Thursday, August 11, 2005

Two Strangers, and an Oracle

The movement of J.P. Dutta's career illustrates the-- or at least a-- direction Hindi cinema has taken in recent years. Consider "Yateem" (1988) and "Refugee" (2000): taken together, the two films illustrate both the rich tradition on which Hindi films have historically drawn, as well as more recent departures, or perhaps variants, on that tradition. The fact that both films are the work of the same director—albeit twelve years apart—serves to highlight the paradigm shift. "Yateem" for me illustrates an aspect of Hindi cinema that has become all but irretrievable in recent years, namely the film as part of a mythological universe, or more accurately, the film as self-consciously keyed to a mythological register. And what is dazzling about "Yateem" is the quintessentially Indian (and Bollywood) promiscuity: the "mythological" in "Yateem" hearkens to a number of rather different traditions, yet manages to integrate the various strands into a master narrative of the lone hero combatting evil while also seeking redemption in a fashion. The protagonist of Yateem-- at one and the same time the archetypal orphan, dutiful son, prodigal, and lone warrior (the lover aspect is under-developed, which is par for the course where JP Dutta is concerned)-- is Kishen, explicitly named for Krishna by the sajjada nasheen/guardian of the shrine of the Sufi saint Saleem Chishti in Fatehpur Sikri, and like Krishna raised in a household other than his "own." Once Kishen is grown up, Dutta paints in a few shades of the Joseph tale as well (replete with a sexually assertive woman wishing to bed the hero, otherwise a symbolic son of sorts). The inevitable banishment/exile from the home follows, promising an eventual return or recognition which unfolds by film's end –à la the Ramayana, Joseph, and generally a very large number of mythological tropes.The interesting thing for me about such a mode is the weight a character like Kishen carries, such that in the hands of an effective director like Dutta, even a non-actor like Sunny Deol (who plays Kishen) manages to avoid appearing inadequate in the context of the film. The effect, of course, rests on a kind of "blurred vision": that is, Deol works as Kishen both because he is and is not Kishen. He "is" Kishen in the obviously literal sense, as he essays that role in a film titled "Yateem," but he is "more than" the Kishen of "Yateem" inasmuch as he evokes, variously and not with anything like rigid coherence, another Kishen, and even an Arjuna, a Rama, a Yusuf/Joseph, and the paradigms of hero, warrior, and stranger – more accurately the estranged familiar. The familiar as estranged describes not only the moment in the narrative when the hero is banished from his home (which is itself not "his" in the sense that he has been raised by a man not his father), but also the mode whereby the literal familiarity of the hero-of-the-script is estranged, or made more than, and hence other than, he is by the invocation of other specters, specters that properly belong to a realm other than the merely naturalistic.

What does such myth-making amount to? In "Yateem," nothing: in the world of the film, a tale need not be impressed in the service of an agenda in order to have value, or put another way, Dutta feels no obligation to make his tale speak for any kind of program. Paradoxically, Dutta's fabulist approach – reinforced by the backdrop, primarily rock and quarry bookended by the gorgeous sandstone of Fatehpur Sikri – results not in a tale that is shallow or inconsequential, but in a narrative that is, in terms of its effect on the audience, like Joseph's dreamcoat: multihued."Refugee" also begins with a powerful myth in the form of Abishek Bachchan's character, the most deliberate evocation of the hero-as-stranger/outsider ever seen in Hindi commercial cinema. This character is such a stranger that he is not even given a name, merely a designation of homelessness. Politically bolder than "Yateem," (the first half of) "Refugee" stresses that the primary means of alienating a man, of rendering him a stranger to his own, is not any human wickedness but the nation-state itself, the very political organizing principle of contemporary humanity. The otherness of Refugee is of course twofold: the border renders him a stranger every day when he crosses to the other side, and Refugee is himself a stranger to the world of nation-states, borders and border patrols, phenomena that he does not associate with any moral or ethical content.But it is the second half of "Refugee" that demonstrates how far Dutta (and perhaps Hindi cinema) has moved from the sort of mythmaking we saw in "Yateem." For in the the latter portion of "Refugee," Dutta shows that he is unwilling to let his fable simply "be," and feels compelled to impress it in the service of a master-narrative, namely that of nations defining themselves against their others, of policing their borders with a vigilance that itself becomes the marker of national identity. None of this would be particularly remarkable or even worth commenting on, were it not for the fact that it is so out of keeping with the figure of Refugee as presented in the first half of the film that it is akin to a form of narrative violence. As the figure of Refugee has been sketched in, we can imagine him doing many things; seeing him in an Indian army uniform is not one of them. Dutta does not even attempt any kind of plausible character development that might get us from the "here" of the stranger-as-helper, the helper who can only be a stranger, to the "there" of the good soldier (partly because Dutta has not left himself much room for character development – right from the first moment we see Refugee, he is more cipher than man – and partly because Dutta degenerates into sheer ineptitude, losing control of his film). Instead, the mythological is rudely impressed into servitude, the servitude of an ostensibly naturalistic/realistic setting."

Refugee" for me points to the future of Hindi cinema; it is on the cusp of a world, that is to say in this context a mode of cinematic representation, that is dying, and a coming world, a world populated by characters (Raj, Rahul, etc.) who are never more than they are. I feel a sense of loss, not because one mode is necessarily "better" than another, but because the change represents the loss of a difference, and in favor of a creeping cinematic homogeneity, the standardization that increasingly links Hollywood to Bollywood to pretty soon the entire earth. Now we all make thrillers involving terrorist plots, bio-pics, historical "period" pieces, adaptations of "classic" novels, coming-of-age films, etc. If we're lucky, some of these films are even well-made; but much of the time, one gets the sense that one is watching simulacra (the films produced by Ram Gopal Verma's (uncritically admired) "Factory" – an apt name if there ever were one – are good examples), impostor-movies of sorts. Perhaps the song-and-dance love story/”family” film is all that remains of the earlier difference, akin as it were to, simultaneously, nostalgia for that which is no longer retrievable as well as the substitution for the mythological of mere spectacle – the one sort of spectacle Bollywood can peerlessly mount, without fear of being labelled an ersatz version of an original other.

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