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Three-Town Revolution: Implications of Cinema's Politics for the Study of Urban Spaces

The point of convergence between cinema and constituents of the urban commons is the crowd and everything that the crowd connotes at any given point of time and in any discourse. Popular Telugu cinema is replete with examples of the crowd and what cinema does with it. This phenomenon of constituting and naming social formations and the misrecognitions it gives rise to are most instructive in a discussion of the urban commons. This paper analyses Eenadu, a 1982 Telugu film that is centrally concerned with crowds, to illustrate how cinema brings the mass gathered before the screen face-to-face with a version of itself on the screen, framing a new mode of political participation pivoted on the popular appeal of larger-than-life superstars.

REVIEW OF URBAN AFFAIRS

Three-Town Revolution: Implications of Cinema’s Politics for the Study of Urban Spaces

S V Srinivas

The point of convergence between cinema and constituents of the urban commons is the crowd and everything that the crowd connotes at any given point of time and in any discourse. Popular Telugu cinema is replete with examples of the crowd and what cinema does with it. This phenomenon of constituting and naming social formations and the misrecognitions it gives rise to are most instructive in a discussion of the urban commons. This paper analyses Eenadu, a 1982 Telugu film that is centrally concerned with crowds, to illustrate how cinema brings the mass gathered before the screen face-to-face with a version of itself on the screen, framing a new mode of political participation pivoted on the popular appeal of larger-than-life superstars.

This essay is partly based on a chapter in a book on the social history of Telugu cinema supported by the New India Foundation, to which I am grateful for its generous backing. I would like to thank Anant Maringanti and the anonymous EPW reviewer for their inputs and Ratheesh Radhakrishnan for introducing me to the Malayalam Eenadu.

S V Srinivas (srinivas@cscs.res.in) is at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore.

D
iscussions on the commons tend to stress the use value of common pool resources (CPRs) and their management, and balancing access and subtractability (depletion, exhaustion) of the resources in question, whether they be natural or human made.1 For example, Ostrom (1990) offers various models for “governing the commons”. Hess (2008: 3) notes that recent literature on the “new commons”, human-made, technologically driven resources, is marked by the perception that “the commons is a movement” whose concern is “what is shared or should be shared” through cooperation and collective action. In some sense, the commons is increasingly sought to be the new site of good politics. Does cinema have any relevance to these discussions, particularly given the growing assault on common resources in cities?

Over the past three decades, writings on cinema in India and elsewhere have made a persuasive case of its social and political significance. With the arrival of the multiplex, cinema’s importance as a site for consumption has been brought into sharp focus, raising the question of what the relationship between consumption and social-political action might be. This engagement with questions of consumption (therefore exchange value and private gain) has generated a rich body of work. Yet, to open up cinema to an enquiry as an artefact and a process that has to do with use values – which undergirds discussions of the commons

– is a challenging task. In other words, if the commons are defined in terms of use values, it is difficult to imagine that cinema belongs to them.

Cinema, as we know it in India, notwithstanding its association with mass audiences of ordinary people, does not easily fit in a scenario of sharing and cooperative action. Cinematic spaces have always been privately-owned and in some parts of the country, notably Andhra Pradesh, film production and distribution mark the point caste-class constellations enter business and industry to later become the ruling elites of regions. Film audiences have often been subjected to physical discomfort and violence in cinema halls. And the content of films was and continues to be often ideologically conservative. Yet, with the increasing digitisation of cinema and the availability of new media, debates on its nature and its relationship to urban spaces need to take into account debates on the commons.

But before this debate leapfrogs beyond cinema in its classic 20th century manifestations, I wish to make a set of cautionary remarks on regarding it as a part of an urban commons that is conceived as a space where use value overwhelmingly determines interactions. By drawing attention to the reality of private

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gain and bad politics in shared spaces in south Asia, I hope to table some ideas that can lead to a more theoretically sound notion of the contemporary commons. I do so by reflecting on the concept of the (bourgeois) public, whose other is the commons, at least as far as property relations are concerned. The public has had a long history of deployment in the study of cultural commodities. A critical reflection on this history, I argue, tells us what not to do in the construction of the commons discourse. In the sections to come, I examine cinema both as a candidate to be considered part of the urban commons as well as a discursive medium that represents and offers solutions to conflicts over the urban commons in particular ways.

