Writer: Ritika Popli
“मैं हमेशा कहती थी न मैंभाग जाउंगीयहााँसे,मुझेशहर मेंनह ंरहना। सब कहतेहैंन, पर भागता कौन है?”
– वीरा, हाईवे(2014)
“I would always say that I would run away, that I didn’t want to stay in the city. Everybody says it but then who actually runs away?”
– Veera, Highway (2014)
Sociologist Ashish Nandy had once suggested that Hindi cinema “asks the questions but rarely produces the right answers”, which in recent years has been challenged. Films like Dedh Ishqiya, Highway, Queen and Tanu Weds Manu Returns are not only raising pertinent questions but are also making attempts at answering them. In the past decade, the discourse of film narrative has reshaped the relation of woman, nation and the private/public, at a critical historical time when the nation itself has become a site of new contestations. During the politically turbulent 70’s, with the backdrop of the Emergency and the rise of the Hindu right, certain films like Guddi, Ankur, Ashadh ka Ek Din were being made that were categorized as ‘Middle Cinema’, readily labelled as ‘escapist’ with no concrete ideological resolution. Filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee defined this period. The state was ‘burdened’ with sponsoring reflexive, positive cinema but in turn witnessed the rise of small-budget films with a realistic register dealing with the highly heterogeneous ‘Indian middle class’. This led to an overlap of the expression of the stifled voices of filmmakers with the voice of ‘Social Conscience’ and ‘Nation Building’, a cinematic crisis of the time.
Recent films like Queen, Highway and Tanu Weds Manu occupy this space between mainstream and art cinema, reaching
audiences without the hyperbolical melodrama typical of Bollywood films in which characters are foregrounded, even distanced from their milieu. These films instead present characters as a site where the opposing pulls of an irreconcilable crisis can operate. The distance from codified melodrama subverts the established logic of Hindi Cinema making critical (and radical) interventions in the complex environment of the middle class, located at the upper end of the economic spectrum with non-feudal wealth, English-speaking, redefining what is culturally legitimate and constantly contesting traditional middle class values.
The intriguing question that arises is what is making these films tick? Possibly, the rapidly transforming media landscape coupled with the rise of the ‘multiplex phenomenon’ and led to the paradoxical reshuffling of the audiences into a mix of genres – art, mainstream, regional and Hollywood. This, with the widespread belief in the financial viability of new-age, offbeat cinema, managed to subtly encourage filmmakers and distributors to produce such cinema. While continuing to operate in patriarchal structures, women in these films definitely have greater agency; constantly questioning and challenging the standard tropes of ‘family, tradition, duty, societal image, responsibility’, making way for ‘desirability and modernity’. There has been an epistemological shift in the representation of women, yet still carrying vestiges of patriarchal representation irrespective of the conflicts that are set to be resolved in terms of imagery and narrative. The biggest problem that continues is the conceptual leap that filmmakers are still not making. There remains the conflict of ‘moral crisis’ between the figures of the ‘Whore (Tanu)’ vis-a-vis the ‘Good Girl (Datto)‘ which can be resolved only if the ‘whore’ decides to discontinue her previous lifestyle, letting the ‘hero’ choose her after having accounted for all her excesses. The fundamental problem of lack of agency for the woman is still not being problematized and addressed.
Nonetheless, this is a rebirth of ‘Middle Cinema’ because it has reinvented the language of realism into a reflective portrayal of the audiences. The filmmakers today don’t want to be associated with any movement; they instead want to develop a critical cinematic language and aesthetic of their own, as these films are crucial sociological and anthropological recordings of the historicity of the prevalent cultural moment.
Ritika has recently completed her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gender and Films has been one of her key research areas in the past two years.
- Dedh Ishqiya (2014, Abhishek Chaubey)
- Highway (2014, Imtiaz Ali)
- Queen (2014, Vikas Bahl)
- Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015, Anand L Rai)
- Pinney, Christopher (2002): “Introduction: Public, Popular and Other Cultures” in Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney’s ‘Pleasure and the Nation: The History, Politics and Consumption of Public Culture in India’, Oxford India Paperbacks, New Delhi
- Ghosh, SV (April 25 – May 1, 2009): “Girl Abroad: The Private and the Public in Jab We Met…”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 17, pp. 58-64
- Sharma, Aparna (2003): “India’s Experience with the Multiplex’, Seminar 525: Unsettling cinema, pp 42-46
- Prasad, Madhava (1998): “The Middle Class Cinema” in The Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, Oxford University Press, pp 160-187
- Vasudevan, Ravi (Nov. 4, 1995): “Film Studies, New Cultural History and Experience of Modernity”,Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 44, pp. – 95- 101, 103
- Mazumdar, Ranjani (2010): “Friction, Collision and the Grotesque: The Dystopic Fragments of Bombay Cinema” in Gyan Prakash ed. Noir Urbanism, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 150- 184