We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] org. . Irish Pages LTD is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Irish Pages. http://www. jstor. org GLORIOUS PARTICULARITY MiraNalr Illumining the actual. I make images in my work. I don't pen words, especially not words to be delivered from church pulpits.
So I experienced great agony writing this essay, particularlysince it was also meant for publication, until I began to see it as an opportunity to think aloud with you on what has been possessing my mind of late, in this tumultuous past year since the watershed of 9/11/01. I have been reflecting on the torrent of ceaseless images flooding our lives: in the print media, TV and of course, in our popular cinema, ultimately asking myself the age-old questionsTer Braakraises in his still-radicalessay:what is the role of an artist in any society? What is the place and future of cinema in the world today?
In the new "globalvillage"of incessant images, increasinglyI see the failure of mass media to impart actual understanding. This overactive pluralism gives one the illusion of knowing a lot about a lot when actually you know a smattering about nothing at all, leaving in its wake an audience so thoroughly bludgeoned by little bits of information that one is left confused and consequently apathetic politically. Perhapsthat is its intention. The fact is that while images have become more and more international, people's lives have remained astonishingly parochial.
This ironic truth of contemporary life is especially troubling in today's war-mongering times, when so much depends on understanding worlds so different, and consequently totally divided, from one's own. In this post-9/11 world, where the schisms of the globe are being cemented into huge walls between one belief and way of life and another, now more than ever we need cinema to reveal our tiny local worlds in all their glorious particularity. In my limited experience, it's when I've made a film that's done full-blown justice to the truths and idiosyncraciesof the specifically local, that it crosses over to become surprisinglyuniversal. Take Monsoon edding,or instance. I wanted to make an intimate family W out of nothing, a love song to the city of Delhi where I come flick, something from, to return to my old habits of guerilla film-making. Except this time, fired m by the recent empowering of the Dogme ethod, I wanted to make a film in just 30 days. That was the original premise: to prove to myself that I didn't need the juggernaut of millions of dollars, studios, special effects and plenty of men in suits to make a good story in the most interesting visual way possible. I wanted 103 IRISH PAGES o capture, first and foremost, the spirit of masti(meaning an intoxication with life) inherent in the full-bodied Punjabi community from where I come, and then, to capture the Indiathat I know and love, an India which lives in several centuries at the same time. As Arundhati Roy put it, "as Indian citizens we subsist on a regular diet of caste massacresand nuclear tests, mosque breakings and fashion shows, church burnings and expanding cell phone networks, bonded labour and the digital revolution, female infanticide and the Nasdaq crash, husbandswho continue to burn their wives for dowry and our delectable pile of MissWorlds. It couldn't be said better. Such were the fluid pillars of the India I wanted to put on film - 68 actors, 148 scenes, and one hot monsoon season later, using paintings,jewellery, saris and furniture taken from relatives on the screen, with each member of my family acting in it, after shooting exactly 30 days, a film was born that then had a journey so different from any expectation (more correctly, non-expectation) that we might have had for it during its making.
People from New Delhi to Iceland to Hungary to Brazil to America believed it was their wedding, their family,themselves on that screen - and if they didn't have a family,they yearned to belong to one like the people they saw on screen. I didn't make the film to educate anybody about "my culture and my people"- I believe that to be simply a cultural ambassadorof one's country is boring - rather, if it was made for anybody beyond myself, it was made for the people of Delhi to feel and laugh and cry at our own flawed Punjabi(a. k. a the PartyAnimals of India) selves. Uniquely for me, Monsoon edding as the first of seven films I'd made that W was completely embraced by the mainstreamBollywood film industryin India; producers, directors, movie stars, choreographers, musicians alike embraced the film, and for the first time in my 20-odd years as an independent film maker - independent really from both the Indianand the Americanmainstream - I felt the possibility of my work belonging somewhere. Although the style and form of Monsoon edding as radical for the Indianpublic (the entire film was w W hot with a hand-held camera,was reality-based, with a host of completely unknown faces mixed in with legendary actors, live singing, no studio shooting, using a mixture of old Indianpop songs with new original music, and dialogue simultaneouslyin Hindi, English and Punjabi),it continues to play in Indiaalmost a year after its release. Perhapsthis was because we took a familiar premise - that of an Indian wedding, and of the family drama that surrounds such an event anywhere - and made a "realitycheck"version of it so different from the normal Bollywood film.
