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Maharashtra's Marathi Multiplex Story

Is the Gesture Simply Tokenistic?

Nikhil Narkar (miichto@gmail.com) and Ananya Parikh (ananya.parikh@gmail.com) teach part time at the School of Liberal Arts at Symbiosis University, Pune and are pursuing their PhD in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

The recent diktat of the Maharashtra state government about showcasing Marathi cinema at multiplexes during prime time has met with both criticism and support. This decision, although necessary, is no more than a tokenistic gesture to preserve regional culture and is governed by the rules of consumerism

On 7 April 2015, Vinod Tawde, Maharashtra’s minister for cultural affairs, announced that the government was in the process of enacting a law that would make it compulsory for all multiplexes across the state to reserve one screen for exhibiting a Marathi film during prime time hours in the evening (6-9 pm). This decision, he declared, was taken keeping in mind the step sisterly treatment meted out to the growing Marathi film industry by multiplex exhibitors.

A day and several responses/reactions/tweets later, the government revised its decision. Tawde, also the head of the Marathi language department, issued a new statement saying that after consultations with both the Marathi film producers as well as the multiplex owners it was decided that Marathi films would be screened between 12 pm-9 pm at multiplexes. A four-member committee, with representations from all interested groups, would determine the actual timing for screening each film keeping in mind the content and the target audience.

The responses to both of the above statements were largely predictable and fell into two broad categories. The first category of responses welcomed the decision by the state and declared that this was a necessary step to promote the interests of the regional film industry against the big capital of the Hindi film industry. Here, the government found supporters not only amongst the Marathi film industry but also amongst other regional film industries and national/Bollywood figures like Shah Rukh Khan and Sudhir Mishra.

The second category decried the mandate claiming it to be an imposition on freedom of choice and viewed it as a chauvinistic move. According to this group, largely represented by multiplex owners and a majority of Bollywood industry people, the move would prove detrimental to the growth of multiplexes in India (which are  less than 10% of the total screens in the country), as well as to the interests of Bollywood. A further extension of this argument was best represented in the now infamous Shobhaa De tweets about the “dadagiri” of the Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government and the notice slapped on her by the Maharashtra legislature.

This neat division of the argument simply into cultural resistance/protectionism versus regional/linguistic chauvinism draws attention away from the more serious and fraught questions about genuine democratic processes in the face of large capital. In our opinion, this recent mandate of the government has to be understood in a much more complex manner.

We analyse the state government’s decision in context of four different but related scenarios:  the history of national cinemas across the globe and the particularity of Indian national and regional cinemas; the linguistic reorganisation of states in India; a particular structure of the ruling class alliance; and lastly the emergence of the multiplex as the representative of big capital in India.

Looking Back

During the early years of the 20th century, Hollywood consolidated its position as a major global industry to be reckoned with. This happened due to both internal as well as external reasons. Chief amongst these were the organisation of Hollywood into a vertically integrated industry and World War I, which affected the development of local film industries across the world, especially in Europe. This in turn led to the adoption of a protectionist attitude towards domestic film production and exhibition by several European governments and eventually to the rise of national cinemas as distinct from Hollywood.

In France, for instance, by the late 1920s, the government had set up protectionist legislation in favour of French and other European productions. More prominently in Britain, the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, provided a quota for British films to be shown in cinemas for a period of 10 years to boost the local industry (Bakker 2015).

In India, interestingly, Hollywood was never able to establish dominance over the local market. This was because the British through the Indian Cinematographers’ Act of 1927 inadvertently boosted local Indian film production vis-à-vis exports from American studios. Cinema in India became inextricably linked to the history of colonialism and the national struggle for independence. This unique combination created conditions for the growth of the local cinema as the dominant cultural expression.

This changed with the gradual emergence of talkies on the one hand and the establishment of India as an independent nation on the other. Against this backdrop, the Hindi film industry tried to establish itself as the national cinema of India at the expense of other regional film industries. This became possible to a large extent due to the attempts of the Congress-led political establishment to project Hindi as the national language (Prasad 1998). By now, we are all familiar with the resistance that this project met with from different regions of the country.

Linguistic Reorganisation of States

Closely related to the above point is the linguistic reorganisation of states in the early years following the euphoria of independence.  There was a strong realisation that India was, in fact, a federation of different nationalities and linguistic groups. It was due to this growing consciousness that in the 1950s, the project to reorganise states on linguistic lines began.

