The in-between space separating Bollywood and indie films says something about middle class and system it loves to hate

Dark Fear, Eerie Cities
New Hindi Cinema in Neoliberal India
Book Excerpt 

The mass reproduction of film forms seemingly penetrating into the uneasy tensions in 21st-century urban India’s psyche means that the images that we can recognize as critical or dissenting and, at the same time, belonging to “art cinema” or “indie” reach us transformed and with their meaning changed, or in other words, we are witnessing a reification of culture in the times of neoliberal capitalism in India. Let’s take Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee, 2012) and Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2013) as examples. Both films are part of the new cinematic developments in Hindi cinema. The latter cannot be classified as “art cinema”, if we look at it conventionally; it is entirely a commercial Bollywood product, and the former strongly flirts with art cinema both in terms of form and content.

Shanghai is a deeply political film, one can even say, a film committed to social change and critique of the previously mentioned status quo. But simultaneously, the film engages in a double move that works against such critique, thereby neutralizing it, or in other words, making the critique lose its negativity. The film therefore can be seen as balancing on the borderline, at the point when the positive absorbs the negative, but not yet fully. One can see the problematic negotiation and interplay between a desire for social change and an almost unconscious incapability to negotiate the alternative outside the system. Shanghai’s main idea is the critique of developmental politics in rural India. The film takes place in the fictional town of Bharatnagar, in the middle of nowhere both literally and metaphorically, as the town exists only in the director’s fantasy but can be recognized as any town in India. The town is waiting for a massive investment that would change it for the good and the construction of India Business Park—a massive Free Economic Zone project that would house a variety of business companies—would change it for the better. The project is referred to as the essence of progress and development, something that would turn the dusty and dirty middle-of-nowhere town into a new Shanghai. The project needs land that belongs to local peasants. The government and the corporations therefore try to dispossess the people of their land. The leader of resistance to this is Dr Ahmedi (Prosenjit Chatterjee), an NRI professor living in New York, who is projected as an epitome of leftist resistance to neoliberal conquests. He arrives at Bharatnagar in order to address a public gathering and speak against neoliberal development, but is critically injured by a speeding truck shortly afterwards. The rest of the film is an inquiry into his death—led by a state bureaucrat T.A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol)—into who ordered it and who executed it. Surely, everything points toward the highest political echelons and the chief minister herself.

On the outside, the film seems to be a critique of the present state of affairs in India, of developmental ideology, dispossession, poverty and political cynicism. It may seem that the film agitates to rise against corruption and stand with the “common man”. It may seem that the film is somewhat similar to the critical films made in the 1970s and early 1980s that focused on rural, deprived India. However, this is not the case. There are several problems with this film, and looking at each one of them more closely may help us understand the nature of cultural politics in neoliberal India, the narratives and the images that are produced in such milieu.

While it may seem that the film produces a critique of a market-driven development administered by corrupt politicians without exonerating the system that makes it possible, things are a bit more complicated. Here, Banerjee does not cut through the reality in order to show it for what it is. The unmasking and uncovering of “mutilated content” of reality in the film is performed by a state bureaucrat, who is part of the system, and by an NRI professor. These two are the ones with whom the urban upper-middle-class audiences could identify easily, and on top of that, in the end, it is the system itself that solves the problem; the corruption, the murderous and inhuman face of development are all exposed by the system’s loyal servant, who dissents at the end of the film. This is a misleading message, because it exonerates the system itself—the system is good and well functioning, but some reckless elements (read local state-level politicians) must be policed and disciplined. It is the system that is the winner of the film and that eventually stands by the “common man”. In the end, we are glad that the system has such moral servants: they prove that the system is good per se, only that it needs some cleaning up to be done. In the end, we love the system and are not inclined to rise against it. This is Orwellian thinking, and precisely in this type of thinking, all the potential negativity dissolves. This is what Marcuse (2002) calls “the happy marriage of positive and the negative”: it produces objective ambiguity and a false realism. Negative critique strives to uncover the irrational character of the system; it seeks to comprehend the root causes of rationality in order to transform it. However, this is not the case with Shanghai. The root causes are left barely touched, and the system that makes such reality possible is exonerated: it is not the system, but a few corrupt politicians that are at the heart of the problem. The film provides critical insights with regards to the relationship of business and politics, with regards to dissent and the need to unmask the mutilated content of politics, but at the same time, the space it produces is enchanted and exotified. Bharatnagar is an unreal place, a non-place that does and does not exist, and where the urban middle class and the outsiders, in a more general sense, can wage imaginary battles for the poor and the dispossessed.