The starting point for the reflections is that there is a convergence between cinema and constituents of the urban commons. That point of convergence is the crowd and everything that the crowd connotes at any given point of time and in any discourse. Through most of the 20th century, cinema in India had to do with crowds – unlettered, ignorant, unmanageable masses of people who assembled before the screen. Indian cinema took upon itself the task of fashioning a purpose for these masses – the assemblages of crowds – by performing what we might call “a naming act”. Against a backdrop of rising nationalist mobilisations, Indian cinema addressed film consumers collectively and variously as members of a nation-in-the-making, as linguistic communities, as enraged citizen revolutionaries, and so on. Popular Telugu cinema, the subject of my earlier research, is replete with examples of the crowd and what cinema does with it. It is this phenomenon of constituting and naming social formations and the misrecognitions it gives rise to that are most instructive for a discussion of the urban commons. I specifically focus on a genre that may be called the “red film” in Telugu. After examining the nature of this naming act and its bearing on off-screen politics, I examine Eenadu (P Sambasiva Rao, 1982), a Telugu film that is centrally concerned with crowds and has them stage a revolution in a location that is otherwise known for a cluster of cinema halls and film distribution offices (the Three-Town area of Vijayawada city). The significance of the way this film stages what I call the “Three-Town revolution” to discussions on the urban commons is best appreciated when we note the increasing presence of cinematic crowds, particularly in urban contexts, in Telugu cinema from the 1960s.

To set the stage for our discussion, let us take a brief look at the history of crowd constitution and naming in Telugu cinema. From the early 1960s, top-ranking Telugu stars N T Rama Rao (NTR) and Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR) came to be associated with competing film industry factions as also distinct formal and aesthetic tendencies. NTR was identified with industry circles centred on production units based in Madras, while ANR led the industry faction calling for a relocation of film production to Hyderabad. However, by the mid-1960s, both stars made considerable investments in production and/or exhibition facilities in Hyderabad city. Even as competition between them increased, NTR began to be featured in films that were explicitly concerned with the mobilisation of the masses against a variety of oppressors, including politicians. Thus, producers and technicians of the period working with NTR gradually assembled a new kind of

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male star who was the centre of the narrative and a leader of the masses. Not surprisingly, this kind of cinema led to the rapid growth of a new cultural phenomenon – fan clubs dedicated to the star (from 1964).2 To the extent NTR’s career trajectory closely paralleled that of M G Ramachandran (MGR) in Tamil Nadu, it might be argued that the increasing political prominence of the south Indian superstars coincided with popular cinema’s interest in representing contests over the urban commons, among other struggles of the poor.3 In the rest of this paper, I reflect on what can we learn from this history of cinema in south India that is useful for constructing a notion of the urban commons, coeval as it was with the ascendency of new political elites.4

1 Public, Mass and Counterpublic

Much of the celebratory accounting of cinema as a space for (good) politics in south Asia owes an intellectual debt to certain feminist and postcolonial strands of sustained criticism of what was until then a European bourgeois notion of the public. It is from these debates that cinema scholars created and used a set of tools for the study and interpretation of cinematic spaces (and, by extension, analyses of social-political movements across the world). The goal of this section is to introduce a note of scepticism about cinema as a space for good politics by revisiting these debates and asking what the relationship between cinema as a space for consumption and a site for political action is.

