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Indian cinema (2): Film theory meets Darr

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

The “modernisation” of tradition
One of the key arguments about Indian cinema lies in the thesis of the “modernisation of tradition”, which challenged the view that technologies had an inherent quality of modernity (modernity here conceptualised as a break from the past). Thus, photography and cinema were deemed to have inherent qualities — of realism — and the ability to transform modes of narratives particularly in terms of staging, address etc. It is instructive to pay attention to this thesis as many discussions about Indian cinema (including here at Passion for Cinema) tend to get polarised along these lines, though they may not articulate them so.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s ground-breaking study of the meeting between Indian art and photography is a useful starting point. The interrogation of the introduction of technology (photography, lithography, proscenium theatre) and consequent change was the project undertaken under the aegis of “Journal of Arts and Ideas” (JAaI) by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Geeta Kapur, and Anuradha Kapur. The kernel of the project lies in the assertion that contrary to the assumption that photography would automatically introduce realism, the intersection of the technology on the other hand merely led to the “modernisation” of “traditional” formats of visual culture. Thus, a traditional aesthetic was re-enshrined within the ontology of the new medium.

This logic of tradition being “modernised” was also located in the formation of the Parsee theatre and is considered to have been subsequently extended to the collage of cinematic techniques of narration, particularly the “song-dance-action” format. One of the path-breaking contributions of the JAaI project to cinema is the location of frontality and tableaux as a mode of representation, which has its origins in Phalke, the instances of which can be located in present-day cinema :

frontality of the word, the image, the design, the formative act. This yields forms of direct address; flat diagrammatic and simply profiled figures; a figure-ground pattern with only notational perspective; repetition of motifs in terms of ritual play; and a decorative mise-en-scene (Kapur, G 1987:80)

Case Study – Darr

Darr (1993). The staging here is reminiscint of Lumiere’s shorts including Arroseur arrose, L’ (1895) except that in Darr the pan is used to expand the spatial relations and the cut merely serves the function of moving from one theatrical staging to the other. The narrative is constructed by frames within which characters act out ritualised roles rather than a complex play of spatiality and temporality through usage of cuts and shots. In the format of early theatre, the staging is frontal and in tableaux format, with the audience (outsiders) looking in rather than being immersed in the action. From shots 1 to 6, Kiran performs for the camera (the audience) and even engages in direct address, thereby reminding them of the outsider looking in relationship of the audience to the film text. This format of staging is not merely restricted to the song sequence but also to the plots that follow.From shots 7 to 9 again like the shots before the actors are layed out at an angle so they can face both the audience as well as each other.

Kiran discusses the arrival of Sunil. Note the frontality.

Kiran discusses Sunil's arrival. Note the frontality

1. Kiran discusses Sunil's arrival. Note the frontality

A mysterious voice (supposedly Sunil's) teases Kiran

2. A mysterious voice (supposedly Sunil's) teases Kiran

Direct address: Kiran looks at the camera

3. Direct address: Kiran looks at the camera

he search continues. Kiran continues to look towards the camera (though slightly off).

4. The search continues. Kiran continues to look towards the camera (though slightly off).

A continuation of the staging

5. A continuation of the staging

A joyous Kiran performs a twirl. Throughout the song and the scenes that follow, we are witness to a series of staged shots, which use a system of frontality, tableaux, and direct address.

6. Kiran is joyous! Throughout the song and the scenes that follow, we are witness to a series of staged shots, which use a system of frontality, tableaux, and direct address.

At the end of the song, Kiran and friends discuss. The audience is distanciated from the action.

7. The song sequence comes to an end and Kiran and friends get chatting and this sets up the next sequence. In comparison to the song sequence where we were encouraged to be intimate with Kiran, here some distanciation is created.

Note the actors angled positions.

8. Kiran and friend joke about. There is no use of the shot reverse shot. Instead, an economy is created by positioning the actors at slight angles allowing them to have the conversation while giving us full view.

As the story advances into the next plot, the staging format continues.

As the story advances into the next plot, the staging format continues.

(Video Above) In this Lumiere short (Arroseur arrosé, L’), the staging and character movemement is restricted by the framing caused by a fixed camera and lack of editing. Thus, we witness a rudimentary usage of the camera, which severely restricts the staging of action due to limitations in usage of space and time. We note that in ‘Darr’ the actors play out in front of the camera, very similar to a performance on the stage, which is directed towards the audience able to view it from a limited angle.

Staging, frontality, and early cinema

Anuradha Kapur, in her study of the Parsee theatre, demonstrates that frontality “a performer-audience relationship based on directness and lacking dissembling character; a sort of spectacle“ was retained and used in the modern format of the proscenium (1993:92). While the idea of frontality is useful for its abstraction of the film text, the literature does not identify the reason which led to its eminence over other forms such as the dominant aesthetic . Rajadhyaksha (2000) offers other uses to the concept of frontality, particularly in the democratisation of the look. By looking directly at the audience and breaking from the convention of western cinema, the logic initiates a process of exchange of look between the star and spectator, where the collective power of the latter mobilises demands on the film text.

Other commentators have taken a more political and radical approach to aesthetics, primarily due their stance over the role of film in development of the state in the post-colonial environment. Cinema is viewed by such critics as an important medium for the emancipation of the masses as well as pushing the envelope of the cinematic medium — particularly the elements of film such as cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scene. Thus, defining what constitutes good aesthetics and locating its adversary in the popular film form, the eminent film critic Chidananda Das Gupta (1995) criticises Phalke for transferring to the moving image a celebration and reinforcement of Hindu myths in a form far removed from the rich traditions of Hindu representations. In the process Das Gupta argued, Phalke reduced the interpretation and application of the arts to static literalism on screen. In terms of content, a majority of the 100 films he made dealt with ancient mythology, thus exposing his eagerness to build a temporal bridge between the current and a mythical (and imagined) past in a regressive tendency. This was done at the expense of the periods in between, which saw the entry of the Mughals and British to the land. Das Gupta makes his stance clear when he locates the truth of the cinematic medium in the effects of industrialisation:

(the Phalke usage of Ravi Varma inspired frontality and decoration) held Indian cinema back from exploring the essence of a medium created in response to the need to reflect new perceptions of spatial relationships arising from highly accelerated relative speed of objects encountered in daily experience after the industrial revolution. (Das Gupta, 1995:105)

Das Gupta is also quick to point out to his detractors that traditional Indian arts have 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). He points to 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, argues Das Gupta, 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. Das Gupta finds the redemption in the “new cinema2 , which represents a “protest against the dead form and content bequeathed to it by the Phalke-Verma domination of the mainstream cinema, which continues to this day”.

The problem of frontality can be located to the basic lack of technical skill (which is the argument used by the critics of Indian popular cinema), but the persistence of this mode of representation need to be explained else we are forever divided and reduce all discussions to polemics.

(to be continued)


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