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Into The -Woods: the Colourful Politics of Vernacular Cinema

So similar, yet each unique

Indian cinema, and Bollywood especially, has always been extremely political, not least because of the fact that cinema is a popular medium that needs to appeal to a critical mass of audiences before the artistes get paid. It’s not merely an economic equation, though. In my previous post, I took a historical view of what political issues India cinema chose to cover, and how they’ve changed over the years.

As much as the past is a guide to the present, movies are not merely the historical baggage of their industries. Contemporary Indian cinema varies from the nauseatingly bougie to the mundane, where class conflict, caste tensions and intergenerational culture wars vie for primacy. Indian cinema has had to wrestle with and try to rationalize larger social changes in a way that Hollywood has never felt the need to (except perhaps during the Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin era, when urban living, widespread poverty and social distress were important themes that every filmmaker had to contend with). Over the past 50-odd years, western cinema has undergone very little fundamental restructuring: the same studios call the shots and the same people (more or less) still watch movies. More fundamentally, the societies themselves have not had to deal with changes in family values, erosion of the cultural idea of purity, intercultural dialogue and technological progress in the same way that countries like India and China (and increasingly, Nigeria and Indonesia) have had to deal with.

As a result, Indian cinema is multilayered in a way that Hollywood can never be. Whereas all Hollywood movies are necessarily for a broad audience, India’s size and history of pluralism create the cultural and political space needed for several different industries to emerge. For example, while Bollywood – Hindi language cinema centered around Mumbai and Delhi – is still the de facto flagbearer of Indian cinema, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam cinema are all perfectly capable industries on their own – each of the these produces upwards of 200 movies per year.

This post deals with how these vernacular industries deal with issues of cultural change, progress, inclusion and class conflict. Specifically, I’m going to elaborate on the ideas of culture coding and jurisdiction as they relate to movies. My go-to industries of reference will be Bollywood and Kollywood, not because they’re the largest – although Bollywood definitely is – but because they’re the most representative of the two jurisdictions of cinema, viz. the national and the local. While discussing coding, though, I’m going to try to draw from as many industries as I can, because why not.

Obviously, this whole post is full of spoilers. It’s literally a post about movies, what’d you expect? But because I’m nice, here are all the movies that I will proceed to spoil to a greater or lesser degree:

  • Joker (2019)
  • Passion of the Christ (2004)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
  • Parasite (2019)
  • Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999)
  • Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)
  • Delhi Belly (2011)
  • The Full Monty (1997)
  • Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
  • Pedarayudu (1995)
  • Duniya (2007)
  • Thackeray (2020)
  • Pushpak (1987)
  • Jogi (2005)
  • Amruthadhare (2005)
  • Good Will Hunting (1997)
  • Visaranai (2015)
  • Ugly (2014)
  • Super Deluxe (2019)

Culture coding

In order to understand what I mean when I say that movies code culture, it’s first important to bear in mind that movies capture telltale pieces of location, scenery, accents, skin colours and spoken insults that build a world. Worldbuilding is why the Avengers movies succeeded, while DC’s attempt fell on its face and never woke up. As in the real world, most cinematic worlds also involve dog-whistling that’s expected to signal something to the viewer without saying it out loud.

For example, consider The Passion of The Christ (PoTCh). In this libcucks-go-fuck-yourselves Christian freakshow, Mel Gibson tries to imagine what went down when that one time around 30 AD Jesus Christ was captured by the Romans. Spoiler: he dies. But that’s not the point. The point of the movie is violence: more sepcifically, its antisemitism:

… fundamentally misconceives the relationship between the prefect, Pontius Pilate, and the Temple authorities led by Caiaphas. Caiaphas served at Rome’s pleasure. Yet the script shows him bullying Pontius Pilate with an amazing control of the Jewish mob. Pilate even states he fears Caiaphas is plotting a revolt. This is a total reversal of the historical reality of Judea under Roman rule.’ The scholars group remarked that ‘in the time of Jesus, Romans crucified those Jews they suspected of sedition routinely…. There is absolutely no evidence that crosses of any kind were built by Jews in the Temple.’

Another conclusion was that ‘dramatically, as the script stands, Jesus’ opponents are one-dimensional bad guys…. The film takes every opportunity to embellish the violence of the passion, thereby increasing the likelihood of an audience to be filled with outrage at those who perpetuated such a horrendous crime.’ The group added: ‘Viewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theater with the overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-loving Jews simply had an implacable hatred of Jesus.