Habermas (1989) poses a question that is very germane to this discussion: if industrially produced culture results in “mass deception” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982), what came before it, or what was replaced by the mass? His answer tends to be “the public”, a bourgeois entity consisting of private individuals (property owners and, literally speaking, husbands too) that also concerned itself with issues of common good. The public sphere was a category and institution that was historically and geographically specific (18th century western Europe). Habermas argues that under the aegis of the mass media, the public sphere was replaced by a “pseudo-public sphere” because “the web of public communication unravelled into acts of individual reception” (1989: 161). The result is a non-public whose opinions are “informal, personal, non-public opinions” (1989: 245). The mass media’s non-public corresponds with C W Mills’ description of the “mass”, which Habermas quotes approvingly. In a mass

  • (1) Fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.
  • (2) The communications that prevail are so organised that it is difficult or impossible for individuals to answer back immediately or with any effect ... (cited in Habermas 1989: 249).
  • In short, Habermas concluded his inquiry by arriving at the mass, for which there was already a description (Mills) and a theory (by way of the culture industry thesis in Horkheimer and Adorno 1982). The mass is at once uncritical and marked by a lack of distinctions between its members – averageness is its hallmark. Clearly, if a student of contemporary popular culture were to follow Habermas’ logic faithfully, what he or she would be left with as an object of examination is the “mass”. However, a number of scholars have argued that the public sphere is too valuable a concept to be allowed to die. The attempts to recoup the public crucially hinge on the success of post-Habermasian public theorists in attributing expression/agency to it. In contrast to Habermas’ public, the public of these scholars talks (back).

    The Postcolonial Turn

    The debate grew richer when it came to the Indian context. Scholars argued that there was a need to reconceptualise the public sphere to account for local conditions. Historical research on south Asia suggests that in the absence of literacy, it was not the written word but the physical gathering of people in open spaces that facilitated the formation of the public in the colonial period. For example, Freitag suggests, “South Asian collective activities in open spaces [the street and maidan] constituted a fundamental form of expression of the polity – a form we may take as a kind of ‘public opinion’” (1991: 67).

    More recently there have been discussions on the public sphere in India with specific reference to print (Jeffrey 2000; Naregal 2001; Orsini 2002, for example). As Udaya Kumar points out with reference to new work on the literary public sphere, “These studies present a new and complex picture of India’s literary modernity, mapping a variegated field of actors and contestations. In this, they effect a shift in focus from earlier scholarship that had by and large privileged an opposition between the new norms introduced through colonialism and a native beleaguered sense of tradition” (2007: 414). The set of problems that cinema throws up are somewhat different and cannot be addressed by these debates, which need to retain a revised version of the European bourgeois public sphere that Habermas talks about even if the authors differ with him. Orsini, for example, states that Habermas’ conception is a necessary point of reference for her work.

    Jurgen Habermas’ concept of “public sphere” is attractive for several reasons. First of all, it was the European (in particular English) public sphere that Hindi and other Indian intellectuals had in mind while evolving their own vision of progress and the modern nation. Secondly, the striking differences between the European public sphere as described by Habermas and the Hindi public sphere of the early 20th century may establish the specificity of the European (English) case and that of colonial India, and measure the distance between the Indian vision and reality (2002: 9).

    Orsini thus suggests that a comparison between the two is both possible and necessary.

    When we move beyond print, as Freitag does, we are struck not only by the non-bourgeois socio-economic origins of the “public” but also its modes of articulating “opinions” and the apparently strange forms in which it comes into being (for example, religious festivities, which Freitag’s work draws attention to). Freitag’s reconceptualisation of the public is partly based on examining three developments critical for Habermas’ own argument in the colonial Indian context.

    (1) The move for “the public” from authority gained through cultural participation as equals, to authority exercised by political participation; (2) the creation of an intermediate sphere between state and people that enabled the “public” to participate by virtue of its critical stance vis-à-vis the state; and (3) the implicit connection between this intermediate sphere and popular participation, which related to the legitimacy claimed by the intermediate sphere to speak on behalf of the “the people” (1991: 70).

    If, as Freitag argues, physical presence in an open place is a first and crucial step in the constitution of a public, which in turn is the entity that addressed the state in the colonial period in forms that had not yet found a clear political articulation, then cinema’s status as a public institution in the early part of the century cannot be doubted. However, an analytical framework now emerges in which none of the constituents of the configuration that Habermas attempted to theorise need to survive for the public sphere as a category to exist. The public sphere can now be conceived of as a space inhabited by non-European, non-bourgeois collectives engaged in festivities (instead of enlightened debate). Further, in the work of some writers (not Freitag), the attachment of value to the public and its activities transforms it into a norm-governed imaginary entity with which actually existing agents may or may not share any resemblance. So what traits, if any, do post-bourgeois variants share with their now-extinct counterpart?

