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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”.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham: Elevating reality to the hyper-real

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham: Elevating reality to the hyper-real

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.

The glitz and glamour of Hindi films

The glitz and glamour of Hindi films and the way they represent India

vs. the reality of Indian cities. Can it be explained through the simple prism of fantasy!

vs. the reality of Indian cities. Can it be explained through the simple prism of fantasy!

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 ‘afilmic’, indicating unselected reality, reality independent of any relation with film; and this is where Souriau included documentary: ‘A documentary is defined as presenting people and things that exist in the afilmic reality’. (Michael Chanan, ‘On Documentary: The Zapruder Quotient’ Filmwaves No.4)


1 Prashant { 03.06.07 at 10:35 am }

I remember when Ram Gopal Varma was asked which films are you ‘scared’ of (in the context of horror films) he had said “KKKG”.

2 pok { 03.11.07 at 10:42 am }

Cartoons are more real than films like KKKG.

3 Kishore Budha { 03.12.07 at 7:32 am }

While I appreciate the despair of a section of the audience towards the kind of films Karan Johar makes, we nonetheless need to engage with his work. Not only is it a skill required to read films, but essential to critical thinking and further development of practice.

4 Kishore Budha » Revisiting the cultural geography argument { 03.15.07 at 9:43 am }

[…] In an earlier post, I had put forward the argument that using foreign locales in an arbitrary way (i.e., not placing the narrative in the reality of the geography and culture and instead using them as sites for the enactment of exotic fantasies) was problematic (read here and here). A report in Eux.tv validates the argument. […]

5 Savi { 08.01.07 at 9:25 pm }

Just to add to Kishore’s point, I think it is immensely important to interrogate mainstream cinema—Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum might caricature reality, but it drew millions to theatres(compare this to the miniscule sales of niche ‘realistic’ cinema). The nature of pro-filmic referents and the ideologial mediation of the auteur become pertinent issues in such a scenario because the naturalisation of conservatism in the name of ‘tradition’ has large-scale repercussions for the average cinephile who queues up to buy tickets for a Karan Johar film.

6 bugsnest { 09.14.07 at 1:34 pm }

I can’t help but comment on this article. Does Karan Johar’s work deserve such dissertation?

His films can barely be appreciated at any level – I am not saying it is entirely crap but there is very little beneath the glossy surface.
The man comes across across as intelligent but besides crafting his films cleverly to appeal to the NRI’s and bimbos (the labels, discos etc.), his contribution to the medium is something that will be easily forgotten in time… or history may remember him as a pioneer who was sympathetic to the cause of expatriate Indians… yuck!

7 Kishore Budha { 09.14.07 at 3:15 pm }

bugsnest: Thanks for the comments and critique. Your frustration is valid and appreciated but I disagree that such critiques should not be carried out. It does not help to be dismissive of such films and their audience. On the other hand, such films should be evaluated and explained so that there is counterpoint to their cultural hegemony. We ought to locate the cultural axes around which such filmic texts succeed. In this case, it is collective social fantasy driven by a new market-oriented India. Clearly, article aims to do that and not valorise Karan Johar and his films.

Audience have not been trained to read films, and a systematic discourse of mainstream media is encouraging them to celebrate popular culture (which this film is symptomatic of). This self-referencing intellectual line cheerleads the banality of popular culture with the axiom that “films are meant to entertain”. This deprives audiences the opportunity to aspire for and locate a higher meaning. Hopefully, some of that audience you critique will chance upon this and register my argument (even though they may not acknowledge it).

So I don’t consider this effort without use. Lastly, rigorous scholarly inquiry (with the right philosophical and political grounding) is an end in itself. It needs no justification.

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