An online film journal for Indian Cinema
Here is a question that seems to provoke a lot of debate even today; is it easier to dismantle and dismiss mainstream cinema whilst feverishly propagating the cause of art and world cinema? Such a situation tends to generate a cannablised cannon of films that subjectively interpret the longings of auteurs through personal, cinephile concerns. It’s relatively painless to push aside the contributions of mainstream cinema as an extension of hegemonic control; apolitical, one dimensional – simplifying reality so that a consensual and despairing adoption of commerce as the only goal remains vehemently naturalised in the cinematic processes. Cinephilia continues to mutate at an expediential rate, devouring old journalism and breeding a new space for a continuous conversational exchange and open dialogue on the nuances of a certain film, director or indigenous cinema. The pleasure of unguarded opinion and endless debate reigns infinitely supreme in the landscapes of the blogosphere.
The celebration of mediocrity as something sacred means that one of the assumptions borne by mainstream cinema (many academics prefer the term popular cinema yet a film can only be deemed popular once it has successfully found an audience or achieved some sort of recognition with film critics, thus it seems inappropriate and misleading to use such a term of reference when discussing mainstream cinema) is an idea I would label as deadening superficiality; the severe constraints and limitations of working in the mainstream demands a unbridled subservience to genre conventions, false pleasures and a commercial cynicism that is indoctrinated over time. More relative is the fatalistic assumption that mainstream cinema is incapable of generating originality – such is the hostility of the criteria upon which judgment is passed that the results of a casual dismissal of all mainstream films is not subjective but collectively rampant and instantaneously final.
Sometimes, one can debate long and hard about having to pay to watch a mainstream film these days. Such was the crisis of conflict I recently faced when confronted with Tony Scott and Denzel Washington’s latest collaboration, ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’. Not only did I know that this was a remake of a 70s heist film, but the bombastic, hyper kinetic visual flair that characterises a Tony Scott film tends to be associated with some of the worst attributes of mainstream Hollywood cinema – predictable, conventional, formulaic, repetitive, unoriginal are just some of the more familiar terms of reference critics like to cite when trying to dissect his work. Yet for all the hype and mediocrity that the film seemed to offer, part of me was compelled by a longing to trash the exploitative nature of mainstream cinema. However, another more emotional part of me was resigned to the escapist pleasures mainstream cinema can offer those who prefer to advocate the necessity of popular culture as a way of revealing the state of society.
Even though much of society depends on the unconscious acquiescence of political ideology, cinema is both a dual harbinger of empowerment and distraction. That mainstream cinema in its offering of entertainment as a core pleasure acts as a conservative mechanism for social control and a casual diversion from reality is a popular argument that continues to hold considerable favour with Marxist ideologues. As it turns out, ‘Pelham 123’ wasn’t too concerned when it came to transcending the limitations of the heist genre; instead it seemed readily preoccupied with reinforcing a familiar vein of conservatism in which the working class male is reminded of the impossibility to transcend the sharp social divisions of a city like New York. However, had the flawed working class male been elevated and granted an exalted position at the end then one would have equally criticised such a transformation as yet more wish fulfillment. ‘Pelham 123’ ends with the working class male returning home to his wife and children, a triumphant smile appears on the face of Denzel Washington. As he opens the gate, the freeze frame is used subversively to acknowledge and underline the way in which class struggle is a continuous one. An overarching liberal sentiment this maybe but it points to the regularity of narrative cinema – the resounding sense of closure is tinged by a vein of ideological ambiguity, unexpectedly reminding us of the inherent contradictions and creative tensions which characterise mainstream cinema today.
