During India’s Independence struggle, people flocked to movies dealing with difficult social issues such as child marriage and the treatment of widows (Kaul 132). So, why, today is it so hard to find social issue films/documentaries in India? Is the class of producers and would- be consumers just apathetic? Is life so hard that watching three - hour fantasies is a necessary coping mechanism? Does the government censor films that deal with unflattering issues? While these, as well as broader economic and historical factors play a role, the majority of social issue documentaries are, unfortunately for their popularity, often anti- Bollywood. The Bollywood aesthetic – hereafter referred to simply as ‘Bollywood’ – a conglomeration of borrowed and created devices used repeatedly in Hindi fiction films -- is very popular. Independent documentaries might never be able to compete with big budget fiction films, but they can integrate some of the popular aspects to be more accessible to audiences, without losing the integrity of their mission.
This paper will examine three Indian-made documentaries in terms of the extent to which they tap into the aesthetic that Bollywood has so successfully leveraged. The films are: Jagriti (The awakening) by Jugnu Ramaswamy, Thirst by Sree Nallamothu, and India Cabaret by Mira Nair. Each of the three films will be discussed in terms of its melodrama, musicality, and humor, among other traits identified in mainstream films. Manjunath Pendukar, contributing author of The Asian Film Industry, explains that the Indian government supported and encouraged films that would be viable in international festivals and “cultivate[ed] a certain arrogance on the part of the filmmakers who are not subjected to the market test within India” (248). For the purpose of this paper, the most successful documentaries are those who embrace the popular aesthetics of their country, while simultaneously pushing the audience to expand their views and work for social change.
The term Bollywood refers to the Hindi language films made in studios in Mumbai (Bombay). India has many other regional studios, Sandalwood from Karnataka, Tallywood from Tamil Nadu etc. Because of India’s vastness and diversity, however, Bollywood films were chosen as an indicator of successful trends, because they are the most widely viewed -- though they are highly criticized by many, and certainly do not represent the tastes of a billion people. Compared to regional studios, and certainly ‘art films,’ Bollywood is considered to be the most risqué and materialistic -- so it might seem contradictory to suggest that documentaries learn from it. According to Vijay Mishra, author of Bollywood Cinema, Temples of Desire, “the dominant genre of Bombay Cinema may be called sentimental melodramatic romance linked to dharmik codes” (99). He explains that while they are often very Western, most Bollywood films are still routed in the basic of Indian culture, religions and folklore. Thus documentaries don’t need to become base or silly to appropriately integrate aspects of the sentimentality and Indian religious norms.
According to Mishra, most Bollywood films share various conventions, which will be discussed here in the context of the documentaries. Besides melodrama and romance, as noted, these also include the ‘mother India’ theme (a loving nationalism), larger-than-life heroes, and rebellion within traditional structure (i.e. falling in love without parents’ approval). Other trends to be discussed are stories-within-stories, and song and dance. The layered narratives are seen in films as well as written epics such as the Gita and Ramayana (Hawley). As Mishra explains, Indian religious texts provide a framework: “Some cultural texts do become foundational; by any definition the Mahabharata is one such text. . . . The Indian film retrieving the rules of [its] formation from it (Mishra 40). Documentarians could, theoretically edit their narratives around some of the classic conventions – these religious classics, like social issue documentaries are in fact meant to uplift society, so there need not be clashes in terms structure or message. As far as music and mid-plot dance sequences – these are the most obvious difference between many documentaries and Bollywood films. Pendukar explains, however that it is no accident, and not simply economic constraints that limit the use of popular music (and dance) in independent films: “Music and songs which are so central to the Indian film tradition were largely shunned by the new cinema directors as formulaic” (247).
Jagriti is short film about a school in Motia Khan -- a Delhi slum with 5,000 shacks --which very cleverly and charmingly uses popular devices to make a scything, but not offensive, critique of bureaucratic indifference to poverty. The whole piece is essentially a movie created within a movie (akin to the ‘story within a story’ – Bollywood technique) by the small school and its teachers to show what a difficult time they’ve had trying to start a school in the slum. The children act out a scene, for example, one boy dressed as an adult, wearing a turban and describing the various government agencies who are working in the slum. Then it cuts to the real guy, Mr. Singh, the slum’s government overseer, who makes up a lot of excuses as to why the playground has turned into a latrine. The movie is charming and funny while being critical. Though not usually as transparently self-reflexive as Jagriti, Bollywood films also do not hide the fact that they are creations. In one acted scene within Jagriti, the teacher yells at the student, who is pretending to be a bully, and then says, “okay, scene’s over” and they go back to school.
