When Gods Walk the Earth
This was the first article I wrote about Indian popular cinema. It appeared in the January-February 1995 issue of Film Comment, with the fairly presumptuous sub-head "Idiom and Archetype in Indian Cinema Today." The piece is transcribed here almost exactly as it was published, gaffes and all. Some updates, upgrades, and second thoughts have been tacked on as footnotes.
Mani Rathnam, the Tamil movie director whose work was showcased as part of the "India NOW!" sidebar at the 19th Toronto International Film Festival, may turn out to be a breakthrough figure. He could be the John Woo or Tsui Hark of Southern India, a popular artist who expresses himself fully in a commercial idiom. Which I suppose makes actor Kamal Hasan, who took the title role in Rathnam's sinewy 1987 gangster epic Nayakan (Hero), a set of sharply pointed variations on The Godfather, the Chow Yun-fat of Madras.
Hasan's performance as Velu, the son of a murdered union leader who becomes a smuggler and then a lordly mob boss sticking up for the downtrodden, stands up well to the obvious comparison with the Corleone dons of Pacino and De Niro. In addition to a solid force of personality Kamal exhibits qualities of sweetness and playfulness that have so far eluded those dour thespians. (The actor is often referred to simply as "Kamal" by the home court fans; the name means "lotus" in Tamil.) Hasan is one of those natural movie stars who simply seem to have more life in them than anyone in sight.
In Bharathan's highly effective melodrama Thevar Magan (Thavar's Son, 92), Kamal first appears as a callow princeling in trendy city clothes, returning to the feudal landscape of his ancestoral estate in jungly Tamil Nadu, and shifts before our eyes into a solid, deep-rooted, commanding figure that is a lot closer to his usual star persona.  Hasan seems to absorb all the weight of regional tradition, to make it a part of his own substance, acquiring so much density in the process that you expect his feet to sink into the earth at every step. When his sophisticated financee (Gowathami) returns to collect him after several months, to find him transformed from a modern young go-getter into a grave and terrifying country patriarch, he no longer seems to be a mere human but, incoming into his inheritance, he has evolved into sacred monster, a rural demigod. 
Both Nayakan and Thevar Magan manage to suggest the ambiguity of Hasan's motives as he represses his finer feelings and his citified "progressive" values in order to embrace hide-bound patriarchal values. Once he gets a taste of them he clearly relishes the percs of being an all-powerful masculine overlord. What red-blooded male wouldn't prefer a culturally validated lord-and-master role to the headaches of wrestling with the compromises and half measures and incessant negotiations of modern egalitarian social relations? This is the sneaky element of complicity that makes the effect of these movies so difficult to shrug off. In their own distinctive, tough-minded fashion, both of these pictures are wish-fulfillment fantasies, and in their ironic self-awareness, their notable lack of "naivetZ," they may be more representative of the current Indian film scene than some snooty Anglos are tempted to assume.
The "India NOW!" sidebar, programmed by David Overbey and Noah Cowen, offered Anglo North Americans a rare opportunity to see a slew of commercial Indian movies with subtitles over a ten day span that made the interconnections and implications all but impossible to miss. India turns out over 600 movies a year,  in ten regional languages, and almost all of them are "music dramas"-if you consider shimmying nautch girls who rob trains, dashing disco dancers who are also psycho killers, and political prisoners who serenade their absent loved ones from captivity the stuff of high drama. In India, most commercial movies are expected to incorporate six to eight songs and/or dance numbers. "Film songs," in fact, have been part and parcel of the of the Indian popular music industry since the pre-playback period of the Thirties, when all sound was recorded live and only singers could become movie stars.
Around the turn of the century, we're told, the bombastic conventions of imported British blood-and-thunder melodramas merged with the "music drama" structures of native devotional theater forms like tamascha and jatra, to shape some of the most visible characteristics of Indian cinema. The pattern was set, according to the critic Somi Roy, but the Subcontinent's very first feature film, D.M. Phalke's Raja Harashchadra (King Harashchandra, 12), which was based upon an episode of the Indian national epic Mahabharata. "Indian cinema," Roy writes, in an essay published in Spring-Summer 1994 issue of Asian Art & Culture, "had begun retelling or reinterpreting a mythology. In so doing, cinema joined a two-thousand-year-old tradition." To this day, Roy believes, "[Indian] film characters represent not complex psychological entities but ethical archetypes." 
