Editorial/ Stepping into reality
In praise of Hindi films
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Speculators can no longer have a flutter. The biggest item in the market of political speculations has now been taken off the bourses. Mr Jyoti Basu’s retirement from the chief ministership of West Bengal has finally moved from the rumour file to the fact file. Mr Basu has announced that he will step down on the eve of the anniversary of the event which transformed his life, the Russian Revolution. Mr Basu’s retirement has been the subject of discussion for a very long time, but every time Mr Basu has said one thing and done the other. Between his desire to retire and his actual retirement has fallen the looming shadow of party discipline and party loyalty. But this time, the shadow has been removed. Mr Basu is now preparing to step out of the Writers’ Buildings for the last time. His detractors will argue that he stayed too long. His admirers will hold that he should have left before he appeared as a tired old man who was an object of pity and at times, of ridicule. In an arena of public life in which a week is considered a long time, Mr Basu devoted to politics his entire adult life and remained for more than a score of years at the helm of power in West Bengal. This by any measure is a remarkable achievement but there are issues embedded in Mr Basu’s exit which are relevant to Indian political life.

Indian politics has become the special preserve for the aged. Old age, in folklore, is related to experience and wisdom. In reality, it is also related to vested interests and a refusal to be receptive to fresh ideas. Biology makes for a certain slowness and for the draining of dynamism. This situation, not specific to any particular individual, supports the case to introduce a retirement age for politicians. It is worthwhile to remember that in the United States a president is not allowed to hold office for more than two terms. An amendment to the US constitution, introduced after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, eliminated the possibility of one person monopolizing the highest office in the US. Indian constitutional practice and conventions are by and large determined by the customs prevalent in Westminster. A British prime minister can remain in power as long as he commands a majority in the House of Commons. Similarly in India, there was nothing to stop Mr Basu from remaining chief minister for 23 years. The positive side of such a long tenure is continuity. Though in West Bengal one might be tempted to ask, continuity of what? The downside is an element of uncertainty, if not confusion, over the issue of succession.

In Mr Basu’s case, it might appear that there is no uncertainty since Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya is officially Mr Basu’s number two and logically, he should take over. But consider Mr Bhattacharya’s plight. First, Mr Basu will be a difficult act to follow. Second, Mr Bhattacharya faces the unenviable task of leading his party into elections within a few months of his taking the oath of office. Given the growing unpopularity of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in and around Calcutta, there is the possibility that Mr Bhattacharya might lose his own seat in Jadavpur. This, not to put too fine a point on it, will be somewhat embarrassing for Mr Bhattacharya and the CPI(M). This kind of untidiness could have been avoided if chief ministers and prime ministers were allowed only fixed terms. There would be no speculations about retirements and about issues relating to succession. In fairness to Mr Basu, he has been wanting to resign for a very long time and his party must bear the responsibility for his departure at a rather uncomfortable conjuncture for his party and the larger political formation that he led. Historians in the future will make their evaluation of Mr Basu’s tenure. For the nonce, like the guest who stayed too late, Mr Basu has left his hosts with too little time to wash the dishes and for cleaning up.    

Hindi film is the most powerful expression of modern Indian culture. There is first its sheer quantitative presence, Mumbai produces over 800 films a year making it the world’s largest film industry. These movies are exported to over 100 countries — a rare example (along with Latin American soap operas) of cultural products from the developing world finding a global audience.

Second, Hindi film is the only contemporary art form which is consumed by the entire nation. Indeed its reach goes beyond “Kashmir to Kanyakumari”, to the many immigrant Indian cultures which have blossomed all over the globe. So strongly does Hindi film impact our culture that it has generated a whole set of ancillary cultural practices which are major cultural forms in their own right — the massive institution of film music, film journalism and even film-based television.

No other art form can challenge the supremacy of Hindi film. The so-called “art film”, pioneered by Satyajit Ray and developed by directors like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, died out by the late Eighties. There has been no rigorous postmortem of this demise, one may tentatively suggest that the socialist (and hence realist) vision and the middle class piety upon which these films had been grounded, lost validity as the age of consumption and opportunity arrived.

Drama, as even Broadway knows, is a minor art all over the world, barely able to survive without subsidies and ultimately useful only as a training school for would-be film actors. Regional literature is severely limited by the barriers of ethnicity, without the integrative force provided by the nationalist movement, there is little to warrant the translation of, say, a Telegu novel into Bengali. So no writer in the vernacular today has the appeal of a Tagore, or Saratchandra or Premchand. Regional art today is hopelessly parochial.

