Friday, November 26, 2010

book review

Bhojpuri Cinema – Celebration of the Local

C S Venkiteswaran

… at a time when regional political parties continue to assert their identity, the rise of Bhojpuri films is only part of the remodeling of Indian cinema. The availability of cheap technology has allowed dozens of ‘little cinemas’ to flourish in dialects such as Chattisgarhi, Kumaoni, Gharhwali and Khariboli. Even Ladakhis have begun making films in their local dialect. Avijit Ghosh, Bhojpuri Cinema (p 94)

Within a few years of its inauguration at Grand Café, Paris, cinema had cast its magical spell over people in all continents luring a number of showmen and entrepreneurs who made it the most massive mass art ever in the history of humankind. Though cinema has such an international history, enthralling people and drawing them into its global network and idioms, it also has ‘national’ and ‘local’ histories with its own specific characteristics. The latter exhibit a great variety as they followed trajectories of their own depending on local narrative traditions, existing conditions of performing arts and appreciation, openness to new forms, and of course, the socio-economic environment that enveloped all these.

One can see that the new magic of cinema illuminated several hitherto unrealized/unrealizable desires of ‘seeing’ as well as ‘making visible’. In this process of seeing and making visible, the medium – as an industry with a mass base/market – had to necessarily contend with existing or constantly evolving global formats on the one hand, and on the other, the narrative and scopophilic desires of the local. Moreover, it was not just a question of making oneself visible to the world outside; it was also an attempt to make oneself visible to oneself – something that unleashed many a hitherto repressed facets of social and psychological lives in the public domain. Ironically, they were largely played out and imagined within the idiomatics of the national/global, as an assertion of the marginal/regional vis a vis the centre/national/global. And to imagine into being its ‘pure’ untrammeled self, it more often resorted to imitations and ‘remakes’, and brings into play interesting discourses about ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. When films flop, the blame is put on the avaricious producers from ‘outside’. When they succeed it is due to the verve and vigour of the land and its indigenous culture. But like any cinema of the local, even while it celebrates one’s own ‘culture’, its thematic concerns are with its discontents – casteism, class exploitation, dowry system, illiteracy etc.

The film histories of cinemas in India have a tumultuous history of competition between the ‘vernaculars’ and the national marked by the constant rediscovery and assertion of local identities. Avijit Ghosh’s Cinema Bhojpuri is a very interesting account of the same in the Bhojpuri context. The book narrates the history of Bhojpuri cinema, which virtually turns out to be an account of its encounters with the national-popular – the Hindi cinema that threatens to subsume all sub-nationalities that constitute its market-hinterland and also catchment area of themes and locales. The rise of Bhojpuri cinema in that sense is also a moment of pride and a new sense of selfhood, against the all-consuming tide of the national. Avijit Ghosh quotes a newspaper article written in 1965 about the perception of ‘outsiders’ about Bhojpuri people: ‘A few years ago the rest of the country considered Bhojpuri as the language of the rustic people of east Indian villages. In Bombay, it was known as the language of the ‘bhaiyas’. In Calcutta and other cities, it was known as the language of labourers of north India and Bihar.’

The book tracks Bhojpuri cinema from its beginnings in 1962, when Nazir Hussain, at the behest of Dr Rajendra Prasad, made Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyar Chadhaibo(O Mother Ganga, I’ll offer you the Yellow Cloth). Obviously the offering was indeed a very auspicious one, for since then, there was no looking back for Bhojpuri cinema. This is something really astounding if one takes into consideration other ‘vernacular’ cinemas that constitute Hindi cinema’s market, which have grown more and more marginal and almost non-existent.

Avijit Ghosh follows an episodic style and summarizes major trends in the history of Bhojpuri cinema, which he divides into three major periods. The first period (1962-68) begins with Ganga Maiya..; and the next extends from 1969 to the beginning of 21st century, and is a volatile one of crests and troughs. But the last one starting from 2001 marks the advent of ‘a new, confident Bhojpuri cinema’ with a big boom in production (with around 275 films between 2004 and 2008), and ‘the fledgling cottage industry of the 1960s’ turning into ‘a bustling regional film industry’. In the chapters that follow, the author provides brief sketches of the major personalities – actors, musicians, producers, exhibitors and critics - who made all this possible.

