Trivandrum…Bombay…Madras or how can the ‘local’ be preserved?

[this is based on a comment that appeared in the discussion here and on Qalandar’s suggestion I have expanded it into a separate post]

One of the reasons one loves Malayalam cinema from the 80s is because of its cultural specificity, its strong sense of the ‘local’, its very singular representation of an entire world. This was once true for Bombay cinema as well, especially in the 70s, when lots of ‘little’ films were made by luminaries such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Gulzar and lesser others. The latter has since turned into ‘Bollywood’ and in matching ‘new India’ aspirations of the 90s and beyond has systematically erased every trace of the ‘rooted’ in its cinema. If there have nonetheless been positive signs in this decade that suggest a counter-reaction to the excesses of the 90s (when Hindi cinema was on a long and absurd vacation in Switzerland) this is so because it is part of the logic of this late capitalistic age (and in a move already internal to categories of the ‘colonial’) to ‘sell’ eventually even the ‘local’ (that which seemingly resists complete normalization along a schema of globalization… which is to say erasure of ‘difference’, hence effacement of the ‘native’) as exotica so long as it might be mediated by a notion of ‘global values’. In cinematic terms this mediation might be called the ‘auteurist’ or to unpack this, an entire set of visual codes that graft onto those native cinemas a ‘common’ way of accessing these works. Bombay cinema after having discarded its ‘real’ (its cinematic heritage) in its flight from history (which falls in line with an overall such movement on the part of India’s newly ‘liberated’ and upwardly mobile urban bourgeois classes) finally rediscovers the same as its own exotic other. I started out with Malayalam cinema and this tradition itself owing to the twin pressures of Hindi and Tamil cinema has no longer remained the ‘little cinema’ of the 80s and has lost much of its soul since the 90s.

Malayalam cinema or some of the other Indian industries referenced here are merely privileged examples to question where there can be a unique world represented in cinema that does not automatically rely on auteurist registers. But note the paradox — it is precisely by erasing the ‘auteurist’ or what is most artistic in cinema that one can arrive at this sort of ’specific’ local. In other words by veering toward the ‘artistic’ one starts effacing cultural specificity. I often come across very interesting movies set in far flung regions of the world from Vietnam to Brazil that nonetheless do not entrance me quite as much as they should because these are again ‘auteurist’ works. The ‘common visual grammar’ even if along an artistic spectrum (and one must not forget that cinema is ultimately ‘Western’) seems to reduce the representation of the local or as I’ve just suggested it normalizes what is most radically different in a socio-cultural milieu. The viewer’s access to Malayalam cinema of the 80s is unique but not so with some of these other films I’m referring to because one can instantly recognize the visual codes. Even as one spots the ‘different’ one is instantly comfortable with it inasmuch as the gaze of the lens is one that matches similar perspectives elsewhere around the globe. This does not foreclose the possibility of there being artistic codes that are as singular as the sites represented but we might have reached very early in this medium’s young history an exhaustion of all possible codes. In some ways the gestures of that Malayalam cinema need to be rescued or ‘repeated’. The most radical gesture in cinema today is to make a ‘straight’ film with continuity editing! Those who aspire to make culturally unique films should start watching a lot of Mohanlal’s or Mammootty’s oeuvre! Or they should visit (or revisit) the great middle cinema of Bombay from the 70s!

But what of Tamil cinema? Could this be a more mainstream commercial model for an industry that remains culturally specific but also ‘upgrades’ itself at every point to match contemporary sensibilities? One could offer certain West African or Iranian films (ironically this labeling is itself part of the problem) as models for truly artistic aspirations but what of those more modest others who only seek to fashion intelligent entertainment? There has been an ongoing counter-reaction in Tamil cinema that I’ve elsewhere termed the ‘return of Bharthiraja’. For all the strengths of this still nascent history I have found some of the ‘anthropologization’ on display a bit problematic and yet for the purposes of the current discussion it is precisely this element that has de-authorized a very overt reliance on the ‘auteurist’. Which is not to say that the ‘auteurist’ cannot very easily be discerned in these films but it is always ultimately subsumed under the sign of the ‘native’. In other words the graft is inverted. The ‘auteurist’ enables a resurgence of the native in more aggressive fashion than ever before. This has been a rather unexpected ‘correction’ for Tamil cinema when one considers that even in the 90s the industry always had a very healthy mix of the local and the ‘foreign’ in terms of all the registers I’ve been referring to here. Again, this is not to sanction every element of this ‘new Tamil cinema’, certainly not for its politics. But there is a crucial way offered for ‘third world cinemas’ (it might be necessary to resuscitate this otherwise anachronistic label). All of this is not to deny that cinema might be at an impasse or even at an end in many ways but to assert that to the degree the ‘new’ might still be possible it can only be achieved by following the Malayalam model of the 80s or the Bombay one of the 70s or the contemporary Tamil one (which really is a spectrum beginning with the works of Mani Rathnam who is in many respects the exemplary (pop)auteur for the case I am trying to make). This is not to deny some triumphs that both Hindi and Malayalam cinema have exhibited in contemporary times but these are still exceptions than the rule. It is time today to take a vacation from the ‘auteurist’!

