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Filmmaking as a Social Ritual in India and Indonesia

I had the opportunity of spending the last two days with a delegation of film makers, film affairs officials and film lab owners from Indonesia. One important highlight of the exchange of ideas was a session hosted today morning by Mr Hariharan, film maker and Director of LV Prasad Film and Television Academy, Prasad Studios, Chennai. Here are his arguments about why we must engage with Indian film industry not through the Western notion of realism or the marker of “escapism”. Hariharan broke new ground in Tamil film industry with his Ezhavathu Manithan (Seventh Man),1982. He is an alumnus of FTII, Pune, and partnered with Mani Kaul, Saeed Mirza in the Yukt Film Cooperative and the making of Ghasiram Kotwal.

“We make 1100 films in a industry that is worth just US $1.8 billion to sustain the discourses of modernity in 16 languages. We must remember here the US $ 4 billion revenue generated by one Hollywood film, Avatar. This is not to be seen as a business, I see it as a social ritual. Nearly 850 of our films are to be seen as disasters financially as they do not collect their money back. There is probably an underlying logic of madness in this industry where such a large number of films do not get their returns and yet we continue to make films in large numbers. I am sure Mr Mukesh Ambani is personally worth US $ 15 billion and his group is worth a crazy figure. He can buy the tiny Indian film industry just like that with his money.

But the difference between the tiny Indian film industry and Mukesh Ambani is: He wont get four pages or two pages every day like the Indian film industry in our newspapers. Nobody wants to know about the richest Indian like Mukesh, but everyone wants to know about what is happening in the film industry. Another interesting fact is everything we use by way of raw materials and equipment in film making in India is imported and we stretch their use exponentially. We use Arriflex cameras for thirty years whereas in Hollywood they do not use beyond a year. We make large number of films with little money and poor resources because we work beyond normal expectations of filmmaking. Filmmaking here is enacted by individuals as a social ritual where few or many individuals come together and pool their money to make films. The lost money belongs to all and that does not come in the way of the social ritual that is enacted as a matter of pride and prestige, as in the case of expensive marriages of rich men. Rich men do not worry about the money spent on their children. They do not count them as money lost, but as money spent on a social ritual. That’s why there are few corporate players in Indian film industry. They can not handle the idea of filmmaking as a social ritual.

What we must pay attention is the language of Indian cinema. I mean by language, what Indian films use to enact the social ritual – songs, dances, fights etc., The language of Western cinema or their idea of cinema is deeply rooted in the idea of authenticity. We do not care for being authentic. All our films are post-dubbed. No sync sound is possible here. Here the picture is authentic, the sound is not. There they have 20 takes for getting authentic sound.We can not bother about or I can not afford to bother about that. Our is an image dominant cinema, whereas the smallest Iranian cinema takes pride in live sound. Even Ousmane Sembene bothers about live sound. Like our films, the only other exception in this regard is the early Italian neo realist films such as Bicycle Thief. As we have a huge talent of dubbing artists in this country, I do not worry about whether my actors speak in the language of my films. Actors move from one language to another and this helps Indian films to stitch a new fabric that is Indian cinema. This also helps to bring other parts of India to viewers in my area.

One of the words I dislike is “escapism.” Indian films are not escapist. They are what sustains modern mythologies. Here the stories have to be unreal so that the viewers can access them. Like Ramayana, our films are mythological in a sense. Therefore the cinema of realism is ridiculous here. As in epics, in Indian films we have our own heroes and icons. Reality does not provide clues about the solutions to our problems. It is the unreal nature of our films that allows our viewers to access their reality. It is not providing escapist fare, but helps us to deal with my reality through the unreal depiction of heroes and villains. If our villains and heroes look like us, they can not appeal to us. They have to be unreal to make a point about our reality. Hanuman’s unreal act of shifting a mountain just to get a medicinal leaf for Rama was meant to convey the extent to which a friend can go in times of need. Here we should not ponder over questions about the unreal nature of the act, but the message. This is true of Indian films’ heroes and villains.”

The dominant impression I got about the Indonesian film industry from the visitors is the manner in which the animist and folkloristic beliefs of people are leveraged by the horror genre. Horror films are what the Indonesian audience like most, according to members of the team. On closer scrutiny, I found something revealing about what sustains horror filmmaking in Indonesia. The folklore in South East Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where the feminine grotesque in the form of Kuntilanak and Sundelbolong, the avenging female ghosts, comes anew in what Indonesians call as the end of the new order regime in 1998 to deal with the violence of the regime. Its implications at the “visceral level,” as Thomas Barker (2011) says in his abstract of the paper on Indonesian horror films, are what gives a new meaning to the very conventional genre of film making, horror. “By drawing on psychoanalytical film theory that analyses how horror films represent widely held social anxieties, I suggest that the popularity of horror films in post 1998 Indonesia belies a broadly felt trauma about the unresolved violence of the New Order regime. At the visceral level, these stories of horror provide catharsis for audiences in post 1998 Indonesia through the re-enactment of the violence in the genre of horror. It also reveals a relationship between popular film, contemporary audiences, and historical trauma.” The Indonesian horror is not horror without its subversion by the role of filmmaking as a modern mythology and a social ritual to deal with the violence of the past regime and its implications for the present reality. Here what is enacted is an appropriation of a film genre that originated in the West by a Eastern film industry to reveal the social ritual of communication films ought to play. Here film making comes alive as a modern mythology, as Hariharan argues in the case of Indian films, by leveraging the mythological/folkloristic traditions to deal with the reality of violence of the previous regime and present circumstances. Obviously, in India and Indonesia, there seems to be a strong case to see film making in a decentred manner. In the Durkheimian logic, rituals are what sustains social cohesion and individuals’ sense of belonging. Without the public performance of rituals which films seek to perform on behalf of the society and its members, there is likely to be a threat to social bonding and individual wellbeing. In this sense, sociologically speaking, filmmaking is film making, not because of what we conventionally attribute to it, but because of what it seeks to embody in terms of the long running social necessity for rituals and mythologies to connect with the reality of the past and present.


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