The Cultural Politics of Address in a ‘Transitional’ Cinema

Recent discussions of cinema and national identity in the third world context have tended, by and large, to cluster around the >. concept ofa ‘third cinema’. Here the focus has been on recovering or reinventing local aesthetic and narrative traditions against the homogenizing impulses of Hollywood in its domination over markets and normative standards. One of the hallmarks ofthird cinema theory has been its firmly unchauvinist approach to the ‘national’. In its references to wider international aesthetic practices third cinema asserts but problematizes the boundaries between nation and other. In the process, it also explores the ways in which the suppressed internal others of the nation, whether of class, sub- or counter-nationality, ethnic group, or gender, can find a voice.[1]

A substantial lacuna in this project has been any sustained understanding of the domestic commercial cinema in the third world. This is important because in certain countries such as India the commercial film has, since the dawn of the ‘talkies’, successfully marginalized Hollywood’s weight in the domestic market. This is not to claim that it has functioned within an entirely self-referential autarchy. The Indian popular cinema stylistically integrated aspects of the world ‘standard’, and has also been influential in certain foreign markets. But it constitutes something like a ‘nation-space’ against the dominant norms of Hollywood, and so ironically fulfils aspects of the role which the avant-garde third cinema proclaims as its own.

Clearly, the difference in verbal, as opposed to narrative and cinematic, language cannot be the major explanation for this autonomy, for other national cinemas have succumbed to the rule ofthe Hollywood film. Instead, it is in the peculiarities of the Indian commercial film as an entertainment form that we may find the explanation for its ascendancy over the home market. In the Indian case the theoretical silence around the specificity of the commercial cinema is due not so much to third cinema discourse but to the discourses and institutions ofart cinema in the 1950s which refused to seriously consider the commercial film as a focus of critical discussion.

Indian commercial cinema has exerted an international presence in countries of Indian immigration as in East Africa, Mauritius, the Middle East, and South East Asia, but also in a significant swathe of Northern Africa.[2] Here it has often been regarded by the local intelligentsia and film industry in as resentful and suspicious a way as the Hollywood cinema in Europe.[3] On the other hand there are instances when the Bombay film’s penetration of certain markets is not viewed as a threat. The popularity of the Hindi cinema in the former Soviet Union is a case in point. Such phenomena make one think of a certain arc of narrative form separate from, if overlapping at points, with the larger hegemony exercised by Hollywood. From the description of the cultural ‘peculiarities’ ofthe Bombay cinema which follows, one could speculate whether its narrative form has a special resonance in ‘transitional’ societies. The diegetic world of this cinema is primarily governed by the logic of kinship relations, and its plot driven by family conflict. The system of dramaturgy is a melodramatic one, displaying the characteristic ensemble of Manichaeanism, bipolarity, the privileging of the moral over the psychological, and the deployment of coincidence in plot structures. And the relationship between narrative, performance sequence, and action spectacle is loosely structured in the fashion of a cinema of attractions.[4] In addition to these features, the system of narration incorporates Hollywood codes of continuity editing in a fitful, unsystematic fashion, relies heavily on visual forms such as the tableau, and inducts cultural codes of looking of a more archaic sort.

At first glance, there would appear to be a significant echoing here of the form of early Euro-American cinema, indicating that what appeared as a fairly abbreviated moment in the history ofWestern cinema has defined the long-term character of this influential cinema of ‘another world’. What is required here is a comparative account of narrative forms in ‘transitional’ societies which might set out a different story of the cinema than the dominant Euro-American one. However, to talk about transition might imply that such cinemas are destined to follow paths already set earlier. In fact, these cinemas may pose problems which will not admit of similar solutions. The problem of transition poses a cultural politics centred on the way local forms reinvent themselves to establish dialogue with and assert difference from universal models of narration and subjectivity. Recent currents in international film study have sought to recast the opposition between local and universally hegemonic norms of narration into a dialectical relationship. Here the specificity of particular cultural histories—European and American as much as third world—have been constructed to understand the national and regional contexts in which the cinema was instituted, how it came to assume an identity, became


‘ours’.[5] At issue then is how traditions of identity, aesthetic form, and cultural address are deployed for a politics of creative adaptation and interrogation of social transformation in a colonial and post-colonial world. To examine this process, I will take examples primarily from the Bombay cinema, but will also refer to films from other regional film cultures in the period from the 1930s through to the first decade after Independence in 1947.