The film like Bollywood films, has a number of different elements, and elicits various emotions to intrigue the viewer. The opening of the film is not staged, but rather it is a montage of severe poverty, but the music enables it to still be (potentially) interesting to those who would normally be turned off by such scenes. The film opens with kids selling trinkets, gaunt children picking scraps off the ground, a bony toddler trying to sleep as flies swarm around her. But, unlike similar scenes in other documentaries, it was not accompanied with sentimental music to make the viewer feel guilty. (Born into Brothels, for example, which got very little play in India, has a very dramatic and manipulated opening montage that emphasizes the poverty using evocative music and night shots). Jagriti opens with a really upbeat (tonally) song. The song is reminiscent of those in popular Bollywood dance scenes, though it’s more homemade, rather than synthesized. Still, the lyrics, sung by children, get the point across, “we live in drudgery and no one comes to help . . .”. The visuals are very raw. The lyrics are melodramatic, and the tone of the song is fun.
In India, Bollywood stars are heroes whose influence pervades into everyday life. Jagriti successfully translates this for documentary film. The two teachers, Shamanam and Jughu Ramaswamy aren’t exactly Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan, but they are very appealing nonetheless. In this case the populist appeal is less about looks (though they are nice looking), and more about their ability to act as cultural liaisons for potential audiences of the film. The teachers are educated, middle class, and confrontational but not extremist in their critiques. They alternate between passionately acting out a scene in Hindi with the children - like when Babu the thug blocks the school – and then they turn to the camera, and in perfect English, explain the context – police apathy or corruption, for example. Just as Bollywood often plays with wealth perceptions – a poor girl marrying a rich boy and having to play dual rules – the teachers straddle the divide and take the viewer with them. There ‘outsiderness’ is made explicit, and thus the middle class viewer might not feel so alienated by the slums. In one of the songs that helps to tell their story, they reference the fact that in trying to start a school, the kids’ parents were weary of them, with good reason – because they belong to the class of people who usually close their windows when they see poor kids begging at stoplights. Thus, the Jughus are acting like a rebellious Bollywood star, who the viewer has associated with, though they might not normally agree with the behavior. Because the ‘heros’ in this case have blurred the lines of “sides” it’s harder to feel offended when they and the kids do impressions of corrupt NGOs and bureaucrats, because it’s clear that they are not railing against any class or caste, but are targeting specific behaviors – a very appropriate role and method for a social issue documentary in India.
The humor adds to this sense of trust in the characters, so that direct criticism of the status quo is not offensive. In one scene the children of the school don sunglasses and, through song, tell the story of a lady who had visited the children from an aid organization. One young child, acting as the NGO lady, says to another, “you are so cute, I’m going to come back and help you.” The “lady” then pats the child’s head and smiles condescendingly. Then they cut to the real woman, who works at Oxfam. When reminded of the event by Mr. Jughu, she stumbles and rambles on about needing to focus on other projects. The funniest scene is when Mr. Jughu asks an American woman who works at UNICEF about the 60% of funds rumored to be spent on overhead. She says that they are getting off topic and asks him to turn off the camera. But, text at the end of the movie says that UNICEF started funding the project shortly after the release of the film – so social issue films can be useful after all!
The acted scenes with the children are quite realistic, as they impersonate a screaming drunkard or diplomat. But, other scenes are, in the style of Bollywood, very over-acted and melodramatic, which is charming, once in the Bollywood mindset. One little girl, in a tattered red dress, lip synchs a song asking others for respect. She gesticulates, claps, dances and has exaggerated facial features. To an American audience this would feel to “contrived” but it melds nicely with India’s traditions, As Pendukar explains,
India’s performing arts tradition, which goes back several centuries, is rich with melodrama and is popular with viewers. Instead of making intelligent use of it . . . the new cinema directors typically stayed away from melodrama and their cinematic representation became too flat, thereby almost unfeeling and unmoving. This antipathy towards established cultural traditions is also tinged with a good deal of arrogance, and it has resulted in sterile representations of ‘realism’ (249).