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In a very similar fashion, such an imaginary space that arouses the imagination, quenches the potential for dissent and participates in the “marriage of positive and negative” is recreated in another fictional town, Mandola, in Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola. The film’s theme itself addresses a serious and important topic as Shanghai does—development not for the sake of the people, but for the sake of a few select individuals who would profit from it. It is a dark comedy, set in a small town which once again encounters brutal developmentalism for the benefit of the political elite and the corporations. The town is ruled over by a local landlord Harry Mandola. He and the state’s chief minister desire to develop the town by taking over the land belonging to the peasants, and building factories, shopping malls and housing complexes on it. The peasants are organized and resist. The leader of the resistance, whose identity is disclosed only later in the film, is a mysterious quasi-Naxalite curiously known only by the nickname Mao. Mandola the landlord is a drunkard and suffers from what can be termed as a personality disorder: when he is drunk, he is a cheerful person, is with the peasants and supports their cause. But when he is sober, he is a brutal landlord and he constantly moves between the two states of mind. In one scene at the beginning of the film, while drunk, he leads a popular revolution against the landlord (that is, against himself) and marches toward the landlord’s mansion (his own). Accidentally, he falls into a swimming pool while doing this, sobers up and realizes to his horror that he had led a revolution against himself. This duality between revolt and conformity, as if between happy and unhappy consciousness, is an interesting one; it asks questions about the limits of dissent, possibilities of revolt, but ultimately, it works against all possible negativity, and once again produces a happy consciousness. In the end, the evil chief minister gets what she deserves, and it is again the system itself, in the form of Mandola, that solves the problem or corrects itself—not the masses, not the revolution, but the elite and the system solve the problem. And we, the spectators, as the peasants in the film, love Mandola (or the system) for what he/it has accomplished.

The message received from the films is an ambiguous one: one can revolt and support the revolt only in the state of drunken delirium. But one has to sober up sooner or later and wake up to the reality which is always more complex than it seems when you are drunk. The landlord, the evil oppressor, proves to be not so evil after all and understands his mistakes. In the end, the chief revolutionary Mao marries Mandola’s daughter. While Banerjee’s Bharatnagar is a dark and eerie, indeed, dystopic place, the town of Mandola is not—it is fetishized to be a fun place, a place of festival, drunkenness, revolt, brave farmers, evil landlords, a place fun to visit, fun to peek into.

The two films I discussed provide us with a feeling of alternative and can be seen as a form without content or a form with drastically transformed content, which is no longer graspable if we choose to look at it conventionally. Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Nishant (1975), both set in rural India, articulated dissatisfaction with social and political conditions and perhaps could be seen as representing the subaltern or attempting to speak for them. Such attempts are there in Shanghai and Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, but function as commodities.

It is hard not to agree with Zygmunt Bauman’s (2000: 48) skepticism about the prospects of critical discourse, as it was formulated by some of the Frankfurt School theorists, especially Adorno, in the postmodern age or in “liquid modernity” as he calls it. According to him, the critical theory of that time in the present moment is losing its subject. Critique transforms according to the changing times, the same way consumption of certain images disrupts the critique. Society, and modernity per se, with tendencies toward totalitarianism and a closely guarded, surveilled, one-dimensional society, is giving way to something new, something raw and yet to be fully comprehended—an individualistic society that functions as a market, according to market-oriented values. Such a society made up of consumer-individuals not only finds it hard to re-complicate the problems and produce a critique, but also the very idea of critique in such a society is not on the agenda. Postmodern, neoliberal discourse produces a society without a society, if one may use such a notion, made up squarely of individuals as atoms, as consumers. Stiegler (2011: 6–7) talks of a “hyper industrial” society and states that consumer society replaces a democratic one. What emerge in the process, according to him, are different forms of social organization and the consumer society. For him, this signifies decadence of society. His ideas are similar to Bauman’s and Jameson’s when it comes to transformations toward postmodern or liquid states of existence and experience. According to Stiegler (2014: 6–7), “since the appearance of the industrial technologies of sound and image that made them possible, the culture industries have become organs capable of creating identification processes via behavioural models, which are themselves incessantly renewed according to the demands of innovation”. Precisely this renewal can be observed in Indian cinemas that correspond to the changing demands of the public, of the new urban middle class. What emerges is the differentiated product that creates and reflects new forms of identification. This identification, and what it stands for, represents the needs of a new India and the new consumers consumers that are interpellated by the new culture industries as “happy”.

