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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

When The Other Moves Into Limelight | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 11 March 2023, by Radhakanta Barik



Dark Fear, Eerie Cities: New Hindi Cinema in Neoliberal India
by Šarūnas Paunksnis

Oxford University Press
ISBN ‏ : ‎ 0199493189
193 pages, Kindle Edition

GLOBALIZATION TRANSFORMED INDIA into modern economy in the mid-nineties. The positive impact on the economy, however, disrupted India’s traditional social structures. Withdrawal of the state from economic activities pushed society in India to modernise but created tenuous relationships in different segments of the social structure. It impinged on the culture. And film-making plays an important role in the cultural world.

Neo-liberalism has an impact on filmmaking activities and Šarūnas Paunksnis’ book takes an academic look at film-making and how neoliberalism has changed storytelling in the cinematic world. In the era of neoliberalism, the content of a story gets transformed and the theme gets globalised. When all restrictions over the movement of capital get removed, NRIs start coming to India to do business. This is reflected in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2005 film, Page 3. The NRI is interested to do business in a new environment. He needs a party to make this happen. He, therefore, organises his party where the invitees are from the top brass of the elite. Civil servants, politicians and industrialists all congregate in the party. He takes care of the media to cover the event by printing photos of it in the gossip section of a newspaper, on page number 3.

In the new liberal world, the middle class turns into an empty shell without any political outlook. It acquires wealth without acquiring the world view. It turns to religion, which make it fundamentalist in nature. It has no link with the pluralistic structure of Hinduism. And thus, the middle class turns into the backbone of Hindutva politics. Post-globalisation, in the cultural world, a new type of commodification has happened. In the post-modernist world, the plot of the story does not have time and space. Batra’s Lunch Box is placed in the metropolis of Mumbai, where people do not know each other, nor have they met each other. But through letters going through the lunch box, they establish an emotional bond. The redefinition of the emotional space gets constructed through the storytelling of the Lunch Box.

Neoliberalism created conflict between the haves and have-nots in a brutalised manner. This unhappy consciousness gets captured in the film, Shangai by Dibakar Banerjee. Anxieties of the cinematic world gets articulated in some films which may not appropriately exhibit the reflection of brutalised reality. Articulation of films by angry man Bachhan in late seventies explains the reality under the emergency regime in a cinematic world.

Films try to articulate the anxieties of the middle class. They have a high income and want to live in a secluded, gated colony, guarded by security guards. Their anxieties further increase by the presence of security guards. Thus, fear of the Other enters film making. The space for self and the Other has been brought out clearly in the scenes of NH10, where Meera and Arjun are going home to urban Gurugaon. . On the way, they want to make some enquiries abouts the place. Arjun goes to talk to some youth sitting in a tea stall while Meera sits on the motorcycle. She looks through the rear mirror and finds a young villager looking at her. She feels scared of the villager. Here the Other is the villagers who have o lost their lands to the newly-built city in Gurugaon and are angry at the urban elite. The Other here can be the subaltern, which can be the slum dwellers to villagers to minorities — anyone.

Bollywood’s young filmmakers, making the dark side of city life as their protagonists, look at the disruptive Otherness in their films. Anurag Kashyap’s 2010 work like That Girl in Yellow Boots, Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015) located the Otherness in their stories in larger-than-life manner. Sometimes the space is real and sometimes it is imaginary. Fear and anxieties of urban middle class get articulated in new structures in urban landscapes such as shopping malls, multiplexes and sports utilities and vehicles, explaining the inequalities between the affluent and the masses. City planning gets transformed to satisfy the needs of the anxious middle class. Neurotic realism prevails in middle-class films, and their images in films today cannot be ignored.

Darkness of the city gets articulated in the films of Bollywood. The ghost towns enter into the stories of modern young film makers. Ram Gopal Varma tells of the darkness of the cities in India through his films like Raat (1992), Bhoot (2003), Phoonk (2008), Bhoot Returns (2012). Raat was released just after liberalisation was announced. The interconnectedness of the film and liberalisation is yet to be established. In Bhoot, the real exposition happened. The daughter of an industrialist stays in a haunted house, with her lover, but after some years she vanishes. They search for her by going to a tantric, to find her whereabouts. There is a lot of irrationality in this kind of cinematic imagination. Neoliberalism looks for a new moral order and a new universe and such films feed these. Raat functions within a matrix of binary of opposition and light, science and occult, modernity and tradition. The attempt is to reconcile western globalisation with indigenous knowledge. In making money, everything works and nothing is sacrosanct. This brings uncannyness of the cities.