A JCPA press release, link here

The fact that PoTCh got an R rating and would never be played on many family channels surprised nobody, least of all Mel. Because it was all a part of the world building. The world Mel was portraying was a violent, materialistic, faithless region where God could find no incorruptible mortal to reveal his words to. Hence, Jesus. There were two ways that Jesus’ story can be told: that of a compassionate man helping his fellow humans through a time of hardship and suffering; or that of a world of crazed lunatics in which common decency would be considered divine. Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was more of the former, since the movie’s list of advisors included a Jewish producer, historians, Biblical scholars, Islamic scholars, rabbis, imams and several other experts. Being the antisemite that he is, Mel of course chose the latter.

Filmmakers make such cultural choices very often, but only rarely are they purely because of their own inherent prejudices. More commonly, movies are an outlet for popular sentiment: for validation and recognition. When people watch movies, they don’t really see a Sylvester Stallone or a Salman Khan, they see themselves. When they see Iron Man defeating Thanos, they see themselves in that sweaty armour. And when Tony Stark dies, they see the loss and mourning as the mourning they would feel. I’m not saying that all movies are necessarily meant to reflect society, just that society gets out of it what it wants to. It’s “Death of the Author“, but for movies. “Death of the Director”, I suppose.

A popular filmmaker, therefore, is one who holds a mirror to the audience’s sense of self and shows it for what it is, even if it’s ugly. This mirroring of cultural cues in cinametic forms is what I’ve been calling culture coding. What the movie encodes is largely left to the writer/director, but there are three categories of markers that are key to our understanding of Indian cinema: class, language and location. So let’s go through them in that order.

Class struggle: hidden in plain sight

In 1848, Karl Marx wrote:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Karl Marx in Communist Manifesto

What was said of 19th century European society can also be said of modern Indian cinema. Nearly all of its myriad complexities arise out of simple class and power equations. So, I’ll dedicate most of this post to examining the role of class politics in shaping Indian cinema.

In the previous post, I gave a brief overview of the evolution of Indian cinema over the years. Central to that evolution was the development of the idea of a nation: it began as a unifying ideal that was open to everybody. Over time, as the nation and state fused into one, the state’s failures came to be seen as the nation’s fatal flaws. With that, the great Indian democratic experiment began to crack. These cracks were amplified when the newly liberalized India of 1992-99 created avenues by which the rich and connected could get even richer and connected-er. A resurgent nostalgic appreciation for ‘Indian culture’ led to the resurgence of Hindu transnationalist politics, as seen in Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999). Here’s a brief overview for those of you unfamiliar with this timeless gem:

In the meanwhile, these activities combined with the state’s gratuitous rent-seeking created millions of new jobs, lifting millions of illiterate, poor and contented families into respectable positions. Like a mountaineer trekking to a viewpoint before making the summit climb, India’s new middle class stopped and gawped at how unbelievably close they were to being “upper-class”. As they looked up to the skies, they dreamt of better lives, of lives they saw the rich leading. Lives of largesse and promiscuity, lives where social rules and religious norms were merely vague guidelines that didn’t apply if you didn’t want them to. The life they were looking for finally arrived – in 2011. In the form of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, an aimless-walk-in-the-park kind of movie that is billed as a “coming of age” movie, but in reality, is just a petit-bourgeousie fantasy in which three friends roam around Europe for a few days and emerge entirely unchanged. It’s a movie whose central theme is the display of wealth and of unrepentant consumption, and whose women are not so much people as they are stand-ins for virtue, belief and restraint.

In Zoya Akhtar’s movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), three friends embark on a road trip that is in fact a journey toward globalization. While the trip is meant to partly cure Arjun, a stock trader, of his workaholism and is ostensibly a critique of India’s adoption of Western corporate culture and consumerism, Akhtar’s slick framing of Europe glamorizes a late-capitalist ideology by catering to a scopophilia of Westernized leisure that that ideology makes possible. She promotes images of travel and the pleasures associated with the Mediterranean (including carnivalesque festivals and uninhibited Western women). Immersing themselves in this romanticized Europe, the men set aside the ethical demands of their individual histories. The movie serves to highlight a new value system in Hindi cinema, a shift away from traditional norms to ones that align fluidly with the signs of a consumerist utopia in a multinationalized world.

Jayashree Kamble in this beautiful paper

There’s a scene in ZNMD in which the protagonist – a banker of some sort – takes a phone call while in a car with his friends, and one of them just casually flings his phone out of the car. Just like that. Who cares about the value of the phone and its contents to the guy, right? Who cares about the job? Who cares about anything? Being rich means that you never have to.

The scene in question.