    Recouping the Public

    Among the most influential (and cited) revisionist readings of Habermas is an essay by Fraser in which she argues “something like Habermas” idea of the public sphere is indispensable to critical theory and democratic political practice” (1996: 111). Fraser’s intention is to extract a norm, an ideal, from her reading of Habermas’ work. The task also involves projecting into history (drawing on the work of “revisionist historians”) the non-bourgeois public spheres that apparently existed but were ignored by Habermas. She also sets out to identify strands of his work that “point towards an alternative, post-bourgeois conception of the public sphere” (1996: 112). So whereas Habermas (1989) suggests that he was studying an institution and category that transformed in time, Fraser unambiguously states that she is governed by the need for a concept that will guide critical theory and democratic practice respectively.

    Fraser calls this concept the “counterpublic”. The notion of a counterpublic allows her to deal with exclusion, which is stated to be a major problem with the bourgeois public sphere. She lists members of diverse subordinate groups, including “women, workers, peoples of colour and gays and lesbians”, as constituting subaltern counterpublics. These in turn “formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs” (1996: 123).

    Insofar as these counterpublics emerge in response to exclusions within dominant publics, they help expand discursive space. In principle, assumptions that were previously exempt from contestation will now have to be publicly argued out. In general, the proliferation of subaltern counterpublics means a widening of discursive contestation, and that is a good thing in stratified societies (1996: 124).

    But there is a problem with them as well. “Some of them, alas, are explicitly, anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian, and even those with democratic and egalitarian intentions are not always above practising their own modes of informal exclusion and marginalisation” (ibid). The new avatars of the public sphere now come across as more of a wish than actual collectives. We can at best hope that the activities of these publics are democratic and egalitarian.

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    How do these debates around the public matter inform cinema studies? Of direct relevance to film is Hansen’s (1991) study of early American (pre-Griffith and pre-narrative) silent cinema as an alternative public sphere. Accessibility, argues Hansen, is a key feature of cinema’s publicness. This is, of course, not necessarily a positive virtue but a characteristic of “industrial-commercial public spheres” (Negt and Kluge 1993) that are “indiscriminately inclusive” (1991: 92, emphasis in original). As Hansen demonstrates, early silent cinema was frequented by lower-class immigrants, women and children, and opened new possibilities for them.

    Bounded by familiar surroundings and culturally accepted, within the working-class community at least, the movie theatre opened up an arena in which a new discourse of femininity could be articulated and the norms and codes of sexual conduct could be redefined (1991: 118).

    Further, and this is crucial to her argument,

    Early film-spectator relations were characterised by a social dimen

    sion found later only in a diminished form … The term “social” here

    refers not merely to the ad hoc viewing collective but also the relation

    between films and a particular social horizon of experience … Wheth

    er by virtue of its pronounced intertextuality or its greater dependence

    upon the situation of exhibition, early cinema advanced a more open

    relationship with the arena of public discourse surrounding it, thus in

    turn allowed that discourse to be contested and interpreted in alterna

    tive ways (1991: 93-94, emphasis in original).

    Accessibility, a close relationship to local conditions and a social horizon of experience as well as openness to contestation or interpretation made films and the spaces they were exhibited in constituents of an alternative public sphere. Notably, film crowds are not articulate and thus unlike the bourgeois public or Fraser’s counterpublic that publicly argues assumptions that were hitherto exempt from contestation. We can now see the outlines of a potential argument on cinema as the urban commons emerging.

