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An Indian Film Theory?

March 25, 2014 | By

We need to look back and deep into the cinema of ours – with pride and reverence. The medium is developed and sharpened by the West but we use it to tell our story. The Indian film theory should emerge hence.

For quite some time now film scholars have discussed and debated the relevance and importance of the ‘national’ cinema vis-a-vis the Western or more prevalent Hollywood films.

They have argued the scope of cultural specificity in the paradigm of cinema studies and have observed that within the national cinema as well there are ‘centre’-s and ‘alternate’-s which means there are ‘national’ vs ‘local’.

This becomes a hierarchical trope then starting with the Hollywood – National to the National – Local duality.

However, looking at the context of Indian cinema this looks an even more complex matrix. The problem is with numbers – India being the largest cinema producing nation of the world with her diversities – of language, culture and religion.

So, to define a ‘national’ cinema is indeed a challenge. There is a systematic and definite ill purpose in identifying Hindi cinema (primarily made out of Mumbai) as the ‘Indian national cinema’. This is where the problems of perception lie.

Indian films

The South Indian mainstream industry churns comparable revenue with the Bollywood films yet the tag of ‘national cinema’ is bestowed not on them. This in essence reflects the participation of the different sections of the country in the national politics that is controlled and masterminded from North India.

All these films – mainstream of the South and the East should rightfully fall under the ‘Indian National cinema’ along with Bollywood. In addition, there are parallel walks by many which may constitute the ‘alternate’ one.

The question of the centre and the fringe becomes irrelevant in the Indian context since both as a single collective is in the fringe of World cinema – from the point of view of acceptance and also recognition and studying.

Even with harping on the theory of a common diction of expression it can be argued that the common diction needs to be as much ours as borrowed. When the numbers are insignificant then the matters are different.

But in the Indian scene that is not the case. We have a huge volume of the Hindi commercial films different from that of the Tamil ones and then the Bengali art-house cinema, the middle-of-the-road Hindi films or the Independent film-making wave.

So to come to an Indian common diction is difficult to start with. This essentially confuses and poses a problem in the cultural experience of the viewer (Indian or from outside) even though there are certain homogeneities which at times are pointed at by the foreign viewer that we tend to miss and hence ignore.

The plethora of theories in culture studies have been dominated and dictated by the aesthetic standards of the affluent West.  Specifically cinema as a medium had tread different paths in the Indian context – the mainstream and the ‘parallel’ often referred as ‘art’ films.

The film critics and the film societies have for long aligned with the parallel flow since the critic and the maker both are supposedly ‘enlightened’ by the Western theories. They have harbored a casteist philosophy and castigated anything that is ‘popular’ and commercially successful as being less ‘arty’.

This only widened the divide and in a capitalist organization as the state this meant that the commercial mainstream cinema in India gained prominence over time. The numbers and the kitty amount are so overwhelming that the International film festivals have just no other option but to recognize and realize the market potential of the Indian sub-continent.

Where does it leave the film appreciation culture in India? Precisely, it makes the arm-chair critic eat out of the commercial film-makers palm.  Rejected by the western bastions of ‘art’ cinema and have already shut out the mainstream from the cultural vortex leaves the critic confused and puzzled.

To overcome the slumber what is required is self-belief. To accept that in reality no love sequence is amplified by hundred people dancing on the streets. Just the same way as Avaatar is not a worldly reality and neither Speed and its sequels. For, cinema is nothing but only an illusion of reality.

We need to look back and deep into the cinema of ours – with pride and reverence. The medium is developed and sharpened by the West but we use it to tell our story. The Indian film theory should emerge hence.

Even if the ‘enlightened’ art film can be read as a text for conventional theory, the mainstream will surely make the theories numb. For example, the primordial focus of classical film theory revolved round the concepts of ‘gaze’ and ‘spectatorship’. This then gets contextualized with respect to gender, voyeurism etc.

It has to be understood that the concept of gaze in Indian context is different than in the Western world where public exposure of the female body (for instance) happens in a different way than that in rural India, say.

Renowned film scholar Madhava Prasad argued that the Indian cinema is a product of a heterogeneous form of manufacture whereas Hollywood cinema is that of a serial form of manufacture.The ‘story’ is at the centre of Hollywood cinema and that being ‘realist’ (in most cases) the concepts of audience identification happens.

Indian commercial cinema for instance, taking cue from Prasad is an assembly of dance, song, story, fight and the star. The success ofthe film depends on multiple ‘visual pleasures’ and not one only. This robs the viewer of the classical ‘voyeur’ gaze as ‘his’ ‘gaze’ is constantly subverted and dissected by these different sub-contexts.

Hence, the melodrama as opposed to realism in Indian cinema lets the viewer to accept it as unreal from the very beginning and yet there is a wish-fulfillment attached to it.

The film studies institutes unfortunately look down upon the Indian commercial cinema majorly. What is demanded of them now however is a serious and conscious effort to free reading (and thereby banishment) of Indian cinema from Western angle. The scholars and researchers instead can devote time to come up with an Indian Film theory (and its different branches) that would place the diverse films this land is endowed with in proper context.

This article was first published in The Bengal Post on Jan 5, 2013.

Pictures used in this article are publicity stills

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at
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Silhouette Magazine publishes articles, reviews, critiques and interviews and other cinema-related works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers and critics as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers and critics are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. Images on Silhouette Magazine are posted for the sole purpose of academic interest and to illuminate the text. The images and screen shots are the copyright of their original owners. Silhouette Magazine strives to provide attribution wherever possible. Images used in the posts have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, YouTube, Pixabay and Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.