This is one of those Big Big essays. And I am very sleep deprived and stressed right now which, strangely, puts me in the perfect frame of mind for this particular discussion. My brain craves theoretical instead of practical concerns.
In 1923 Frankfurt Germany, the Institute for Social Research was founded. This was a magical time in Germany, the inter-war period, when there was this glorious sense of promise and optimism and excitement. All the old bad powers had been swept away, and the people could do anything. The Institute for Social Research was part of that new era, a new kind of institute. Instead of looking at questions of hard science, of trying to design a new thing in the world and discuss it, it was looking at new thoughts and how to discuss them.
(Yes, this was the era of Cabaret. Which is kind of interesting, because the 1972 film version was a conscious deconstruction and reveal of the movie musical in a way that the Frankfurt Group would have loved)
1923 was also when popular culture had reached another turning point in the world. Any time anyone tries to argue about the origin of popular culture, at a certain point you end up going back to Gutenberg. Yes, today we have The Internet, but before that we had television. And before that we had radio. And before that we had movies. And before that we had newspapers. And before that we had books. And then there you are, Gutenberg. The one firm doorstop of an answer as you swing through cultural history.
But 1923 was, if not the beginning of popular culture, at least a moment of expansion. Film had grown to be the primary source of entertainment for most of the world, just in the past decade. At the same time, newspapers and novels were being printed more cheaply then ever and distributed more widely. And the war had served as a great leveler, bringing new voices into these realms and new ideas into the world. A good time for the foundation of an institute devoted to studying all of this, to studying people themselves and societies and mass movements, instead of the little bacteria that grow inside of people or the big machinery that can kill them.
And so a group of theorists slowly came together at the Institute to form what became known in later years as The Frankfurt School. And because their ideas were in the air, or maybe they came together because these ideas were already there, Germany also became the nexus of one of the great mass uses of popular culture to promote political ideology.
(Triumph of the Will and all that. Incredibly brilliant leap forward in film, but all at the service of hateful political ideals)
Germany had a state funded film studio, UFA, which in the 1920s was extremely exciting and inventive. They invented the film style of German Expressionism, and discovered and trained numerous talents, everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Devika Rani. And then Hitler came to power in 1933. He took over the film studios, and many of the talents fled. He filled them instead of sycophants and put his minister of propaganda in charge. Actors, especially pretty young female ones, were used as window dressing for boring speeches and political events. And films increasingly sold a fantasy of a certain kind of Germany. A fantasy which the public fed on and believed and slowly the country was poisoned and brainwashed. Not the whole country, but a lot of it.
The Frankfurt School started during that early exciting time in film and national life. It’s scholars were some of the first to seriously look at popular culture and the greater society and how they influenced each other. Some of them were Marxist, some humanist, but no matter their particular philosophical lens, what mattered most was what they were looking at. Common people and common experiences and what that meant for the world.
And, because they were looking so closely and so carefully, they were also some of the first to be sickened by the changes happening in the country. Many of the members of the Frankfurt school began to be wary long before Hitler was elected. They saw in the popular films an increasing message of national pride, and religious hatred. They read the warning signs and were terrified. Once Hitler was elected, many of them fled. Along with the most talented filmmakers of the country who refused to work with Hitler and his government, instead being replaced by inferior talents propped up by the Nazi Regime.
(Fritz Lang was offered anything he wanted in Germany because they needed him to make his brilliant movies and convince the people. He asked for a night to think about it, and then he fled as fast as he could to Hollywood and began cranking out anti-Nazi films)
In 1940, cultural criticism had its first martyr. Walter Benjamin had fled Germany for Paris in the 1930s, but of course that wasn’t far enough. He was thrown in a French prison camp, released, and then traveled to the Spanish border along with a group of refugees and tried to cross in order to board a boat for America. The Spanish government would not allow them to pass and told them they would be sent back to France. And that night Benjamin killed himself with morphine. The government, perhaps shocked at what he had done, then allowed the rest of his party to cross the border. Back in Germany, Benjamin’s brother died in a concentration camp in 1942. By taking his own life and forcing the hands of the Spanish authorities, Benjamin saved himself and his friends from a hideous prolonged death.