In Maharashtra, the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti made a democratic demand for the formation of a state comprising regions where Marathi was the dominant language. A major point of contention was the city of Mumbai (then Bombay), which was excluded from the new state of Maharashtra by the then Congress government under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. The struggle for the inclusion of Mumbai was led by the working classes in the city against the champions of big capital.

This becomes important in the given context because Mumbai has been home to both the Hindi film industry (claiming national status) and the Marathi (regional) film industry. The struggle for dominance over the space of the city has been central to the dialectic that plays out between a larger culture that attempts to establish its hegemony (Hindi as the national language and Hindi cinema as the national cinema) and a local/regional culture that resists this hegemony (Marathi as the official state language and the Marathi film industry as the legitimate player in the film culture of the state).

Nature of Ruling Classes

Additionally, let us view this dynamic of the Hindi and Marathi film industries in the context of the nature of the Indian ruling classes. The ruling classes in the country represents two forces; one represents the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and the other the more traditional/feudal interests. The bourgeoisie (who are in the position of leadership in the alliance) desires a centralisation of capital that leads to an effacement of the regional authority and favours a strong central authority.

In opposition to this, the other section pushes for the survival of regional specificities/flavours. The demand for regional autonomy could take two directions in this scenario. The first is to try and make space for the regional within the ambit of big capital. The second is to resist the tendencies of big capital and provide genuine alternatives for the growth of different cultures. Clearly, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra has chosen the first path. No wonder then, the state government is unable to understand and imagine the resistance and fight for survival of the Marathi cinema outside the terms laid down by capital.

Emergence of Multiplexes

The drive towards centralisation of capital is best represented today by the multiplex as an important site of film exhibition. The multiplex is not simply a site with multiple halls for screening but is a space that celebrates the consumer identity over all others. This is represented in the availability of food, of shopping spaces attached to the multiplex, of video arcades and various other experiences. In Hollywood, the blockbuster phenomenon best exploits these conditions, as the film industry expands to include revenues from ancillary industries (Elsaesser 2002).

In India, as Ashish Rajadhyaksha argues, Bollywood combines the film industry and other ancillary industries such as fashion, advertising etc, and the multiplex becomes a site for this form of consumerism (2003). This site is also restricted to a particular strata and income group within our society. Thus, it becomes clearer that the government’s idea of Marathi cinema is seen in terms set by consumerism. 

While we welcome the protection accorded to Marathi cinema by the government, we also believe that screening these films in multiplexes is simply a tokenistic gesture. Given the various policies of this government, this seems to be a decision to attract eyeballs and please vote banks. A real breakthrough would come if and when the government decides to aid the Marathi cinema by extending its boundaries to the grassroot level in terms of production, exhibition and distribution as well as fostering cinema education through policies which will enable access to world and local cinemas.

Some of the ways this can be done is to set up institutions across the state, to facilitate film festivals and fund existing film forums/societies, encourage a healthy interaction between filmmakers and enthusiasts etc. Efforts to preserve Marathi culture   should also include emphasis on its various literary, theatrical and musical traditions. All of this requires a strategy that understands cinema and culture beyond the limitations put by the market.

References

Alam, Javeed (1987): “Class, Political and National Dimensions of the State Autonomy Movements in India”, Nationality Question in India, Pune: TDSS, pp 205-228, also available at http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3516850?uid=3738256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21106086904531, accessed on 21 April 2015.

Bakker, Gerben “The Economic History of the International Film Industry”, available at http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-international-film-industry/, accessed on 21 April 2015.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson (2003): Film History: An Introduction, McGraw-Hill.

Elsaesser, Thomas (2002): “The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, But Not Everything Goes”, The End of Cinema as we know it: American Film in the 1990s, John Lewis (ed), London: Pluto Press, pp 11-22.

Prasad, Madhava (1998): Ideology of the Hindi Film, New Delhi: OUP.

Rajadhayaksha, Ashish (2003): “The ‘Bollywoodization’ of the Indian cinema: cultural nationalism in a global arena.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 4, Number 1, available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1464937032000060195#.VTYJydKqqko, accessed on 21 April 2015. 

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