This is fun for me! Getting to articulate and remember all that really cool stuff I got to read and learn and talk about in grad school. And now the really fun bit, the original work of applying those theories to Indian film where no one else has really done it before. If academic press was interested, I could get this thing published and get a book deal or something. But they aren’t, so I get to provide it to you lovely people on the internet who are.
In my last section, I talked about the broad sweep of media theory. First Krakaur and the Frankfurt Group who believed that popular culture and mass media was a poison destroying society, that the only solution was pure unvarnished Truth presented to the world. And then Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School who believed that popular culture and mass media wasn’t something merely handed down to the audience, but was something the audience used and turned and twisted to their own purposes.
But, how is this different in Indian film? What I find fascinating in Indian film is that there is a split and a circle in the Production-Text-Audience theory triangle. Oh, you can still use the basic three pronged approach, look at all the factors that effect how a movie is made, then look at the movie in isolation, and then consider how the audience received the movie and used it. But what you can also do is look at the film in terms of authorial intent and audience reception and how those two things somehow manage to grow up and grow together and overcome the text itself that is keeping them apart.
(Pretend Prithviraj is the filmmaker and Parvathy is the audience, managing to send messages under the eyes of the authorities)
When the censors made them change the end of Sholay, made the police appear and drag off Gabbar while Thakur mouthed speeches about the rule of authority, it didn’t matter. Because Salim-Javed knew that, no matter what the text showed, the audience would be able to find the meaning they had hidden in it, the encoded message against the power of the state, against blind obedience to illogical laws, against everything that was wrong in Indira Gandhi’s India. When Shahrukh and Rahul Dholakia put into Raees his Muslim Gujurati character rallying the neighborhood and fighting with bat and brick the politicians and their swords and their religious procession that came into his area, that was a message he was hoping the audience would see underneath all the stories of bootleggers and police and everything else. When Sooraj Barjatya put in a casual comment from a doctor about a bride brought in with burns before the wedding instead of after, that’s a message the audience is supposed to find. Watching Indian film is about finding and decoding these secret messages, passed from artist to viewer, under the eyes of those in power.
Perhaps it is because Indian film is the largest film industry to grow under a colonial government. Indian film leaped forward after 1947, but it was already massive and established even before. And Indian filmmakers learned from the start how to encode their messages in a way only the viewers could decipher. A soldier in a Mughal epic named “Bhagat Singh”. A call for mutiny against unjust officers forcing them to fight far from home in a historical about Alexander the Great. And always the love stories, calling for rebelling against the bounds of caste, of religion, and most of all, the crushing authority of the older generation. Censorship didn’t end after Independence, it continued with barely a pause. Viewers learned how to decode kissing flowers as kissing couples, and a fight against greedy union boss as a fight against the greedy License Raj.
That’s in Hindi film. In other industries, notably Tamil, the encoding/decoding reached the point of direct semiotics. The symbols for the political parties were referenced or directly shown within the films. To an outside viewer, it would be meaningless. But to the intended viewer it was said as clear as day.
(This is so accepted in South Indian films, Kammara Sambhavam was able to make fun of it with their imaginary film and imaginary song featuring the symbol of an imaginary political party)
Watching most films is like reading a letter from a friend you are close to and worried about. You see the things they mean to tell you, the funny stories of their every day life and cheerful plans for the future. But you also try to read between the lines. Is their marriage still in trouble? Are they worried that their company is going out of business? Its in what they are carefully not saying, or the little details of the stories rather than the main points, that’s where you can find the hidden meanings. It’s exhausting, it would be easier to just read the letter and accept what they wrote. But you know this friend too well, you find one little phrase that sounds wrong and next thing you know, you are rereading the whole letter looking for something more.
It’s not always depressing, for instance watching An Evening in Paris might make you go “wait, our heroine is casually mentioning an active romantic past? That is….odd.” And suddenly you are watching the film much more closely an noticing that the “vamp” woman is redeemed in the end, that there are multiple independent happy working women living alone, that father’s are there to be supportive and loving and not judge. And you find the hidden story, along with the perfectly pleasant and entertaining love story, you also find a world in which Indian women are sexually and economically free and men love that about them. It’s worth rereading to find those hidden messages, you can be rewarded by something wonderful. Just like reading your friend’s letter over again may help you learn that her marriage problems are definitely over and she may be pregnant again.
