I don’t get cinema. I don’t say this as some sort of grand sweeping statement, but as a disclaimer. Though I should actually say, “I don’t always get cinema”, because I think the times are a-changing. My film education has been almost entirely Indian cinema, and mostly Hindi films (thanks to meri Ma, appropriately), but even so, I find it very hard to articulate a theory of Bollywood aesthetics. There was a time when I lived abroad that I used to explain Bollywood to my firangi friends as entertainment, not art, and ‘art cinema’ in India as being very different. But over the last few years, I have started seeing film, and even music as a text of sorts with its own narrative, character and textual aesthetic. To put it simply, I have realised that ‘literary’ can extend beyond just text. And films with their visual narrative open up wide levels of understanding about literariness and what makes for art (not exactly an original Eureka moment, is it? 🙂 ).
But I think what’s also come out of it, is that I’ve stopped seeing this divide between high-art and low-art, a Bollywood vs ‘art cinema’ polarity in films, and that has been a sensational epiphany. It feels like I can come out of my closet and express some Bollywood-love and defend it without sounding anti-intellectual.
And I think this perspective is strengthened when you read Rasa theory and realise that aesthetics in India used to specifically involve depicting the eight/nine rasas (emotional states) and evoking emotions from the audience. Performance arts like classical dance still utilise rasas heavily through practiced expressions and movement. But in film, and through some other traditions of Urdu theatre, the framing of sequences and shots, the narrative structure and dialogue also thoroughly imbibed elements of the rasas. Actors in Indian cinema are not expected to be ‘method’ actors who live and breathe their roles to become the character, but are instead mainly expected to portray emotions in a way that resonate with the audience. In that sense, in Indian films, the power lies with the audience — in whether the audience was able to empathise with the character’s emotions, and not in whether the character was believably portrayed. That is at the core of the realist aesthetics of Indian cinema, in my opinion, and where it differs wildly from the Western aesthetic. For instance, if you were to look at the rasa of ‘shoka’ (grief/sorrow), where Hollywood may choose to show sorrow through a character’s body language and behaviour in a natural set of circumstances (the classic show-don’t-tell), Indian cinema usually depends heavily on facial expressions and stylised body language – think Nargis in Mother India, the classic pose of carrying the plough, the head tilt and the expression on her face. Mother India (1957) in many ways represents a very classical Indian style of filmmaking, one that influenced Hindi cinema for generations, and that still exists in much of regional cinema.
However, modern cinema has changed that aesthetic significantly. Western elements have invariably seeped in, and there is now an interesting aesthetic shift that commingles disparate aspects of both. I think Shanghai and Gangs of Wasseypur are mature realisations of this aesthetic shift and offer a very interesting mix of both styles, using a very specific technique in storytelling – subversion. I’ll come to this a little later.
A second disclaimer: this is not going to be a review. In fact, it’s going to be a review of reviews that these films have received, in particular Shanghai, which seems to be facing the brunt of claims of misrepresentation, unrealistic characters and stereotyping. So if you haven’t watched these films, then be warned, most of what I’m going to discuss involves spoilers, big spoilers and endings and climaxes and whatnot, so this post is best read after having watched the films and read the reviews.