MK Raghavendra sees the scene as being one with the new Bollywood mantra of creating characters who share a lifestyle more than language, geography or anything else. He cites Delhi Belly as the other example of this trend – a group of loafers who don’t work, and don’t really see the need to either. Friend whose only commonality is their shared easy-breezy lifestyle. Fascinating read.

Surely, that is a life worth living.

Looking east, and looking west

It makes sense here to pause and notice that class struggle is an almost universal theme across industries. While Hollywood mostly shies away from making any explicit statements about the link between class struggle and morality, British movies don’t. Classics like The Full Monty (1997) and This is England (2006) are masterclasses in worldbuilding where class struggle is ubiquitous to the point of inevitability. The Full Monty, especially:

[…] takes material that could would be at home in a sex comedy, and gives it gravity because of the desperation of the characters; we glimpse the home life of these men, who have literally been put on the shelf, and we see the wound to their pride. “The Full Monty” belongs in the recent tradition of bittersweet films from Britain that depict working- class life […] “The Full Monty” is about more than inventiveness in the face of unemployment. It’s about ordinary blokes insisting that their women regard them as men–job or no job.

Roger Ebert’s review

Since 2014, however, western audiences are much more attuned to this sort of class messaging. As a result, Hollywood too is increasingly open to class messaging. I would boldly state about 70% of this change is due to politics. Of that, a significant portion is due to the rise of Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s sharp critique of America’s irresponsible kleptocapitalism was lapped up by his fellow countrymen, and this unexpected popularity of a socialist message in America created an opening for other like-minded artistes and activists. While Bernie did not create socialism for the 21st century, he definitely amplified its message.

So, it’s no surprise that in 2019 (the eve of another presidential cycle) came two movies that made many many viewers deeply uncomfortable about the class structure of capitalistic societies. Parasite and Joker both have the same basic skeleton: society rewards the rich and unfairly punishes the poor for no fault of their own. They try to look at poverty as it exists in their respective countries of origin: South Korea and America, respectively. Both, predictably, arrive at the conclusion that rampant exploitation is to blame. And both put the blame on the rich, who’ve taken so much but always find ways to give back very little. They’re both equally compelling movies for trying times. Yet, their worldviews could not be more different.

Parasite shows class conflict from on high: a bunch of unkempt quasi-slaves whose lives only take shape and meaning from their masters. Their lives are messy, chaotic and comical. If they weren’t so damned poor, they could just as easily have been clowns. Funnily enough, Joker takes the opposite tack. The poor live lives of quiet misery; their lives are predictable and mundane, and the end result is painfully obvious from the first scene. Whereas Parasite sees poverty akin to a lottery, Joker sees it as a slow-moving trainwreck with only one possibility. Whereas Parasite is colourful, mischievous and playful in its delivery, Joker is bleak. Where one sees the possession of material goods as an end in itself, the other sees a whole Byzantine conspiracy preventing poor people from living lives of decency. Robin Hanson puts it best:

Parasite is done in a setting and style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more lower class perspective. Which is partly why upper class critics prefer Parasite.

Robin Hanson in Overcoming Bias

How class coding works

Upper-class discomfort with the themes in Joker is precisely why the initial pre-release reception was tepid at best, and why the movie didn’t win an Oscar despite being much better than Parasite. The snotty-nosed, Yale-educated litterateurs of white-collar media just couldn’t stomach a mainstream movie that captured class struggle in such a visceral fashion. They didn’t care that the source material was undeniably dark, or that its very popularity was a reminder for them to mend their ways. All they cared about was its monochromatic portrayal of upper class society, because that’s exactly what politics does: it frames everything around us in novel ways, so that you end up rethinking the mundane and unremarkable. A wonky wheel became a symbol of fascism, a green frog its renaissance, and an orange provocateur its ultimate form.

Similarly, class is coded into Indian movies as well. How do viewers know what the class being coded is? How does class decoding work? More often than not, viewers understand that an upper-class coded movie tends to not talk about it, whereas a lower-class coded movie tends to wear it on its sleeve. It’s kind of like how the rich kid in class can afford to try to pass off as a regular guy, whereas the poor kid generally can’t. The privilege of having privilege confers upon you the ability to mask it.

In other words, privilege is an honest marker of privilege. As stupid as it sounds at first, it’s useful to remember it when watching a movie. If it shows privilege, assumes it or speaks of privilege without addressing it, it tends to be upper-class coded. If it’s coy about it, tries to frame privilege as something you earn or as something that society confers upon you for your (unexplained) greatness, it’s either upper-class revisionism or it’s made for the aspirant or upwardly-mobile middle class. If the movie does none of the above but still doesn’t really show any scorn for the upper-class, it’s meant for the lower-middle class. On the other hand, a movie that sees poverty, doesn’t shy away from exposing the rotten roots of privilege and doesn’t try to hide its message in any sort of apologeticism is for the lower class.

