ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Nations of ‘Regional’ Cinemas

Akshaya Kumar (akshaya.kumar@gmail.com) is a faculty at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Indore.

Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India edited by M K Raghavendra, New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2017; pp xii + 339, ₹ 499.

 

Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India is an aggregation of four surveys, of one South Indian film industry each. Given that the contributors have already published their detailed accounts elsewhere, this volume is best considered as an accessible summary for a wider readership. In the last 15 years or so, numerous studies have emerged which claim to go past the Bollywood horizon of Hindi cinema. This book is situated partly in that tradition, and partly in another: consolidating an account of the cinemas of South India. Unfortunately, though, there is very little on offer in terms of a conceptualisation of South Indian cinemas as separate from Bollywood, or even Hindi cinema.

Histories of national or so-called regional cinemas from across the world are often delimited and shaped by the construction of questionable but self-explanatory units. Most of the emerging work on film industries across India also suffers from such a classification in which the political and cultural unit of the “region” is uncritically presumed to be autonomous, allowing the respective authors to then go on to establish their respective internal differentials. Here too, instead of offering us a new understanding of the cinemas of South India, we are served a convenient breakdown of “beyond Bollywood” into Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam film industries. The four short surveys are then afforded their own autonomous histories, without systematically analysing the very substantial spillovers and overlaps of themes, forms, production practices, and even personnel.

Yet, the volume performs a commendable task of providing accessible chronological accounts of some dominant tendencies spread across South Indian cinemas, even if the very thin “Introduction” does not even attempt to consolidate the accounts or highlight the key overlaps. Each section successfully delineates the sociopolitical conditions under which the particular industrial constellation was shaped. Admittedly, however, the volume suffers from a jarring unevenness. The contributors appear to be working on their own briefs, to the extent that they do not appear to follow any consistent editorial call. This mars the design and stability of the book greatly. For example, the sections on Tamil and Kannada cinema are richly laid out in terms of the political history of the linguistic as well as political-administrative region, whereas the sections on Telugu and Malayalam cinema are considerably less so.

In the sections on the Telugu and Malayalam cinema, a quick routine of film history broken down into a rich variety of “genres” and tendencies, along with anecdotal accounts of production history and industry personnel overshadow the political landmarks signposted inconsistently. The sections on Tamil and Kannada cinema are organised around the shifting boundaries and narratives of the political-administrative regions of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. From the presidencies and princely states of the colonial era, the eventual reconfiguration of the region on account of linguistic solidarities has had its disenchantments as well as difficulties to consolidate one narrative of the region or nation. The Tamil or Kannada “people” as conceived by popular cinema, therefore, has often been asynchronous with the industrial territories of distribution. This is partly because Tamil or Kannada people were not necessarily already consolidated as speakers of a certain language, but were also to be imagined as followers of a shared tradition, even if divided primarily by the caste-community.

The Caste Question

Among the substantial achievements of the volume is a foregrounding of the caste question and its fundamental role in shaping the life of national or regional communities within South Indian film industries. However, the sections on Telugu and Malayalam cinema appear to grapple with this question considerably less than their counterparts. The section on Tamil cinema takes us from the “self-respect movement” to Dravidian politics which shaped Tamil cinema in the post-independence period towards an undue appropriation by the iconic figure of M G Ramachandran, whose reign “brought the era of the overtly ideological film to an end and buried it deep” (p 55). The section also periodises the rise and fall of urban as well as rural constellations in Tamil cinema, as also new figurations of ideal woman, realism, and celebration of various caste identities in the 1990s.

While caste identity, rural livelihoods, everyday violence, gendered navigation of space, and working-class migration constitute the complex web of relations which propel Tamil cinema’s characters in N Kalyan Raman’s compact and insightful survey, we are never quite offered a stable analytical grid via which the reader could make better sense of the enterprise. Instead we are left with a lament about the “precious little” that Tamil people have achieved in cinema:

If cinema is a mirror to society, here it is largely a funhouse mirror, amusing and horrifying by turns, but incapable of giving us a clear reflection of our true selves. (p 97)

It would have been much more welcome if the insights about the political history of the region shaped the contributor’s critical outlook towards the messy role and destiny of popular culture in the region, instead of expecting a “clear reflection” to be delivered at his doorstep.