This is a narrative environment that was infused form the outset with mythological fantasy, where gods routinely walk the earth and the natural and the supernatural, the real and the surreal, are fully expected to intermingle-where anything is possible.  In Indian movies reality is volatile, always on the verge of bleeding over into its supposed opposite. Indeed, caustic observers like V.S. Naipaul have seen the Subcontinent's apparent inability to disentangle fact and fantasy as an obstacle to humane progress in that beleaguered part of the world.
For a while there was room in Indian film production for both "socials"-topical dramas that often championed (even as they romanticized) the downtrodden-and old-fashioned pure mythologicals. And India's collective fantasies were at least benign in the immediate aftermath of independence, in the Fifties, when progressive commercial artists like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy made popular entertainments that actively promoted secular liberal values, particularly brotherhood across lines of class, caste, and religion. But the movies' central fantasies seemed to turn vicious somewhere along in the Seventies, in the widely imitated super-anti-hero adventures of the definitive Indian movie icon of the last two decades, Amitabh Bachchan, whose underdog prowess bordered on the supernatural.
Bachchan films like Lawaaris (Orphen, 81) and Mard (He-Man, 84) operate in a realm of wish-fulfillment fantasy so extreme that they become surreal. Plots as far-fetched as an El Santo masked-wrestler tale are deployed with all the gravity of Biblical epics.  In Mukul S. Anand's Khuda Gawah (As God Is My Witness, 92) Amitabh sports a Mosaic beard and his voice on the soundtrack is mixed louder than everybody else's, and it has reverb on it. He delivers the most mundane dialog in thunder, like a series of proclamations.  With their super-intelligent animal sidekicks, their twin brothers separated at birth (one good, one bad), their long-suffering mothers afflicted with amnesia, their slinky rich girl who make calves eyes at sweat-stained tongawallahs, these films seem to be working overtime to cram in every last cheesy convention of pulp fiction and melodrama. (In fairness, they do have a minimum of two-and-a-half hours to fill; Indian audiences apparently prefer their movies long.)
With the rise of Bachchan, there no longer seemed to be any sharp distinction drawn between mythological beings and mere mortals on the Hindi. Something similar occurred a few years ago in Tamil Nadu, when superstar M.G. Ramchandran (MGR) played so many godlike heroes that the supernatural luster seemed to rub off, and he was swept into statewide office.  Bachchan rarely played literally supernatural figures,  but despite the street-level look and sound of his characters (Bachchan often adopted a demotic urban dialect for these roles) they were demonic entities, embodiments of unstoppable social and psychic forces, rolling over every obstacle.
Indian cinema is devoted to escapist fantasy to a degree that may seem grotesque, given the dire extremity of the reality outside the theater. The best documentaries in the "India NOW!" zeroed in on this vexing issue, struggling to find a sharp line between actuality and illusion. Anand Patwardhan's Father, Son and Holy War is mostly about the alarming rise of nationalist and Hindi fundamentalist movements in India, culminating in the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu radicals, and the string of retaliatory bombings that followed in Bombay. In an explosive final segment, Patwardhan explores the images of ferocious masculinity promulgated by the Indian mass media: by the post-Amitabh cinema most of all. "Every Indian movie poster looks like Rambo, now," the filmmaker says, exaggerating only slightly. 
Jill Misquitta, who wrote Dilip Ghosh's Children of the Silver Screen (90), about Bollywood's child stars, frankly sees the falsifications of personally inflicted upon these malleable souls as a metaphor for the inherent falseness of Hindi cinema and its entire worldview. "Film should be an act of compassion, not exploitation," she says. "The falseness of Bombay cinema distorts the human soul."