(Yes, Shammi is flirting and pursuing her, but on the other hand she isn’t embarrassed or feeling “sharam” about it, just mildly irritated. Plus, she casually got into a car with a strange white man without thinking about it. Sharmila in this movie is my ideal modern Indian woman)
That is the experience of watching an Indian film. But there is another layer to it. The experience of watching Indian film is like trying to read a purposefully encoded letter. The film as a whole tells a cohesive enjoyable story. But within it you might find the slightly underlined words, the random capitalized letters, and eventually you put together a hidden message within it. Not one you are putting together for yourself from unintended gaps in the narrative, but one you were INTENDED to find, that was placed there for you within the film, to be discovered.
Let’s look at Bajrangi Bhaijaan, for example. The surface narrative is a nice story of a man who helps a little girl find her way home. The hidden narrative is of the power of love to overcome difference. And the secret message between the filmmaker and the audience is that the RSS and their followers have flawed theories that can be broken by something as simple as a goodhearted young man who just wants to do the right thing. It’s there just in a flash to be seen in the corner of the eye, in a certain type of brown shorts worn in a childhood flashback, in a conversation about not knowing the Mahabharat but knowing the TV series, it’s there if you look for it and it was placed there to be found.
Indian film was uniquely able to thrive with these hidden messages partly because no one besides the intended audience was watching it. Or making it. It was the media of the masses, until just recently. The people in power, the ones being lampooned in the stories being told by the movies, they wouldn’t dream of going to a single-screen theater to watch such a film. Or in getting their hands dirty with the process of making such films. Guru Dutt could release a painful cry against the failure of Independent India, demanding that those left behind be remembered, and it reached right into the hurt of the audience, the ones who were left behind. But the censors didn’t notice, the politicians didn’t notice, the millionaires didn’t either.
Ashis Nandy wrote an essay that is a perfect example of the attitude of the elites towards Indian film, “Slum’s Eye View of Politics”. His view was that film was useless, a Marxian opiate for the masses. It’s an attitude I ran into over and over again when I looked at reception studies during my research for my Master’s thesis. Modern films are trash, modern film theaters are trash, only the uneducated lower classes would ever watch such movies, and the messages are transparently regressive and probably bad for them.
This is a deeply patronizing attitude towards the films, and the lower classes. Who is to say the films are stupid simply because the masses enjoy them? And who is to say the masses are blind to their messages and blindly accepting them?
Lakshmi Srinivas did wonderful research into reception. She pointed out that, at those single screens that most academics wouldn’t be caught dead in, the audience actively aggressively creates their own narrative. They cheer when they feel like cheering. They boo when they feel like booing. They walk out during “boring” parts, and force the projector to re-play the good parts. If you watch a film in isolation, in your perfect air conditioned apartment on your big screen TV in complete silence, you may get out of it the big speech telling the heroine how to be a good proper wife. But if you watch it in a theater, you will discover that speech is when half the audience goes to the lobby for popcorn, and it is the sexy dance number and aggressive confident version of the heroine that is cheered and whistled at. The villain may become the hero and the hero the villain. A message of status quo may turn into message of rebellion simply by the audience picking and choosing, as a collective, what they care about the most.
(What is most remembered from this movie? This song, or that she died in the end after finally falling in love? What did the audience choose to remember?)
This is the world that Hindi film existed in until just recently. Something made by the lowest of the low of Indian society for the lowest of the low of Indian society. When film started, even prostitutes thought that acting would be beneath them. Dilip Kumar was ashamed to tell his father he was acting in films. Innumerable engagements never happened because a mother objected to the boy or girl working in something as disreputable as film. This is not to say that filmmakers were uneducated, were unintelligent, were even born into a low class. But many of them had similar stories of a sudden falling of the family fortunes, a rebellion against a parent that left them without support, or (very common) a marriage against the wishes of their parents that left them running for their lives. And if you weren’t born into a high class, born into education, film was an amazing place to rapidly jump classes. Veeru Devgan came in with nothing but a willingness to risk his life as a stuntman. One generation later, his son is one of the most powerful people in the film industry and his granddaughter is going to an exclusive school overseas. But even all that opportunity for advancement wasn’t enough to bring in everybody. Film was risky, the money was good if you were lucky, and the money was gone if you weren’t. It was difficult and complicated and life threatening and expensive. These were enough barriers to keep most people out, and so the social status stayed low and the films were made by people who had a lot in common with the people who watched the films.
