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The State and Indian Cinema: The Case of Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat ki Subah Nahin

August 10, 2020 | By

Indian cinema since its inception has been inextricably linked with the Indian State. This fraught relationship has seen changing representations of the state on celluloid, the blurring of lines between the world of acting and politics, and also the recognition of cinema as a mass medium worthy of government patronization.

This articles examines aspects of this relationship with particular reference to Sudhir Mishra’s acclaimed film Is Raat ki Subah Nahin.

Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin

Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin

“Living in the nation today involves, also, living with the state.” (Sunder Rajan, 1); it is perhaps this inevitability that problamatizes a citizen’s sense of freedom and will. It is an inevitability that equally extends to the realm of Indian cinema, which since its inception has been inextricably linked with the Indian State. What initially began as a parasitic relation, metamorphosed into an independent film industry by the ‘90’s, which nevertheless constantly drew from and commented upon its host. The Post- Independence film climate in India known to be that of the cliché was “an explicitly stated formula that had developed centering on two stars, six songs, and three dances. These were bound together by an intensely stereotyped plot and performed by what often appeared to be an entire cast of character actors.” (Booth, 171) This trait, which later became characteristic of Bollywood also invited disdain as Westerners and Indians alike saw Hindi cinema as an example of “the worst escapist excesses of postcolonial capitalism” (ibid). But the state itself is often held responsible for Bollywood’s recourse to the cliché. The extensive government controls that later came to hound every facet of film making – from the initial fund-raising to the processes of procurement of raw stock, the production of the film, and the censor certificate were enough to draw the criticism of the industry. Strict censorship and heavy tax rates were both handicapping conditions that left the film industry to find its own way in a climate of prolonged political indifference.

Initiated by the realist films of Ray, the first recognition of the potential of film, not only as a conscious propaganda tool, but also as a mass medium worthy of government patronization in order to promote the imagination of nationalism, seems to have made the state and cinema inseparable ever since. National cinema, in a stance opposite to the ‘universal’ or the ‘global’, came to have a specific role to promote cultural heritage, address specific cultural formations and resist the imperialism of Hollywood. But in the era of Indira Gandhi as the minister of information and broadcasting in 1964, cinema, which was then primarily realist cinema, took on a different role. What was initially seen as a medium for commercial venture now became a developmental tool to educate the poor and connect the government to the remotest parts of the country. But technological advances with the satellite television experiment and the proliferation of television as a middle class commodity rather than as a governmental program and also the MPAA deal which led the government to open up its theatres to world cinema, resulted in weakening the state’s attempts to direct or contain cinema. And the newly exposed film culture emerging then, as an independent and powerful medium, was free to mutate along unpredictable lines.

In recent times, this inextricability of the state and the film industry has surfaced on the political sphere, with leading celebrities like Shabana Azmi, Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan , Govinda, Vinod Khanna and Shatrugan Sinha being members of Parliament. In Southern States this was almost hard to miss when the DMK overthrew the Congress, which had ruled since independence in 1947; “nine of the ten members of its first cabinet came from the cinema.” (Das Gupta, 33) Politicians like Jayalalitha, M Karunanidhi and MGR all have a history with the film industry. In Andhra Pradesh as well N. T. Rama Rao and recently Chiranjeevi, founder of the Praja Rajyam, seem to fortify the notion that cinema and governing the state go hand in hand and have a common responsibility to ‘shape’ the people.

And yet, in its various representations of the state, Bollywood films have always found it easier to indulge in extremities rather than to negotiate with moderation. In Hindi Bollywood films on one hand, the representation of the Indian State and its apparatus is reduced to a bunch of lousy policemen who seem to appear on the scene when the action is all but over or are grossly incompetent. In the Bachchan era especially, the state was demeaned or incapacitated in films like Deewar and Sholay. On the other hand, in Jo Bole So Nihal, Nayak, Sarfarosh, Mission Kashmir, and other films dealing with the Indian police or army, the state is represented through a smart, honest, strong, all powerful cop privileged with individualism, who always gets the better of criminals or absorbs them under him. These extremes in representations throw light on the shape shifting and ambiguous role of the cinema which sometimes establishes norms in conformity with the governing ideology and sometimes tears down those very norms in favour of mass opinion as was the case in the 70’s.

