by Raju Peddada
(Swans - November 17, 2008) India is a vast sea of cultures and regional tastes sloshing together against the keystone to the culture, which is the act of "Darshan," meaning visiting and seeing for the majority of Hindus. In a country where the act of seeing and visiting the god(s) in a temple is an act of spirituality, redemption, and respect as laid down in the ancient Hindu Scriptures. It's confounding that in this country so stacked with history, color, life, diversity, and vitality, the visual literacy lies dormant, except in a few educated enclaves. This leads me to one industry in particular, the prolific yet wasteful Indian film industry known as "Bollywood" based in Mumbai. In the beginning the film industry made musicals within a contextual framework; today it has become a bastion of soft-porn, unoriginal scripts, and cultural soup that promotes Western values in a very topical way. The Indian film typology of a musical was initiated almost seven decades ago and has progressively regressed since inception in the quantity of quality. The film industry follows whatever is good for the pocket by plagiarizing the latest and best trends from the West and Far East. There is no vision or mission stated or offered by any of these millionaire producers and directors, who are more businessmen than artists and who are the protagonists in their own value system that systematically deconstructs all originality and authenticity for an amalgam of Western surface and Eastern myths. In the process making films that the lowest common denominator finds their escape in from Meknes to Mekong and from Tashkent to Trivandrum.
Today, in the twenty-first century, theater can be a classroom where people learn and become influenced; unfortunately, in the twentieth century this medium was used to the maximum effect with devastating results by the Nazis in Germany. In the West there have been many paradigm shifts since the art of filmmaking was born at the turn of the century. The progression from DW Griffith's silent classics that gave us the filmmaking fundamentals, to Eisenstein's remarkable lessons in theory and practice, to Satyajit Ray and Vittorio De Sica's realism, to David Lean's epic stories filmed in grandeur, to Spielberg's and Lucas's special effects and technological infusion, it has been one continuous scene of raising the bar for the audiences. The film is a powerful medium that can have long-term effects on the audience, and not to harness this power for propelling and empowering people is unfathomable and regrettable to say the least.
The paradigm shifts in Indian cinema have been downward in terms of quality begotten from technology available. The thousand-plus films made by Bollywood every year distort reality, offer little insight, reinforce all the societal stereotypes and negatives, and sell a cheap escape for three hours with no redemptive value. They are often seventy millimeters of melodramatic miasma of color and explosions that make the technology available an utter waste. I believe that film medium can cause a major shift in attitudes and discerning abilities with consistent exposure to quality. Rote exposition to quality films and programming changes comprehension levels and will encourage abstract thinking necessary for the audience to understand metaphors, puns, and ironies that permeate our lives. This must become a voluntary mandate from the directors and producers. There is no such thing in Bollywood. Initiating change in the film industry needs pathfinders, adventurers, and pioneers in the present climate, but none will venture it.
Change is always tough with entrenched attitudes, but necessary there for the collective benefit. With fundamental change comes decline, however; in the initial stages the viewership dips, then with time and improved discerning abilities the educated audiences will fill the theaters again. It is surprising that there are so few established advocates for change and quality within the industry itself. Even the academic elites and intellectuals at the Poona Film Institute and the universities are strangely resistant and reticent in addressing the ills that plague this powerful medium and industry in India, perhaps for the fear of their lives, as this industry's ruling elite are essentially thugs. It is a huge conundrum for the educated set, the lack of voluntary activism and the apathetic attitude of the literate who sit alongside the rickshaw pullers, taxi and bus drivers, street vendors and labor, and cheer this inanity. Consumer activism is nonexistent in India, which is why monopolies exist. Instead of consumers dictating what the product must be it is the product that dictates what the consumer is in for. It is indeed a pitiful state of affairs in this particular industry with no change on the horizon.
