THE SEVENTH WALK (Dir. Amit Dutta, 2013, India) – Modulations of Light & Space

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In Amit Dutta’s The Seventh Walk (2013) the camera meanders, weaves and glides through a forest, replicating and distorting the gaze of New Delhi based Indian artist, Paramjit Singh. The dolly shots, evocatively staged, depict the spaces of the forest as oneiric and mysterious. There is sensuality at work in Dutta’s ghostly imagining of the forest, a metaphysical wonderland accentuated through the amplification of a rich non-diegetic soundscape. The morning birdcall, chirping crickets, the whistling wind, bells chiming are some of the sounds that Dutta switches between, imbuing the spaces of the forest with a mystical ambience. The experiential of walking through and inhabiting the forest and related spaces is tactile and sensory, while the repeated emphasis on trees, sunlight, stones, and water conjuring a hypnotic rhythm. At one point, as Paramjit sits in a room, a bottle begins to levitate, and a new realm is projected, one that replicates the subconscious. Blending the imagined work of the painter to real details of the forest, a surrealist tone leads to the materialisation of unforeseen elements such as the young girl dressed in primary yellow, and who at one point magically floats, Dutta choosing to frame this particular moment of flight with the camera fixed to a pair of knitted slippers. Imitating the detailed aesthetics of a series of paintings, the modulations of light and space and striking usage of planimetric framing emerge as a visual pattern that transforms formalist experimental preoccupations into something waywardly poetic.

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema — Part 1: Genre Theory & Indian Cinema

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The Lunchbox – the train is an ongoing iconographic motif in contemporary Indian cinema.

Determining Iconography

Before assigning the genre concept of iconography to an audio-visual study of trains a brief history of the concept is necessary. This will also mean a consideration of genre theory. Much of the work on iconography can be traced back to the field of art history and Erwin Panofsky (see Studies of Iconology: 1939) who defined iconography as concerning ‘itself with the subject matter or meanings of work of art, as opposed to their form’ (Panofsky, 1939: 3). Panofsky’s break from formal analysis to the potential connotative interpretations of art was predicated on ‘three strata’: ‘primary or natural subject matter’, ‘secondary or conventional subject matter’ (Panofsky, 1939: 5 – 7) and most importantly ‘intrinsic meaning or content’ (Panofsky, 1939: 5 – 7). If primary subject matter is about the basic formal properties whereas secondary subject matter concerns itself with narrative then the final area of intrinsic meaning is the level at which art can be viewed as a symbolic extension of a wider nexus of underlying cultural, philosophical and historical lineages. In other words, iconographic interpretation can only occur in relation to readings from the past since the imposition of subjectivity returns to individuated formal analysis.

The rise of genre theory in the early 1970s , as a counter to authorship, saw theorists including Lawrence Alloway (1971), Ed Buscombe (1970) and later Colin McArthur (1972) develop Panofsky’s idea of iconography. Such theorists were in agreement on the significance of iconography to film as ‘it emphasised the visual motifs and symbolic language of art rather than individual authorship or mythic narrative’ (Flint, 1999: 32). Buscombe decidedly emphasised ‘outer forms’ (2003: 15), identifying iconographic features such as weapons, horses, clothes, defining the western in strictly visual terms. Similarly McArthur in his study of the gangster film talked of understanding iconography conducive to ‘several decades of patterns of visual imagery’ (McArthur, 1972: 118). The limitations of iconography as an emerging genre discipline were evident in the writings of some theorists like McArthur who argued it was ‘an artificial exercise to discuss individual iconographic elements when they exist in dynamic relationship within the fabric of particular films’ (McArthur, 1972: 122). Schatz (1981) expanded on McArthur’s early self-criticisms, positing iconography should be studied in relation to a wider ideological paradigm, taking into account the way ‘a genre’s iconography reflects the value system that defines its particular cultural community’ (Schatz, 1981: 24). All of these developments were uniformly substantial, generating a new genre discourse in which iconography, as a theoretical concept was applicable to the major film genres in western cinema.