In her insightful recent book National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987 (Texas, 93), Sumita S. Chakravarty offers a quote from critic and film theorist Fredric Jameson: "The star system is fundamentally, structurally irreconcilable with neo-realism." Chakravarty wants to let a little air into the doctrinaire neo-realism of India's "parallel" art cinema. "Textual negotiation and accommodation," she writes, "[are] not ... lapses from the standards of 'high art,' but ... an engagement with the store of images and icons, desires and fantasies in the realm of public culture which is circulated largely ... by the Bombay cinema." This assertion can be read as an extension of the common view that movies derive their unique emotional power from a synthesis of the expressive tools of several art forms. They also derive power by speaking in the pop vernacular. Clever artists ought to be able to make good use of the expressive resources of Indian commercial cinema, rather than tossing them out with the bath water.
Nayakan, like the other three Mani Rathnam films screened in Toronto, reveals how much fine-grained truth can be achieved in an Indian commercial film that honors all of the form's conventions, by ill repute the most flagrantly artificial on earth. Rathnam carefully preserves the dignity and the credibility of his gangland hero by never asking him to synch to playback; the de rigueur musical duties are either "source performances,: justified by the context (we pause to ogle the entertainers at a brothel), or are handed off to a high-spirited sidekick (Jankaraj). Kamal Hasan's Velu sings only during a festival celebration, a setting that justifies the performance "naturalistically." 
Rathnam's gentle domestic drama Mouna Ragam (Silent Symphony, 87) shuttles most of its crowd-pleasing melodrama onto a siding, segregating it in a flashback to an early romantic trauma suffered by the heroine (Revathi) when she loved a terrorist who was gunned down right in front of her. In real time, she's the understandably reluctant bride in an arranged marriage who can't bring herself to embrace (in any sense) her new husband, a painfully nice and even progressive fellow who loves her and does the best he can. In sharp contrast to the plot-heavy norm of Indian movies, Mouna Ragam is a straightforward account of two well-meaning people negotiating a domestic partnership. 
In every important respect, Mouna Ragam is less contrived than most current Hollywood movies. The strong point of Rathnam's screenwriting, here as elsewhere, is that the plot complications spring organically from the situations; they never feel cooked up. Rathnam elides the standard commercial conventions whenever he can, but he still draws power from them;  the songs are heard but not lip-synched, so that they seem to embody the character's inarticulate longings. Of course, songs can can do that even when they are lip-synched. A lovelorn cop in Baazigar (Gambler), brooding helplessly as the wedding reception of the woman he loves, blends his mood, in stages, with one of the movie's playback songs: he begins by listening passively to the mournful ballad being performed, on camera (by the film's real-life music director, Anu Malik) as part of the entertainment laid on for the occasion, and then takes over the vocal part himself, lip-synching to the same playback voice. It's a spine-chilling Dennis Potter-ish effect.
Far from being plot-heavy, Rathnam's most sumptuous and successful picture to date, Roja (Rose, 92),  is almost static in its basic situation. A young engineer (Arvind Swamy) is held hostage by Kashmiri separatist guerillas, and his young bride (Madhu) takes desperate measures to get him back, shuttling from one group of stonewalling bureaucrats to another. Rathnam holds the characters (and us) suspended in a state of high anxiety for most of 137 minutes, and the vibrating atmosphere seems to energize the yearning romantic lyricism that is the picture's only real raison d'etre. The political setting, Rathnam says, is incidental: "The film takes the point of view of the average Indian who doesn't want to see his country split apart." 
Because it was a huge national success and not just a regional hit, Roja marked a turning point. Nayakan had to be remade in Hindi, with Bollywood stars, in order to reach the larger pan-Indian audience.  But in 1993, the Hindi-dubbed version of Roja was India's top-grossing movie after Jurassic Park. That's progress of a sort. The 23-year-old Tamil film song composer (or "Music Director") A.R. Rahman broke out in similar fashion. His harmonically rich and catchy tunes for Roja, alternating between buoyant playfulness and an extraordinarily delicate romanticism, swept the country in their re-recorded Hindi versions.
Rahman, a protZgZe of the Tamil film-music giant Ilaiyaraja (who contributed song scores to Nayakan and Thevar Magan and to hundreds of other South Indian films since the early Seventies) has taken the modern Indian film song in new directions, and he's already being imitated. "Like a flower growing on a dung heap," is how one Indian observer characterizes Rahman's status vis a vis the current crop of copycat MDs. In a country and a culture in which music and movies are inextricably linked, Rahman is a crucial contributor to the Tamil renaissance. 