Many documentaries successfully use subtlety as a technique to let the viewer “discover” the point the filmmaker is trying to elicit. From this mindset, the idea of using blatant accusations and dramatic reenactments for social change may seem counterintuitive and overly didactic. Because Jagriti is so transparent in its view point, and cleverly taps into popular norms, this is not the case.
Thirst is a short documentary about struggle over water rights in a village in Andhra Pradesh. The struggle turns from one about liquid to one about dignity, as “untouchables” narrate a story about how higher castes have repeatedly sabotaged their clean water. Unlike Jagriti, Thirst does not successfully utilize many popular Bollywood techniques. Unfortunately, it is also too insular and not explanatory enough for a foreign audience (unlike say, Born into Brothels). The film interweaves a number of interviews from unidentified villagers who had suffered at the hands of their neighbors. There is no real action, character development, let alone melodrama. The villagers are very passionate and angry, but in a news-story way – they are clearly impoverished, some barely wearing clothes, and the film does not help the others to relate to their situation. There was some really bare-bones rural music, that sounded squeaky and unrefined. Finally, the movie gave voice mostly to women – a noble idea, but in a patriarchy, it would further serve to distance those in power from the message of the film – hearing mainly from poor, low/no caste women? As Steve Derne, explains in Movies, Masculinity and Modernity: an Ethnography of Men’s Filmgoing in India, “filmgoing often plays out men’s concerns about modernity and masculinity . . . . Men are concerned that modern lifestyles place woman on an equal footing with them” (3). Though the villagers are far from modern – their demands – that they be treated equality, might be too confrontational to have success with the hegemonic upper class men.
The movie is very real, and with little (apparent) manipulation. One better dressed woman acts as a partial guide, reappearing in different scenes in front of huts and explaining the story, however for the most part, the film is a series of long interviews. This is not a critique of the film in itself – simply a discussion of how well it incorporates proven-popular tactics. It presents rural Andhra Pradesh very much as it is, long stagnant shots of rusting pipes and crumbling stones give the viewer a real sense of the everyday struggles. It successfully gives voice to the oppressed, but since it doesn’t do much to draw in an Indian (or western) audience –who would watch a film like this? If the upper castes/classes would watch the movie, they could learn something. One poor villager explains, as if directly to her oppressors, that they have souls and values and are human beings, and need to be treated as such. This is one of the more evocative scenes as the viewer sees a man on a wheel chair struggling, contentedly across the gravel as she speaks. Unfortunately, it would be easy for Thirst to be used by viewers to reinfoce their viewpoints. There is one traditional dance scene, but it was so rudimentary, that based on the rampant rural/lowcaste/poor prejudices, this would likely only reinforce how “behind” these people are.
Another option for Thirst, is that maybe it was made with a foreign audience in mind, but as is, it is also inappropriate for outsiders. First, the movie is in Telegu, and while there are subtitles, it’s extremely difficult to read them and also watch the movie. Long interviews and colloquial jargon could be problematic, if not off-putting. While the film provides a bit of background as to the term “Harijan”, it still leaves the foreign viewer a bit confused. The villagers start off complaining that they are called maloda by the upper castes, who call themselves Kapu – these terms are not explained at all. Other terms and ideas are not explained – rupee values are not translated,. At one point in the middle of the talk about water, it cuts to a teenaged school boy talking about cast discrimination. He talks about how reservations are kept for his caste, but the rich people can buy their way in, but the idea of reservations (basically affirmative action with quotas), is not explained. Thus, Thirst, a film on a crucial topic falls short of being acceptable to broad audiences either in India or abroad.
Two Bollywood themes, it should be mentioned, that thirst does touch on, are that of Mother India and rebellion. The emphasis of the protagonists is on the uniting factors rather than the disintegrating ones of the villagers. Thirst references Gandhi, the human soul, and really makes a plea to the upper castes to not be treated like animals. The people from upper castes, without being entertained, however, would likely not feel unity, but just see it as an attack. To its credit however, in theme, at least Thirst would seem to appeal to the ‘rebellion’ idea. As Derne explains, to men, there is great “importance of film themes which emphasize the rebellions against political and economic power” (Derne 3). Still, despite the potential of the theme, in general, actual caste conflicts are still a bit taboo, and the film’s style does not bring to light the action of the conflict, rather just the after-the-fact retelling, which robs it of potential drama for the viewer.