Bollywood, a term for the enormous commercial film industryin Bombay, refers to those grand, epic and over-the-top extravaganzas eplete with musical r 104 IRISH PAGES numbers and lavish production values, designed as escapist entertainment for the masses. It is what Ter Braak hilariously describes in his discussion of low cinema - "born among cigarette-chewing youths and giggling maid-servants, received with wild enthusiasm and the honest romanticism of a proletariat yearning for deliverance. "
Despite its inimitable, distinctive style and its current arty-exotic cache, Bollywood is nothing like cinema of the art-house, New Wave variety, nothing like expressionism - it does not have pretensions of purity. It is defiantly popular, made for the masses and for profit. Therefore, Bollywood as a cinematic form is necessarily adaptive and composite - a genre welcoming outside influences, not fearing them. In the first place, the filmmakers always aiming for the broadest possible audience - have had to accommodate the multiple interests of an extremely regional and diverse country.
Certain unifying elements - Mahabharata and Ramayana, the foundational epic texts from which many stories derive, and the emphasis in all films on family tradition and local setting - give Bollywood films a broad resonance within Furthermore, Bollywood was born under colonialism and brilliantly survives in a post-colonial world. The Bollywood style is famously adaptive and absorbent, a sponge that had to respond to imperialist influences to survive pre-Independence, and willingly imitated them for profit in more recent years. A common phenomenon in Bombay are the so-called DVD India. irectors who pitch their stories to moviestars using cued scenes from wellknown Hollywood movies (e. g. , "it is basically a combination of Godfather meets Love Story meets When Harry Met Sally"). Western stories from Jane E re to Dead Poets'Societyare retold with Indian characters and production design that very often - ingeniously - play into both Westerners' and Indians' idealization of India. This suggests a border around India that is both porous and protective, flagrantly absorbing and copying all sorts of influences yet twisting them to make it finally seem inimitably Indian - or, to put it more accurately, inimitably Bollywood.
There is much debate on the survival of local cinemas in a global age, and much consternation about the unstoppable wave of American culture, often accused of alternately dulling and diluting art and aesthetic sensibilities around the world. The French have been railing about cultural protectionism from Hollywood for years now. In this context of trying to preserve and cultivate local voices, it is fabulous to see the unflagging energy of Bollywood cinema. Bollywood's vigor, its staying power and its improbable, flexible hybridity, are all results of its huge internal market.
Commercially and artistically - much like Indian culture itself. Bollywood is supple and muscular 105 IRISH PAGES The mass Indian audience for whom Bollywood films are made is evergrowing and makes the industry hugely profitable, even without taking into account the global reach it has attained. The first Indian film, Rala w Harishchandra, as produced in 1913. Thirty thousand films have been made since. Today,800 films per year are made throughout India, and 12 million people within the country's borders go to see a Hindi film daily.
The booming Bollywood market is self-sustainingand runs parallel to - and undisturbedby - American film exhibition in India. This is before taking into account Bollywood's huge market abroad, both as an export to other lands (such as Russia, the Middle East, Africa) and to the far-reachingIndian Diaspora. Growing up in India in the sixties and seventies in the fairly remote state of Orissa, I was not an aficionadoof Bollywood pictures. I did swoon over many of the popular love songs from the movies, but the films themselves did little for me. I was much more interested in stories of real people, the extraordinarinessof ordinary life.
Initiallyinspired by jatra which is the form of traditionaltravellingmythological theatre in the countryside, I later became involved with political protest theatre in Calcutta. Then, with eyes focused beyond my own country, I became preoccupied with the Beatles and the antiVietnam War movement, the Western avant-garde, guerilla theater, etc. It wasn't until I went to America for college and began studying film that the "other"Indian movies first reached me: SatyajitRay, Ritwik Ghatakand Guru Dutt, whose emotionalism and visual stylization were actually pure independent film-making, but made from within Bollywood.
The immediacy and grandeurof these films is a pillar for me now - I rely on seeing one of Guru Dutt's movies every six months before I make another one of my own. However, I was the last person to ever imagine that the commercial cinema of the Indian mainstream would have anything whatsoever to do with my own work. Yet the opportunity to give this lecture has given me a chance to reflect on my own trajectory, and I am surprised to find that my home cinema has had a strong influence on my body of work indeed, regardlessof my exploration of increasingly motley and disparatecultures.