Obviously, the major thread is the relationship with the other – Hindi cinema – which is one of love and hate, and absorption and imitation. Storylines, themes, music, songs, dance and action – all resonate with the ‘other’. For instance, Mother India turns into Dharti Maiya, Sholay into Gabbar Singh, Judaai into Saiyan Se Solah Singaar, Hum Paanch into Pandav, and eventually Bhojpuri cinema having its own stars similar to the trio of Khans. Evidently, we find here the local celebrating the same old clichés that the qasbah and small town audience enjoys everywhere: ‘the rich-poor conflict, urban-rural differences, tradition-modernity contradictions, a good-as-gold brother-bhabhi relationship, lustful villains, stupid comedians and a class-conscious father-in-law’ (p 60). As character actor Brijesh Tripathy observes ‘the scenario has changed completely from the days when we started out. Now we have film parties, premieres and awards. We get interviewed like Bollywood actors do.’

Yet, despite this overwhelming ‘sameness’, Bhojpuria is asserted over and over again, most loudly through its rural locales and rustic themes. (The promo for a Bhojpuri film Hamar Sansar announces: ‘A ground-breaking Bhojpuri film where you’ll see India’s soul – the village environment, the fields, a glimpse of the real life of a farmer’). But the most important of all is music: the 1990s witnessed a virtual revolution in terms of the rediscovery of local folk tunes and lyrics, singers and musicians.

This expansion of local cinema is not without resistance from the ‘other’. The book provides glimpses of brewing tension that is triggered by the success of the regional. Elsewhere, Bhojpuri films have been the target of some sectarian groups like Maharashtra Navanirman Sena and Babbar Khalsa in Maharashtra and Punjab. In urban centres like Nashik, Mumbai, Thane or Ludhiana, cinema halls become virtual congregations of minorities as they are thronged by labourers from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is an instance where ‘local’ cinema becomes a vulnerable ‘locality’ that can be easily targeted.

What is most interesting from a film-theoretical point of view, is Ghosh’s attempt to explain the phenomenal rise of Bhojpuri cinema in the last decade. According to him, “One should rather view it as a process with various interweaving strands which at certain points are complimentary and, on other occasions, contrast with each other. At one level, the resurgence of Bhojpuri films could be construed as a reaction to the way Bollywood refashioned in cinematic language and landscape after the arrival of satellite television in 1991. With the growth of the dollar-rich NRI market and multiplexes becoming urban India’s new temples of entertainment, young gel-and-cologne film-makers with Hollywood sensibilities found a formula to bypass ‘India Unhappening’. Soon, Hindi commercial cinema’s alienation from vast snatches of middle India was complete…It was this fissure in aesthetics that the region-specific Bhojpuri cinema adroitly filled.’

Avijit Ghosh also hints at the predicament of the regional identity of Bhojuri cinema now. Growing confidence resulting from geographical widening of locations and expanding storylines, it has stepped out of its comfort zones and experiments with the larger world, which is increasingly blurring the distinct identity of the regional film. A paradox that leads to questions like the one raised by Arti Bhattacharya, first woman director of Bhojpuri cinema: ‘When we watch a Hindi film, it feels like a Hollywood film. When we go for a Bhojpuri film, it is like watching a Hindi film. Where’s our film?’

One major gap in Indian film studies is the lack of writings in English about the history of regional cinemas. Such lack has often led to the preponderance of Hindi films in film studies about Indian films. Ghosh’s book – about one of the youngest cinemas in India - is a significant contribution in this direction – and one that reminds us of the absence of similar attempts about other cinemas in India.