The vitriolic condemnation or perhaps criticism that has entombed Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest offering, ‘Kaminey’, continues in earnest to gather an apocalyptic like momentum, disguising the subversive interruptions that are visible in the shiny wrapping deemed mainstream Indian cinema. Bhardwaj is far from an iconoclast unlike his contemporaries (Kashyap) – he would casually fall under the precipice of what Andrew Sarris termed the director as smuggler. The suggestion that some films are likely to be embraced by the mainstream critics regardless of their cultural worth and cinematic quality seems like an observation we tend to reserve for a post modern auteur like Tarantino. Yet it is also one that afflicts the status of Bhardwaj as an auteur and with Kaminey he has ventured into a territory that is often associated with Hollywood cinema – the post modern crime caper. It is those directors who are able to offer audiences new ways of looking at old genres that seems to characterise the most successful reworking of the masala film. (The super genre film is what Lalitha Gopalan likes to say – a term that seems to make better sense when discussing post modern cinema)
Of course, it is film makers like Vishal Bhardwaj who lend mainstream cinema an air of vibrancy and distinctiveness that is so often lacking from the end product. The consistent quality of his films leads many to make a connection with Indian art cinema but a closer look at the content of his films points to a director working in the commercial constraints of popular Indian cinema, also referred to as Bollywood – a term that seems to provoke outrage in the field of Indian art cinema as it connotes a derogatory meaning. Nevertheless, Bollywood is a form of expression that has been assimilated into the language of mainstream cinema as it is often used now as a marketing term. Like Indie, no one quite knows what the term means today other than acting as a marker of populist Indian cinema. It would be wrong to try and judge the merits and flaws of a film like ‘Kaminey’ if one was to embrace the idea that Vishal Bhardwaj is an auteur with inherent arthouse sensibilities and that his films attempt to articulate personal concerns. Vishal Bhardwaj is categorically a mainstream film maker, utilising major Bollywood film stars, exploiting the latest technology in terms of cinematography and editing, mixing genres, and expressing a fondness for music that has its origins in the traditions of Indian cinema as an institution. Films like ‘Maqbool’ and ‘Omkara’ (both are adaptations of famous plays by Shakespeare) certainly seem to depend on a shared cultural capital when it comes to the language and history of Indian cinema.
Arguably, the use of intertexuality as a cinematic mode of address is not only elitist in its esoteric referencing style but also discriminatory as the director works on the assumption that the audience has the so called cultural capital with which to engage in a post modern exchange of cinephilia appreciation. Perhaps it would be more suitable and appropriate to place Vishal Bhardwaj alongside contemporary mainstream Indian film makers like Ashutosh Ghowariker, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Omprakash Mehra. These are directors whose status as auteurs is constantly in doubt and fluctuates between the films they make, preciously straddling that middle ground between art cinema and the populist Bollywood blockbuster.
When Danny Boyle achieved international acclaim for directing ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, much was made of the debt that the film owed to a matrix of films from Indian cinema. Boyle borrowed from the high and low of Indian cinema, referencing Mani Ratnam with ‘Bombay’, Kashyap with ‘Black Friday’, Amitabh Bachchan as the ultimate cinematic icon and even acknowledging the influence of that most tired of all narrative plot lines – the lost and found story which shaped the epic narratives of the 60s and 70s mainstream Indian cinema. Yet watching the opening sequence to ‘Kaminey’, I was instantly reminded of the way in which cinema is interconnected on a global scale and how an Indian film maker like Vishal Bhardwaj references none other than Danny Boyle. The immediate charge would be a seeming lack of originality yet I feel this is exactly the context in which Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film should be viewed and appreciated, as an extended and playful homage to the beguiling nature of masala cinema. Trainspotting is the film that Vishal Bhardwaj makes reference to in the opening sequence of ‘Kaminey’. I’m not really a fan of Trainspotting but it is still one of the few British films that tried to suggest social realism may be a tradition but it does not have to be the only way in which to communicate with the spectator. Visceral cinema is not typically what comes to mind when thinking of British films yet self reflexive devices like the voice over, freeze frame, montage, hyper kinetic editing and neurotic camerawork that characterised ‘Trainspotting’ are all incorporated into the breathless style of ‘Kaminey’ and no better is that illustrated than in the fragmented opening sequence which boldly instructs the audience to abandon the reliance on narrative linearity.
‘Kaminey’ is equally a film about the city of Mumbai and the use of locations are in a way familiar from the cinema of Ram Gopal Varma yet the technically accomplished cinematography and choice of discontinuous camera shots gives the narrative an inspired potency. Unlike the past, today when a mainstream Indian film tries to imitate the visual look of a Hollywood biggie, it is able to compete on a comparatively assured level of technical excellence.
‘According to Manmohan Shetty, who runs a film processing business, AdLabs, a sea change occured in 1978 when Kodak introduced a negative film that could be processed at high ambient temperatures improving colour resolution. At about the same time, professionally trained technicians in editing, cinematography and lighting began entering the commercial industry from film institutes in Pune and Chennai, vastly improving the quality of film production’
Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.
