– Asijit Dutta
A liberated schizophrenia still haunts the plot and characterization of popular Indian cinema, a collective alteration of ethnic reality which borrows from the idealized West. The recalcitrant individual in the desacralized space, journeying through the overindulgences of the Western excesses purges himself for the “sins” with the resurfacing of traditional values and devotion to god or the feudal patriarch. Caught somewhere between the independent portrayal of the occidental subject and the Indian counterpart of interdependent network of subjectivity and moral economy, the mass-films in India reduce the non-aligned, self-governing individual, the homosexual, the indigenous wayfarer, the woman with sexual autonomy, into stereotypical caricatures. According to Madhava Prasad in his “Ideology of The Hindi Film”, the pre-fabricated dialogues, stunts and choreography address the audience as a whole public already aware of the semantic range of these conventions, and the moral or transformed protagonist communicates with the diegetic viewers through iconization, excess acting and display of universal suffering. Sheila J. Nayar writes in her “The Values of Fantasy: Indian Popular Cinema through Western Scripts”, that the Indian popular cinema which initially confronts the westernized spectator comprises, ‘numerous plot twists, unpredictable deviations and deus-ex-machina endings; idealized love between a young couple who come together, are torn apart, and come together again; encounters with unctuous villains and semi-clad vixens; any permutation or combination of genre-influenced elements (“curry western” posturing to Rambo-esque volleying); an assortment of buffoons or comic stereotypes to provide a required dose of Indian slapstick humour; ubiquitous and absolutely essential song and dance numbers that defy all space, time and logic…and “Insaniyat” extolled itself as being “fearless in fights”, with “foot-tapping music” and the “joy of romance”’ (Nayar 1). The characters in these popular narratives are almost always overcharged with transcendental values, hyperbolic expressions, exhibitionistic fantasy zones. The process of duplication from the American movies and a parallel supplantation of the “unnecessary” elements replaced by a cultural refilling to cater to a rapidly growing western audience trying to cling on to that suspended sense of Indianness form the economy of this blatant plagiarizing. The West as the Other, as “them” who are non-Indian and are marked by that lack of Indian identity, almost never find a proper representation within the script influencing the course of events; it is embedded within our structural codes to such an extent that it remains as the unmentioned Other, an-other which has become a part of the societal unconscious, as if it is forbidden to talk about what one is, when one knows what he is, is not what he is.
On the other hand, Hollywood is populated with the stereotypical Others varying from the Arab terrorist, the Chinese martial arts comic madcap, the Italian mafia to the Russian spy and the Palestinian refugee and the Indian slum-dweller. Disguised under the apparent realism, Hollywood films situate the spectator as the subject in relation to the screen image, fixing a “subject-position” for the transmission of bourgeois ideology. The camera placement, editing, the entire apparatus of seeing, propagate an ontological separation between the “self” and the “other”, and demarcates the othered and the marginalized, on grounds of the “racial, social or sexual”. The ethnic subject finds herself placed in the middle of an institutionalized symbolic discourse, an object of the scopophilic gaze. This fascination of the West for the “other” existing outside the philosophical and cultural boundary, is itself, in the words of Rey Chow, from “Seeing Modern China: Toward a Theory of Ethnic Spectatorship”, “rooted in un-self-reflexive, culturally coded perspectives” (Chow 169). The American display of the Indian male counterpart centres on, either the “Oriental dignity” borrowed from the West or the uncouth, filthy, half-naked suffering from the economic angst, and of the woman deft in the skills of seduction or possessing that mysterious element, those characteristics of the pagan goddess either naked or clad in their clothes trying to deceive or kill, which the “other” woman by virtue of being European does not contain. The camera acts as an investigator delving into the economic body of the other, not the existential or the unconscious mind. The Western spectator encounters helpless feminized subjects of a downtrodden country always followed, introspected, saved, and assimilated. The screen is splashed with vivid images belonging to the impoverished country (primarily orphanages and defecation at the street corners) and historical lies infested with gross negligence of the political and cultural heritage. The interrogative eye of the Western spectator is replaced by the dangerously sympathetic