Some examples

First, upper class coding in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). A very cliched, bland and typically Zoya Akhtar movie, it sees privilege and pokes lgiht-hearted fun at it, but doesn’t spend any time seriously examining it. The characters all drift in and out of focus as they try to figure out their purpose, while going on a cruise through some typically Mediterranean locales. With that much context, here’s an otherwise unremarkable scene that manages to code class pretty effectively.

Everything in the movie is a code. First, there’s the cruise. Who even goes on cruises? Most of the reason Indians go on cruises is to announce that they’re rich. No other reason. So, that’s a pretty strong code right there. But apart from the obvious, there’s the content itself: divorce. India, for all its pretences, is still a very very conservative country vis-a-vis family values. Divorces just aren’t a thing. When they do happen, on-screen divorces tend to be due to violence, affairs or some sor of dowry-related issue. All of those are rooted in Indian society’s historical problems of female disenfranchisement and insecurity. And more often than not, the locus of control is the man: it is the guy who broaches the topic, and it is he who decides if the divorce goes through. But this movie, and the above scene, are unusual in that the it’s the woman who’s in control: she decides that she doesn’t want to be with this guy anymore, and gets what she asks for. Even more unusual is the reason why; it’s not because he clobbered her face with a vase, or because he’d been sleeping with her mum. No. She wants a divorce because she deserves better.

That’s a level of female-empowerment that is still largely missing in Indian families. The only people who believe that women have just as much right to a happy marriage as men are upper-class Anglophone audiences. And that’s exactly whom the movie addresses.

Next, upper-class revisionism. We see this quite a lot in yesteryear movies, because the economic reality of the time didn’t allow for movies to show any markers other than those of wealth and caste. My favourite example of a very weird (and extremely cringey) intersection of these two is in Pedarayudu (1995). Specifically, this one scene.

This movie is one of several similar ones from the 1992-99 period – when India’s rising economic tide lifted all boats and thus came into direct conflict with the traditional caste system which mandated that some castes lead lives of austerity and deprivation. You have parallel themes in Bollywood blockbusters like Sooryavansham (1999) starring Amitabh Bachhan as the benevolent patriarch whose traditional values save a decadent family from losing sight of Hindu morality.

Here, the brown-shirted dude (“Pedarayudu”) commands deference because he and his father (and so on) are apparently the reason the guy in the suit is now a wealthy merchant who commands respect in society. Whereas the suit is a self-made man, the plainer looking guy is not. He’s merely held the position of village head, a hereditary position that he would like to pass on to his son some day (and eventually does). Yet, the dialogue shows that while material possessions wax and wane, what survives forever is your lineage and the word of God – of which your lineage is proof. So, the conclusion is that while wealth and accomplishment may place you in a higher class than that Brahmin/Thakur village elder, you will always be a social inferior by dint of your birth. That’s how upper-class revisionism works.

Finally, an example of lower class coding. This is kind of hard to find, partly because of issues of jurisdiction (which I’ll come to in a later section), but mostly just because there is no real Indie movie scene in India. So, any movie has to pass through several powerful people and institutions before it makes it to theatres. This kills any subversive themes, and whitewashes the movie of all substance, rendering it a toothless critique of class structure. While this is true of all industries, Bollywood suffers from this self-censorship more than regional language cinema. So, my pick for lower class coding is a scene from Duniya (2007), a movie that not only launched several careers but also inspired many imperfect imitators.

Ignoring the gratuitous violence and comically bad acting, the scene summarizes some key aspects city life from the eyes of a poor, unprivileged nobody. The crass language, unsophisticated mannerisms and inability to engage with higher classes are seen as central to the life of a poor person. When they do come in contact with power, the interactions tends to be violent and exploitative. Continued exposure to this kind of power breeds constant suspicion, numbness and complete apathy towards policemen, politicians etc. This scene, while imperfect, encapsulates what it takes to speak to lower classes in modern India.

Role of language: the medium is the message

So, yes, class is a killer theme for movies to explore but it doesn’t need to be packed and labelled as ‘class’ per se. India’s varied society offers filmmakers several options on how to go about it. As seen in the examples above, education is an easy wrapper. Another go-to is caste, which is by far the most efficient way to summarize class, status and education all in one. However, above caste and way beyond education is another useful carrier of class markers: language. But unlike class, depiction of language cannot be monolithic and homogenous because language cuts across social segments and carries its own history independent of the history of class struggle.

