26 January 2007

Blurred vision

“I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product’, finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.”
– Pauline Kael, American film critic

It’s not surprising to learn that Satyajit Ray’s films do not find a large audience in India (see my post ‘A Ray of stories… and films’). Indian films, largely represented by the Hindi/Bollywood film industry, have always catered to Indian mass audiences and have been symbols of Indian mass culture since India’s independence.

In the Hindi/Bollywood framework, the film structure, the plot, the acting style, and much of the dialogue are standardised… engaging the audience in a fantasy world of good versus evil, and human melodrama, in fairly clear terms. Complications are sometimes introduced in the form of sub-plots, but they are resolved soon after. As far as film directors and producers go, Hindi/Bollywood films are functional – they satisfy audience needs and make box office cash registers ring.

The ‘art’ film from the independent director, such as Satyajit Ray, presents (and, therefore, represents) an alternative world. A world of films motivated by their richness in terms of aesthetic quality, realism, dialogue, acting, cinematography, editing and music. Most art films weave in a social commentary on the state of our country, on our culture, on human relationships… sometimes, even making a political statement.

As far as Indian audiences go, I would have expected these art films to be relevant and popular. To stand tall on integrity and human values… in a country which badly suffers from these. Yet, these art films are unsuccessful in stimulating Indian audiences. On the contrary, they seem to work in direct opposition to the needs and expectations of the audience… floundering at the box office. The mainstream Indian audience is repelled by art films, preferring their usual commoditised Hindi/Bollywood formula.

In turn, Bollywood happily churns out several hundred films every year in a standardised organised manner as popular entertainment for the masses. Asserting a hypnotic control over them, influencing almost all aspects of their lives, defining the cultural norms that Indians should live by.

I wonder if this Hindi/Bollywood and art film divide is just a matter of our blurred vision… or a representation of something more permanent in our culture.

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