During the 1980s the first serious academic work on Indian cinema to have an impact on western misconceptions and fallacies also witnessed some of the earliest and most influential discussions on Indian film genres. This comprised the work of Rosie Thomas, Vijay Mishra, Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Nasreen Munni Kabir. An essential characteristic of the visual aesthetics attributed to Indian cinema was tableau, used for ‘staging and narrating story events’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 105). Geeta Kapur (1987: 80) talks of tableau in terms of ‘frontality’ that ‘yields forms of direct address; flat, diagrammatic and simply profiled figures’ which comes out of an ‘Indian art tradition’ (Kapur, 1987: 80). Vasudevan expands on the specificities of the tableau mode arguing objects and people are ‘at a 180 plane to the camera and seem to verge on stasis, enclosing meaning within their frame’ (2010: 105 – 106). Further still Vasudevan says although ‘the codes of American continuity are also used’, ‘they are unsystematically deployed’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 106). The combination of tableau and continuity produced a visual sensibility, which in the opinion of Vasudevan made directors like Satyajit Ray complain about ‘the static feature of the commercial film’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 106). Whereas tableau was a universal art tradition, Darshan, ‘the power exercised by the authoritative image in Hindu religious culture’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 114) is a defining feature of Indian cinema specific to Hinduism. The Darshanic gaze works whereby ‘the object gives itself to be seen and in doing so, confers a privilege upon the spectator’ (1998: 75-6). Subsequently, tableau and Darshan could also be labeled iconographically conducive to popular Indian cinema but not specific to any such genres.

Rosie Thomas was one of the earliest academics to criticise the inadequacies of applying wholesale theoretical perspectives to the study of Indian cinema . Thomas ambivalently reasoned ‘Hollywood genre classification is quite inappropriate to Hindi cinema’ (Thomas. 1985: 120) and yet simultaneously genre was ‘potentially useful in opening up questions about Hindi cinema’s distinctive form’ (Thomas, 1985: 120). By refuting the claim Indian cinema was largely derivative and formulaic, Thomas placed a far greater emphasis on distinctive ‘modes of address’ concerned with articulating ‘emotion and spectacle rather than tight narrative’ (Thomas 1985: 120). Also writing in the 1980s, Vijay Mishra determined Indian film genres were a genealogical extension of Hindu mythological history , naming the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as ‘the great code of Bombay Cinema’ (Mishra, 1985: 134) and postulating Indian cinema with its ‘one dominant genre’ (Mishra, 1985: 134), the mythological. The work of Thomas and Mishra re-interpreted Indian cinema from an entirely new perspective in which the Indianness of Hindi cinema could only be measured by its relationship to a wider nexus of mythology, history and visual traditions.

The 1990s, with the proliferation of new media technologies and the rise of globalization, led to the consolidation of visual culture as a new interdisciplinary area of study. In 1998 theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff contended ‘the emergence of visual culture as a subject’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 5) contested the hegemony of ‘the spoken word as the highest form of intellectual practice’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 5). Mirzoeff’s definition of visual culture is worth framing here as it underpins many of the ways in which analysis of media and film texts is predicated on a pictorial understanding: ‘Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3). For Mirzoeff the break with the past in terms of cultural studies seemed to be with the ways in which audiences interacted on a continuous basis of instantaneity with visual technology, seeking pleasure from ‘a sensual immediacy’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3) presented by visual events and images unfolding in a postmodern context. Mirzoeff’s re-emphasis on visual literacy and the capacity for film to communicate with audiences on strictly visual terms is chiefly imperative for the role of iconography. Undeniably a visual approach helped reclaim the study of Indian cinema from an ideological imperative to one in which the conventions and idioms of Indian film genres are inscribed in predominantly visual terms.

In 2002 Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel published ‘Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film’, exploring ‘the visual components that constitute the very structure of Hindi film’ (Dwyer & Patel, 2002: 10) specifically stars, space, settings and costumes. Dwyer and Patel’s work reiterated the need to study Indian cinema in terms of its potent visual literacy, shifting the focus away from ideological analysis that characteristically modulated formal elements. Dwyer and Patel’s use of the term visual culture can just as easily be read as iconography. Yet their reluctance to use such a term in the context of Hindi cinema stems from connotations with genre theory conducive of western film discourse. Moreover Dwyer and Patel’s approach to the study of visual components avoids categorising iconographic elements under specific film genres. This raises an important question concerning the relationship between genre and Indian cinema that requires exploring further.

