Cinema all over the world has influenced viewers to a considerable degree, but the myriad ways in which our cinema — regional and Hindi — has had an impact through generations is unique. It has influenced popular consciousness in more ways than one — in the profound and the banal, in art and business, in the subtle shaping of thought to the outward expression of behaviour.
Given that a century is being marked of Indian cinema, there’s been plenty of thought and reflection that has poured forth — from the time of the first feature film to the recent Rs.100-crore club phenomenon.
In my view, the journey of Indian cinema has not been an easy one. It had to contend with many a challenge along the way. In the initial decades, there was a certain uniformity of approach. Cinema catered to largely the middle class, its sentiments and its morality.
There was also a wealth of literature that it drew from. The incredible raw material in the form of culturally relevant vernacular writing — like the works of Premchand and the luminaries from Bengal — was also a potent source of inspiration.
In the years to come, those who wrote exclusively for the screen would find it difficult to match up to the greatness that had been witnessed in literature. Also in the initial phase, the moving picture was a novelty and in the garb of this novelty a limited middle-class audience was receptive to quality literary work and did not hanker for dumbed-down entertainment.
As time leapfrogged, newer segments became the target audience, ones that had not been necessarily brought up on a diet of literature, poetry, music and fine art. Cinema had to face the challenge of widening the base and keeping its artistic sensibilities thriving.
On the one hand it had to be a medium of the masses, and on the other, it had to be the channel that kept art alive. Cinema has struggled to strike a balance between these criteria.
Many lament the decline in the overall quality citing examples of sensational storylines and the increased crassness in today’s lyrics and song. I agree that the baser approach, its triteness, its lack of thought and deficient craft are extremely disturbing.
But it would be naïve to think that this is a new phenomenon. This nature of narrative and song has always existed in a part of our society, but didn’t find a way into the mainstream consciousness and sensibility. Since cinema catered largely to the middle class and its morals, baser themes remained on the fringes.
Contrary to the premise that a larger section of our social strata is now forming part of the cinema-watching audience, it’s interesting to note that the representation of a non-urban audience is dimming.
The portrayal of the aam aadmi in cinema is fading, the rural representation and the voice from the villages in mainstream films is less audible. Seen from a wider perspective, this lacuna has given a new lease of life to the regional film industry.
With this widening of an audience base and the arguable erosion in the depth of content, there is, however, a silver lining. But this perspective would need to be tempered with my theory that posits the ‘cultural eye’ against the ‘organism eye’. When initially faced with an object or instance, one first uses one’s cultural eye for consumption. We are unable to see and react to the object as it really is.
We are forced to use an earlier frame of reference and only after that does our knowledge and conditioning kick in to help us make a decision. For instance, if one were to see a woman with traces of a red substance on her forehead, an Indian would think of it as a smudged bindi, but to a western mind it could first connote a bleeding wound.
The ‘organism eye’ does not have any cultural underpinning. It reacts from a much more simplistic and basic source. In a cinematic context, when it comes to appealing to the lowest common denominator, the ‘organism eye’ has huge currency. Spielberg has managed to appeal to the organism’s eye through his movies. Jurassic Park, ET, Jaws — these films did not necessarily require a cultural context to cross borders.
Currently what we see as a key component of Indian cinema, the Bollywood song and dance gamut is a distinctive flavour, not an offering in its entirety. If Indian cinema needs to, for market realities, cater to the lowest common denominator, it can do so in far more interesting and innovative ways. For example, India has the penchant for the fantastical — the adbhut — which is abundantly available in our literary wealth.
With the growing technical expertise, it could be interesting to explore cinema through one’s organism eye and create a unique cinematic spectacle in its own right. Perhaps even a culturally embedded subject and mythological deity like Hanuman could be viewed from both the cultural eye’s standpoint and also carry appeal as a universal hero from the organism eye’s perspective.
It is challenging to celebrate cinema as a medium of expression and simultaneously give it leverage for reasons of commerce. The aim, in the end, should be the creation of indelible impressions that transcend and influence the collective consciousness of a society. I look forward to the next 100 years of our cinema with possibilities of a richer kind.
Prasoon Joshi is a writer, poet and advertising professional
The views expressed by the author are personal