In exploring these issues, I want to analyse the various types of cultural adaptation involved without losing sight ofcertain larger political frames. For the problem of Indian popular cinema lies not only at the interface between the local and the global in the constitution of a politics of cultural difference, but must also be seen in terms of the internal hierarchies that are involved in the constitution of a national culture. The formation of a national market is a crucial aspect of these multi-layered relations of domination and subordination. Bombay became ascendant in the home market only in the 1950s. Earlier, Pune in Maharashtra and Calcutta in Bengal were important centres of film production, catering to the Marathi- and Bengali-speaking ‘regional’ audience as well as to the Hindi audience, the largest linguistic market in the country. While these regional markets continued to exist, Bombay became the main focus of national film production. This ascendancy was curtailed by the emergence of important industries in Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala, producing films in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. From the 1980s these centres produced as many and often more films than Bombay.[6] There has been a certain equivalence in the narrative form of these cinemas, but each region contributed its distinct features to the commercial film. In the Tamil and Telugu cases the cinema also has a strong linkage with the politics of regional and ethnic identity. In recent times the cinemas of the South have also made a greater effort to diversify their products than the Bombay industry.

The domestic hegemony achieved by the commercial cinema has had ambivalent implications for the social and political constitution of its spectator. All of India’s cinemas were involved in constructing a certain abstraction of national identity; by national identity I mean here not only the pan-Indian one, but also regional constructions of national identity. This process ofabstraction suppresses other identities, either through stereotyping or through absence. The Bombay cinema has a special position here, because it positions other national/ethnic/ socio-religious identities in stereotypical ways under an overarching North Indian, majoritarian Hindu identity. The stereotypes of the ‘southerner’ (or ‘Madrasi’, a term which dismissively collapses the entire southern region), the Bengali, the Parsi, the Muslim, the Sikh, and the Christian occupy subordinate positions in this universe. Bombay crystallized as the key centre for the production ofnational fictions just at the moment that the new state came into existence, so its construction of the national narrative carries a particular force.[7]

  • [1] For a representative selection of articles, cf. Pines and Willemen, eds, Questionsof Third Cinema.
  • [2] M.B. Billimoria, ‘Foreign Markets for Indian Films’, in Indian Talkie, 1931—1956, 53—4. A substantial deposit of Indian films distributed by Wapar France, anagency which catered to North African markets, is in the French film archives at BoisD’arcy. For the importance of Indian film imports to Indonesia and Burma, cf. JohnA. Lent, The Asian Film Industry, London, Christopher Helm, 1990, 202, 223; andfor patterns of Indian film exports at the end of the 1980s, M. Pendakur, ‘India’, inibid., 240.
  • [3] ‘. . . none of these cinemas [from Morocco to Kuwait] is doing well . . . marketsare flooded with Rambos, Karate films, Hindu [sic] musicals and Egyptian films . . .’,Lisbeth Malkmus, ‘The “New Egyptian Cinema”: Adapting Genre Conventions to aNew Society’, Cineaste 16 (3), 1988, 30—3 (30).
  • [4] The term comes from Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema ofAttraction’.There is a moreelaborate discussion of this term in relation to the Bombay cinema in section 3 below.For reflections on other ‘attraction-based cinemas, cf. Laleen Jayamanne, ‘Sri LankanFamily Melodrama: A Cinema of Primitive Attractions’, Screen 33 (2), Summer 1992,145—53; and Gerard Fouquet, ‘Of Genres and Savours in Thai Film’, Cinemaya 6,1989-90, 4-9.
  • [5] This agenda would also re-set the terms of an ethnographic cultural studies seeking to recover the many ways audiences interpret texts. Distinctions have arisen between ethnographic cultural studies for the West and those applied to the third world.Where the former is governed by democratic assumptions, and the possibilities ofmultiple viewpoints in the construction of texts, the latter tends to be monolithic inits characterization of the cultural basis of interpretation. But clearly, once the Westtoo is remade into a series of specific cultural histories, the possibility of putting thedemocratic and cultural together within an ethnographic approach generates a moreuniversal agenda.
  • [6] For the standard account, Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, Indian Film; also Manju-nath Pendakur, ‘India’, in Lent, The Asian Film Industry, 231.
  • [7] For reflections on the subordinating implications of Bombay’s national cinema,see Ravi Vasudevan, ‘Dislocations: The Cinematic Imagining of a New Society in1950s’ India’, Oxford Literary Review 16, 1994, 93—124.
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