The Expanding Work on Indian Film Genres

It would be an impossibility to consider the totality of expanding scholarly work on the role of genre in Indian cinema so I want to briefly outline and consider the work of Mishra, Dudrah, Desai, Prasad and Gopalan. I feel the work of the aforementioned scholars is of particular relevance in arguing for the train as a key component of genre iconography.

Madhava Prasad speaking from an institutional perspective argues ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) was more dominant in the post independence era since the presence of film studios cultivated a ‘distinct identity’ (Prasad, 1998: 47) to their films. This is a point sustained by Mishra’s analysis of Bombay cinema in the 1930s and 1940s: ‘If Prabhat Theatres led the way with socially oriented films, New Theatres continued to work in the romantic hero tradition’ (Mishra, 2002: 23). The emergence of ‘the social’ as a super genre, after the demise of the studio era, erased any attempts to consolidate specific genre categories. Prasad contends the lack of ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) in Indian cinema is conductive to the way the Indian film industry operates and functions. Unlike Hollywood which is ‘marked by a high degree of internal unity’ (Prasad, 1998: 47), Prasad says Hindi cinema is contrastingly ‘marked by the relative autonomy retained by the various elements that flow into the production process’ (Prasad, 1998: 48) including songs, dialogue and stars. This indubitably testifies songs in particular are common to all films not specifically the unhelpful category of the musical genre in Bollywood cinema. In many ways, we can say the same about the presence of the train. Its repeated presence in many types of films transcends any attempts to argue for its status as a genre convention and means of categorising a film. Finally in his discussion of ‘the social’ , Prasad says it is a genre that has persisted over the years mainly because ‘its dominance attests to a certain ideological imperative that is peculiar to the modernizing Indian state’ (Prasad, 1998: 136). By drawing a link between the ideological function of cinema and the politics of the nation Prasad raises a pertinent question: in the context of the train does the iconographic serve a wider ideological obligation? Vijay Mishra takes a similar institutional approach to Prasad discussing Bombay cinema specifically in the 1930s and 1940s as a genre defined by ‘key paradigmatic features’ such as the ‘conflict between tradition and modernity’ (Mishra, 2002: 15). Mishra’s focus on the ‘big studios’ (Mishra, 2002: 17) of the 1930s and 1940s as exemplifying a distinct brand or type of film validates Prasad’s argument regarding the explicitness of ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) and its relationship with prescient ideological concerns.

The argument that generic differentiation all but disappeared after independence because of institutional changes has seen a reversal in terms of new genre configurations in the last fifteen years. In 2001 the Indian film industry experienced its most significant institutional shift since the demise of the studio era with the Indian government finally granting industry status . Dudrah and Desai (2008: 13) argue this brought in new capital and production opportunities ‘both in and beyond India’, leading to the ‘liberalization of Indian cinema as an industry’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13). Such a shift has seen an augmented cross fertilisation of conventions, creating distinctly innovative genre hybrids. The first of these was Mumbai Noir, fusing traditional crime/gangster elements with a noir like sensibility. Examples include Satya (Truth, 1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (Government, 2005); all directed by Ram Gopal Verma . It is problematic to pin down whom exactly coined the term Mumbai Noir and if it really constitutes a new genre or a cycle of films. In both cases, one aspect is evident, differentiation is extenuated through elements that are repeated across many of these films occurring both aesthetically and thematically. The most obvious is the urban milieu of a Mumbai underbelly in which many of the films are set.

Gopalan echoing Prasad claims the discontinuous nature of Hindi cinema complicates the process of determining genre. In terms of creating discontinuity Gopalan says Indian popular cinema is strategised on the idea of ‘interruptions’ (Gopalan, 2002: 18). Song and dance sequences and the interval impose a non-linearity preventing the formation of fixed genres with a definitive repertoire of elements. Gopalan goes on to say that ‘the iconography of these sequences of attractions calls our attention to other interests that bolster a spectator’s interests in Indian cinema’ (Gopalan, 2002: 19). If Gopalan is referring here to the way stars, settings and dance are iconographic then it is especially relevant to the ‘attraction’ of the train as a visual spectacle not necessarily tied to any traditional sense of genre conventions. This question yet again problematises the train as strictly iconographic since its function as both attraction and ideology also exacerbates parallel consideration.