eye of the camera which forgives and blesses (in the name of “enlightenment, nationalism and political progressiveness”) to become the God, thereby forcing a resurfacing of the master/slave dialectic. The Indian popular spectator confronting these images, is already overwhelmed by the West’s overindulgence in his “own” condition, accepts these as his only surrounding reality and sits in a limbo of no growth where no concrete solution unfolds, and emerges out of the auditorium having experienced an “artistic” portrayal of a social problematic. The subjective memory of the Indian viewer undergoes reconstruction under the “realism” of Western cinematic discourse. The Hollywoodized Indian woman in films like relegated to the mystical, the sexual, the animalistic, assumes the role of the other of the other. The multiculturalist approach of Hollywood film-making is an attempt to indulge in cultural appropriation and syncretism. What the U. S. consumers absorb is the Hollywoodized version of Indianness with its orientalist and stereotypical elements, whereas, the Indian spectators are caught within this impossible space of ideological predetermination which already dismisses its position, and around this trope of “autoethnography” where Indian actors enact the Indian stories and histories. Rey Chow quoting Laura Mulvey writes that the camera gaze “does not simply ‘hide’, but negotiates, mediates, and manipulates; it builds on the ‘gaze’ that are visibly available on the screen, turning them into occasions for eroticism, humanistic sympathy and in this way ‘suturing’ the spectator’s response” (Chow 182, 183). The Indian character in the Hollywood production is always constructed on the illusory zones of to-be-looked-at-ness of the victim; one remembers Chow’s reference to Teresa de Lauretis from her Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, “Spectators are not, as it were, either in the film text or simply outside the film text; rather…they intersect the film as they are intersected by cinema” (Chow 188). Any question arising in the ethnicized spectator always gets subdued by the desire to be there on the imagined realm of the fantasy screen. In the journey of the postmodern Indian subject passing from one ethnic consciousness to the other, the experience of witnessing “their” historical representation is dissolved.
The utterly despicable film Hisss (2010) by Jennifer Lynch, the daughter of the revolutionary, postmodern, surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, has a rather intriguing plot for scholars delving into the readings of the West’s penetration within the mythical India. The narrative comprises a Caucasian, ironically named George States suffering from brain cancer with only six months to live, in search of the mythical “Nagmani” from the female cobra, which he believes can miraculously cure his illness and bring forth immortality. States hires rural workers from the jungles of Natchi, Tamil Nadu to capture the male cobra while mating, allowing the female to escape; the conspiracy focuses on the demand of the “snake pearl” from the female cobra in exchange of her male partner’s release. Consequently, the region experiences religious awakening and fury of the snake as she sheds her skin and procures a human form to track down her oppressor. The film begins with the story of the “dangerous” nagin, a temple where Naga devata is worshipped, foetus dying in fear and blood trickling down the legs of the pregnant tribal, which is contrasted with the image of the imperialist States urinating on the workers’ face to wake them up. Lynch presents the snake as a spiritualistic nymphomaniac eternally craving for nothing but sexual encounter. Through the pervert snake and the infertile wife of the inspector introduced with bleeding from miscarriage, Lynch pushes the women to an “astructural outside”, salivating with heaving breasts, howling for a child, suffering from rape and madness, shedding skin and injecting poison. In the naked pole dancing sequence of the icchhadhari nagin (pole dancing, which has its history in the ancient Indian sport of mallakhamb and was adopted by the US since the 1980s as part of bar entertainment and lap-dancing), where she disrobes, touches the pole (which has clear connotations with the male organ) climbs to the top, and the camera shows the pole jerking with her weight, Lynch feminizes the entire oriental culture for scopophilic exhibitionism for the western audience. All the other elements ranging from the snake-charmer, the electric wire attached to the captured male cobra which emanates psychic waves, a defecating child shown thrice in a single chase sequence to the deranged mother confused with gender orientations, the mock sexual intercourse with the unconscious cobra, and the final culmination of the snake and the human giving birth at the same time, present a hollow, culturally sadistic space where hallucination and decadence structure the regressions of the cinematic eye.
