Narration and Variation: Traversing the ‘nation’ through Bollywood
By Riti Agarwala
“The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry,” claim Max Horkheimer and Theodor W Adorno in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Films, as ‘visual texts’ and as a significant presence in the ‘culture industry’, resemble a ‘multi-dimensional space’, where a variety of representations ‘blend and clash’. It is from such ‘fluidity’ in perspective that one might read Bollywood as a co-text to the narrative of nation and nationality.
Predominantly read as a Western construct, theoreticians consider ‘nation’ as a grand-narrative that thrives on ‘fantasy’ and ‘imagination’. The nation, according to Benedict Anderson, can be viewed as an ‘imagined community’: imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (1883: 15). Owing to this imaginative quality, ‘nation’ becomes a highly malleable concept, which is an inseparable part of the collective unconscious of individuals best reflected in the various manifestations of popular culture – Bollywood being one of them. The paper strives to explore the subtleties of narrating the nation through the Hindi film industry, the way power constructs and silently deconstructs narratives, thereby serving as a dexterous manipulator of mass consciousness.
Previously, ‘Bollywood’ was a derogatory term for mainstream Hindi cinema. The ‘Indianization’ of Bollywood has made it a dominant ‘ideological apparatus’ which has created ‘docile bodies’ of culture. Horkheimer and Adorno (2001) convincingly comment on the illusive nature of culture, “To speak of culture was always contrary to culture. Culture as a common denominator already contains in embryo that schematization and process of cataloging and classification which bring culture within the sphere of administration” (1228).
Bollywood as a signifier is a cipher which contains ‘India’ within itself: it is a ‘myth’ that is refashioned with time and according to the audience’s ‘horizons of expectations’. After India’s independence, ‘India’ was more a conceptualization of dreams. It is featured in Raj Kapoor’s characterization of the nation as Nehru’s ‘beautiful dream’. It was the time when patriotism bolstered by azadi intermingled with the violence of Partition. However, there was a predominant urge to ‘build’ a nation. In comparison, the 1970s was a period of crisis for the nation. Narratives concerning the ‘real’ were upheld in Hindi films. Thereafter came the twenty-first century, the sunset of a millennium and the rise of another era, which projected the ‘Rising India’, the proliferation of globalization and liberalization.
Post-independence movies in themselves depict the diversity that India as a nation implies. Raj Kapoor’s Awara tells the tale of an ailing tramp, whereas Mother India speaks of the ‘ideals’ and ethics of the new-born nation. At the same time Mughal-e-Azam, a grand historical epic, seems to be a remembrance of the grand nostalgic past explored in confluence with a story of doomed love. When these early Hindi movies are viewed from the prism of present narratives, one can conceive of the numerous ways the nation has been rewritten over time. Later films, from Guide (1965), Anand (1971), Pakeezah (1972), Deewar (1975), Sholay (1975) to Lagaan (2001), Dil Se (1998), Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), Swades (2004), Dor (2006), Lajja (2001), Rudaali (1993), Dhobi Ghat (2010), Peepli Live (2010), My Brother Nikhil (2005), Veer-Zara (2004), Udta Punjab (2016), Pink (2016), all touch upon various issues, which foster a certain idea of the Indian nation. It beholds the way ‘people’ are formed. According to the acclaimed postcolonial philosopher Homi K Bhaba (1994): “the concept of ‘people’ emerges within a range of discourses as a double narrative moment. The people are not simply historical events…They are also a complex rhetorical strategy of social reference…” (145). People, hence, interpret and ‘perform’ the nation in their own way, consciously or unconsciously.
Both synchronically and diachronically, Bollywood unfurls a shifting image of the nation. When synchronically read, Hindi movies might seem clichéd. However, there are small pockets of resistance, which always ruffle the predominant trend. One is compelled to confront stereotypes in numerous ways. What is needed is an awareness of the stereotypes, only then they can be interrogated and understood. Denying the importance of ‘stereotype’ before recognizing its politics is another delusional trap. Bollywood, in spite of essentialization, serves as an important means of awareness regarding popular culture, which in turn gives rise to counter narratives of resistance. Such revision and reiteration of this revision cycle is bound to continue as it is this that lends variety, enriching the narrative reservoir of cinema.
‘Representations’ of the nation reveal the ‘diversity’ in the apparent ‘unity’ of India. ‘Bollywood’s India’ is a panoramic view of rhyzomatic and multiplying genres. Diaspora, immigration, modernization, political events, feminism and the women’s question, the basic human community – all form a part ‘Bollywood’s India’. The ‘chutnification’ of stories, the ‘pickling of time’, and the process of constant and endless revision reproduce discourses and counter arguments, which helps one to locate various points of ‘dissent’.
Besides the ‘content’ of Bollywood movies, the booming interest around its songs, stars, and aesthetics forms an important part of the entire fabric where the politics of ‘essentialization’, commodification, and globalization is played out in multifarious ways. As Timothy Brennan opines, “every nation demands a narrative form in which ‘continuity, contiguity, and commonality are invented, packaged and sold’ to the people” (2009: 176). The culture industry is perhaps one of the best narrative means for such purpose. Bollywood is thus a brand name, consumed as both an ideological and physical commodity by its audience – be it the hype about the current hero/heroine’s looks and personality or the most quoted dialogue of a film, these are essentialized narratives or ‘packaged’ means of ‘advertising’ or rather attempting to define and codify ‘culture’. The ‘present’ Bollywood generation that encourages such global visibility of the nation voices the creative, smart, and confident India.
The ‘India’ that is presented to the West through Bollywood resurrects the discourse of ‘Orientalism’ in a subtle way, which reveals both conformity and non-conformity to the dominant Western construct of the ‘exotic’ East. ‘Bollywood’s India’ encapsulated in the form of exotic supermodels, heroes whose heart remain ‘Indian’ in distant locales combating foreign powers peppered with typical melodic contours represents the exotic, colourful, vibrant India. On one hand, the West treats the Orient on the basis of its ‘easy going philosophy’ but on the other, the Orient succumbing to Western domination becomes an imitation of the West. However, such depiction is a ploy on the part of the East to raise its ‘soft power’. It can be perceived as a ‘writing back’ to the West only in order to subvert the overt narrative to one’s own advantage. Thus, the kitsch is no more a blind imitation but a tool to deconstruct Western hegemony.
Bollywood is, therefore, a significant site to negotiate with the mass consciousness and the way it reacts to issues relating to nationalism and anti-nationalism. The prevailing ambience of avenging terror attacks, the apparently dissatisfying ‘anti- national’ narrative emanating from elite educational institutions, the regular political hullabaloo concerning caste and minorities – all of these are events, which offer a forum for the intervention of the culture industry. Bollywood, in both fictional (in cinematic tales) and non-fictional (beyond the cinematic frame) ways, becomes a palimpsest, which projects the changing ‘India’ and it’s changing ‘Indianness’.
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Riti Agarwala is a post-graduate from Presidency University, Kolkata.
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