While Indian cinema remains preoccupied in its representation of the Indian state and its apparatus, the inherent notion of citizenship that automatically arises with the idea of occupying a cultural space, often goes unnoticed. The interest in citizenship is then not just “in the narrow formalistic meaning of having the right to carry a specific passport. It addresses an overall concept encapsulating the relationship between the individual, state and society” (Yuval-Davis, 4). On an immediate level the notion of citizenship works upon the viewing of the film itself. Externally, cinematic props like the sets, the characters, and all other elements that physically inhabit the screen and provide a narrative, spring to life with the persistence of vision. The static plot becomes real-time story and the interactions between characters on screen space appear real events in the minds of the audience. Dimensional realities collapse as it were, into a unique space which provides a common cinematic experience to the viewers. Thus, “the machinery of cinema… comes to take on the function of producing reality for its spectators, a seamless, coherent reality both in the image and story. This underwrites in each spectator the belief that life itself, no matter how fragmented it may appear, is finally coherent and that his or her own position in it is fully accounted for.” (Kazmi, 136) The viewing of film is in itself then, a democratizing act. And it is in this act that each spectator, for the span of two and a half or three hours, is able to commonly access and in an “already closed, destined world” (Kazmi, 136), a sense of citizenship or of belonging to the same cultural tradition, evident merely in the way he relates to characters or identifies certain practices or malpractices as indigenous idiosyncrasies.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Pic: Yashraj Films)

This is particularly true in the case of films which deal with Indians abroad especially those like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum, Salaam Namaste, Dil Chahta Hai and many others. Among the spate of such films that crowded the recent decades, a foreign location was used as in Namaste London, or the more recent Singh is King to flaunt patriotic/nationalist acts and words. There is of course another reason as in the case of Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and Salaam Namaste which seem to be situated outside India precisely because they deal with the bold themes of extramarital affairs and live-in relationships. And yet, an Indian resident watching an NRI film hardly feels any discomfort or alienation in relating to characters that live in such greatly different social and cultural conditions. Whether it is Saif dancing with a group of skimpily clad foreigners or Preity screaming ‘salaam namaaste’ on the radio in a strangely un-Hindi accent, Indianness nevertheless comes through loud and clear no matter from which part of the globe it is. The stories themselves, which after all deal with the same themes of love and loss seem to be merely transplanted into a new location and contrived from the inside rather than presenting a change in the perspective of nationalism, which living in a different culture is likely to induce.

In his book The Nation and Its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee talks about the first formulation of Indian nationalism as an anti-colonial attitude that needed to deprecate ‘the other’ in order to feel patriotic. This formulation of nationalism takes on a new meaning in the post colonial era, where the films of the eighties and nineties need to move abroad to present nationalism. There is then constantly the need for the other not only to affirm one’s nationality but to compare citizenships. Since older films of the eighties like Taqdeer, Nastik, Disco Dancer, foreigners like Bob Christo or Tom Alter acted as the classic foreigner villain who walks around talking in ‘stereotypically foreign’ Hindi, no matter whatever his nationality in the film might be, does shady transactions with underworld dons and enjoys cabaret. In recent times, the foreigner, a little less glamorous, serves as the catalyst for the hero’s nationalist discourse as in Namaste London, or threatens the honour of the female protagonist as in Aa Ab Laut Chalen and almost always ends up being a scapegoat or an object of ridicule.

Going over to Sudhir Mishra’s film Is Raat ki Subah Nahin, it is a film that accomplishes much in too slight a manner. The opening of the film, which begins with a shot of a tall clock tower immediately followed by a crowd of people walking and the fading in of a lamenting soundtrack “jeevan kya hai koi na jaane” (No one knows what life is), hints to the audience that it will perhaps be a serious film. But what is constructed in the next few shots besides a clock tower tottering on the brink of modernity, are further urban spaces like highways and vehicles. The dark, urban mood is further enhanced in an underground setting in the den of a local don. The sinister green-blue lighting, and cigarette smoke create a total eerie atmosphere and the audience begins to expect torture and killing in the stark portrayal of Raman Bhai and his goons.

With the killing of the prisoner, Raman Bhai is established as the redoubtable villain of the film. But all these meticulous pains to conform to the audience’s expectations and be faithful to Bollywood tradition are only turned into a joke on the audience when the villains turn out to be rather ordinary and even bullied by the very people they ought to oppress. Raman Bhai’s getting slapped, and his almost retarded retaliation to it in the bar, is itself a slap on the face of the Bollywood cliché villain who is never humiliated but dramatically conquered by the hero only in the end. The villain is again ridiculed when one of the goons go to the hospital to get a false heart-attack certificate for Vilas’ dead wife. His initial ‘Bhai-like’ attitude in demanding the certificate from a doctor passing by is anti-climatically met with a disdainful comment like ‘Ye hospital tumhare baap ka hain kya?’ (Does your father own this hospital?) The character of Chote specially undoes the villainy of Raman Bhai and makes it almost farcical as he is a deliberate parody of the ‘cool villain’.