The politics of language is as old as humanity itself. Among the short list of things considered “uniquely human” is our ability to communicate complex ideas to each other in detailed, expressive ways. The exact origins of language are still up for debate, but what’s not being debated is the utility of language. We use it to express feelings, relay facts, store and alter information… If politics is even possible today, it is undoubtedly because of the unifying power of language. So it’s no surprise that in a country of over 30 major languages (at least a million speakers), popular politics is inextricably tied with language politics. To understand one is to wade waist-deep in the world of the other.

Consider this statement: the primary use of language is to act as a placeholder image that the audience can build upon. In some cases, the movie never moves past this “first impression” whereas in most cases, the writer then weaves in a story to humanize the character a bit more and gives the script some legs.

Let’s see some examples. The first is Nayakan (1987), for which casual readers of Indian political history may need a little detour and historical context. Skip ahead if you’re familiar with the story of Bombay’s uneasy acceptance of migrants.

A little detour

The movie shows a petty smuggler’s rise to power in 1980s Bombay. The movie is a curious intersection of the “underworld don” era of Indian cinema – 1970s to mid 90s – which I wrote about in the previous post, and the resurgence of Tamil identity politics in the late 80s.

Unlike most other states, Tamil Nadu has always been home to a rather progressive, urbanized and proud people. Icons such as Periyar and Karunanidhi were not only progressive, secular reformists but also staunch secessionists. Periyar famously railed against Brahminical orthodoxy of the time and called for the creation of a “Dravidian state”, to be called Dravidanadu, made up of the present regions of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with some debate about the latter. Periyar saw that these states were progressive, dominated by non-Brahminical people (although this has changed now) and were largely under the thumb of the Brahminical institutions imposed by what he called the “Indo-Aryans”, a reference to the polarizing debate around Aryan Invasion Hypothesis, which posits that somewhere around 3500 BCE, hoards of invaders from Iran (“Aryans”) started pillaging and settling into northern India, bringing with them their language (Sanskrit), culture (diety worship), religion (Hinduism, proto-Zoroastrianism) and practices such as wheat cultivation, horse rearing and archery.

The spread of the Steppe pastoralists and their descendants across ancient Eurasia. The Steppe population is identified here using the name Yamnaya which refers to an ancient archaeological culture on the Pontic Steppe. It is the Yamnaya people who spoke the a language which was the ancestor of every Indo-European language in existence today, be it Bhojpuri or Welsh. The arrows show plausible routes while the years refer to rough estimates of when the Yamnaya and their descendants arrived in a place. Source: Science

Around independence, questions started being raised about the structure of Indian states, which were drawn almost haphazardly by the British for the sake of administrative ease. Independent India resolved to reorganize states along linguistic lines, leading to protests by unionists and Hindu-Hindi nationalists (mostly from RSS) on the one hand who worried that this exercise would upset the delicate peace after Partition, and secessionists on the other, who wanted more than just linguistic states – they wanted the states to have near-complete autonomy in deciding their fate. This tension subsided during the late 60s and 70s, as the wily authoritarian Indira Gandhi found a way to stitch together convenient coalitions where she had political capital, and imprisoned dissenters where she didn’t. The end of Emergency, and the Hindu-pleaser PM Rajiv Gandhi allowed the political class to catch their breath after nearly a decade, leading to the resurgence of hitherto-suppressed ideas into a country that had burned through what little Gandhian spirit was left.

In the midst of all this strife was Bombay, India’s financial capital and the jewel in its admittedly mangy crown. Before Independence, Bombay was part of Bombay state, a Presidency ruled directly by the British crown. As a crown region, it included a melange of peoples from modern Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act split Bombay state into Karnataka and Maharashtra, with a further split occuring in 1960 as a result of the Mahagujarat movement which demanded a separate state for Gujarati-speaking people in Bombay state. This resulted in the creation of Gujarat, and the leftovers of Bombay (along with some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad) were rechristened Maharashtra, or “great nation”. Bombay was a point of contention, and in the resulting tug-of-war, Maharashtra won out. It kept Bombay but would forever harbour a deep wariness of “outsiders”.

After the passing of the States Reorganization Act of 1956, Bombay split into Maharashtra and Karnataka, largely along linguistic lines. In 1960, the Mahagujarat movement also forced the creation of Gujarat out of the leftovers.

