On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 1) — the case for ‘Shanghai’

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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.

So, when Shanghai released, certain reviewers in mainstream media hailed Shanghai immediately as ‘a realistic representation of “modern” India on film’, with ‘nicely etched characters, a realistic shooting style, and a dollop of humor‘. Masand in fact says that it’s a good film, just not great, while his pal  Anupama Chopra is a tad more generous saying it ‘doesn’t provide the comfort of answers or happy endings. But it forces us to ask urgent questions‘. There were already mostly credible questions about its artistic merit — did people just like to go gaga over directors like Banerjee who flirted with serious issues or was this film really worth the hype? And there was considerable hype, aided by Banerjee’s appearances along with Emraan Hashmi on several mainstream TV channels. Bikas Mishra from DearCinema called it ‘a hugely disappointing film that’s superfluous and unduly serious in its tone. It just scratches the surface of an important contemporary issue while telling an un-engaging tale‘, directly comparing it to the stark realist landscapes of Mirch Masala and Ankur. Another interesting question raised by the sharper critics was whether Shanghai really was realistic or just a sham? The people who live Shanghai’s brute realities in the slums have also argued very convincingly that the film does ‘exactly what the state would want to do to resistance and people’s movements in the slums – they bulldozed them out of the film‘, in effect aligning the filmmakers (who by the way, are also funded by the National Film Development Corporation) alongside the fascist state.

I love this film.

I told a friend that I see Dibakar Banerjee as a darker, contemporary version of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, whose comic timing and characterisation in the 70s were also spot-on, but who had the pulse of middle India, the Common Man, if you will.  But I do think Banerjee also has an evolved sense of storytelling that has evaded even the sharpest of his critics. Part of their misdirection lies in the fact that Banerjee overtly credits the movie’s inspiration as the novel Z by Vasilis Vasilikos, and the corresponding film adaptation by Costa Gavras. Many critics say Shanghai doesn’t match up to its source material. Fair enough. Maybe it wasn’t meant to? More and more criticism has emerged about the so-called realism of the film, and that the characters are caricatures, stereotypes of the most trite kind, etc. I think many of these critics have missed the point. Shanghai is not meant to be realistic cinema, and certainly not ‘unduly serious’. In fact, the film overflows with irony, satire and parody, all handled through one main strategy – subversion.

People smarter and better-researched than I am have explored subversion in media arts, and the best exposition I found was this article by Łukasz Ronduda. Please read it all to get an illuminating perspective on subversion, but  let me quote some pertinent aspects that he mentions:

The term subversion… has a dual meaning, and both senses of it are fundamentally critical. The etymology of the word (from the Latin sub “from below” + vertere “to turn”) suggests that criticism can be a physical act: overturning an object, transforming it – even destroying it – in the process of appropriation. Subversion in this sense can be understood as a method or technique for creating a work of art through the decontextualization and recontextualization of existing images from art or from the broader visual culture.

Shanghai is decontextualised from the get-go. Bharat Nagar is a fictional small town that could be any city in India (despite the 2-hour from Delhi statement in the film), and the very first visual of the film says exactly that — a city with a visibly developed, planned, ‘civilised’ area and equally visible ramshackle, chaotic slums in what seem to be clearly demarcated localities. This is the modern Indian city — it doesn’t matter which city. And yet through his images and locations, Banerjee goes on to show us the specifics of our city, of areas that ‘respectable’ people wouldn’t venture out to past a certain hour, of homes with tall walls that certain people are kept out of and of a constant rousing ‘morcha’ in the subaltern streets (protest/strike) that refuses to abate no matter what the issue is. We recontextualise Bharat Nagar in our own mind, with the shops and gallis of our own neighbourhood, with slums and protests that we have known in our ‘ilaaka’.

Ronduda also quotes an important point made by Grzegorz Dziamsk, who says:

“Subversion entails imitating the object of criticism, or even identifying with it, but with a subtle shift in meaning. The moment when the meanings shift is not always evident to the viewer. It isn’t direct criticism; it is criticism full of ambiguity.”