The depiction of the confusion in Raman’s house when the TV and the havan are going on simultaneously, seems to be characteristic of the general sense of confusion that prevails in the whole film, not only in the narrative of the chase, but also in a moment of crisis between modernity and tradition. The confusion of Raman’s house that transforms into a modern fusion of Marilyn Monroe and the idols of deities both in the space of Aditya’s drawing room, is nevertheless a space in which Aditya and Puja begin to quarrel. With this undercurrent of chaos coupled with the de-glamourisation of characters, the thugs and socialites alike are rendered vulnerably human.

The portrayal of the hero, who is literally called ‘hero’ by his chasers, is equally ridiculous. Unlike in a normal Bollywood moment of high glory or style, the hero is introduced to us in a moment of deceit. He is cheating on his wife and is seen throughout the film switching from loving his wife to his mistress like a shuttle cock. Even the words ‘I love you’ which are portrayed in Hindi cinema with all the gusto of romantic candor, are reduced merely as punctuation in Aditya’s dialogues. The neighbour constantly makes fun of him as he is locked out by his wife and even within the apparently trivial humour of the situation, Mishra doesn’t miss an opportunity to make fun of life in Bombay, “Ye Bombay ki deewar hai, chilla ne se bhi hil jati hain.” (This is a Bombay wall. A shout is enough to make it move). The neighbor himself is the typical superficial socialite who jogs every morning, probably goes to laughing clubs, discusses local politics and attends society meetings. (“Mein society mein complain karoonga”, he tells Aditya) Even as the thugs chase him to the railway station from the bar, instead of a spectacular fight sequence we are presented with the comical image of Aditya hanging under the bridge in the distance with two of his chasers in the foreground, wondering where he is. Even in the final scene, unlike a traditional scene of the hero meeting the villain, Aditya kills Raman by accident and takes time to recover from what he has done. This is then a world not only of vulnerable human beings, but of human beings that are pawns of fate and accident and wasteful with their lives which can be claimed so easily.

Smriti Mishra in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (Pic: TMDb)

Is Raat bears similarities and dissimilarities with the films Vaastav and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, but is nevertheless interesting in the light of their comparison. Unlike Vaastav which uses the goriness of violence and death to evoke a sense of realism, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Is Raat both have an element of black humour. Mishra and Manjrekar although both seem to portray contemporary issues, deal with the character of the underworld warlord very differently. While Aditya only slaps Raman, in Vaatav, Raghu accidentally kills the brother of a notorious gangster and is then himself absorbed in the underworld as a rival warlord hires him to become his hitman. The confusion in the end when Raghu realizes how deeply and unescapably he is embroiled with the state is of a different kind than in Is Raat. In Is Raat, Raman Bhai has a rat in the institute of the state in the form of Patankar, who, like Baban Rao the Home Minister in Vaastav, turns out to be more corrupt than the warlords themselves. In the end Raghu dies voluntarily at the hands of his mother as the police surrounds his house. But Mishra gives Raman, in his transactions with his family members, a most ordinary character as he still needs his mother to mediate between him and his father and tell him to stop the havan. There is then an almost childlike quality in Mishra’s portrayal of his characters, especially the villains, who now and then slip into talking about law and honesty. This is clearly shown when Shankar and Ganya who are Raman’s men, enter into Aditya’s house and wait for him to come. They explore the house and one of them thinks of seizing it and keeping it. The other ridicules him and says ‘Koi kaanoon vaanoon hain ya nahin?’ Even when Raman’s sister asks him to do something about her jobless husband, he advises her to explain to him to do an honest job. These contradictory tendencies in Mishra’s villains only suggest that the characters have actually, like Vilas’ novice, ‘gone bad’ when their socially evil activities, triggered in this case by a slap, are totally avoidable. Mishra’s exaggeration or remodelling of these villains in relation to the cold blooded Raghu only promote the viewer’s recognition of them as human and funny. But Manjrekar however wants his villains to shock the viewers into ‘seeing the real.’