And in spite of Salman Rushdie’s arrogant assertion that the most significant writing in India is done in English, the works of Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Amitav Ghosh and others have so small a constituency and so little an affective impact on the public that they cannot be considered culturally significant. If writing is to be understood in its fullest sense — as the transcription and articulation of a specific culture — then Hindi film may be said to be the most powerful and interesting writing of Indian modernity there is.

Though overwhelming as a cultural presence, Hindi film has received very little critical appreciation. Most of our cultural commentators, deeply influenced as they are by Western theories of art and aesthetics, have been utterly dismissive of the form. The consensus opinion is that Hindi film is trivial, unrealistic, melodramatic, escapist, at best a necessary evil. Most features of the Hindi film — the presence of song and dance in every movie, the fantastic excesses of costume and locale, the formulaic nature of the plot, the one-dimensionality of the characters, the inevitable happy endings — have drawn condescension and condemnation. Such a critique is entirely misplaced. The Hindi film is actually an original, innovative and complex solution to the problem of synthesizing “tradition” and “modernity”, carrying within its formal structure both the marks of contemporary history as well as the verities of Indian culture.

Ever since Raja Harishchandra, all Hindi films — comedies, historicals, romances and action thrillers — have featured lengthy sequences of song and dance. When a practice survives for 90 years and is so ubiquitous, the reason for its existence is not a contingent whim. There is a theoretical necessity at work here: Hindi film negotiates history and modernity through these seemingly superficial devices.

History is all about change, those who complain that nothing ever changes in Hindi films should merely look at film soundtracks through successive decades — the neo-classicism of the Fifties (Naushad), the lyrical pop of the Sixties (Shankar-Jaikishen), the rhythmic revolution in the Seventies (R.D. Burman) and finally the electronics, disco, and rap-influenced music of the present era (A.R. Rehman). There is at least as much change between “Chaudavi kaa chand” and “Muqabla” as there is between Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit.”

If rock n’ roll progresses with the times, so does the music in Hindi films. Moreover the songs and dances of Hindi films themselves contribute to the making of history — deejays in London, Toronto, New York and other diasporic spaces appropriate and pay homage to Bollywood as they go about the process of creating an Indian immigrant identity.

Modernity cannot be understood without desire, indeed it can be argued that it is desire which initiates change with a purpose and therefore makes history possible. Songs and dances in the Hindi film not only embody historical change, they also serve as the vehicle where desires — of consumption, sexuality, romantic love — can articulate themselves. The incessant parade of glamorous signs — backdrops of Paris or Switzerland, palatial homes, sleek cars, glittering costumes, revealing clothes, “suggestive” movements — proclaims that desire is everything.

And indeed, desire is everything — in the home of modernity (the West), the self can only come to be through a constant stimulation and evocation of desire by means of the elaborate culture of advertising. The crucial function of song and dance is to reiterate the slogan, “Without desire no modernity”. That is why song and dance need not answer to realism. When the hero and heroine miraculously change clothes between verses in a song , what we have is an enactment of the seductive desire of consumption.

Hindi film must necessarily include song and dance because modernity must be represented. Things are quite different at the level of character, plot, and deep structure. Here nothing changes, there is no history, the formula repeats endlessly. This is a radical difference with Western art. The deep structure of Western film is always a structure of desire, characters and plot get meaning from this foundation. The story of desire is always a thrilling one, for it consists of the positing of new impulses in the field of the law and the status quo. And there is no foretelling how fate rewards desire, the outcome is always open. This is what gives Hollywood movies their excitement.

The deep structure of Hindi film has no desire for desire, it is constituted instead from a metaphysics of duty and sacrifice. Things ultimately happen in Hindi film because they are based on duty and sacrifice. Desire is shown as extraneous and superficial, belonging to the forces of evil, and is proved to be redundant at the time of closure. The unbearable monotony of Hindi films is therefore the stillness of renunciation. Duty supplants and fulfils desire.

What we have then within the Hindi film is a space outside (or inside) of history, untouched by time, where self and subjectivity are constructed by notions of duty and sacrifice and where modernity cannot make things fall apart. Many features of the Hindi film are explained by this inner metaphysic. Characters are rarely well-rounded and very often seem caricatures, because they function by the dictates of duty. This may seem formulaic but only because they are derived by the master formula: Western self minus desire equals caricature. There is no reason to be held captive by this equation. In our culture, certain kin — mamas for example — demonstrate affection in a dutiful and formulaic manner, yet no one considers a trip to one’s mamabari to be a farce.

