The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film By Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, Oxford, Rs 650

Hindi films are truly the opium of the Indian masses. And until recently, their appeal had remained limited to the masses; the intellectual, high-culture-minded, not to speak of the serious academic, considered them infra dig. Lately, however, be it the result of academia turning to popular (or “public”, in the book’s terminology) culture with a less snobbish eye or the fact that the West is starting to discover the virtues of the very features of Hindi cinema — the song and dance sequences, the lack of “realism”, the melodrama — it had previously reviled, we have had a spate of critical analyses of the subject. Cinema India is one such volume.

The book may be called Cinema India, but it talks solely about Hindi language films, and even here, the authors — Divia Patel, assistant curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and Rachel Dwyer, who teaches at the SOAS and recently wrote a book on the director, Yash Chopra — concentrate only on the “visual culture” of these films. A laudable exercise, it nevertheless gives rise to two questions. One, is it possible to distil a purely “visual culture” while doing justice to the overall effect of Hindi films on its audience' (What about an auditory culture, then') Two, does merely enumerating the many visual elements of a Hindi film — sets, locations, costumes, cinematography, and advertising and promotional material — adequately sum up “visual culture”' Such a formalist approach reduces the subject to a series of inane lists.

For example, under the head, “clothing”, you are told how khadi is a register of politics; how men in the Hindi film of the post-independence period conventionally wore kurtas and lungis at home and bandgalas and sherwanis on formal occasions and how it has since changed to Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Western suits; and how the length of the hair and beard are important signifiers. Then you have a discussion of the sari, the intricacies of the pallu draped over the front or hanging over the left shoulder, of the choli or blouse, “usually made in a fabric that matches the sari”. And how it is being replaced with the salwar-kameez and Western attire in more recent movies. One cannot deny that visual conventions play an important role in constructing meaning in the narrative of the Hindi film. Even so, the object of Cinema India seems less to critically analyse the unique visual style of Hindi films and more to impart information and that too, to the scholar of Hindi cinema in universities abroad.

What redeems the book, however, are the chapters on film posters. This section, for which Patel is to be thanked, traces how film advertising developed from the early, and primarily textual, newspaper insertions and handbills, to more elaborate booklets, posters and lobby cards. Patel shows how the art of poster-painting was influenced by changing fashions in art. The earliest and most important influence is that of Ravi Varma, whose application of the techniques of Western realism to Hindu gods and goddesses, could be easily transferred to profane icons. Traces of Varma, albeit much corrupted, can still be seen in the depiction of women in posters and calendars, especially in the generously proportioned figures with their gracefully draped robes and animated expressions. The poster of the film, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, is an example of how Varma’s realistic mode lent itself to a heightening of women’s sensuality.

Patel shows how during the heyday of the studios, posters tended to focus less on the actors and were more of a montage of the various “spectacular” elements which the makers thought might draw crowds. It is only later, perhaps as a result of producers’ desire to cash in on the popularity of certain stars, that the picture, and especially the face, of the main actor came to be emphasized. Posters of Barsaat focussed on the lead actors, Raj Kapoor and Nargis, after rumours of their affair gained ground.

The method most frequently used to thus “iconize” the star was over-painting, a technique whereby photographs of the star were painted, often with rough brush-strokes, to give depth, add mood and to emphasize certain facial characteristics. Diwakar Karkare, the most prolific practitioner of this art form, applied this technique to Amitabh Bachchan in the posters of films like Deewar, Zanjeer and Kabhi Kabhie. Today’s computer-generated images might be smoother and slicker, but have none of the interesting roughness of artists like Karkare.

On the whole, the best part of the book is the reproductions of the posters over the ages. Some of them, like the 1962 booklet cover for Saheb Bibi aur Gulam or a 1973 poster for Bobby are real gems. As for the text, it would have read better had it been edited to half its size.

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