Who is Shanghai criticising? The corrupt overlords or the sometimes-for-sale, sometimes-exploited morally convenient masses, or the self-absorbed reformers and social workers fighting for the underclass? Is the film criticising one of them or all of them? We start with identifying with Koechlin’s somewhat blandly-portrayed Shalini, who is ominously informed that her mentor and former teacher may be killed, and automatically transfer our identification to Dr. Ahmedi, who as it turns out is not at all likeable. He enjoys women, he lives a good life in New York but he comes all the way to India claiming to represent protesting slum-dwellers. He also understands the value of drama, and so, despite being stoned (as in hit by a stone, not the other more pleasurably benign state), takes to a stage with oft-heard, black and white statements about development and revolution. Are we really upset by the accident that severely injures him? Not so much. And then before the tension can be heightened, we abruptly meet Jogi (a fabulously sleazy Emraan Hashmi) who is the observer of the unfolding events. He’s repulsive, opportunistic, physically off-putting and all too real. And then, when the dust settles, we meet the staid and respectable Krishnan, an understated IAS man who ticks all the boxes of respectable bureaucrats – bland personality, stickler for by-the-book procedures, dislikes complications and morally ambiguous. Even as the visuals zip by us, we are no longer sure who is protagonist and who is antagonist, who has our sympathies, who we want punished. All our expectations of these characters are subverted. The dislikeable people are on the side of right, the likeable people commit crimes, the police are incompetent, the bureaucratic method seems competent, but who can really tell which is which at this point?

Let me also quote another point made by Ronduda about what he calls the ‘subversive strategy’:

A strategy combines both the theoretical aspect of artistic activity – the artistic agenda or concept – and the practical one (the methods and techniques for carrying out the agenda or concept). In the broadest terms, a strategy is the combination of standpoint and technique, as postulated by Benjamin; thus, following this same line of thought, I regard subversive strategies in the field of media arts as the combination of certain subversive techniques (for example found footage, video scratch and software art) with specific artistic positions and concepts (such as critical or analytical art).

It is in this aspect that I find Shanghai severely lacking. Considering Banerjee’s last brilliant experiment with Love, Sex aur Dhoka (LSD) I’d expected him to meddle with camerawork, with the use of a particular medium to tell a particular story. LSD was full  of experimental media such as digital handy-cams and CCTV cameras that were used brilliantly to tell the stories of its subjects, but in this case Shanghai subverts nothing of traditional storytelling. I suspect the use of Greek cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis has something to do with this, but coming from Banerjee, it’s still disappointing. For the media-saturated landscape of Indian cities, experimental cinematography would have made this narrative much edgier and much more relevant.

But Banerjee still infuses his screenplay with a subversive narration, mainly with two techniques — interruptions and the motif of cleaning. The early parts of the film are rife with tense or emotionally heightened moments being interrupted by a peripheral event. It starts with the gori dancer landing on a private airstrip almost overbalancing on her stilettos, a pronounced hitch in her stride. Her interaction with the press is interrupted by Dr. Ahmedi. It continues with her Imported Kamariya routine, which halts within 20 seconds when an important minister arrives late and is ushered to his seat before the act resumes. A minister in the middle of a photoshoot is interrupted into taking a crucial phone call. Then there is Dr. Ahmedi’s speech to the masses on a mike that is repeatedly interrupted by feedback. Then when he’s rushed to the hospital post-accident, and Shalini aggressively questions Jogi as to how the accident could have happened at all, a nurse butts in to tell them, “Yeh hospital hai. Please bahar jaake fighting kijiye.” Afterwards, when Krishnan is interrogating police officers as part of the official inquiry, he is interrupted by an outraged Shalini who accuses the police of foreknowledge, and she in turn is interrupted by an out of turn basketball hurled through the window and an official saying “Yeh khelna ki jagah nahi hai”. Outside the same office, as both Krishnan and Shalini stomp off, their strides are halted by a slippery floor.

This irritated me initially as I felt Banerjee was deliberately stunting our emotional engagement with the characters; each time things got intense, we were made to disengage with some random aside. The process of disengagement and re-engagement though, is an important sign of how Banerjee mocks realist cinema, that depends on uninterrupted smooth storytelling. Banerjee is deliberately subverting our narrative expectations keeping us off-guard as to what might happen next.