Plots are equally predictable because this metaphysic does not value the uncertainty of outcomes. In our system of belief an occurrence which should not be is not the seed of a new truth but merely irrelevant, a chance mutation. Character, plot, story in the Hindi film inhabit a different order, one that is antagonistic to modernity, structured by the immutable logic of an indigenous metaphysic. This is not to argue that Indian metaphysics does not admit change. Classical sankhya and yoga are systematic expositions of spiritual development and growth. But this evolution does not take place in the social space of history, and hence cannot be harnessed for the needs of modern storytelling.

Hindi film is thus that strange object which is both modern and contra-modern, both a carrier of history and the site of a universal which is timeless. It therefore simultaneously announces both an acceptance and a resistance to the demands of Western modernity. It enthusiastically embraces the cadences and rhythms of modernity at the level of song and dance, it resolutely rejects the logic of modernity at the level of deep structure.

It is of course not purely dichotomous, each of its level bears traces of the other. The unchanging dominance of just a few playback singers over the course of many decades reflects a yearning for stalled history. Again, desire often finds its way into character and plot though usually only through the agency of the “villain” that is, as bad desire. Hindi film is therefore a contradictory and complex object which represents the best solution our culture has produced to the problem of modernity. Hindi film does not aim to be a copy of Western cinema, thus forestalling the politics of abjection that dooms so much of postcolonial history. Nor does it completely negate modernity unlike some current forms of fundamentalism. Half this, half that, it most resembles some of the hybrid figures of our mythology, an ungainly avatar that helps narrate the story of our own conflicted modernity.    


The show of it

Another extension of privilege, and the political establishment, quite predictably, has fallen for it. Politicos are now uncoiling themselves at exclusive premieres of top Hindi films. The famous brothers of the parivar, AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, watched Surinder-Boney Kapoor’s Pukar together. Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza was greatly admired by the first citizen of the country, KR Narayanan, though it did not go down too well with Advani. When it was time for Mission Kashmir, the Rashtrapati Bhavan was found lacking a state-of-the-art digital Dolby sound system. The director, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, went ahead and promptly installed one. However, Chopra’s inroads into the home ministry proved less happy. At the Siri Fort, where a special show of his Hrithik Roshan starrer was organized for Advani and his men, there was wide resentment against the film. “Why do they glorify terrorism so much?” a senior official quipped while the police and paramilitary heads declared at flat rate that Chopra had got the picture wrong. There were also some journos in their midst who, as is their wont, took a different angle on the controversy. “The bureaucrats should have been charged,” they announced, “since it was a free show, they did not like it.” And in all likelihood, they got the picture right.

To light up their lives

Journos pop up again. Festivals are meant to bring people together, which would also include the two celebrated breeds of politicians and journalists. That is what the public relations department of Haryana chief minister, Om Prakash Chauthala, deduced and set forth to accomplish on the eve of Diwali. Media persons in Haryana were graded according to their status in the editorial hierarchy in their respective organizations. Expensive boxes of dry fruits were despatched to those lower down in the scale, and more expensive heavy duty blenders were sent for the editors, probably tangentially suggesting that they should try and blend the truth and the false better. Quite obviously, not everyone was happy with the gifts. One editor even sent back his blender. Was it the brand that offended? Anyway, in the capital Diwali turned out to be a tame affair with the rich and the famous having decided to gamble the night away and crores of rupees in teen patti while scotch flowed in torrents. Nothing illegal, say New Delhi’s police officials. But what about the “hen parties” in which men were asked to repeat a “full Monty”? That was possibly out of legal bounds.

Waiting for the berth

Another reshuffle passed him by and filmstar turned BJP neta, Shatrughan Sinha, is still without a portfolio. With the woman who dissuaded him from accepting anything less than a ministry firmly ensconced in the cabinet, there are moves again to provide Sinha with some candies for the time being — the chairmanship of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. The post will provide Sinha the unusual perks of a massive bungalow, official car and frequent foreign travel. Not long ago, Congress leader Vasant Sathe was made the chairman and he made a hash of it by crossing swords with the incumbent bureaucratic bosses of the organization. The ICCR has a sizeable budget to be doled out for patronage to domestic and foreign artistes, fake or real. So the chairman can act as king. Shotgun hasn’t accepted the offer, yet. Probably a larger ensemble of kowtowing bureaucrats and the glamour of the ministership still beckons.