The protagonists Vinod Chopra (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir Mishra (Ravi Baswani) in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, which was scripted by Mishra bears other kinds of similarities with Is Raat. After seeing the film, the audience is left with a sense of the corruption of the state and the futility of fighting it shown in the strikingly ironical shot of the two actors singing ‘Hum Honge Kamayab’ while they are in handcuffs. The overall sense of confusion in that film is replicated in this film as well, but Is Raat seems to be more explicit in its designs to expose a realistic version of Bombay. While there is no real villain in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, apart from the state represented through the corrupt editor and the builders, the comedy created in the urgency of situations especially in the Mahabharat scene is very similar to the car chase in which Aditya and Malvika argue about their relationship. Is Raat on the other hand, also makes a startling critique of Bollywood convention with the sudden bursting into song in the middle of trauma. The scene in which all the characters are rounded up for the climax is as ridiculous as the chase in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron when everyone is chasing a corpse. In Is Raat we see the characters lost in the chaos of a strange celebration in the middle of the night, while the lead singer is mouthing a typical romantic song and the extras doing a drill with colourful scarves. The celebration is disrupted only by Vilas’ shots and results in an accident. The constant juxtaposition of opposites and the rounding up of characters in a common space seem to result in a sense of existential chaos and despair that is nevertheless hidden under apparent harmony and reconciliation. Even though Mishra describes his characters as ordinary and human, it is nevertheless a ghastly picture of the human that he presents and smiling, constantly says ‘zindagi kya hai, koi na jaane.’

What is hard to miss in Is Raat is also the director’s deliberate lack of transitions. The characters are constantly revolving in their respective orbits yet nevertheless occupying the same space. Thus while the narrative of Raman Bhai, proceeds to the party space on the trail of Vilas, Aditya arrives there with Malvika and an apparently separate narrative is advanced. But the juxtaposition of Shobha’s body being taken away with Puja going to the washroom where she will hear of her husband’s unfaithfulness, seems to suggest the sense of the suffocating closeness in which people in Bombay live and the immunity with which strangers inhabit a common space; that although the thugs and the socialites are apparently from different worlds, it takes only a telephone to intersect their worlds. The director seems, then, to deliberately interweave these narratives on the flimsy pretext of a slap as if to assert that whether it is the drunk euphoric party people in Patel’s house(with a background track of Pink Floyd’s ‘We don’t need no education’) or the thugs in Aditya’s house who cannot tell a telephone ring from a doorbell, everyone is in a common condition, in a common world that is eventually steeped in perpetual night. This is further highlighted with the recurring focus on the clock tower which marks the passage of time and even then it always remains night; a night in which people like Shobha, Chote and Vilas’ apprentice are uselessly shot, or like Vilas murdered through double cross by Patankar and finally like Raman Bhai by accident. Yet, when the film ends, it is finally day. But the day begins with a shot of the police taking away the corpses of Vilas and Raman Bhai. Although it seems to be a happy ending for Aditya and Puja, reconciliation does not seem to be total and we are made to wonder whether it may ever be so.

Works cited:

Das Gupta, Chidananda. “New Directions in Indian Cinema. Film Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Autumn, 1980), pp. 32-42.

Booth, Gregory D. “Traditional Content and Narrative Structure in the Hindi Commercial Cinema.”Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (1995), pp. 169-190.

Yuval-Davis, Nira: “Women, Citizenship and Difference.” Feminist Review, No. 57, Citizenship: Pushing the Boundaries (Autumn, 1997), pp. 4-27.

Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari. “Women, Citizenship, Law and the India State.” The Scandal of the State: Women, Law and Citizenship in Postcolonial India. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003, pp 1-40.

Kasmi, Fareeduddin. “How angry is the Angry Young Man?: ‘Rebellion’ in Conventional Hindi Films.” in The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema. ed. Ashis Nandy. New Delhi: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. pp 134-156.

(The views expressed are personal)

More to  read

IPR and Indian Cinema: A Scenario of Violation

Women in Hindi Cinema in Post-Colonial India

Of Shared Legacies and New Sensibilities: Looking at Kannada Cinema


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Krupa Shah teaches English at VIT University, Chennai. She has a PhD in Translation Studies from the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar. Her research interests include the cultural and literary history of twentieth century Gujarat, questions of language, identity and multilingualism in South Asia, film studies and francophone literature. She is also a translator and works with English, French and Gujarati with varying degrees of fluency. She can be reached at [email protected]om. She blogs at Krupa Shah
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