    Films as Mass-produced Industrial Products

    Hansen goes on to show the situation changed with increasing levels of industrialisation in the field of film production as well as exhibition. Films became mass-produced industrial products watched under stable (and predictable) conditions. Hansen’s analysis follows the broad contours of Habermas’ argument in which the public sphere’s evolution is characterised by a paradox. The public sphere, to begin with, emerges as a consequence of industrialisation and the mediation of culture by the market. The consumption of mass-produced print materials in the 18th century engendered the classic public. This institution is soon, and inevitably, threatened by the industrialisation of culture. And the public becomes the mass. There are parallels between what industrialisation does in the field of cultural production and Horkheimer and Adorno’s (1982) conception of the enlightenment itself as something that cannibalises its own promise. In Habermas, the paradox leads to the conclusion that there was a public sphere in the past but no longer one in the present. Although Hansen sees more recent institutions as constituting a public sphere, the retrospective positing of the public sphere is a feature of her work too – the publicness of cinema declines with the coming of the narrative film and coeval transformations in the American film industry. The purpose of this extended review

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    of the discussions centred on the public, the mass and counterpublic is to bring into relief the connection that Habermas (1989) makes between the consumption of industrially produced culture and the political participation of a new social segment (the bourgeoisie). Whether the public engages in rational-critical discourse and whether or not or its politics is liberal is not of immediate interest to us. The point is that those were traits of a bourgeois institution, which is now no more. Of immediate concern here is that Habermas opens up for investigation the channels of communicative and political action created by the very process of commodification of culture. These, past experience seems to suggest, are only incidentally and tenuously linked to “good” politics.5 Habermas’ work suggests that the expanding sphere of consumption of print transformed politics. I will hold on to that insight without retaining the term “public” or limiting myself to good politics. The public sphere has little analytical usefulness if it is weighed down by the hunt for utopian moments when private or economic interests are incidental to cultural production and reception.

    Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the debates on the public sphere and the emerging discussion on the urban commons, there are some continuities that have the potential to limit the theoretical utility of the latter in the long run. The most debilitating turn in the public sphere debates is, first, the tendency to underplay or even ignore the foundations of the public in commodity consumption (and therefore the undeniable fact of private gain and exchange value). The second is the assumption that post-European and non-bourgeois publics will remain governed by the norms of the former in spite of everything that has changed. In framing the public as an entity that is dedicated to good/democratic/progressive politics, there is either a simplistic reading of interactions in the public domain or an outright refusal to acknowledge that bad politics is also carried out in shared spaces and involve networks of communication.

    In the coming section, I recount a moment when the commoditypolitics linkages grew so strong in south Indian cinema that it makes clear the need for a drastic revision of our understanding of both cinema spaces and politics. To make my case effectively, I will also recount the active role played by a newspaper (only in passing for reasons of focus) in shaping a political campaign. Print, too, is implicated in a blatantly interest-driven and therefore “non-public” mass mobilisation.

    2 Cinema’s Naming Act

    Recall my proposition that cinema has historically engaged in a naming act – as can be richly illustrated by examples from south Indian cinema. I will now add to this that the crowds gathered before the screens were misrecognised in discussions of film and politics alike in the early 1980s as purposeful, politically respectable collectives. The rise of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) with NTR as its primary asset is a story replete with instances of such naming (as misrecognition).

    In March 1982, NTR arrived on the political scene, first in Andhra Pradesh and then on the national scene, with nothing more than his film career to qualify him for the new role. Seasoned political observers at the time felt that NTR’s decision to name his party Telugu Desam was an impulsive one (Narayan 1983: 8). The actor had little previous association with “Telugu” causes within or without the industry to suggest that he was capable of representing the interests of the linguistic group. Moreover, the political logic of linguistic division of states had been seriously questioned in the state twice, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when agitations for separate Telangana and Andhra states broke out. Nevertheless, NTR’s arrival was greeted with much enthusiasm by the masses, who may or may not have agreed with his self-description as the representative of the Telugus. They materialised in the thousands everywhere he went on his 40,000 kilometre roadshow around Andhra Pradesh, three times over (Rao 2003: 56). This enthusiasm was interpreted by the newspaper Eenadu, which solidly backed NTR’s campaign, as a rebellion of the Telugu race (Telugu jati) against Congress rule (see, for example, Editorial 1983). The role played by the newspaper in the campaign has been well documented (Jeffrey 2000). Eenadu was blatantly partisan in its election coverage. And there is no denying that supporting the TDP also meant good business for it.6