Into this volatile state of affairs entered Bal Thackeray, a fearmongering populist with an especially strong hatred for the non-Marathi population of Bombay.

It’s impossible to understand the new leader of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without understanding his right-wing party’s cousin, the Shiv Sena. And it’s impossible to understand Shiv Sena — or for that matter, the city of Mumbai — without understanding the late Bal Thackeray

Aayush Soni in Ozy

Thackeray began his career as a regular writer and cartoonist. He forged his political career in the flames of the Maharashtra movement as it took shape in response to Mahagujarat. In 1966, he created Shiv Sena, an ethnonationalist party with a strongly Hindu background that puts regional identity before national ones, although recent whitewashing has made people forget this fact. This curious combination caused many clashes between Shiv Sena and the Hindu-nationalist RSS, its ideological parent and longtime frenemy. Over time, Shiv Sena’s violent hatred would consume everyone including Tamils, Kannadigas, Muslims, Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis. Even as the Shiv Sena now tries to wriggle out of this ideological corner that Thackeray has confined it to, it’s impossible for modern Mumbai to escape its association with this icon of Marathi identity.

Back on track

So it makes sense to also consider a recent biopic of Bal Thackeray, creatively titled “Thackeray” (2020). This movie was released in two languages – Hindi and Marathi (a fact we will return to while discussing jurisdictions), and below are the two trailers.

Thackeray – Hindi trailer
Thackeray – Marathi trailer. The infamous lungi comment is made around the 1:00 mark.

Notice that whereas the Hindi one is more artistic and romantic, the Marathi one is less wishy-washy and more explicitly antagonistic, with lines such as “Uthao lungi bajao pungi” (lift the lungi and fuck him), a reference to the ‘lungi‘, a skirt-like loincloth commonly worn by Tamil men. There are also references to ‘idli‘, a supremely tasty simple dish made of steamed rice flour and lentils, also common among Tamils and other South Indians. The Marathi trailer also explicitly shows stone-pelting at a “Udipi Coffee House”, a reference to cafes owned by outsiders from Udupi, a temple town in southwestern Karnataka. While the Hindi version is fairly blancmange in its depiction of Thackeray as a fairly ordinary religion-baiting populist, the Marathi one goes much further and shows Thackeray for the violent patriarch that he really was. In this lies the power and utility of regional languages – whereas a Hindi movie is necessarily meant for a diverse audience, the Marathi one isn’t, and so can focus its messaging better. Where a Hindi movie is a hammer, the Marathi one is an axe.

And so it is with Nayakan (1987), a wildly popular Tamil movie set in 1980s Mumbai, where relentless waves of anti-Tamil riots were threatening to cause widespread chaos. Elsewhere, Sri Lankan Tamils too were facing repression under the Sinhala government that refused to grant Tamils any political power. In 1976, several disparate allegiances coalesced under V. Prabhakaran the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers. The LTTE was a shot in the arm for a latent Indian Tamil identity movement, which was built from the ground-up by grassroots activists and nurtured by political godfathers like Karunanidhi and M.G. Ramachandran. Thus was created a political environment where Nayakan (“leader”, “lord” or “hero”) could have existed.

The beauty of piracy means that the full movie is now available on Youtube

The movie follows the rise to dominance of the adopted son of a Tamil-speaking Muslim man. One of the earliest scenes in the movie sets the stage for the coming confrontation between the Tamil migrants living in a filthy yet harmonious shantytown and corrupt, violent Hindi-speaking policemen exemplified by one Kelkar – himself a wink and a nod to Shiv Sena’s Marathi pride displacing millions of destitute Tamils from Mumbai. To this, we add the perception of the Indian unity experiment as having largely failed Tamils, who should have stuck to the demand for a separate Dravidanadu which could have governed itself well and prevented such large-scale squalour. So, Nayakan at once rebukes the ascendant Marathi sentiment while also thumbing its nose at the Indian nation-state, which has failed its duty and must now transfer power to extrajudicial vigilantes.

In Nayakan, a transfer of power from state to subaltern is achieved through a violent ritual battle between Velu and the Hindi-speaking inspector Kelkar. Kelkar is depicted as a cruel racist cop, described variously as mirugam / animal or kaattaan / barbarian, who terrorizes the migrant Tamil populace of the shantytown. If Nayakan exhibits a strong “preference for vigilante justice in the absence of the legitimate authority of the state”, according to Professor Gopalan, the ritual battle becomes a means of discrediting the state, delegitimizing the law, and empowering the subaltern.

