The Popular Cultural Politics of the Social Film

As a result of this obfuscation, perhaps we have not quite understood the particular political articulation of the popular cinema of the 1950s. Nationalist discourses of that time about social justice and the formation of a new personality were then routed through familiar, if modified, cultural and narrational reference points. These were family dramas, iconic and tableau modes of representation. I would suggest that the cinema of that time communicated a popular democratic perception which worked through some of the rationalist and egalitarian approaches of the liberal-radical intelligentsia, but on its own terms. Of popular modes of representation and thought in late medieval Europe, Ginzburg has suggested that they ‘recall a series of motifs worked out by humanistically educated heretical groups’. But such representations are original, they were not derivative from a high rationalist culture. He thus urges that despite divergences of form and articulation (e.g., literate/oral) he is investigating ‘a unified culture within which it was impossible to make clear-cut distinctions.’[1] Mutualities of influence and features of common participation break down simplistic notions of cultural difference and hierarchization. When the intelligentsia started firmly associating popular forms with ‘the common people’, such stances were related to an active process of their dissociation from forms in which they had previously participated.[2]

However, once these distinctions are crystallized, it would be foolhardy not to pinpoint the ideological implications of the formal and narrational distinctions which emerge between art and commercial cinema; peculiarities which are quite central to the ways in which perceptions of change find expression in popular forms. I will not go into this at length, but both the deployment of the icon, and the narrative transaction around generational conflict, are centrally founded on the manipulation of woman. In particular, with rare exceptions, such a manipulation actively divests women characters of the modern, professional attributes which they exhibit, placing them as objects of exchange within the generational transaction. Further, the social film of the 1950s also tends to split the woman in terms of the figuration ofher desire. Legitimate figures are held close to patriarchal hearth and diktat in terms of narrative space and symbolic articulation, and a more overt sexuality is displaced to another figure.[3]

Having said this, perhaps we should conclude by remembering that the art cinema is perfectly capable of such a subordination of women characters. This is so ofthe way Ray’s Ganashatru (1989), for example, reduces the woman to ‘moral voice’ and sexually threatened figure. Of course, psychological nuance and realist acting styles are evidently meant to prevent such a reduction of character to narrative function. However, not only does the commercial cinema exhibit such acting styles, as in the work of Nutan (for example, in Sujata, Bimal Roy, 1959; and Bandini, Bimal Roy, 1963); perhaps, as in song sequences such as ‘Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo’ in Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957) and O, Majhi’ in Bandini, it has richer resources to express a desiring and divided subjectivity than naturalist canons would allow for.

  • [1] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheeseandthe Worms, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul,1976, xxii-xxiii.
  • [2] Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, London, Maurice TempleSmith, 1978, 27.
  • [3] Vasudevan, ‘Errant Males and the Divided Woman’, esp. 86—9, 169—70.
 
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