The best-received Mani Rathnam film in Toronto was also the least foreign-looking, the boisterous chase and caper comedy Thiruda, Thiruda (Thief, Thief, 94), which got the crowd on its side quickly with its self-puncturing humor and non-stop, high-speed cleverness. Rathnam has the razor-sharp timing to make gags pay off in purely visual ways, in the sheer precision of his cutaways. He comes up with enough first-rate twists and turns to keep us glued to this silly romp for 140 minutes-which surely indicates that the film isn't "too long" in any meaningful sense.
Thiruda, Thiruda could easily be a hit on the American college-market repertory scene, for any booker or exhibitor not overly anxious about the number of shows they could cram in per day. The story of a pair of buddy thieves and the curvy women who come between them, the film moves beautifully, has a great gimlet-eyed bad guy in Salim Ghouse, and a stirring A.R. Rahman song score that is "picturized" a bit more conventionally than in Rathnam's other films but with irresistible zest. In this case the director seems to be relishing the foolishness of Indian film conventions and to fret over the need to 'redeem" them a bit less; his fond complicity with the foolishness is the key to the movie's triumph. But then, Rathnam controls not just a movie's look but its tone to an extent that is unusual in the Indian commercial films I've seen. 
The technical polish and the attention to detail in Rathnam's lyrical films have reinvigorated the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema, but without blasting them to kingdom come. At the same time, the popularity of the psycho-hunk protagonist of the much more conventional-looking Baazigar, Shah Rukh Khan, suggests a new willingness among Indian moviegoers to slough off the high-contrast melodramatics of the Amitabh era--admittedly only to replace them with different array of more piquant and ambiguous melodramatics. There's a good essay by Rashmi Doraiswamy on Baazigar as the definitive Bollywood film of the post-Amitabh era in the Spring 1994 issue of Cinemaya.
Director Shekhar Kapur describes his controversial action epic Bandit Queen (94), based upon the experiences of a real-life female outlaw turned populist politician, Phoolan Devi (who has since filed suit and even threatened suicide to keep the film off Indian screens), as an attempt to combine the best of both of India's two major cinematic traditions, "using the way we talk to our people to tell a realistic story. The point about this film, and the reason people are saying this is Indian cinema coming of age, is because a director whose background is in Indian commercial cinema is attempting to make a realistic film." Inspired partly by Dennis Potter's powerful use of "playback" in Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, Kapur hopes to attempt an interracial love story, with songs, set in the Hindi film world. His script is about the romance between an ex-hippie Anglo extra and fading Bollywood actress. "It would begin as a film about the making of a musical," he says, "and then become a musical."  In other words, it aims to dissolve the existing boundaries between genres, a form of aesthetic alchemy that is pretty close to the heart of the matter.
At its best, there is an emotional pull to the use of music as a storytelling device in a picture, by, say, Guru Dutt, that is light-years beyond the campy, corny stereotypes that that have impeded the acceptance of mainstream Indian cinema in the West. This is a popular cinema is which dramatic music is an everyday element of the expressive vocabulary. Since the Sixties, when Raj Kapoor's brother Shammi rolled around in the snowbanks of Kashmir hollering "Yahoo!," the musical norm of Hindi cinema has become increasingly extroverted--a trend that has only accelerated in recent years under the influence of disco, rap, and MTV-Asia. From here, the new wave of Indian commercial moviemaking looks like a movement less of radicals of New Traditionalists, shaking things up by forging alliances with the Golden pre-Sixties past.  As the work of reanimating actors and directors like Shekhar Kapur, Mani Rathnam, Kamal Hasan, and A.R. Rahman is demonstrating, there's still a lot of power left in those supposedly dormant idioms.
Thanks to my informants and proof-readers at rec.music.indian.misc and soc.culture tamil: Jacob Levich, Prince Kohli, Ramyesh, Porky, Dr. Siddarth Dasgupta, R. Sowinarayanan, and Balaji Tirumalai Kumara.