Kumuthan Maderya in Popmatters

So, language is a crucial accelerator of the creation of a strong “imagined community”, a la Benedict Anderson. It serves to unite people under specific ideas and personalities while also acting as a bulwark against overarching national ideas that threaten to subsume regional identities within them. Its role in creating more focused communities within the Indian nation acts as a check against the excesses of demagoguery and jingoistic fervour. At the same time, divergent themes in vernacular cinema highlight that there is no monolithic “India”, and one community’s prosperity and pride seem to always lead to another’s poverty and predation.

Location, location, location

Our previous discussions of culture coding in terms of class and language have at their core the assumption that these are macro-identifiers capable of transmitting messages faithfully to all constituents within the group. But what if this isn’t necessarily true? What if class and language aren’t always enough to fully encode the cultural backdrop of a movie? What does a director do when she needs to narrow down her focus further without losing any class or language connections? She localizes the movie.

Giving a movie a specific location is oftentimes essential to the story itself. For example, Good Will Hunting (1997) could never work if it wasn’t set in Southie. Its examination of residual tensions between Irish-Catholics and Protestants is part of the imagined community that Will and Chuckie inhabit. Everything about the movie, from the colour palette to the drinking habits, is a constant reminder of Boston and its Irish immigrant population (even though the in-film “MIT” was actually University of Toronto).

As the car begins up the street with the four young men, the filmmakers insert a visual register which guides the progress of the film: the paint scheme of two homes on the left side of the street form the Irish flag. The first home adjacent to the car is large and green; the home across the street, which the car passes second, is smaller, and paint-ed white and orange. We later learn that the four men are Will Hunting (Matt Damon), Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), Morgan O’Mally (Casey Affleck), and Billy McBride (Cole Hauser). These four representthe Irish Catholic interests and culture in the film, and their metaphoric journey from Catholic South Boston into the Protestant north—portrayed by Cambridge—begins on this camera angle.

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera in Revisioning Migration: On the Stratifications of Irish Boston in Good Will Hunting

Similarly, many Indian movies just don’t work without location markers. Take for example the masterful Pushpak (1987) written and directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. Pushpak is a standout example of what Indian directors can achieve when their hands aren’t tied by commercial interests alone. It’s entirely without dialogue, which meant that all cultural markers had to be conveyed visually only. This means that more often than not, the director had to place the characters in settings where either (A) the location did not matter, or (B) the location is obvious, or (C) the location is easily replacable by one that the audience could relate to. Try to figure out which category the scene below belongs in:

How about this one?

Pushpak is a masterclass in blending location cues into quotidian scenes without making it overbearing or restrictive. Yes, it has other cultural codes as well – most notably its slightly rose-tinted view of class struggle – but to the audience of 1987, Pushpak’s location was unmistakable. Bangalore was a symbol of aspiration and sophistication. It wasn’t Bombay where only the most cutthroat survived, or Delhi where being politically connected was a prerequisite to success. Bangalore in the late 80s was the symbol of a gentrified, urbane city where you could rise to the top with just hardwork and dedication. All the location markers used in Pushpak point to this – from the Windsor Manor hotel where the above scene was shot to Commercial Street where the shopping scenes are set, Pushpak uses Bangalore to make a statement about the characters and therefore, of the audience. There are no crass song and dance sequences or over-the-top fight scenes that go on forever. Pushpak uses its location to make the audience feel good while entertaining without any of the frills commonly associated with Indian cinema.

But once again, Tamil cinema shows alternative ways to use location. Visaranai (2015) and Super Deluxe (2019) both use explicit location cues as part of a signalling strategy. Visaranai (“interrogation”) uses the age-old trope of Tamil oppression at the hands of Telugu overlords, but unlike Nayakan, instead of traversing an extended period, it almost freezes the movie in time and focusses on the goings-on around the interrogation of one group of men. The movie aims to lay bare the brutality of policemen towards migrant labourers but instead produces a jarring look at law enforcement in India in general.

Super Deluxe instead uses location almost nonchalantly, as if the locations of the characters don’t matter at all, except that if you’ve watched the movie (MAJOR SPOILER!) you know it really does in the end – it turns out that all the characters in the movie inhabit the same middle-class locality. Yes, there are other culture codes like caste politics (there are pictures of Ambedkar all over the movie), institutionalised violence, the consumption of porn in modern India etc., but those are all intertwined in the location. Using the cues in the movie alone, we can try to pinpoint where it’s located. So what are the cues we’re given? Here’s a few:

  1. Tamil boards everywhere
  2. Moderately-populated areas
  3. Low-cost housing
  4. Presence of a Marwari trading community
  5. Presence of a prominent film industry that employs
  6. Vast amounts of flat, empty land previously used for industrial purposes

You can almost immediately tell that the movie is based around suburban Chennai, possibly some of the northern parts like Manali or Ennore. Simple cues like the ones above are generally enough to know where the characters are located, and good directors always find a way to use the location effectively. Anurag Kashyap uses Mumbai’s various faces to great effect in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Ugly (2014), with the latter intertwining location markers with cultural codes like police brutality, mob justice, vulnerability of women and children, juxtaposed with an apathetic urban population’s “arrey yaar, there’s always some drama going on” attitude towards your neighbours.