This began to change at least in the Hindi industry in the 1990s. Suddenly economic liberalism had arrived and people were casually talking about being “corporate”, and pursuing the NRI audience, and the multiplex audience. This pattern has just grown and grown in recent years.
Those making the films no longer have much in common with the vast mass of the audience who watches them. Used to watch them. All three of the Khans in the Hindi industry grew up running in the streets and playing with a gang and riding city buses and cadging cigarettes and sneaking into movies. I doubt Ranbir Kapoor or Varun Dhawan ever did that. Or even Sidharth Malhotra, he wasn’t raised second generation film, but he was raised very well in the kind of nice solid family that wouldn’t watch Hindi films. Most of the people making Hindi movies don’t even speak Hindi that well any more. They literally do not speak the language of their audience. How can they manage to connect with them? On any level, the surface narrative, the hidden message, or the encoded message?
(That’s one of the, many many, themes of this film. “Aryan Khan” can see himself in Gaurave and vice versa in a way that will never happen with his younger non-Hindi reading rival “Sid Kapoor”)
This is why, I think, that the non-Hindi industries are increasingly digging into the Hindi market. I would include English language films in that. Going back to my letter metaphor, the English language movies are like reading a letter from a stranger. You can’t read anything between the lines at all, but it is well-written and amusing enough. And if your other option is to read a letter from a friend who has grown away from you until they feel like a stranger, well, it’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other.
The non-Hindi Indian movies are something else. That’s like reading a letter from the younger sister of that friend who grew away from you. You don’t know them quite as well, but they are similar to your friend as you used to know her, and they feel more like her than she feels like herself these days. Besides, if you keep reading the letters, you will learn to know her as well, to find the things that aren’t said, and the things that are hidden there and intended for you to find and read.
(I am guessing I am not the only one who learned South Indian relationship words, wedding practices, and all sorts of other things simply because I was trying to read between the lines of these films)
As a media scholar, I find Indian film incredibly exciting. Because it is, to borrow an idea from one of the comments here a few days ago, essentially Folk Art in a way that western film hasn’t been in decades. It tells the stories of the people on the margins, the forgotten ones. Not their real stories, not like the Frankfurt Group demanded, but their real fantasies. Simple fantasies, marrying for love, having lots of food, being strong enough to beat up those who oppress them. It’s made by the folk for the folk, and no one else. The hegemonic powers can’t touch it because they don’t see it. It escapes, it is free.
Until now. Every new multiplex built, every new “Hinglish” film made, is a nail in the coffin of this vibrant international folk art, with a unique vision that transferred all over the world to every place that the people needed fantasies to survive. Because it is no longer being hidden from the hegemonic powers, from the upperclasses. It is now being controlled by them.
Now, Krakaur would say this is a good thing. And it’s that kind of thinking that leads a lot of critics and thinkers and common people to say this is a good thing. Film and fantasy is poison, it is up to us to remove the fantasy, to give the underclasses something “better”, something that will not harm them.
But Stuart Hall would say this is a bad thing. That the people were using these fantasies, turning them into something of their own, and now they can’t do that any more. They have to just accept what they don’t want because it is what they are told they should want.
I land more on the Stuart Hall side. Especially because Indian film is such glorious anarchy, a place where every point of view can be represented (often in the same film scene to scene) and can find an audience. Let it be chaos, let it be crazy, let the audience pick and choose and find their own meaning within it.
(Let it be this. Let the audience find the Lesbian message, the sex positive message, the criminal challenging the social structure message, the re-appropriating of folk music for a folk mass media message, everything and anything, it is all there waiting to be found)