1. Which Kamal Hasan himself both wrote and produced, as an avowed re-think of The Godfather. Hasan remarked at the time that the feudal lifestyle of rural Tamil Nadu, with its warring clans and blood feuds, reminded him of Sicily. The role of the terrifying ur-patriarch, whose death precipitates the transformation of Hasan's character, was played by Sivaji Ganesan, a major Tamil star of the 1950s and '60s and the chief professional and political rival of M.G. Ramchandran (MGR), whose career is alluded to below. Thavar Magan was re-made in Hindi in 1997, with Amrish Puri and Anil Kapoor as father and son, under the title Virasaat (Inheritance). 2. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of Hasan's career is that he has no clearly defined star persona. He is a chameleon actor-star who has made hundreds of films and played every conceivable kind of role, from a slapstick mental patient (in Thenali, a Tamil What About Bob?), to a muscle-bound serial killer (in last year's Abhay) The shape-shifting performances in Nayakan and are only the tip of the iceberg.
3. The great visual emblem of this metamorphosis is the carnivorous blood-red interior of the character's mouth after he adopts his father's trademark habit of chewing paan. The Hindi re-make, Virasaat, has some fine qualities (especially in the portrayal of the son's relationship with the local girl played by Tabu, whom he eventually marries), but it completely misses the element of terror in the character's transformation--perhaps because the Bollywood star Anil Kapoor was not willing to fully embrace the "negative" aspects of the role in its second stage, including the "low class" habit of paan chewing.
4. The influential programmer David Overbey, whose enthusiasm also jump-started the Hong Kong cinema craze in the mid-1980s, passed away in 2000. Noah Cowen, his co-programmer on the "India NOW!" series, took over the vacant staff position in Toronto. Cowen is also a founding partner in the distribution company Cowboy Booking.
5. By 2002 the total had risen to over 1,000 a year.
6. The direct route by which British theatrical conventions of melodrama entered Indian cinema is said to be the Edwardian-era Parsee theater of Bombay. Phalke himself, and many of the other personnel of early Hindi cinema, were veterans of the Parsee companies, and many early screenplays were adapted from their mythological repertoire. The roots of Indian cinema in traditional theater forms have been explored in much greater detail in later critical works, notably M. Madhava Prasad's Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction (Oxford India, 99).
7. This passage now seems overstated. It's true that even in nominally earthbound Hindi movies like Mard or Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, in which spiritually inspired animals play turning-point roles, divine intervention seems to be taken for granted as an acceptable means of untangling a snarled plot. But the device is usually deployed light-heartedly, with a glint of irony--more like knowing references to the superstitions of the past than naïve endorsements. Whether Indian audiences took them seriously is another question.
8. Recent commentators like Prasad have observed that the characters and conflicts of the ancient epics often shaped the plots of the purely secular socials; brother pairs modeled on Rama and Laxman, sympathetic outcasts who were the descendents of Karna. Mani Rathnam's Thelapathi (Lieutenant, ’87) re-tells the story of Karna as a tragic gangster drama.
9. Again I think this perceived gravity was mostly in the eye of the naive beholder. Khuda Gawah was dedicated to the memory of the late Manmohan Desai, whose definitive mid-Seventies masala films-Mard and Coolie and especially the wonderful Amar Akbar Anthony-were clearly made with at least half a wink.
10. This was partly the result of a technical quirk: from the mid-Sixties onward all Hindi movies were post-dubbed, adding an echo-chamber effect to every dialog exchange. Only in a few recent films, like Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai (the former produced and the latter strongly influenced by their star, Aamir Khan), has there been a conscious drive to return to the practice of synch-sound recording that had been prevalent in the Golden Age.
11. This phenomenon is explored in depth in two books, M.S.S. Pandian's The Image Trap: M.G. Ramchandran in Film and Politics, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992, and in Sara Dickey's Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, Cambridge, 1993. The role of centrally organized fan clubs in mobilizing a star's followers politically is discussed in Srivnas, S.V., "Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity," in Vasudevan, Ravi S., ed., Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, Oxford India, 2000.
12. Until recently, that is. Bachchan has been cast as Lord Indra, one of the primal Hindu gods, in Arjun Sajnani's's neo-mythological Agni-Varsha, due in 2003. In the wake of Lagaan and Asoka, several Indian producers are launching films on historical and mythological subjects, which have been MIA on the Hindi screen for over a decade. It remains to be seen if these bandwagon offerings will click with the Indian audience, which is more affluent and Westernized now than ever before, but has also chosen a Hindu nationalist party leader as its president.