Therefore, thought in such a society is no longer even one-dimensional: it is dislocated to such an extent that talking about dimensions might be problematic—there are simply too many of them. Would it be possible to call such a society—which, let us provisionally state, is no longer a society—an un-dimensional one? Are empathy, affect and care even possible? Could negativity and unhappiness be parts of the postmodern discourse? One must remember the unhappiness and existential angst of Anant (Om Puri) in Ardh Satya (Govind Nihalani, 1983). A hardened and honest police officer, Anant reads a poem that changes his life. The poem in the film (a work of art inside the work of art) re-complicates, and indeed dislocates, the character and makes him reflect on his life as a policeman functioning in a system that is corrupt and rotten, and by extension makes him reflect upon the futility of being honest in a society where such values are not appreciated. It makes him realize that something is not right, both inside the society and inside his soul. Similar inner tension and dissatisfaction is expressed in other films of that time, and ironically, can anyone be more direct than Saeed Akhtar Mirza by asking the question very bluntly in the title of one of his films—Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai? (1980). Why is the individual, a hard-working mechanic Albert Pinto (Naseeruddin Shah) who dreams of affluence, unhappy? At the same time, those who watch the film and grasp the message may start reflecting on the problems in the society and perhaps begin to ask similar questions.

In short, if we compare thematically similar films of these two distinct periods, we can see instances of cultural reification occurring in the neoliberal period. But how should we as philosophers and film scholars understand the present cultural reification, the crystallization of esthetic difference, variously referred to as indie, New Bollywood, hatke, middlebrow—a form that cannot be easily categorized (it can be called a new genre, a new form, new style, a phenomenon and so on)? The different cinema, whatever term we as scholars may give it, is the result of the collapse of rigid binary oppositions, a boundary demarcating what was once known as Bollywood and indie cinema. Of course, mainstream Bollywood and indie have not disappeared; what emerged in the in-between space was an undecideable space, to use Derrida’s term, which began to produce new meanings and new interpretations of transforming India under neoliberalism. There may be different ways to theorize this “twilight” zone, which makes an esthetic communication between the mainstream and “art” an actuality, as debates surrounding the emergent newness clearly portray. I think the desire to categorize the emergent newness, to pin it down and compartmentalize it on a highly unstable cultural terrain, to give a “name” to newness, are problematic occurrences in academic acrobatics rooted in the structural clarities of the modern age. Naming is more important for us, scholars and film critics, as an analytical category, while the reality of cultural flux far too often escapes us. Cinematic transformations occurring today are necessarily rhizomatic; it is a deterritorialized flow of form (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 260–94) cutting across different genres in Hindi cinema. Deleuze and Guattari (2013: 26), explaining what they mean by a rhizome, offer the following description: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo”. Extending their argument, they state that: “Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle” (Deleuze and Guattari 2013: 27).

Unexpected cultural formations—impossible to categorize or indeed influence—mark such spontaneous rhizomatic movements. The fluidity of film form and free incorporation of different esthetic elements throughout the Hindi cinema, be it mainstream or not, is symptomatic. Rhizome defies control, be it a cultural–creative control, political control or an academic one, in the process of producing theory accounting for this cinematic phenomenon. But one should also celebrate such freedom and openness cautiously, because it just as well may be simulacra. It is important to note that the free-flowing form functions within capitalist economy is a product of it and is bound to it. This flow is not a threat to the dominant esthetics of consumerist culture, but is a symptom of adaptation to transformed social landscape and media environment. Cinematic transformations are symptoms of neoliberal tremors that have been slowly refiguring life itself, giving birth to new sociocultural sensibilities as well as new social class formations.

[Excerpted from the chapter 'Understanding Cinematic Transformations and Neoliberal Culture in India']

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