Venu Nagavally was not the conventional hero Malayalam cinema was used to till then. He was neither ‘handsome’ like the lyrical-romantic Prem Nazir, nor had Sathyan’S idealist, big-brotherly masculinity. Venu Nagavally belonged to an in-between period in Malayalam cinema, one that came after the era of Sathyan-Nazir duo and before that of Mammooty-Mohanlal. His characters were also never black or white, but endless varieties of grey in between. His screen persona was that of a melancholic hero, that also stood out from the rest of the popular male heroes of his time like Sukumaran, Jayan, Soman etc who exuded a machismo that was totally alien to him.

Another aspect of his personality was versatility and success in many fields: he came to films as a singer (and continued to sing occasionally), and then turned to acting, directing and script writing. Later, he also led the production wing of a television channel.

Though he entered films as a singer in Chottanikkara Amma, it was the late 70’s that Venu Nagavally essayed his major roles, especially in ‘youth/campus films’. It was also a period when Malayalam cinema was at its peak – both economically and thematically. Politically, it was a turbulent and disillusioned period, one that followed the national emergency. In these early films, the narratives of which almost invariably ended tragically, he played the role of the brooding, romantic hero, one who was vulnerable and lovable (Ulkkadal, Shalini Ente Koottukari -1978, Yavanika, Chillu, 1982, Lekhayude maranam oru flashback 1983). His was a persona that reflected the existential and political angst of the post-70’s Kerala youth, who were finding themselves in between many things. The feudal certainties and the idealistic anchorings of the earlier era were already behind them, yet they had not been able to find a new sensuality and expression of their own. Obviously, he was never a ‘hero’ in the conventional sense of the term – one who was extrovertly courageous, handsome and athletic. He was the opposite of all this. He was a desperate lover who had only himself to offer to the world. He was not the one to fight and agress, but to suffer, not one to rave and rant, but one who is brooding and silent, not the lover who fought his way to win his love, but one who would rather suffer his way to the end and never forget. A fatal streak always ran through the love-relationships his characters got or found themselves in. Sometimes the presence of an intimidating father inhibited their being, or they were too self-engrossed and drank themsleves into a stupor. But they were always ready to sacrifice their lives for others. Such total self-denial seems to have had its resonance in his personal life too..

His acting career ran parallel to that of ace directors of the 80’s, especially K G George and Mohan in whose films he played major roles. Their retreat from the scene was also the demise of the kind of ’middle’ cinema that found in Venu its alter ego. Other significant roles in his acting career include those in Vartha (1986), Oru Katha Oru Nunnakkatha (1986) Sunil Vayassu 20 (1986), Adhyayam Onnu Muthal (1985), Ente Ammu Ninte Thulasi Avarude Chakki (1985) ,Meenamasathile Sooryan (1985), Uyarukm Njan Nadaake (1985), Arante Mulla Kochu Mulla (1984), Adaminte Variyellu (1983) and April 18 (1983)

It was only natural that his acting career reached its apogee with the lead role of the eponymous hero of Devdas (1989), which was a sort of rounding off of a period in his career. From there, he moved on towards playing ‘senior’ roles and to direction and scripting. The superhit Priyadarshan movie Kilukkam stands testimony to Venu’s success as a script-writer and prove that beneath the veneer of melancholy ran a strong current of humour.

Venu's first directorial venture was Sukhamo Devi (1986) which was based on his own experience. He went on to direct successful yet sensitive movies like Sarvakalasala, Ayitham(1987), Swagatham (1989), Lal Salam, Aye Auto (1990), Kalipattam, Aayirappara (1993), Agnidevan (1995), Rakthasakshikal Zindabad (1998)and finally Bharya Swantham Suhruthu (2009). All his films were about love and friendship, its confrontation with different kinds of barriers, and the aftermath. In many a film, one can find strong male bondings; right from his first film it continues on to his ‘communist’ films.