International recognition of films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) by Danny Boyle raises potential questions regarding “hybrid” stylization, the knowledge about the “inside” and the gaze of “outside”, class politics, power, nation and authenticity and cultural globalization. The film received 10 Oscar nominations winning 8 of them, including Best Picture, Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The plot traces through flashback, the journey of two Muslim brothers rising from the slums of Mumbai, one turning into a gangster’s lackey, corrupt and defiant and the other becoming a millionaire through a western TV quiz show. Boyle uses interrogation of the protagonist Jamal Malik, by the authorities, to inform the audience about urban poverty, communal riots, the circuit of professional beggars, child molesters, underage prostitutes and the ways of living in the underbelly; the trope of confession provides the West to “have it all” about the “other” through the other’s mouth in the name of reform or rehabilitation, a pleasurable sight evoking “sympathetic” humanism. According to Ellen Dengel-Janic, in “Bringing the Slum to Your Doorstep: New Modernity in Slumdog Millionaire,” a paper delivered at the Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English, University of Muenster, Germany, May 2009, the exoticism of the poverty stricken India so jubilantly displayed in the film hides their own translocated repressed fear and paranoia of being abject and poor like them. Post the success of the film Sydney Sunday Herald under the title “Slumdog Reality” claimed that the “poverty tours” to the slums of Dharavi have increased the business by 25% and people there are constantly happy and smiling. Confronting the pornographic representations of the slums, the Western audience is voyeuristically surprised at this specified knowledge which enlightens the other with the technological eye of nonsensical “realism”. The Indian spectator being the one who encounters the slum dwellers as part of daily convention, participates in the astonishment as he or she witnesses the “reality” of the subaltern, somebody else’s crisis, not theirs, an apparently empathetic, elusive problematic. The forced culpability and torture for reaching to the top of the quiz show, the chase sequence with the bird-eye view of the extended slum, the intercut showing Jamal on the “hot seat” reminiscing and his beloved looking up to him from a Mumbai platform as if idolizing him for participating in a US show, flaunting India as the land of call centres and then “empowering” the “chaiwala” with their language, the cruel joke among the abandoned kids of putting, as the subtitles would have it, “chilly on the willy,” instead of showing comradeship, the slum boys working as the guide to the foreign tourists enthralled by Taj Mahal as if its history were something anybody could acquire, dialogues like “how is it possible for a slumdog to reach the million dollar question?”, “bitch of the slum”, “the slumdog barks”, open the space for the outsider’s gaze into another culture, allowing the freedom to consume and interpret the other’s body and filth, as long as the stench doesn’t affect them; probably the most relevant scene is Jamal emerging literally out of human faeces to get an autograph from Amitabh Bachchan, which situates Mumbai as that “forbidden city” where idols live in mansions and others in holes. The purpose of the ubiquitous camera eye, which resembles the eye of the Western spectator, is always to plant the desire and then induces a sense of guilt within the othered for the desire of being like them.
For the “westernized” Indian audience, “exiled and homeless” it is impossible to acquire an untampered version of their own culture, as Martin and Mohanty write in their Feminist Politics: What’s Home Got to Do with It?, “‘Not being home’ is a matter of realizing that home was an illusion of coherence and safety based on the exclusion of specific histories of oppression and resistance, the repression of differences even within oneself.” (Chow 194)
As a solution one should introduce history materially and search for the undiscovered language of the oppressed that can develop its own signifying space where dominant codes are opposed and subverted. The translinguistic impact of cinema which exceeds the dynamics of feelings, affects, passions and ideas should be viewed from a detached, defamiliarized perspective to form productive relations between different cultures and different societies.