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Indian cinema — the culture/tradition argument

I shall be jotting down a series of musings to raise questions about the different conceptions of Indian cinema floated by living room “experts”, academics, and practitioners. I would like to put forth the various imaginations of Indian cinema. Some of them are grounded persuasively, while others use a logic that looks plausible — at least on the surface — but on digging deeper throws up more questions. The idea here is to not belittle them but to use them to inform about the various ways we inform ourselves and others about what cinema is. In other words, the makings of an essentialist argument about cinema and society.The first one I would like to explore is the culture/tradition argument.

In the absence of sound empirical evidence on which to conceptualise the Indian film form, various models of its evolution have been propounded – some grounded in study of the film text, others in historical accounts. In their simplified versions, there is an a priori tendency to locate tradition at the centre of all social processes, which is then considered to have been poured into the vessel of cinema at its juncture of meeting. The outcomes of such reasoning are the identification of Mahabharata, Ramayana, folk dance/drama traditions among others in film text. The primacy of this argument is strengthened by the existence of multimedia communication traditions, from hand drawn tableaux images in scroll paintings with accompanying live sounds (Nair:1995) to the traditions of classical dance and theatre (Pendakur:2003; Gokulsing & Dissanayake:1998). Using these explanations, the idea of audience demand for such texts are advanced, which further complicates any study. These explanations have no commitment to the possibility of the reflective conditions in which the interaction could have taken place. The accounts suffer from the following weakness:

  1. excessive focus on tradition as the primary means of interrogating technology;
  2. the neglect of human agency and social processes in the dynamic interaction between technology and traditional processes; and
  3. disregard for the means of production.

One of the results of this line of thinking is the “frontal” or “tableaux” representation that can be located in the Indian film. However, it is interesting how traditional Indian arts have had the ability to handle narrative and movement, to relate human figures to each other in meaningful interactions of facial expressions, and angles and lines (similar to the eyeline match). For example the low reliefs in the sculptures and paintings at Sanchi, Amravati, and Ajanta. Similarly, folk art such as Madhubani, Kalighat, and Tanjore subsumed western influences such as the medium of water colour but this did not constitute a stylistic break. In contrast, Phalke’s influence on Indian cinema has introduced severe limitations in the usage of space and movement. Additionally, by rejecting the traditional scriptural models for the depiction of gods, Ravi Verma and Phalke reduced the form to ordinary humans in fancy dress. This format is visible in the modern day television series Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The question remains, why do we have a predominantly frontal mode of representation in the popular film. Is it culture and “audience” tastes. I would like to argue that though early filmmakers offered a format for representation, the economics of production facilitated theatrical shots with focus on frontality. It made shooting films easy, allowed for construction of narratives without the need to break heads over exploring the possibilities the medium offered (closeups, tracking, panning, edits). And over a period of time, the frontal mode of representation, along with the tableaux form became normalised as the Indian film narrative form. So, instead of arguing merely about culture as some sort of teleological force piercing through history, we need to also examine other conditions.

(to be continued)

3 comments

1 utpal borpujari { 08.20.07 at 3:42 am }

Kishore: very interesting. waiting for the next installment. – Utpal

2 Kishore Budha » Indian cinema (2): Film theory meets Darr { 08.26.07 at 2:34 pm }

[…] In continuation to the writings on imaginations/theories of Indian cinema (read the introductory article here). […]

3 Indian cinema (2): Film theory meets Darr | Edit Room { 07.31.08 at 11:50 am }

[…] In continuation to the writings on imaginations/theories of Indian cinema (read the introductory article here). […]

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