This cross fertilisation between British and Indian sensibilities reveals the globalised nature of film making today and at least in terms of style I would argue that Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ seems to act as the clearest and most explicit point of intertextual reference for Kaminey, even though in terms of its genre and narrative the film harks back to the spirit of the super-genre masala film. It is the playfulness which makes ‘Kaminey’ such an exhilarating cinematic experience yet it would equally valid to put forward a counter argument that criticizes postmodern cinema as meaninglessly vacant.
Though this may be true of some Hollywood high concept vehicles, the lack of an explicit ideological perspective seems to be best symbolised by a failure like Michael Bay’s ‘The Island’ which wrongly interprets Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism (product placement dominates) into cinematic terms and all even without a hint of irony or intellectual point of reference. The much brutalized and discussed notions of style over substance and dumbing down have become synonymous with postmodern cinema but these negative features can be restrictive when appraising the work of contemporary film makers and their relationship to post modern values. Post modernism is a relatively new phenomenon to Indian film makers and though a new generation of middle class, cine literate directors like Rohan Sippy, Farhan Akhtar and Omprakash Mehra represent a continuation of the mainstream masala film, today’s youth oriented cinema like that of Tarantino openly plagiarizes, re-appropriates and quotes liberally from what is a back catalogue of populist cinema. This also partially explains the recent trend in remakes that have plagued the Indian mainstream including much derided reworkings of Amitabh classics like ‘Sholay’ and ‘Don’.
Simultaneously, the last few years have seen a steady array of high profile, well financed and commercially successful post modern masala films that function primarily through this idea of a shared cultural cinematic capital. Perhaps the most popular and superficially engaging of these films has been Farah Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’. A virtual tribute to the masala film of the 1970s, ‘Om Shanti Om’ features a song in which Shah Rukh Khan and his heroine celebratory dance their way through a time warp of classic songs. With the aid of digital technology, Farah Khan juxtaposes the contemporary figure of Shah Rukh Khan alongside iconic stars like Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor – this obsessive and cinephile referencing goes to prove how a film like ‘Om Shanti Om’ epitomises the post modern style. Frederic Jameson defined pastiche as a stylistic mask with little or no depth, imitating the past without any kind of serious intention or underlying meaning. Such an empty definition of post modern pastiche seems appropriate in the case of ‘Om Shanti Om’ as it offers the full masala package but fails in really suggesting anything of ideological significance. Perhaps it is easy to simplify films like ‘Om Shanti Om’, reducing them to an eclectic pastiche of cinematic ideas and intertextual references.
‘Kaminey’ also falls into this blank label of pastiche but what differentiates it from other similarly inspired masala crime films is a technical finesse and pulsating energy – this doesn’t so much allow it to transcend the limitations of genre, it rather evolves into a nostalgic homage of Vishal Bhardwaj’s cinephile concerns. In ‘Kaminey’, Shahid Kapur plays a double role as twin brothers – one has a lisp, the other a stutter and though they were not separated at birth, the reasons for their estrangement from one another is only revealed at the end in a typically 70s style including a clawing sentimentality and monochrome cinematography. Such are the wider mythological and religious dimensions attached to the double role motif, its inclusion in the film provides one of the film’s strongest post modern signatures. The narrative arc of the downtrodden struggling to rise out of poverty is another convention of the masala film – Amitabh’s on screen persona of Vijay finds itself resurfacing to haunt the specter of Charlie who also believes that taking the ‘shortcut’ in life will bring empowerment yet his entanglement with the underworld of politicians and gangsters unveils the traditional idea of moral redemption.
A cult film like Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ continues to be held in high regard for its intelligent capacity to embody many of the traits of today’s postmodern society. This is why:
A glum silence falls. Guys look at each other.
I see in fight club the strongest and
smartest men who have ever lived —
an entire generation pumping gas and
waiting tables; or they’re slaves
with white collars.
Advertisements have them chasing cars
and clothes, working jobs they hate
so they can buy shit they don’t need.
We are the middle children of
history, with no purpose or place.
We have no great war, or great
depression. The great war is a
spiritual war. The great depression
is our lives. We were raised by
television to believe that we’d be
millionaires and movie gods and rock
stars — but we won’t. And we’re
learning that fact. And we’re very,
The crowd erupts into a DEAFENING CHORUS of agreement. Jack looks at the blazing excitement in the eyes of the crowd.