10 Responses to “Trivandrum…Bombay…Madras or how can the ‘local’ be preserved?”

  1. Very well put Satyam. The lack of an “auteur” in Malayalam mainstream (or middle of the road) cinema might be attributable to the idea that the auteur in such a scenario is the film culture itself, which carried all sorts of “templates” and cues under which many of the filmmakers functioned. What I’m saying is that while visually and otherwise while these films may have lacked an individual set of authorial stamps, they all unmistakably emerged from the same film tradition, which itself functioned as the true author of these films.

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    • That’s a good point though what I also mean is that it’s not just an authorial signature that’s missing inasmuch as such could be related to one person but also those artistic codes that we otherwise value in cinema. In other words those codes have to be ‘in suspension’ (if you will) for the world of the local to truly emerge without seeming mediated by a cinematic gaze that’s even ‘tired’ because it is too universal. To sound somewhat hyperbolic one is watching the same film all the time, the film festival syndrome where even if there seems to be nothing common between people living in Vietnam’s villages or those living in a Brazilian hinterland the codes employed in the film-making of each provide this ‘commonality’. So even as the world represented seems strange it is also very comfortable in an oddly insidious way. Much as masala Hindi cinema of the 70s followed what many authors have called a ‘mass aesthetic’ which is to say it cannot easily be located with other traditions as a stylistic matter (though of course there are strains of influence) whereas a Guru Dutt can be rather easily. This does not make either one of these traditions ‘lesser’ but Guru Dutt cannot offer with Kaagaz Ke Phool for example anything that is specifically ‘Indian’ about his tale. The story is a fairly universal one, whether the film is taken to be commentary on the industry, the loneliness of the artist, the romantic tale at the heart of the film et al. This alone does not make it an ‘Indian’ film. But where Guru Dutt could have rescued it and really ‘localized’ the film he sticks to a Hollywood format and more or less employs ‘auteurist’ strategies in terms of his visual choices. Raj Kapoor usually comes up with the right balance in this sense and which is why I rate him more highly. But also getting back to masala we see films that even when they are sourced from Western models (Deewar for example) are still made culturally specific not least because of the ‘grammar’ used. I have myself often had the criticism that these masala films, great as they might be. cannot really be compared with true works of art. But I am increasingly led to wonder whether the cinematic field renders such a division less meaningful than it would be in any other art/entertainment form. To wit, AAA is not shot like Fellini but if it were done that way one would literally lose the film. Much as one would lose Deewar if this film were shot like Satya. So on and so forth. Malayalam cinema in the 80s and only intermittently after this is an exemplary model. But the paradox if you will remains.

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      • Perfectly summed up and this makes a lot of sense. Specially liked the distinction you make between Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor in light of this discussion.

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  2. Not to get too convoluted about it but it occurs to me that what we see a lot more in Indian cinema is audience-as-autuer, in which the prevailing trends in a given society more often than not inform the cinemas. At their best, the different industries in India were able to transpose the stories and voices and the accompanying aesthetics with a great finger on the pulse of the people who helped shape things. These days with so many competing influences (globalization as you astutely remark is definitely one such force) it’s no wonder that the films don’t necessarily serve as the voice of a people as much as a platform for their fantasies and fascinations. Cinema becomes more and more a venue for wish fulfillment.

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  3. And by the way, I love the picture you’ve chosen here. That sequence is one of my favorites from Pattana Pravesham.

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    • sadly the one film in that trilogy I haven’t been able to see..

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      • It’s far better than the third…which I still enjoyed as pure slapstick but Pattana Pravesham is the perfect sequel in this sense. A perfect way station between the wit and social conscience of Nadodikkatu and the crudity of AAA.

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  4. Interesting discussion Satyam and GF- it does seem that the tradition and culture drive the signature more often than the not.
    Yes, this PP sequence was edgy and hilarious at the same time…

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