Hyper-realism in popular cinema
Just watched Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (Karan Johar, 2001) and couldn’t help but notice how geography is used by the filmmaker. Carefully constructed in its mise-en-scene, the film locates the story in a diegesis that is the imagination of the filmmaker and his professional collaborators (art director, costume designer, amongst others). Karan Johar has repeatedly articulated that he likes his films to look “beautiful” and “sophisticated”. He overtly avoids gritty realism and has been critiqued by some filmmakers for his “candy-floss” movies. It has been argued that his films are aimed at NRI audiences, who derive pleasure in watching Karan’s vision of “Indian culture” and “family-values”.
In this particular film the mise-en-scene in every shot is meticulously constructed, with the cinematography (using carefully composed close-ups and mid-level shots) and lighting (high-key) serving to accentuate the characters in their profilmic geography (see notes at bottom). Thus, the film is more an elaborate costume drama drawing on melodrama traditions from Indian cinema. Its contribution to Indian cinema is perhaps in providing audiences a voyeuristic view of upper-class life (family castle, helicopters, flashy cars, designer clothes) while appropriating the class for ideological security (conservative family values, patriarchy, fate). The success of the film is also instructive to filmmakers of what works with Indian audiences, thus setting narrative norms.
What interested me most was the artifice of geography. The film is set in two imaginary spaces — India and UK. The depiction of Indian and British culture and geography are entirely imaginary (though some shots of London are used as backdrops for a few scenes). I could not relate to the depiction of India or London in the film. What was amusing and alarming was the depiction of English as flippant and silly people. It is hard to imagine an English who lived in the kind of upperclass neighbourhood of Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and not being able to afford childcare. Similarly, the depiction of university life in Britain is far removed from reality.
To argue that the filmmaker has every right to make a film the way he/she pleases would be missing the point of this post entirely. That is a given. The aim here is to explain conceptually what he/she is doing and mount explanations into the same. Any opposition to such critical examination exposes the defensive nature of film scholarship and intellectual life in South Asia.
Contrary to the filmmaker’s protestations, he is meticulous in realistically representing the consumeristic aspect of his subjects. The clothes labels, cars, home, helicopters, characters, pyramids, disco, lifestyle are all real. The filmmaker picks these from the real world puts them together in an imaginary narrative the high points of which are melodrama, nationalism, conservative ideology. He does not parody them neither does he represent them in a surreal fashion. Instead this is a hyper-realism, a projection of fantasies, an editing out of those realities that the filmmaker does not want to confront and as a consequence his audiences do not do so themselves. This fantasy has no geography.
I would like to argue that by situating the film in its geographical authenticity would reveal the morbidity of such fantasies. For example, think of walking around in India dressed in designer clothes with the poverty as the backdrop. By editing out this one reality and playing up another one, the filmmaker is able to create a new hyper-reality that is shared, celebrated, and lived.
The term profilmic was introduced in the 50s by a group of French scholars led by Etienne Souriau, as one of a series of eight technical terms which they agreed on in their discussions, of which only two, however, have passed into general theoretical currency – profilmic and diegetic. Diegetic indicates narrative content (as opposed to non-diegetic elements, such as background music). Profilmic was intended to refer to the selected elements of reality (the actor, the decor, etc.) that are placed in front of the camera and leave their impression on the film. The term was paired with the â€˜afilmicâ€™, indicating unselected reality, reality independent of any relation with film; and this is where Souriau included documentary: â€˜A documentary is defined as presenting people and things that exist in the afilmic realityâ€™. (Michael Chanan, ‘On Documentary: The Zapruder Quotient’ Filmwaves No.4)