India Cabaret falls somewhere in between the self-consciously Bollywood approach of Jagriti and the ‘raw document’ approach of Thirst. Mira Nair’s brilliant story of strippers in Bombay touches organically on many of the popular Bollywood trends, as natural aspects of the women’s lives. It’s as if the woman in the club, though shunned in their own society, are akin to Bollywood stars, complete with romance, seduction, family drama, music and dance. Nair places the viewer of her film, and the viewer of Bollywood films in the same position as the spectators of the strippers, while simultaneously critiquing them, and by extension all viewers of mainstream cinema that objectify women.
The film overtly and yet tastefully brings to the forefront many of the issues of gender and sexuality which are both at the heart of Bollywood films, and yet also suppressed therein. For example, the opening strip teasers in India Cabaret bore more skin and were more blatantly sexual than common scenes in Bollywood (though Bollywood drips with innuendo). By starting off with such a relative shocker – scanty flowery bra, lots of cleavage -- Nair first intrigues and shocks viewers, in a similar way to the intrigue in a Bollywood film. Having drawn in the viewer thus, the first “social-issue” point is made and gets the viewer to realize the double standard most people hold Indian women to. Shortly after the “spectacle” of the dance, beautiful, articulate and reflective Rekha describes how at home she’s virginal (which she demonstrates by covering her face with her sari) but at the club she’s “the number one wicked one.” Nair here uses Bollywood norms to enable the audience to question their “Madonna-whore” presuppositions.
In the interviews with the male viewers, Nair is again taking the ubiquitous male gaze – found in virtually all Bollywood films, as woman dance for men, and directly confronting it. The audience might see themselves like the men who sit around the table discussing, and admitting to the double standard they hold for men and women. One of the spectators describes that men have two sides – ‘proper’ at work, but free at the club, because, “every man, likes to see a woman naked”. This scene is especially poignant because the audience has already seen Rekha discuss that woman too, can have two sides.
Though it is unfortunate, another reason way this movie mimics Bollywood, compared to Thirst is that the subjects are more like the stars. With the exception of one, healthy looking woman in Thirst, the people were not at all glamorous. The women in India Cabaret, conversely were well spoken, confident and proud. Yet, for the most part, they were still feminine and beautiful – common traits of female Bollywood stars. So, Nair uses common stereotypes to break them – the woman are well to do, and smart, Rekha asks, “if the viewer does not feel shame why should the viewed?” The men admit to being hypocrites, “two faced, like Jekyll and Hyde”. One patron explains that “politicians are the first to shut this place [strip club] down but they’re the first to arrive.” He goes on to admit that men can sleep around but women shouldn’t, though he knows that morally they should have equal rights. Thus, India Cabaret is so non-confrontational that the men admit their attitudes directly – Thirst is so confrontational that the viewer doesn’t even hear from the perpetrators, and Jagriti falls somewhere in between.
This movie turns Bollywood on its head – one stripper goes to spend the night with a Muslim from Saudi Arabia – that’s certainly an exaggerated “girl meets boy, parents don’t approve” story. The difference is not just in degree, however. Nair’s film is much more subtle than most Bollywood tales. Sometimes the women seem empowered and happy, other times not – it is more reflexive of real life. Rekha calls the club, ‘The Temple of Queens’ and seems proud at points, and later she says sadly, “in the cabaret line I’ve drank half my life away.” Bollywood films tend to have more clear-cut characters. One woman explains that women in office jobs also get molested, so what’s the difference? Most viewers had not considered it that way. The complexity meets drama is the epitome of Nair’s successful integration of Bollywood and Documentary. She used the popular themes to draw the viewer in, and then adds unexpected layers. What Bollywood character would so reflexively explain, as Rekha does, that she wants the stability of a family, but a mother would be jealous of her freedom?
“Bas” (no more)
Jagriti most cleverly adopts successful techniques used in Bollywood to make a powerful, funny and entertaining documentary, that blurs the lines between genres. Thirst falls into the roll that many stereotypical documentaries do – of making a story too dry and insular, rather than reaching out to audiences through devices of storytelling and drama. India Cabarat falls somewhere in between – while it is not deliberately appealing to a Bollywood audience in the way Jagriti is, it falls in almost by accident. Perhaps the reaction against Bollywood films has been to strong for many documentarians, who have impulsively jerked away, Pendukar explains, that other than promoting important social causes, “the new cinema’s other principal preoccupation has been to shun the genres and formulas that are common to the commercial cinema, which in itself is admirable, but also a sure way to lose audience empathy” (Pendukar, 248).
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