quality of public discourse.
However, popular texts such as music videos, books, magazines, films, TV shows escape close scrutiny. Often, critical assessment of popular texts is brushed off since it is considered trite, chutzpah, kitsch — inconsequential and harmless. Such waving away should be treated with caution as they hide a tendency to skirt around the centrality of popular culture to shape how we view the world, and perhaps even imagine it to be a reality.
This brief analysis of Swades attempts to mount a critical inquiry into the film and help understand one of the power motifs of the film, which can be found not only in it, but also outside it in the filmmakers discourse. An analysis fo the two discourse reveals an imagined construction of the nation and self amongst the Indian educated classes. This imagination places them at the centre of the state, acting as arbitrers of the society and development. I argue that Swades adapts Nehruvian ideology for urban Indians in the context of their new socio-economic reality of neo-liberalism (which is not a recent aspiration). One of the film’s attraction lies in its reinvention of Nehruvian nationalism to suit the contemporary age. This is central to the appropriation of the incomplete project of development, which stares constantly at the bourgeoise. It is not intended as a normative criticism of the film but as a study of an instance of the nature of a wider (elite) prescription about development. The solution is located in the application of a) the post-colonial formula of science, technology, self-sufficiency, and b) the neo-liberal remedy of enterprise, with the key to deliverance lying with the educated classes. Thus, the film forecloses any debate about the prescription itself.
The film’s plot has the protagonist Mohan Bhargav stumble into India’s forgotten hinterland in search of his childhood nanny. This starts off a process of self-identification with rural India, which forces him to confront the bleakness of life there. Having led an economically and intellectually rewarding life in the west, he decides to stay on and help “his people”. In his interactions with the village residents Mohan concludes that the solution to their problems lie in empowerment through self-sufficiency. Mohan demonstrates that prosperity can be attained by scientific and engineering interventions, which provides the village water and electricity. This hyphenated identification with both the individualistic wages of economic migration and the need to contribute with actions to alleviate rural poverty is a clear demonstration of the recontextualisation of Nehruvian ideology in an era of globalisation. Gowariker’s interviews to the media confirm this hypothesis: “If you have the opportunity, you must go abroad, study, work and make your money. But after a substantial amount of time, look back at what you’ve left behind and see if you can contribute in any way” (Gowarikar cited in the AFP report “Bollywood’s Oscar Nominee Director Returns to Tackle Indian Brain Drain” 16 Dec 2004).
Swades advocates benefits of the Nehruvian ideological state apparatus Mohan’s clearly defined programme of rural development. Motifs of modernity, application of science and technology, and self-sufficiency, which hark back to post-colonial policies, are reinvoked through the returning educated Indian. The construction of the character is a masterstroke in creativity – Mohan is the vessel for the ideology and can be easily filled by anyone who subscribes to it. In such relations, rural Indians are the bearers of the incomplete nationalist project. Such portrayals ignore the reality of the radical rural movements such as Naxalism and Maoist insurgencies and squander the opportunity to interrogate developmental problems. Instead, their politics is defined and acted out by the returning scientifically-educated, nostalgic, and “activist” Indian.
Such a reading of the film would be considered by the current elite to be overly critical. I would like to argue that this is a function of the general short-shrift given to humanities in the Indian educational scheme. Media literacy is woefully inadequate. The market often dictates the normative, which in turn dismisses such inquiries, focusing instead on valorising pleasures. “After all, it is a film meant only for enjoyment,” would be the typical refrain. It is suggested that we need to be reflexive about pleasure as it is revelatory, for example in this film pleasure is derived in two ways: (i) through the reinforcement of the elite Indian narrative which argues that the “greatness” of India lies in the hands of its educated and enterprising classes (see for example the India Poised, India Shining and other such public information campaigns) and (ii) a demonstration of its application. The audience pleasure is in transmuting itself to Mohan Bhargav and a complete identification with the larger goal of realising India’s “destiny” as an economically powerful nation. This sidesteps the real issue of India’s developmental path, which is outside the scope of this post. It suffices to demonstrate how mass media texts play a role in advancing particular narratives of society.
Thus, we can see here that purely market-driven norms of production and consumption hide a deeper problem. Greater urgency and investment is required in the field of research-led education in humanities. For example, universities should play an active role in examining contemporary India and more importantly share the same with the public. As an illustration, research into film production processes would demonstrate how central plots of films come into being and what are their relationships to the politics and culture of society. Understanding would not only make us aware of our narratives, but eventually help us alter the discourse for a better end. I am sceptical average university courses in India are anywhere near such intellectual aspirations. We need to shed our dislike for the humanities and social sciences and see it as central to the India Shining, India Poised projects.