Another similar motif is the cleaning. Shalini is warned about the danger to Dr. Ahmedi by a maid dusting her bookshelf. When Dr. Ahmedi lands and arrives in Shalini’s home, she obsessively is cleaning her mirror. When Krishnan moves into his office, there is a flurry of dusting and sweeping going on inside. When he and Shalini storm out of the room, there is heavy mopping right outside the office.  When Krishnan is at his residence dwelling on the complexity of his case, someone is cleaning a massive empty swimming pool in the backyard. Over and over, it seems to indicate a strange compulsion of people wanting to keep their surroundings clean while the events get more and more murky and polluted. There is a certain futility shown by the task of cleaning, which is contrasted by the earliest scene where the face of a chubby bookseller is blackened in slow motion for selling Dr. Ahmedi’s loud book. Banerjee heightens the scene of the face-blackening, and follows with the repetitive cleaning actions to almost underscore the pointless actions we engage in when the damage has been done.

Dr. Ahmedi’s character was the weakest link in this story to me. If Banerjee wanted to emphasise subversion, it would have made even more sense to make the character not just Western in his approach, but also a Westerner, in light of the number of writers from the west who have made India’s development the focus of their  criticism. In fact, think of non-fiction books on slums and development, and the most recent one immediately pops into the mind – Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death  and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, which has been criticised for colluding with the neoliberal narrative, just as the slumdwellers I mentioned above felt that Shanghai does.

There is one final point I’d like to use Ronduda for with reference to Hal Foster in his book Subversive Sign, about critical artists practicing subversion in the 1980s:

“each treats the public space, social representation or artistic language in which he or she intervenes as both a target and a weapon. This shift in practice entails a shift in position: the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art object”

This is probably the point that highlights the anti-realism of Banerjee best. Like I said earlier, this is not a realistic film, it only represents realistic events, but the narrative is entirely subversive and Banerjee’s intention is to manipulate signs such as Bharat Nagar, IBP, progress, morchas and corruption and to subvert our film-watching experience. In a way, the film’s predictability and cynicism becomes a subversion of its own. The man who colludes with the state is at the end displaced and betrayed by the state through his own hands by the time we reach the climax. This represents the paradox of the Indian state  and its machinations perfectly.

I think there is an expectation in Bollywood that any film that is ‘art’, has to fit in the realist cinema movement of the 80s, that removed any semblance of entertainment or tight storytelling, instead choosing to represent real-life issues and characters with high-level precision. But I like what Rebecca West once said against realism — “A copy of the universe is not what is required of art; one of the damned thing is ample.”

Shanghai does not fit the realism bill. Instead, think of it as a filmic version of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; where they had a Ministry of Truth that was anything but truthful, this film has a political party ‘India Bane Pardes’, which clearly mocks that lunacy. It’s a satire, black comedy at its newest, and maybe needs to be done better, but it’s a damn good start.

I don’t think there is any better way to end than quote Ronduda’s article AGAIN, but in the specific words of Józef Robakowski who in his subversive paper I Manipulate, says:

“In art, ‘playing at manipulation’ is an unworthy and exceptionally shameful notion. It is generally felt that a true artist is a sincere person who experiences deep feelings about his or her own existence, and who is rooted in great suffering and passion. An artist is a distinct, specially endowed ODDITY, shrouded in the mystery of his or her own peculiar ways. At the same time, the question of whether or not I am an artist is of enormous interest to me. Because I can state categorically that throughout the entire life of my art, I have been feeding on manipulation that serves to blur my personal image. I’m convinced that an artist is a kind of deceitful fraud, a social canker, whose lifeblood is manipulation for his or her own ends, as a defense against annihilation – that is, against public acceptance and recognition.”

In my Part 2  post, I hope to examine Gangs of Wasseypur under the scanner of subversion — I think Kashyap is much more of a social canker and manipulator than Banerjee, and I also think Gangs of Wasseypur may be the most intelligent tribute to Bollywood (far more than the silly Om Shanti Om) and also possibly my favouritest movie in Hindi ever. Unfortunately, I have to wait to watch part 2  for at least a month, and so will you. 😦

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5 responses »

  1. Pingback: On subversion and masala Bollywood — the case for 'Shanghai' « In ... | Cinematic Narrative | Scoop.it

  2. //Gangs of Wasseypur may be the most intelligent tribute to Bollywood and also possibly my favouritest movie in Hindi ever.//

    Know what? I got an sms at early morning 5 today. It read thus: ‘Gangs – the best Hindi film. No doubt’. The sender was Charu :). U’ve got company 😀

  3. Pingback: On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 2) — the brilliance of Gangs of Wasseypur 1 « In a Brown Study

  4. Pingback: On subversion and the sheer brilliance of GoW | modulonine

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