    With the formation of the TDP, whose most loyal early supporters were NTR’s fans, fandom extended itself into political mobilisation in obvious ways. But it was not the fan clubs alone that were implicated. In political discourse, the population at large was misrecognised as an extension of the film audience. Not the least because NTR himself addressed his campaign meetings using the rhetorical style of speech and hyperbolic gestures and gesticulations that had come to be associated with him as a lead actor, particularly in mythological movies. The TDP’s opponents dismissed the crowds that gathered around NTR as film buffs. K Vijayabhaskar Reddy, the Congress chief minister before the 1983 election, coined the phrase cinema janam, meaning crowds of film enthusiasts. During a press conference, he even cautioned NTR not to be fooled by the size of crowds attending his meetings because they had come to be entertained (Newstoday 1982). Close to the polling date, Indira Gandhi wondered aloud at a rally how someone who had acted in plays (natakalu) till the other day could become a chief minister. She added that politics was not theatre (rajakeeyalante natakalu kadu). She did not describe NTR’s profession quite accurately but the general drift of her statement was clear enough – politics was serious business and no pastime for amateurs (Newstoday 1983).

    I will retain Vijayabhaskar Reddy’s coinage, cinema janam, for its capacity to evoke the historical problem cinema has had with the purposefulness (or the lack thereof) of its constituency. At issue here is not whether it was more correct to describe the crowds as members of the Telugu jati, as NTR and the newspaper Eenadu did, than film buffs. From the late 1960s, both political discourse and popular cinema had been seized of the surfacing of crowds in very different manifestations in their respective domains. However, with NTR’s crossover, there now appeared to be one single crowd, which was at once politically significant and linked to cinema. On the one hand, it appeared as if the star had brought along his original constituency – films buffs and fans – into the domain of politics. On the other, we notice that crowds appearing on the screen acquired greater political significance. Cinema janam thus had two manifestations and also fused into one composite entity. The cinema of the 1980s, in a manner of speaking, is about this new entity, which was, simultaneously, the crowd that thronged to the movies as part of an ever-expanding circle of fans’ associations carrying over their cinephilia to newer urban spaces and also a part of the political ferment of the period.

    3 The Red Film

    Coinciding with the rise of NTR, the matinee idol in real life politics, in the early 1980s, a new kind of political cinema emerged in Andhra Pradesh. It made restive crowds, seen as a ubiquitous urban presence, its immediate addressee. Telugu cinema of the period made increasingly strident, albeit conservative, political criticism. We notice the repeated targeting of the political establishment, represented as the source of all wrongs, by a crosssection of films. Particularly interesting is the genre known as the communist or erra cinema (red film). Among other remarkable features of this genre is its dedication to the problems of crowds and with crowds. Its origins can be traced to the pro-Naxalite Bhoomikosam (K Balagangadhar Tilak, 1974), which was centred on the mobilisation of the rural masses against feudal landlords and their class allies.7 In the 1980s, it was a creation of relative newcomers to the industry. Red films introduced new actors, directors, lyricists, and script and dialogue writers, and were made by relatively new production companies. The success of the early 1980s red films ensured wide distribution and exhibition of the genre.

    Some of the industry figures associated with red films, such as veteran actor and NTR’s contemporary, Nagabhushanam, were communist sympathisers or party cardholders. Many others, including the genre’s leading star and producer, Madala Ranga Rao, were from Communist Party of India-Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-CPI-M) affiliates such as Praja Natya Mandali. Murari (nd: 283) states that Madala Ranga Rao had acted in “hundreds” of Praja Natya Mandali plays before he entered the film industry, first as an actor and then as a producer. He is also credited with introducing two other CPI(M) sympathisers to the industry who went on to become leading lights of red films in the 1980s, T Krishna (director and actor) and Pokuri Babu Rao (producer). The duo established Eetaram Pictures, a major lowbudget film production company. In red films, rebellion is not just justified but presented as necessary. Crowds are featured, especially in the climax, as agents of violent political action. Propagandist songs and set-pieces such as shots of May Day processions of workers are among their highlights.