Not so friendly with the party

A minister who doesn’t want his ministry. The Forward Bloc is fed up with him. He is Biren Moitra, West Bengal’s minister for agricultural marketing, and he stepped down from office the day Jyoti Basu announced he was quitting, probably to see if his decision created as much impact. Moitra summoned newspersons to his office and informed them of his decision. He was resigning apparently because he had failed to fulfil his promises. The problem was his party didn’t know he had. Moitra had given no inkling of his decision at the party forum before going public with it. There were other things about Moitra which bugged the party. A few months ago, the minister had visited the ashram of Sai Baba in the South without approval from the leadership. After he returned, he even displayed the rings he had procured from the place to scribes in his office. The party thinks it cannot have such a whimsical person as minister. But, then, is whimsicality so alien to leftist nature?

Footnote/ Where have the cakes gone?

The man who was ready to quit the moment he got in. That was Ram Prakash Gupta, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who made his grand exit last week, but not before announcing that he was the best CM UP could have had. There were others who were not so ready regarding his departure. The UP government exchequer in fact has been made poorer by Rs 13 crore by the decision. Gupta was set to complete a year in office on November 13 and the state information and publicity department sank in a lot of money to make it a grand affair. Since the new year was not too far off, lakhs of diaries and calenders were ordered with Gupta’s picture on them. The change of guard has flushed the money down the drain. Printers have already done their work. The only saving grace was that the two crore rupees allotted for huge advertisements in newspapers could be withdrawn. Gupta also had his birthday on Friday last. A week before that, Lucknow’s top bakery had received several orders. They were withdrawn the day Gupta quit. That was mean. This is one man who should have had his cake and eaten it too.    


What reforms?

Sir — In the editorial, “Old style politics” (Oct 3), concepts like “market forces” and “economic reforms” have been referred to. But, there is enough reason for people to believe that, in India, economic reforms, by themselves, do not really mean anything. Given the extravagant state expenses, inefficiency and corruption of the political and bureaucratic elite, no standard “economic reform” can be a potent, rejuvenating force for the Indian economy. This popular perception is based on experiences in several sectors: state transport services, food-supply management, coal, oil and so on. It is therefore futile to talk of reforms as a panacea to all economic evils. It also does not reflect mass sentiments.
Yours faithfully,
Basudeb Moulick, Calcutta

IT works

Sir — About a dozen chief ministers attempted to woo the information technology czar, Bill Gates, in New Delhi recently. This marks a new chapter in Indian economic development. First, it is a sign that the federal nature of the Indian political structure is being restored.

Originally, all industries, save a few which were considered to be of national importance, were in the states list. As Nani Palkhivala has said, by some bizarre constitutional chicanery even industries like lipstick-manufacturing were included in this category.

But now the state governments are coming of age and joining the fray in getting hold of capital and investment within their own domains.

But IT cannot be the sole arena for this investment. These chief ministers should also bear in mind that along with this, the people should be trained in English which is the language used for the internet. Engineering and technical colleges should be simultaneously upgraded and enhanced because the people need basic technical knowhow in order to find themselves jobs in the new markets. There is also an urgent need to develop a strong work ethic without which no IT revolution will function.

Yours faithfully,
M.R. Pai, Mumbai

Sir — Information technology has finally arrived in India in its truest spirit. Why else would official perquisites in the form of laptops be given out to please the members of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly?

The only trouble is that several of these ministers do not know how to use these gizmos. Most of them have no knowledge of computers. But there is a perverse unity among ministers of even disparate political affiliations when it comes to the question of privileges and perquisites.

The abnormally high public expenditure can be substantially cut down if these perks are curtailed. A country as low on the development index as India cannot afford such perquisites for a new techno savvy political elite.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agarwal, Dariba

Animal love

Sir — The steps being taken by Maneka Gandhi are praiseworthy. It is important that each of us realizes that every living creature has a life which should be respected. The brutal massacre of such creatures should be stopped. Most activists are only interested in endangered and exotic species. But animals are being killed for various purposes all the time. Meat-eating is one of the primary reasons for the slaughter of animals. No activist seems to be willing to raise his voice against the butchering of goats or chicken. Why does this happen?
Yours faithfully,
Nirvikar, Agartala

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