Prasad argues for the super genre of the Social that seems to encompass the breadth and domain of Indian popular cinema. Unlike the Social which as a label and means of categorising types of Indian films has lost currency, Dudrah and Desai argue for the Masala film as an on-going way of ‘understanding the genres of Bollywood cinema’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 10). In their opinion the Masala film is defined by song and dance that ‘enable and incorporate multiple forms of performance’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 11) demanding ‘more serious attention’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 11) for their plurality. A point of innovation is the way the train became a key object for song and dance sequences. Its evolution as both a spectacle and narrative device can debatably be tied to the way the Masala genre and other sub genres have evolved over time. Dudrah and Desai dismiss the notion of a super genre claiming other genres and subgenres including Mythological, Historical, Muslim Socials, Romantic films, NRI (Non Resident Indian) films and Horror films are just as important in thinking about film genres. However, they also say such categories ‘operate in a broad and connected sense’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13). The hybridisation and ‘blending together’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13) of conventions is not specific to Indian cinema but visible in the hybridised mainstream Hollywood blockbuster film , which in essence is Masala like in its fusion of genre elements. In fact, Steve Neale, citing David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson (1985), says ‘nearly all Hollywood films were hybrids in so far as they always tended to combine one type of generic plot, a romance plot with others’ (Neale, 1990: 57). This argument returns to the myth of pure genres and by doing so reiterates the need to explore the homogeneity of the train as a multi accentual device in terms of narrative, political and representational purposes, which is what I intend to explore in the coming parts.

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Introduction

Introduction

‘Come children, let’s play a game,
Someone comes and someone goes,
This is a game of this world,
Bell rings at every station,
Signal will be given and the flag will wave,
Then the train starts moving,
Chuk chuk chuk chuk goes the train!’

— Train Song from 27 Down (1974)

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27 Down (1974) – The quintessential train film.

A cursory glance at Indian cinema over the decades is more than likely to conjure up periodic reveries of stars, songs and dance. But in the midst of a rich iconographic discourse of visually literate cinema resides the image of the train. It is an image that has remained unfailingly ubiquitous as all the other filmic signifiers. The sounds of a shrieking train, the intimacy of a train compartment, the tumult of the platform. These are some of the ineffaceable minutiae in which the train has been re-imagined for the nascent ideological, narrative and genre paradigms of Indian cinema.

It is not without coincidence one of the biggest Indian films of 2013, Chennai Express , was infatuated with the images of trains. Not just the title, but the poster, narrative and stardom of Shahrukh Khan are entwined in the iconographic motif of the train. This may seem like a patent observation except the dearth of research on the area of trains and their extrinsic relationship with the visual language of Indian cinema demands further analysis. In the simplest of terms, iconography is dominant visual imagery we associate with a particular genre. It is imagery we take for granted. Indeed, the academic discourse on Indian cinema excludes the multifarious significance of iconography. For example, The Visual Culture of Hindi Cinema (2002) by Rachel Dwyer & Divia Patel overlooks iconographic elements intrinsic to Hindi cinema such as trains. Since Indian films across different regions share a conjoint pictorial literacy, most notably narrative interruptions for song and dance spectacle, contextualizing and analysing the train is expressly apposite if we are to fully comprehend the extent of such visual grammar in communicating with a mass audience.

The train has routinely been used in Indian films to explore death (The Apu Trilogy), partition (Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud Capped Star, 1960), separation (Yaadon Ki Baraat / Procession of Memories, 1973) and romance (Aradhana / Worship, 1969). I want to investigate if the ways in which Indian films have been depicted on screen can be categorised under specific thematics. Partition/displacement, love & dance, life & death, fate & justice, postmodern exchange, stardom are some of the provisional categories warranting further research. Another question arises in relation to trains as iconography: have they been used often enough to be labeled a key visual motif or convention characterising more than just one genre? Concurrently, does the image of the train appear across all Indian film genres or is it specific to a few or just one genre? A major aim of my study will be to try and reclaim the inchoate field of iconography, situating it as part of a wider lexicon of film grammar specific to the way Indian cinema constructs narrative and genre. This will be a text based study, analysing relevant sequences ranging from popular Hindi cinema to Bengali art cinema. The iconographic connotation of trains will be extended to a relationship with ideology, exploring if trains can transmit ideologies that point to both an internal logic and external real world narrative. For example, was the advent of trains in film an outcome of India’s push for modernity, and how did the train come to represent ideology cinematically?