    Yuvataram Kadilindi (Dhavala Satyam, 1980), a trendsetting red film, was set in the coastal Andhra town of Ongole – home to prominent red film producers and technicians – and shot on location there. Red films’ aesthetics was in part derived from such shooting on location, which was also part of an effort to keep budgets down. We thus notice a great deal of local geographical detail, rare in Telugu films of the earlier decades. In an obvious reference to Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975), Yuvataram Kadilindi’s climax has the villains being chased by a large crowd, led by college students who have been inspired by their teacher Satyam (Ramakrishna) to become revolutionaries. The film ends with a freeze frame on the crowd gathering at a crossroad. A card

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    reading “Yuvataram Kadilindi” (the youth have moved/risen) appears. A voiceover warns that satyam (truth) will not die and any attempt to bury it will be given a fitting response to by the nyaya peetham (seat of justice, referring to the people).

    Eenadu: Revolution under the Sign of Cinema

    Eenadu, arguably the most politically significant film released in 1982, drew on a number of techniques invented by the red films to make the restive masses its focus. It was shot entirely on location in a neighbourhood known for a very large number of cinemas and film industry-related offices – the Three Town area in Vijayawada city. This film is particularly useful for understanding how popular cinema creates equivalences between film viewing and political mobilisation. The purposefulness of crowds and the usefulness of cinema as a site for and initiator of political action are foregrounded by the film.

    Unlike the typical red film, however, Eenadu features a major star, Krishna, who was second only to NTR in the industry. It was produced by Padmalaya Studio in Hyderabad, then owned by Krishna and his family. Its release in December 1982 coincided with the final phase of NTR’s campaign, when crowds waving yellow TDP flags were a prominent presence on streets all through Andhra Pradesh. While the film does not openly endorse the TDP, it reinforces NTR’s campaign by subjecting the political establishment to strident criticism, occasionally making references to the ongoing election campaign. As mentioned, it was shot on location in Vijayawada, a major centre for Telugu film distribution and exhibition and an important source of capital that flowed into the industry. Coincidentally, the city had rarely been featured in Telugu films. The climax of the film unfolds in the Three-Town area. Among the identifiable locations that can be seen in the film are the busy Eluru Road, renamed Karl Marx Road by the Communist-controlled municipal corporation, and Besant Road.

    Quite like its Malayalam original, the action of the Telugu Eenadu is framed by rallies and crowds at its beginning and end. The film opens with the character played by Krishna singing to a procession of striking workers, imploring them to rise. In the course of the song, he identifies himself as Rama Raju. The reference here is to Alluri Sitarama Raju, who led an armed insurrection of adivasis against the British in the early 20th century in the Rampa and Gudem blocks of the Agency in Godavari and Visakhapatnam districts. The allusion to the rebel is even more obvious to those who knew Krishna had played the lead in Alluri Sitarama Raju (V Ramachandra Rao, 1974), a film loosely based on the rebel’s life. Soon a statue of Alluri Sitarama Raju is seen in the background while the procession moves along. Gathered around Rama Raju are groups of people holding banners of organisations such as the RSU (Radical Students’ Union, affiliated to the then People’s War Group which in 2005 allied with other groups and became the CPI (Maoist)) as well as trade unions of the CPI and the CPI(M) (All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), respectively). Visuals of this procession, which attracts impressive crowds of curious onlookers, are intercut with documentary footage of communist rallies (red flags and banners are visible) in Delhi and other cities. The song

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    ends with the workers reaching their factory. Pulla Rao (Jaggaiah), a fellow worker, who is in league with the owners, invites Rama Raju in for a discussion. The owners attempt to bribe Rama Raju but he issues them an ultimatum to meet the workers’ demands and leaves. On the way out, peon Koteswara Rao (Rao Gopala Rao), his brother-in-law, asks Rama Raju to reconsider. On refusing to do so, Rama Raju is attacked by Pulla Rao and his henchmen. When the police arrive, Pulla Rao kills one of his mates and accuses Rama Raju, who is arrested and sentenced to three years in jail.