And in reflecting, I've seen that the influence of Indian films - specifically that unabashed emotional directness, the freewheeling use of music, that emphasis on elemental motivations and values - is a thread running consistently through every one of my films; even when exploring foreign worlds, I have taken the bones and flesh of those societies and tried to infuse them with the spirit of where I'm from. Much of post-imperial scholarship focuses on the Western gaze - and Bollywood itself, as I've said, had to adapt to and be constantly aware of the colonialist point of view. I find myself applying an Eastern gaze 06 IRISH PAGES to Western contexts now, and enjoying the reversal. Historically,Hollywood has alwaysbeen open to foreign directors, so long as we have the competence, craft and flair needed to make money. From Erich von Stroheim to BillyWilder to Ang Lee to PaulVerhoevento ShekharKapur, the doors have opened for us, so long as we understand the bottom line. In my most recent film, Hysterical lindness, working-class drama set in a B New Jersey in the eighties, I found that even in the drab and loveless confines of these bar-hopping girls' world, the Bollywood approachwas just as useful.
Half-jokingly,I refer to the style of the film as "AmericanBleak, Bollywoodstyle". Within the frame of "American Bleak,"understatement and mundane circumstances notwithstanding, the full-blown emotion was there, waiting to be made overt. People are people, after all, and no matter if we're trying to portray a loveless reality where desperate women comb neighbourhood bars looking for love, only to find heartbreak,audiences must feel their neuroses as if they are their own.
And now, looking at pre-Victorian London to adapt Thackeray's gloriously entertaining saga, VanityFair, I find an enormous panorama of themes familiar to those of us steeped in Bollywood: a woman who defies her poverty-stricken background to clamber up the social ladder, unrequited love, seduction through song, a mother's sacrifice for her child, a true gentleman in a corrupt world . .. the catalog of human stories remains the same. Moreover, it is a story that comes down to basic human ambition, asking a spiritual, even yogic question:Which of us is happy in this orld? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied? The bold strokes of Indian cinema are ideal for this canvas,too. Culture-combining does not have to yield the soulless "Euro-gateau" lamented by Istvan Szabo in Zanussi's 1993 lecture here. Because, as Zanussi explained, those are films without a center, stories that take place in nameless, unrecognizable cities with a host of European actors desperately attempting a neutralAmerican/English accent, afraidof any eccentricities or distinctiveness that would distract from the mongrelization of the piece.
The Bollywood form, itself an ever-growing collage of culturalinfluences, is making its way around the world, but retaining its soul. In fact, my only fear as Bollywood seems to cross over into Western commercial screens is that it waters itself down to suit the Western palate. Lately,Western culture has taken Bollywood styles and incorporated them into the mainstream Hollywood vocabulary:smash-hit movies and plays imitate Bollywood's musical form and ultra-theatricalstyle, adaptingthem to Western contexts (MoulinRouge, ombay B Dreams). Think of Thora Birch in GhostWorld, atching a 1950s Hindi dance w umber and dancing around her room gleefully. She sees a freshness and 107 IRISH PAGES lustiness totally absent from her Anytown, USA existence. The crazy dance number is delightfullyforeign to her, yet throughit we also see her small world with new, sharp clarity. Bollywood's pure emotional thrust and distinctive vocabulary has authenticity in itself, however manufactured and molded the form has been over the years. In this era of internationalmisunderstanding,as the threat of a global divide - culturally and politically - is more dire than ever, this distinctiveness is to be celebrated.
I have always repeated to myself and to my students that "if we don't tell our stories, no one else will. "The "we"and "our" in the best films is both local and universal. Cinema can mirror an individual's tiny world, yet reveal infinite other worlds in all their particularity. Film should not behave. It cannot. Cinema is too democratic to be lobotomized into a single way or style. I always say,There are no rules in making cinema - there is only good cinema or soulless cinema.
And as long as there are films made like In the Mood or Love,Angel at My Table,Pyaasa,Battle of Algiers,Dekalog, Timeof the f Gypsies,we're doing all right. What is happening to the world lies, at the moment, just outside the realm of common understanding. The only revenge is to work, to make cinema that illuminates this common understanding,that destabilizes the dull competence of most of what is produced, that infuses life with idiosyncracy, whimsy, brutality, and like life, that captures the rare but fabulous energy that sometimes emerges from the juxtaposition of the tragic and comic.