Before globalisation, there were films related to crime, like Zanjeer, but this was always associated with social justice. Now crimes happen in the context of social inequality, increased in a neoliberal India, when films use ghost stories to expose the darkness of the cities. It is usually a ghost story where memories of the past haunts. Here the stories of neuroticism speak more about future and not about the past. Past is a commodity. The present speaks of the future. Consumerism, spatial transformations, and unconscious capitalist reeducation of the masses bring new aesthetics to cinema and its viewers. Dark cinematic visions dominate new Hindi films. Darkness and dirt enter into the cinematic imagination which never happened before. This book discusses this shift in film-making.

In this new cinema, dirty realism gets impressed in the history of aesthetics to show the unhappy events of city life. Alcoholism, crime and prostitution, and the underworld — all get exhibited in the film. It is no more hero and heroine and their love stories. The details of cinematic imagination have gone beyond old-time aesthetics — that only the beautiful had to be shown in the films. This is not so today. Dirty realism has come in a big way in the film of Anurag Kashyap. His film Panch, or five has not yet been released. The censor board has said the film has no message. The Dirtiness and darkness of modern urban life are parts of urban reality. This is part of the oppressive details of modern consumerism. All over the world, dirty realism is center-stage in films from Cuba to the USA and Europe to India.

The film, That Girl in Yellow Boots, presents a much more nuanced case of dirty realism. There is no violence in the film but the story gets unfolded by showing dirty realism. It is the story of Ruth, who comes to look for her father. Her father has sexually abused her half-sister who gets pregnant and is killed. Ruth has to learn the truth in a painful way. In the film, the city has been depicted in a big way. Ruth establishes links with many strangers. She establishes friendships with an elderly person, acted by Nasseruddin Shah who is her client. She has a troubled relationship with a drug-addict boyfriend. She does not have any income and she begins working as a masseur, which earns her Rs 1000 a day. At the beginning of the film, she is massaging a client. Later in the film, she is seen massaging her own father. The film has deeper insights into the realities of city life.

Neoliberalism was supposed to create an opening for women to rise in hierarchy of administration and in private organisations. Liberalism requires gender equality which did not happen. But there is a crisis in the patriarchal authority of a family, depicted in some of these new films. There are anxieties among men regarding their masculine power. Earlier, films reflected patriarchy. Now, there are some new films where patriarchy is an absolute institution. Films by Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar are good examples.

Once upon a time, the story used to revolve around the hero standing for purity, and vamp for the villainous woman. This has vanished from films. A hero now is a mixture of both. Masculine anxieties need to be clearer in the films by Kashyap and Raman Raghav. Ram Gopal Varma’s Kaun, where the script got written by Kashyap is one such film. In the story, the woman remains at home, feels insecure and is threatened by men outside. Two people entre the home. She feels so agitated and threatened by the presence of these two male characters that she kills them. This is a protest against masculinity in a subtle manner. Anurag Kashyap’s anxious men articulate self-destruction and violence, where the un-representability of the world slowly gets transformed into representation of male characters, showing masculine anxieties.

Šarūnas Paunksnis is Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Kaunas University of Technology in Kaunas, Lithuania. Paunksnis teaches Philosophy at Kaunas University and his main research areas include but are not limited to Indian cinema, media philosophy, postcolonial theory, globalisation and cultural theory. He has recently edited a book titled, Dislocating Globality: Deterritorialisation, Difference, and Resistance (Brill, 2016). In the book, Dark Fear, Eerie Cities, Paunksnispresents an interdisciplinary study of a genre of cinema (Hindi cinema) in which crime thrillers and horror films are aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions of our times. He asks what haunts the city? Why is there so much pessimism in our urban lives? And how does this physical and psychological insecurity of relentless competition and a desire to succeed against all odds proliferate into Hindi cinema? To do this, he reviews a wide array of films made in the early 21st century to offer a philosophical and psychoanalytical critique of the changing cinematic imagery in India. Thus, he adds a significant tome to the study of cinema in India.

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