His oeuvre also had a strain of his left leanings – apart from acting in films like Meenamasathile Sooryan about the Kayyur revolt, and heading the production wing of a pro-left television channel, two of the films he directed - Lal Salam (1990) and Raksthasakhikal Zindabad (1998) – were an introspective look at the rise and fall of communist ideals. It is the story of a movement gradually becoming a party and getting embroiled in power politics. Venu examines these issues by dealing with the cracks that political movements, its hopes and later degeneration, create in human relationships.

One significant aspect of Venu Nagavally’s screen persona is that, despite the fact that he acted only in a handful of films during the span of two decades, his image tends to stay in our minds unlike many of the other male heroes of his time. In a way, he is more of a haunting presence, rather than an actor per se. Obviously, there was something about his persona that was essentially ‘educated, middle class, malayalee’ that struck a deep chord within us. It combines within itself a curious mix of enchantment as well as resignation, yearning as well as withdrawal, all adding a peculiar charm or charge to his melancholy.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Watching Movies, Reading Subtitles

Watching Movies, Reading Subtitles

“Every film is a foreign film, foreign to some audience somewhere..”

-Atom Egoyan

Watching a ‘foreign’ movie had always involved great deal of ‘reading’ along with seeing. Words have accompanied images from the very beginnings of cinema. Once the initial fascination for the sheer magic of moving images had had its run, words gradually began to creep into the frames in the form of inter titles to introduce, explain, make sense and sometimes as continuity props from one image/scene to another.

If silent cinema was truly global in nature, it was the coming of sound that made it ‘regional’. In the beginning, there was only ‘cinema’ pure and simple, but with sound, suddenly there were several cinemas like the ‘English’, ‘Korean’, ‘Japanese’ or ‘Hindi’. The speech and orchestra that till then ‘accompanied’ cinema from outside the screen, entered the frame. Even before sound, the text and sound were added to the images on the screen through the inter titles that explained or sutured the images onscreen, and in most places, there were the professional narrators who mouthed the dialogues and explained the situations, with the orchestra adding music to it. But reading inter titles of silent films is a different experience altogether, and has to be seen as distinct from subtitles.

In films like that of Charlie Chaplin or Bustor Keaton, DW Griffith or Edwin Porter, the inter titles worked as transition tools from one scene to another (many inter titles started with: ‘Meanwhile….’) apart from giving crisp indications about the narrative context. Interestingly, most of the dialogues onscreen were left out by the inter titles as they were self explanatory – both due to their contextual obviousness and the gesticulations that accompany action. Obviously, these films were conceived as silent films and hence its mis en scene and action/acting followed a pattern that was intended for universal and instant communication across the globe.

But Inter titles were not always mere ‘explanatory notes’ but often worked up a different kind of dynamism vis a vis the image as in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. There, inter titles in fact punctuate the tempo of the film and thus becoming part of the montage. And titles like the cry of ‘Brothers’, and call of ‘One for All!’ ‘All for One’ etc worked almost like placards or revolutionary slogans. They sound more like clarion calls of revolutionary upsurge, urging people to action not only within the ‘film’ (the movie), but also in the ‘theatre’ (where it is screened). In some other occasions, more than the dialogue of an individual in the narrative, it functions like a chorus as if giving voice to the multitude within the frame.

Cinema always was and is a medium of the masses, and in the silent era, it was truly so, because it could communicate to anyone without resorting to written texts. The history of subtitles starts with the very first talkie, The Jazz Singer, in 1929 when this American film was shown in Paris. Subtitles helped the ‘talkies’ to transcend the limitations of language and talk to the whole world. But with the facility of sound, films became more dialogue-oriented and the plethora of subtitles that accompanied brought with it the prerequisite of being literate, in order for the audience to follow it. So, subtitles, in a way, brings the ‘elitism’ of literature back into cinema, even while helping cinema to break language barriers and making it globally mobile.

