Tag Archives: India

On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 2) — the brilliance of Gangs of Wasseypur 1

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First, I highly recommend you read my initial post on subversion as a storytelling technique in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai.

Previous Disclaimer applies: This is not a review, but a detailed critique like I did with ‘Shanghai’. I will analyse several aspects of the films which will include spoilers so please do not read if you haven’t watched GoW1 yet.

Also, this was meant to be about both GoW films, but after I finished drafting the post for the first part, it was already over 3000 words long and I thought, screw it. There can never be too much of a good thing. So expect a Part 3 to follow up when GoW2 releases. 🙂

When I think of bald Bollywood actors, the first name that comes to mind is Shetty, whose gleaming head and meancing glare often made Dharmendra flex extra muscle in numerous 70s flicks. The second name that comes to mind is Shakal of Shaan, whose eccentricities extended to owning an island, having a shark for a pet, and wearing ridiculous costumes.

So it’s an obvious conclusion to look at Bajpai’s fully shaved head through most of the film and wonder whether he is protagonist or antagonist. You realise early enough that protagonist and antagonist are really just matters of perspective, and that Kashyap has already subverted our very idea of what a Bollywood hero is.

Of course, anti-heroes in Bollywood have been a factor since the 70s, but never has there been such an anti-hero who is very clearly a villain — someone who enjoys killing but for the sake of poetic justice, who shamelessly lusts but with such seduction and who loves but with such selfishness.

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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.

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On voyeurs and exhibitionists, love and the Gaze in India

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 “I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze”

– Jacques Lacan

Sometimes, songs seem to find me when I’m looking for them the hardest. Superstitious crap, perhaps? I’m not sure. There are times when I hear a random song playing in a mall and need to find out who it is, suddenly something will lead me to the artist. For instance at a restaurant called Marche in Singapore once, I heard a clip of what seemed like soulful jazz, sung in something that sounded like French. I immediately asked one of the servers who it was singing, and she had no clue. Five minutes later she popped up, with an iPhone, no less, and told me, “It must be this woman – her name is Cesaria Evora, and the song is apparently ‘Petit Pays. It’s in the Cape Verdean language that has French roots!”

She had an iPhone app to detect songs from recording just a clip.

Things like this have happened time and time again. Just this week, I was humming a folksy tune that I remembered from a few years ago. But I couldn’t remember the words or the artist. I remembered that the music video was shot in an Indian village with lots of TV-like illusions popping up in frames, and that the singer was an Indian female. I googled and tried to YouTube this video for days with every combination of keywords I could imagine, but to no avail, and I just gave up. Then this week, I was being made to watch Satyamev Jayate – an Indian talk show with a bit of a do-gooder host (who I quite dislike) by my mother – and in suffering through it, I sat up when a singer began performing as the end credits began to roll. Her name was Sona Mohapatra and I knew instantly the song I’d been searching for was hers and sure enough, this popped up on YouTube:

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Whose bill is it anyway?

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Photo courtesy: Yahoo! News India

If we were asked five years ago, what kind of Indian people would see as a reformative role model for the 21st century, many would have said a young, dashing heir to a political dynasty or a loudly articulate NGO activist of some sort. Few, if at all any, would have predicted a 72-year old Gandhian villager. And yet, the youth of India have proclaimed such a man the new Messiah with all the vigour and noise they can summon. Anna Hazare has become the unexpected poster boy for revolution.

In the last week, the masses have taken to the streets in numbers and a passion that has been scarcely observed in independent India. People have taken off from work, school and universities to express solidarity with a 72-year old man fasting in a maidan in far-off Delhi. The question is why? Popular media has not stepped beyond the obvious non-sequiturs – ‘Enough is enough’, ‘There is an Anna Hazare in all of us’, ‘India’s second freedom struggle’ – the last coined by the man in the topi himself. Is it enough of an explanation? Could it really be that simple?

The choice of Anna is an odd one. On the surface, young people between the ages of 18-30 in India are more often seen touting Che Guevara t-shirts than reading up on histories of revolutions. We have been the biggest beneficiaries of shiny economic progress – our access to iPads, designer shoes and A-league universities has never been better. Yet our experience with the system and governance nationally has also never been more frustrating.

So it is not an underprivileged, oppressed people that are taking to the streets, but an empowered, privileged mob – people who are capable of articulate and verbose snatches of TV fame.

There is little presence of the malnutritioned, diseased or economically backward classes in the Ramlila Maidan; instead news channels are full of sound bytes by jeans-and-topi clad young boys and girls babbling excitedly in English of their enthusiasm and passion.

Somehow, Anna appeals to Gen Y. Somehow, young India sees him as their leader, bridging all class, linguistic and regional divides. Somehow, young India, after witnessing the Arab Spring has finally found a revolution it can claim and fight for.

In his analysis of the recent London riots, Slavoj Žižek states ‘…The implication is that the conditions these people find themselves in make it inevitable that they will take to the streets. The problem with this account, though, is that it lists only the objective conditions for the riots. To riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.’

I can’t help but see similarities in the London riots and the Indian monsoon uprising. The discourse around Anna Hazare’s protests has been enormously tilted to convince us that corruption is why the people have inevitably taken to the streets. That corruption has become a universal objective reality in the Indian lifestyle. But like Žižek, I am of the opinion that an objective notion of corruption ignores the implicit realities of people’s subjective conditions. Where Londoners’ subjective sociocultural realities led to explosions of anger targeting retailers, the average Indian’s individual disenfranchisement in politics has led to an equally explosive taking to the streets – albeit in a peaceful nonviolent manner.

We vote, but with little hope or eagerness; we pay taxes, but with too few expectations of benefits. So when Anna says ‘Don’t wait to vote once in four years; in fact, don’t trust in MPs enough to vote at all. Just take to the streets today and fight for your rights’, we all cheer raucously.

Žižek also quotes Zygmunt Bauman who characterised the riots as acts of ‘defective and disqualified consumers’, and identifies that they were mostly a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. One can equally project this rationale that ‘defective and disqualified’ Indian citizens are manifesting their political desires of change of reform, unable to effect them in the ‘proper’ way of voting and trusting elected representatives to draft laws.

Finally, Žižek identifies what he calls the ‘spirit of revolt without revolution’, that there is a sentiment of authentic rage that doesn’t translate to an effective program of reform. We are rebelling against the UPA by deifying Anna Hazare, but we don’t know what we want to come after that. Are we really going to trust the government once the hoopla dies down?

In the days to come, there is no doubt that a political showdown of sorts will occur. Even now, the protests stand delicately poised on the edge of violence. All it needs is that little spark to fan it into a blaze. We can only hope that someone has the foresight to have skilled­­­­ firefighters in place in case it does. And that a few people hold on to a vision of what comes after, the revolution behind the revolt.