Quality it seems slowly died with Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Bimal Roy in the fifties and sixties. What is even more frustrating and baffling is that films of the highest quality are produced in countries with virtually no film industry per say. Films like Cinema Paradiso and Malena made by contemporary Italian director Guiseppe Tornatore speak volumes about the culture and the sophistication of the audiences in Italy and around the world. One great movie with redeeming lingering effects on our psyche and emotions is better than one thousand gyrating films. Great films coming from Italy, Poland, France, Germany, Vietnam, China, and England attest to the simple fact that conscientious independent filmmakers can make a huge impact on the pride and psyche of a nation, like Ray did back in the fifties. I find some homemade independent films refreshing and prescient, made by handy-cam wielding amateurs and semi professionals who have given us films like El Mariachi, Blair Witch Project, Santa Sangre, and a plethora of others.
There have been several film anomalies by the Indian film industry decades ago that revealed the potential -- films like Teesri Kasam and Jagte Raho highlighted the capacity and uptrend in mainstream cinema. Contextual musicals are acceptable, but they are an exception to the rule, which is the vast sea of visual destitution and depravation. If quality had to be quantified for Bollywood output, it is inversely proportionate to the quantity of films produced there. It is an indictment on the government and the industry in collusion to fester such putridity on the public. It is a shame that an industry that produces over a thousand films a year is never nominated at the Oscars, which is the standard bearer for quality (lately that is also in question and a whole other debate altogether). However, if judgment of others is not acceptable, then what is the benchmark to measure against? There are more questions than answers here in this quandary that begs for self analysis and reflection on the part of this industry.
What is the responsibility of the Indian film industry? What is the responsibility of the Indian government in the proliferation of this soft porn? In a free capitalist society it is the industry's responsibility to effect positive changes and bring up its consumer base by raising the bar always, it has happened in all industries. It must also be noted that one of the reasons for the dramatic decline in quality of the Indian films, which after seventy years should have matured, instead, has become an infantile hereditary domain run by the progeny of their predecessors. Also, this calls to mind two main reasons for the decomposition and deconstruction of this industry in the unlikely and improbable hands of the foreign based financiers and thugs that control this indigenous industry and Michael Jackson.
In 1983 Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album raked in the dollars and also the low quality audiences of the Middle East, India, and the Far East, spawning what is now tsunami after tsunami of group dance sequences that have no context or reference whatsoever to the plot or storyline. These dance sequences remind me of the roadside charmers with trained monkeys in India who direct the monkeys to gyrate to their beat. Mindless acrobatic monkeys performing for the gazers on the street, except here, these monkeys wear bright primary colors saturating your being with insipid and unabashed sexual rhythms plagiarized from the West, and get paid in obscene amounts.
The performers in these sexually gyrating dance sequences bring their cookie-cutter faces and cookie-cutter bodies propelled by misogynistic pageants that pollinate the petrified celluloid landscape. The saturated color in Indian films appeals to the low quality audiences, who in reality live a dusty grey, brown, or just plain black lifestyle. The lives in India are monochromatic, and a monolithic struggle for survival that is not in primary colors as the Bollywood films sell. In a literal sense, the atmospheric spectrum of life in India is more of a sepia tone on the hazy, imperceptible, and ambiguous side of existentialism. The Bollywood film being the poorest return for your buck, unabashedly insults your intelligence, and is also the bastion of cultural corruption and prostitution, flourishing in the practice of defiling the Indian women, and debasing and denigrating a rich culture across the globe, particularly the Middle East. This industry desperately needs to recycle its mantle of depravity and become indigenous again, but who will sound the bugle and call for arms? If the power brokers of this industry cannot mobilize the change, then the specter of this industry's migration to Dubai becomes imminent. If the industry and the government cannot see beyond the obvious and read the tea leaves, they will remain in the Third World, despite all the economic and technological prowess they claim to have attained. Bollywood will simply remain the biggest sham in the name of celluloid art with the poorest escape for your buck. Remember, it's your buck.
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