The relationship between the viewer and a subtitled film is different from one that is not. Here, the spectator is not only watching and listening to the images and sounds, but also ‘reading’. Our eyes flit between the image and the text. And often, the subtitles at the bottom themselves become part of the image for us. This disrupts the hegemony of the image/sound and opens up a new relationship between the image and the text. Subtitles are not mere footnotes to the image, but another strand that independently addresses the spectator and thus goes into the creation of the narrative. In front of certain films that are dialogue-oriented, we in fact become ‘readers’, though its charm do not end there. For instance, many of the films of Bergman or Godard, Ray or Ghatak, would not be as exciting without the charm of their subtitles!

Yet, subtitles do not simply paraphrase or follow the dialogues mechanically. In fact, it is impossible to do so for various reasons. For one, there is the basic limitation of the length of the subtitle. (Earlier, in the analog era, it could not go beyond a certain length. But with digital technology, it has become much more flexible, both in terms of its font variety and size). If length is a question of screen space, there is the limitation of time too. An ideal subtitle should appear and disappear within the duration of the particular dialogue it is referring to. Apart from space and duration, there is also the question of depth of field. For instance, certain dialogues are whispered, and certain others merely said or shouted. There are instances where the filmmaker does not intend the spectator to comprehend the dialogue (especially in the long shots) while following the image. But when it comes to subtitles, such depth-of-field issues become problematic. The subtitles are either there or not. You can’t garble it or make it illegible, though there are instances of italicizing and highlighting, and in rare cases, animating the letters. Nor can subtitles capture the tonal variations and intonations that the actor in an alien language is playing with. On the other hand, subtitles can also add punch to a certain dialogue through an apt expression or turn of phrase.

There is also a constant interface between speech and text here – while some lengthy speech can be condensed into a few words, the nuances of some spoken words are impossible to capture in a text format. This is especially so with words which have certain cultural connotations. In Indian languages there are a number of words denoting family relationships, which have no parallels in English or other languages, which often puts the subtitler in a quandary! Other common instances are curses or swear words – though one can manage to find parallels or approximations in the target language, it is very difficult to convey the nuance or carry the punch of the original. Also, there are a lot of culturally specific words that do not lend themselves to translation. Take for instance, the word ‘muthalali’ in Malayalam which literally means ‘one who owns wealth/capital’. But it is most often used in a very loose manner to denote all kinds of people – land owners, shop keepers, contractors, traders, capitalists or industrialists. So how does one capture it in English? In one of the popular Malayalam films, the heroine endearingly calls her lover, “kochu muthalali” (‘kochu’ means small or little), and the sub title read: “my dear little bourgeois”!

The advent of the age of DVDs and global television has made the use of subtitles more widespread and also popular. Most of the channels that broadcast films now show them with subtitles, even for English films. The wide and prevalent use of subtitles have in fact globalised our viewing experiences in such a way that the very notion of ‘foreignness’ has become problematic. As Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour puts it, “Globalisation has left its prints on how cinema is made, circulated, and received. ..We need to make sense of the foreign on our own terms. We have to define what is foreign to our individual experience, before we can hope to understand the roots of collective misunderstanding. Subtitles offer a way into worlds outside of ourselves. They are a unique and complex formal apparatus that allows the viewer an astonishing degree of access and interaction. Subtitles embed us.”

Obviously, the act of subtitling involves ‘universalising’ the ‘particular’ which brings the ‘local/regional’ in dialogue with the ‘national/global’. It raises a lot of questions, similar to the ones confronted by a translator: This also poses troublesome questions about ‘regional’ identities and ‘locality’ of a film and the film viewing experience.

Should one ‘translate out’ all the regional and culture-specific nuances to make the dialogues accessible to the global audience? Or, should one maintain the local flavour? If so, how? But the problem with subtitles is that it does not offer any scope for footnotes or explanations. So, subtitling is an act of balancing between the pressure to be concise yet cogent, true yet communicative, local yet global


Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour (Ed) : Subtitles – On the Foreignness of Film, Alphabet Media Book, MIT Press, 2004

The author has subtitled more than 30 Malayalam feature films and several documentaries in English