Whereas class and language are broad-based and used to express sympathies or solidarity, location offers filmmakers something else, something more. It lets them use society to make a statement about society. I began with the statement that popular filmmakers hold a mirror to society and show it for what it is. That mirror is location, with class and language acting as the frame holding it together and giving it shape and maneuverability.

Jurisdictions of cinema

So, you may now agree, cinemas serve a political purpose and a cultural one. But that’s only the message and medium. What about the people watchign the movie whom it aims to inform or influence? This amorphous entity I call “jurisdiction“.

The audience of a movie is not the same as its jurisdiction. To consider why, let’s go back to the example of Thackeray. I noted briefly that the movie was released in two languages: Hindi and Marathi, with each getting a trailer that is markedly different from the other. Whereas the Hindi one is more artistic, the Marathi one is rougher, plainer, more honest. So, in reality, there is no single Thackeray: there are two entirely different ones. There’s the populist one made for national audiences, and the more pointed one for local audiences. These separate spheres of influence form the two dominant jurisdictions of Indian cinema. The national jurisdiction is broader and has largely convergent themes of Hindu orthodoxy, upper-class apologeticism, modernity and the irrelevance of regional boundaries. The local jurisdiction is narrower and has special quirks that make sure that each local jurisdiction diverges markedly from the other. Across local jurisdictions, identities are rigid and sticky whereas within each one, these same identities can be quite fluid and open to interpretation.

Language is, once again, the primary basis for the formation of local jurisdictions. In both trailers of Thackeray, the lead actor does not utter a single word in English, even though a supermajority of Indians would struggle to complete a sentence without using at least one word from English. In other words, Thackeray’s speech is an anachronism that serves to elevate the speaker to a higher level than the regular politician. In Super Deluxe, the language being used is not Tamil; it’s a very realistic amalgam of Tamil and English that’s the lingua franca of most urban Tamils. Delhi Belly (2011) barely uses any proper Hindi: instead, it’s almost entirely in Hinglish, an urban blend of Hindi interspersed with English. Most of rural India uses words that native speakers from urban India don’t understand at all. Likewise, urban India’s weird mix of English and vernacular is endlessly mocked by rural, “less sophisticated” people.

In the previous post, I spoke about how Salman Khan is almost the perfect foil to Shah Rukh Khan’s sophisticated, urbane Indian. This is all it boils down to: whereas SRK speaks to the national jurisdiction, Salman Khan speaks to the local. Their successes also remind us of something else: these two spheres aren’t necessarily opposed to each other, or unequal in any way. In most parts of India, movies are made to appeal to local and national sensibilities, and – all things being equal – both have the same potential to succeed.

Let’s consider for example the year 2005 in Kannada cinema. On the one hand, you had a clear local movie, Jogi, that was just the most perfect distillation of everything wrong with mainstream Kannada industry and its lionization of extrajudicial violence. It enjoyed a great amount of popularity in rural areas since it was seen as speaking to a local population about the corruption in cities, value of remembering your roots, respecting your mother, staying humble and all that commie jazz. Of course, most urban audiences disliked the movie, since they’d already moved away from graphic violence and were trying to embrace a more cosmopolitan filmography. Around the same time was released Amruthadhare, a very obviously national movie that tried to place marriage and traditional family values within the context of a modern India. While the language restricted its audience, there was no reason why Amruthadhare could not have been dubbed into Hindi, Tamil, Assamese or any other language without losing its cultural relevance. While Jogi spoke of specific and local issues like losing ones mother and not having enough to bury her properly, Amruthadhare picked up broader cultural issues which would not have appealed to rural audiences that were still grappling with lower-level issues.

To conclude, outsiders and pan-India urban audiences tend to be influenced by national movies, and rural and/or lower-class audiences tend to be influenced by local movies, and these two form two independent, overlapping and perfectly compatible spheres of influences that I will continue to call jurisdictions.

Thank you for your patience.

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