Traditional genre theory will be critical, namely the work by Rick Altman (1999), Steve Neale (1999), Colin McArthur (1969), Ed Buscombe (1969) and Barry Keith Grant (Film Genre Readers 1 – 4; 1986 – 2012). However, applying film genre theory to Indian cinema will be done cautiously since the way we watch and analyse Indian films is radically different to Hollywood cinema. This is why traditional genre theory will be supported by an application of key writings on Indian film genres including the work of Madhava Prasad (2001), Gokulsing & Dissanayake (2004), Lalitha Gopalan (2002), Gayatri Chatterjee (2005), Rajinder Dudrah (2006) and Jigna Desai (2008).

Iconographic and ideological meanings will be considered in relation to an aesthetic (audio and visual space) examination of the way trains are presented through formal elements such as mise-en-scene and editing. A closer engagement with micro details will determine the way trains offer a visceral quality producing an on screen visual momentum while also acting as a site for narrative/thematic development. In addition to the areas outlined above, I will frame the analysis of trains against a wider consideration of changing historical contexts including the colonial era, post partition India, Nehru’s modern India and the postmodern, globalised India of today. I will conclude with a consideration of the emergence of rapid transport in India, posing the question: in what ways do recent representations of the Delhi Metro challenge and the train as a new site of contemporary urban ideological and iconographic exchange?

[This series of posts has been adapted from the dissertation I submitted as part of my Masters at the University of Manchester back in 2014. There is a lot that I couldn’t cover since the area of the train and how it has been imagined over a number of decades is quite broad and fluid. There is still a litany of recent Indian films in which the train is imagined as either part of the narrative or as a motif. And clearly there is scope to pursue further how the train is utilised in genres such as the crime/noir film. Given the limitations with most analytical studies I had to focus on certain areas at the expense of others but the idea of iconography remains very much at the heart of the study.]

VAMSHA VRIKSHA / The Family Tree (1971, India, Dir. B. V. Karanth & Girish Karnad)

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In Parallel Cinema the co existence of creative streams accommodated divergent aesthetic reckonings. The initial films of the Kannada new wave spearheaded by the likes of Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth adopted a largely neo realist approach that was more in line with Ray’s cinema and which was later exemplified by Benegal. The realist tag is an unwelcoming label associated with Parallel Cinema but in some instances is justified and warrants exploring further. The regional flourishes expressly from Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka were aligned in a cinematic radicalism that mapped a frontal attack on all kinds of orthodoxies specifically caste and religion. Based on the novel by Kannada writer S. L. Bhyrappa, Vamsha Vriksha, a key work in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema, uses the concept of the family tree as an extended metaphor, attacking head on the patriarchy and double standards of Brahminical culture that literally imprisons women. Perhaps the radicalism of Parallel Cinema films from the South wasn’t strictly aesthetic but far more visible in the confrontational and unconventional thematic tone.

The narrative of Vamsha Vriksha unfolds essentially from the perspective of the woman, a radical about turn in the ways in which Parallel Cinema was forging a new path for counter gender representations. Kathyayani (L. V. Sharada Rao) is widowed at an early age with a young son. She feels trapped, sitting idly at home, and like Charulata in Ray’s film, the opening captures her boredom and isolation as she is reduced to staring out of the windows at the lives of others. Kathyayani overturns tradition, re-marrying and eventually leaving her in-laws. But she does at the expense of being forced to leave her son with her in-laws who claim a hereditary right over the boy. This condition placed upon Kathyayani is cruel; severing a parental bond that becomes part of a deeper psychological struggle she must overcome. However, the radicalism of Vamsha Vriksha comes from the agency of Kathyayani who not only pursues an education, later becoming a teacher, but also continually exposes the tyranny of tradition and corresponding hypocrisies. ‘In our society, a man can marry ten times, but a woman has to suppress all her desires’, exclaims Kathyayani to her father in law.

As we come to discover, the family tree has many branches but they don’t all grow the same way. Moreover, assuming a lofty moral position based on religion is prone to derision particularly when the history of a family has been constructed on a lie, one that is unmasked by the patriarch of the story. While the coda is about reconciliation, Karanth and Karnad conclude that tradition has a way of imposing itself on the past and present, distorting attempts to create new and alternate histories.