‘Fight Club’, (Dir. David Fincher, 1999, US)
Screenplay by Jim Uhls
What the demagoguery of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) underlines is the universal failure of ideology, what many postmodern writers refer to as the rejection of ‘metanarrative’ – large scale theories and ideologies like communism, capitalism, science, religion which have seemingly failed to eradicate poverty, abolish the vast economic and class divisions and give a sense of purpose to the lives of most people. In today’s postmodern world, no absolute truths exist anymore and Durden’s criticism of the false needs engineered by capitalist consumer culture represents one of the most radical political critiques that have emerged from the realms of mainstream American cinema. Postmodern cinema in which we typically encounter a nightmarish dystopia may seem like the future but is in fact the present as this idea of living in age of uncertainty is most truthful when considering how suspiciously we view authority and mistrust institutions.
Though we don’t encounter someone as politically radical as Durden in ‘Kaminey’, it is a film that lives and breathes in the uncertainty and anxiety of a contemporary urban Mumbai society. Unlike Durden, Charlie is the apolitical capitalist and though he achieves his ultimate goal, his fondness for the shortcut comes out of India’s rapid economic progress. Not only is the police corrupt and the politicians are gangsters in disguise, this concept of uncertainty that characterises postmodernism finds expression in the widespread and systematic failure of major institutions like the police, education, governmental politics and the media. Ironically enough and quite typical of the masala film, it is the forces of tradition including family which seem to act as the clearest ideological route and resolution for characters like Charlie and Guddu.
The final moments and the need for explicit closure is where ‘Kaminey’ finally shows a lack of inspiration. Yet once again, Vishal Bhardwaj lifts the final crazed shoot out and massacre straight from the ending to the Tarantino scripted ‘True Romance’. However, this is where it gets a little complicated when discussing intertextual references in today’s cinema as we all know that Tarantino borrowed heavily from the final shoot out in Peckinpah’s ‘Wild Bunch’ and also ‘Badlands’ for the central idea of the two lovers on the run. However, unlike Malick’s ‘Badlands’ that is marked by a subdued and open ending, the cynically constructed ending to ‘Kaminey’ is much closer in tone to Tony Scott’s ‘True Romance’ in which we are relieved to find our anti heroes alive and well in the milieu of an exotic beach with the mocking image of a sunset hovering in the background. In the end, ‘Kaminey’ has to embrace closure and give us the happy ending or else this wouldn’t be Vishal Bhardwaj‘s unashamed tribute to the legacy of the masala film.
The film has been heavily promoted with the standard set of trailers and collective fanfare that tends to envelop such high profile media savvy projects. This is another UTV production and it might be useful to begin considering the tensions between authorial preoccupations and the institutional stamp a studio like UTV brings to the films they finance and market. Featuring a noteworthy performance from Shahid Kapur and his best performance to date, Vishal Bhardwaj’s use of Amol Gupte (the writer behind ‘Taare Zameen Paare’) as the twisted Mumbai slum patriarch turned politician Bhope Bhau is inspired casting. I wasn’t too sure about Priyanka Chopra as I always get the impression that she tries too hard but one of the creative tensions of working in the parameters of a mainstream film like ‘Kaminey’ demands compromises in all departments especially casting.
Writer Lalitha Gopalan says that Indian cinema and Bollywood in particular is a cinema of interruptions. Unlike the linearity of Hollywood narrative, mainstream Indian films are regularly interrupted by a series of musical numbers and additionally the half time intermission means that most films actually have two openings and two endings, which of course is quite true and points to the discontinuous nature of Bollywood narrative. Only a handful of directors including Bhardwaj are adept enough to integrate the songs into the narrative so that this idea of interruption is far less noticeable to audiences unfamiliar with Bollywood cinema. The quality of the soundtrack is on par with the level of subversive energy that characterises many of Bhardwaj’s musical compositions – especially infectious is the ‘Dhan Te Nan’ track which ironically savages and remixes the highly iconic 70s masala soundtracks.
‘There is no doubt we learn a great deal from vigilant readings of cinema’s hegemonic influence that reveal its power to affirm ethnic stereotyping, sexism and jingoism, and caution is against being taken in by its dazzling surface. But all too often we tend to play little attention to questions of pleasure’
Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.
Kaminey is superior entertainment, reflecting the collective concerns and preoccupations of a progressive, liberal and westernized group of young Bollywood film makers who are rejoicing in the art of exploring guilty cinematic pleasures. I shouldn’t but I am going to end this analysis with a contradictory statement; ‘Kaminey’ maybe a postmodern film but it is a pleasurable one at that.
Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.
Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader. Edited by Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell, Pluto Press, 2003.
Bollywood Cinema: Temple of Desires. Vijay Mishra, Routledge, 2001.