13. The 1992 "uprising" became the subject of a controversial Mani Rathman film, Bombay, in 1995, which listed Amitabh Bachchan as one of its producers. Subsequently, Bollywood film idol Sanjay Dutt (whose mother was the Muslim actress Nargis, the iconic star of Mother India) was questioned by authorities about his supposed role in helping the Muslim gangster Dawood Ibrahim engineer the Bombay bombings.
14. This trend seemed to taper off in the late '90s, only to return with a vengeance (as it were) in 2001, when the top earner at the Indian box office was the smoothly crafted Sunny Deol Pak-basher Gadar-Ek Prem Khata (Rebellion-A Love Story), a jingoistic action romp through the bloody Partition period.
15. This is one of the few phrases I've revised in the process of transcription. The original was "he sings in character"-a truly bone-headed observation, since even in the most extravagant fantasy numbers in these music dramas, the songs and dances are extensions of the actors' performances by other means.
16. After completing his so-called "terror trilogy" with Dil Se in 1999, Rathnam has returned to small-scale romantic/domestic dramas that strongly resemble Mouna Ragam: Alaipayuthey in 2001 and Kannathil Muthamittal in 2002.
17. This strategy was also very shrewdly employed by writer-director Asutosh Gowariker in Lagaan.
18. A similar device was powerfully employed by director Sanjay Leela Bhanslai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (I Have Given My Heart) in 1999. Still, songs have continued to be a source of discomfort for some westward-looking Indian moviemakers. Hindi filmmakers with a yen to "cross-over" always seem to think that chucking the songs is the essential first step to "mainstream" acceptance. In 2002, Ram Gopal Varma's gangster film Company, based upon the real-life bhai/bhai conflict between Bombay bombers Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan (see above), established its gritty seriousness by remaining almost songless.
19. The first film of the so-called "terror trilogy," preceding Bombay and Dil Se.
20. The fact that Rathnam views the personal aspects of these stories as primary and more significant than the political ones seems to have escaped the notice of the many left-academic commentators who have weighed in on the series. Roja became the subject of intense debate in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly, inspiring earnest "Cultural Studies" essays as to whether Rathnam had adopted the correct position on the Kashmir crisis. One critic who got it right was Jacob Levich, who suggested in Film Comment that the upshot of Dil Se (a neo-Wagnerian terrorist-love-death saga) is that "India's increasingly belligerent nationalism is rooted in a death-driven, erotically charged fixation on a feminized, Islamic Other."
21. Feroz Khan directed the Hindi re-make, Dayaran (88), with Vinod Khanna as Velu.
22. Rahman has been criticized for using Western (ie. "non Indian") tools in his music-making, including synthesizers. This is no joke in an era in which Hindu nationalists have been known to stage communal bonfires to express their disapproval of corrupt foreign imports like Valentine's Day cards. (One wag suggested that if the synthesizer is iscarded, so should the violin, which has been a filmi sangeet staple since the 1930s.) Rahman has gone from strength to strength since making his Hindi-cinema debut in 1995 with the music for Ram Gopal Varma's Rangeela. His music for Lagaan was a chart-topper in 2001. And then of course there'sBombay Dreams...
23. Thanks in large part to the influence of filmmakers like Rathnam and Varma, which was carried forward in the late-Nineties by such young-Turk Hindi directors as Sooraj Barjatya (Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and Aditya Chopra (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), the tendency to pay close attention to the overall look and tone of a film has by now become the Bollywood norm. A particularly interesting example (although it was not a success financially) was Rakesh Mehra's Aks (Mirror Image, 01), a grim Amitabh Bachchan psycho thriller that adopted an effective color equivalent of the black & white chiaroscuro of classic film noir.
24. There is also a somewhat more elaborate essay on the subject in the book Making Meaning in Indian Cinema (Oxford India, 00), Ranjani Mazumdar's "From Subjectification to Schizophrenia: The 'Angry Man' and the 'Psychotic' Hero of Bombay Cinema."