Before his death, Benjamin had left his last manuscript for safekeeping with a friend. It traveled through wartorn Europe and was finally published. Taking the form of a rejection of “historical materialism”, the Marxist concept of history as following set patterns and marching towards a predictable future, but instead arguing “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”
So, that is where my branch of academic discipline begins! With terrified men writing for their lives, trying to reveal the poison that is killing their society before it kills them. The Frankfurt School scholars, most of them, ended up in New York City in America. They had various jobs and did various things, but they all kept writing about popular culture. The most famous film related study to come out of this group was Sidney Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. You can read the whole book, but really the title tells you the main point. By looking at the popular films of the pre-Hitler and during-Hitler era of German film, you can understand the psychology of the masses, what it was and how it was driven by pop culture, and therefore draw a direct line from popular film (and in a greater sense, popular culture) to the rise of an evil regime.
(The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, according to Krakaur was about authoritarianism saving the country from hedonism.)
The Frankfurt School theorists, generally, landed on the solution being a return to stark realism. Fantasy is too dangerous, too unpredictable, too powerful. Media should be “real”, always real, giving the people a harsh wake up to what is happening around them instead of escape into a world that doesn’t exist until they make it exist.
I can understand why they felt that way. Once your eyes are opened to the power of popular media, the hidden meanings swirling in the depths, it can be terrifying. And I am certainly not going to tell men who escaped (or failed to escape) Nazi Germany that they are wrong in their readings of this danger.
But, for myself, I also believe that there can be a power for good in fantasy. It is a sword that can cut many ways. This is what was arrived at by a later group of media theorists, the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. The most important member of this group (or at least the one I like the best) was Stuart Hall. It’s a very British sounding name, but in fact he was born in Kingston, Jamaica of a family with polyglot ancestry, a little bit of everything including probably some desi in there. He received a scholarship to Cambridge in the 1950s where the prejudice against his dark skin (already present in his life in Jamaica) grew. He went from an undergraduate degree to a Masters to a PhD program, until the political upheavals of the 1950s made him decide that life in academy was a waste of life, and it would be better to go out and do good in the world. He met his future wife at a peace march and he started teaching at a lower income high school. While doing all this, out in the real world, he also kept up his own thinking and writing on the philosophy of media studies. And he came to a decision within himself that it is possible for popular culture and media to be a force for good in the world, in fact it already IS a force for good in the world. People just need the tools to use it.
(Stuart Hall, teaching on the streets)
Essentially, Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Group took the work of the Frankfurt Group and turned it into 3 dimensions instead of one. The Frankfurt Group dealt with only one reality, the text itself. They looked at the films and they saw evil. And they wrote their books and their essays to make the rest of the world see that evil in it.
The Birmingham Group, the saw the Text as a tool to be used, not just by those creating it, but by those receiving it. The Frankfurt Group, they would look at something like a truck and say “well, this was made to be used to drive on roads and have items loaded in its truck bed”. The Birmingham Group would say “first, let us consider all the aspects that went into the design of this truck, not the intent of the creators but the elements that affected them, the cost of rubber and how that changed the size of the wheels, the standard turning radius of the roads and how that affected the width.” And then they would say “let us look at the truck itself, in total isolation, alone in a clean empty room so that we cannot possibly let anything else effect our opinions, like knowledge of the size of the road or the kind of items that the truck bed might hold.” And finally, they would say “forget the creators, forget the original isolated end result they made, let’s go out into the world and talk to people about how they use the truck, how they build covers onto the bed and put in pillows and use it to carry people, or how they swapped out the tires to make it work better in rocky terrain, or how they drive it off road and alter the frame to make it work better.” Think of it like a “Jugaad” to use the Indian term, or a Life Hack. The Birmingham Group recognized that people who have nothing will take what little they have and build something new, whether that is a truck or a movie narrative.