M K Raghavendra’s contention for Kannada cinema is much better laid out, as he argues that

(It) has had as its constituency the people of princely Mysore and that, after the creation of Greater Mysore in 1956, it continued to address only the same constituency. While it made attempts to include the entire “Kannada nation” in its address and extend its reach, these attempts of Kannada cinema were sporadic. (p 180)

Mysuru as the cultural kernel of Kannada cinema, and the shocking loss of those cultural bearings over a period of time, even resulting in a deep-seated antagonism with Bengaluru as the economic engine of the industry, propels Raghavendra’s analysis, but perhaps also overdetermines it with much speculation. On the other hand, his analysis constantly refers to Hindi cinema as a point of comparison, but one would have liked the relation between the two film industries better laid out in terms of the traffic of imaginaries and personnel. To what extent the parallels and departures are ad hoc and to what extent they may be based on identifiable crossover systems needs a more thorough examination. Unfortunately, none of the systematic analyses of Hindi cinema scholarship is referred to, making space only for ad hoc connections.

In the section on Telugu cinema, we are promised considerably less—“only snapshots of happenings in the respective decades” (p 185)—and are delivered exactly that. Among other things, the section pays particular attention to adaptations and remakes. Telugu cinema drew from Bengali literature and films, also borrowing from Hindi, English, Malayalam as well as Tamil films, while several Telugu films were adapted and remade in Hindi and Tamil across periods. Elavarthi Sathya Prakash, thus, gives the most diverse, although a hurried account of the film industry, also including several discussions on the changing character of film songs across periods.

Telugu cinema was perhaps the first of Indian cinemas to realise its full-blown populist potential via multimodal celebrity packaging for the mass market. Even though Prakash takes us through the populism of the 1970s towards the middle-of-the-road films of 1980s, regionalist consolidations, changing the character of song and dance routines, anti-establishment films and various intermediary constellations, he does not pause to reflect on how such constellations have iteratively shaped the character of the popular in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

In the last section on Malayalam cinema, Meena T Pillai’s primary focus remains on the role of cinema in routing Malayali modernity. In a fascinating formulation, she writes

Relative immobility of the filmic experience can actually be seen as the meeting point of notions of mobility, circulation and hybridisation of peoples and societies, caught in unprecedented forces of modernity that caused “horizontal” geographic mobility as also a “vertical” socioeconomic mobility where people could traverse the boundaries of “inherited” professions and essentialist notions of class and social status. (p 268)

She points out that as opposed to most regional cinemas which attempted “an indigenous cinema by making use of the mythological, which offered formal and discursive strategies for developing cinema as a native cultural form,” Malayalam cinema began with “socials” investing in alternative ideologies (p 271). Like every other section, here too, the tension between cinema as popular culture versus high art remains generative towards a recoil effect with which the popular resurgence appropriates or remodulates middle and art cinemas.

South Indian cinemas were at the forefront of this tension and have witnessed synchronous takeover by celebrity populism or re-feudalisation and depoliticisation, as Pillai points out in the case of Kerala (p 322). A more elaborate discussion on this generative tension in the “Introduction” would have greatly benefited the cause of this volume and should count as a missed opportunity.

While the volume appreciably compiles a rich variety of patterns and tendencies in South Indian cinemas, rarely does any contributor dwell on a point well enough. It is understandable as a limitation of the structure, but one wonders whether it would not have been better to offer a substantive discussion on some of the attributes of South Indian cinema, instead of a quick but comprehensive survey. Be that as it may, even if it was read as a concise survey, some degree of consistency across the sections would have given it a stable design.

As it stands, the four sections assume and progress on their own mandates, while the “Introduction” does not even offer any comparative analysis. As a result, the volume is reduced to a compilation of trends and tendencies across South Indian film history, partly speculative and partly analytical but without substantial conclusions drawn, even though there is enough analytical worth within the volume to dwell upon. Therefore, the book should certainly be read for the sections, to get a concise sense of the respective industrial constellations. But it may not deserve as much attention for the cumulative enterprise, which never quite takes off the ground. While the contributors offer some commendable insights to the students of South Indian cinemas, it is the editorial work that could have been significantly better.

 

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019

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