The first example, looking at the designers of the truck, that is called “Production Theory”. It means focusing on what happened during the production of the product that may have influenced the end product. It is NOT the same as “Auteur” theory. Auteur theory says there is one clear “author” of a product, and all you need to do is get into his (it’s almost always a “his” not a “her”) head and focus on what he wanted to say, and ignore everything else. Production theory says there is the “author”, however you want to define that, the scriptwriter or the director or the star or the producer, whoever took the lead on putting the film together. But then there are other factors to consider. Bharat is a great case study, there was a story today about how Salman is aggressively taking the lead in forcing the script to be better, the film to be higher quality, everything big picture. So according to Auteur theory, he is the “author”. But, on the other hand, his love interest might now going to change from a fast-talking North Indian woman, to a slow talking Anglo-Indian. This is not because Salman, the author, was in control of this decision and had some great meaning for it. This is because forces outside of his control created the need for a recasting. Production theory would look at both Salman’s intent, and the factors outside of his control that also had an effect on production. Censorship, budget issues, random acts of God, all of that is part of production theory. The end product is a result of everything that happened during its creation, that is the best way to understand it.
(These guys are producing the film, but that doesn’t mean they can control everything about it. No one can)
The second, just looking at the truck itself, that would be Textual Analysis. They key to textual analysis, and the most difficult part of it, is that you must strip everything else away except the text itself. If I know Ali Zafar is accused of sexual harassment, I MUST keep that out of my mind while watching his film Teefa in Trouble. If, within the text itself, I find evidence of sexually aggressive behavior, then it is fair game. But if the text has nothing whatsoever sexually aggressive within it, than I cannot try to find it there just because of what I know about the filmmaker. The Frankfurt Group was very very strong at textual analysis. Partly because they had nothing but the text to analyze. There wasn’t the training or the time or the access to find out what the producers intended, what happened during the making of the film, or what people thought when they watched the films. All they had was the films themselves.
And finally the third, Audience. This is the most revolutionary, and the most hopeful, part of the three way theory. The factors that go into production theory are often part of the hegemonic forces of society. Money and power goes to things that support money and power. And it takes a lot of money, and a fair amount of power, to get a film made. Production study is usually a long history of compromises on artistic vision and missed opportunities all around. But audience theory, that is a history of power being over turned, of the masses taking control. When the Gay Pride parades around the world take “Yeh Dosti” as their anthem, that’s audience theory. When Gabbar Singh became the most well-known character in Sholay, that’s audience theory. When the people elevated an darkskinned villain actor Rajinikanth into a minor God, that’s audience theory. It’s nothing that came from the text, it’s nothing that was forced on them by the producers, it is the audience finding the gaps in the narrative, the cracks in the hegemony of society, and forcing their way in.
(Within the film, all these women are punished for their bad behavior. But a viewer can watch this and choose only to see and celebrate their guilt free misbehavior and ignore the rest of the narrative that seeks to contain it)
This is what Stuart Hall wanted. To teach people how to see the narrative, and then how to make it their own. And to recognize this was already happening, that the consumers of mass media weren’t brainless eyes and ears, but people, with their own ability to make judgments. He described this in his seminal essay “encoding/decoding”. In his theory, there is a meaning that is encoded in every narrative. But then it is decoded by the audience and changes in the process. A story that may have been intended to keep the people complacent and docile, can be turned into something radical and powerful. You can’t just look only at intent and at the text, you have to look at the result. You have to go out there and talk to the people and be in the world with them and see what happens. And you have to, you have a moral obligation to, try to change the story.
To put it in terms of this blog, when I rail at Bhansali and the damaging effect of his romanticized Hindu history, I am being Krakaur. I am looking at the text and seeing the poison in it.
When I am talking about how DDLJ can be read as a feminist story, or how Shakti and Anwar in Dilwale were a couple, I am being Stuart Hall, looking at both the encoding and the decoding of the text, being optimistic about the way the audience might be taking it forward and finding something unintended there.
And when I write anything at all here, on this blog, I am trying to take media analysis out of the ivory tower and into the real world where people live and make it do some good.
But how does this relate to Indian film? Well, you will have to wait for the second part to hear about that.