    The credits now begin with documentary footage of crowds waving red flags and shaking fists at the camera. We also see Congress (I) and TDP supporters waving their party flags. We even catch a fleeting glimpse of NTR’s campaign vehicle, Chaitanya Ratham, surrounded by a massive crowd. These shots of crowds are superimposed with scenes depicting the rapid rise of Govindaiah – a convict who decides to join politics on his release

    – and Koteswara Rao as politicians. They are garlanded, make speeches and humbly greet people with namaskars. When the credit sequence ends, Koteswara Rao, now a member of the legislative assembly (MLA), is approached by a group of basti dwellers who request him to take action against a polluting factory. He assures them of help but his speech to his constituents is intercut with scenes of a street conjurer’s tricks, leaving little doubt that he is fooling them. Koteswara Rao is shown taking a bribe from the factory’s owners (the same ones who put Rama Raju in jail) and pays a part of it to Govindaiah, now a minister. Between them, they decide that they will not touch the factory. Meanwhile, Rama Raju is released from prison.

    The film then depicts the corruption and decay of various (state and non-state) institutions and the simultaneous rise to further prominence of the troika, Koteswara Rao, Govindaiah and Pulla Rao (now a liquor baron). As the story progresses, we realise that the superintendent of police (Satyanarayana) is on their side, government offices are plagued with corruption, students have become criminalised and their teachers irresponsibly strike work for higher salaries.

    Rama Raju sets about undoing the damage. He works with the basti dwellers to clean up the pollution caused by the industry. Villains’ activities, however, constantly impinge on the lives of the common people. Pulla Rao’s brother Pratap (Sudhakar) tries to rape a college-going basti girl. She commits suicide. Pulla Rao hides his brother and when Rama Raju and an honest police officer (Sridhar) capture him, the villain contacts the superintendent of police and has his brother released. Koteswara Rao encourages his henchman and ex-convict Anjaiah (Tyagaraju) to open a liquor shop in the basti. Rama Raju destroys it. Koteswara Rao gets Anjaiah a licence from Pulla Rao to run a government-sanctioned arrack shop. Rama Raju prevents the basti dwellers from drinking. Koteswara Rao then plots with Pulla Rao to set up a liquor shop at the venue of an all-party meeting which, ironically, is being organised to demand prohibition. Anjaiah says he cannot brew the large quantity of liquor that is required for the occasion. Pulla Rao sends him spirit (methyl alcohol) from a government hospital and has his men teach him how to brew a potent concoction without telling him about its lethal nature.

    Back at the basti, Anjaiah grudgingly agrees to the marriage of his son Suri (Chandra Mohan) to Malli (Radhika), the daughter of Ranganna (Gummadi), another basti dweller. He decides to distribute some of the deadly brew to the basti dwellers during the wedding celebration. Rama Raju blesses the newly-wed couple and leaves to attend the all-party meeting. In his absence, with no one to counsel them, the basti dwellers drink spurious liquor. At the venue of the all-party meeting and in the basti, a total of 2,500 people die, including most of the basti men.8 Anjaiah makes a dying declaration that Pulla Rao supplied the spirit and is responsible for the tragedy. The hitherto honest police officer takes a bribe from Pulla Rao and destroys Anjaiah’s statement. Even the superintendent of police is shocked by his subordinate’s action but is forced to remain silent when he is reminded that senior officials like him have always stood by powerful people. Koteswara Rao now decides to stake a claim for chief ministership because minister Govindaiah has been discredited by the liquor tragedy. He approaches Pulla Rao for financial backing to set up his own party and buy the support of legislators from other parties. The two also decide that Rama Raju has to be killed. Pulla Rao’s wife Lakshmi (Jamuna) overhears the conversation and informs Rama Raju but he refuses to take any precautions. He is attacked and injured by Pulla Rao’s men.

    In the film’s climax, crowds led by Rama Raju prevent Koteswara Rao from reaching the venue where he is to be sworn in as chief minister. Pulla Rao is arrested when Lakshmi arrives on the scene to reveal that he masterminded the plot to murder Rama Raju. The protestors, identified as voters from the politician’s constituency, join Rama Raju in forcing Koteswara Rao to resign from the assembly because he was elected as a member of another party. The villain is told that the people did not vote for him but for the party and its leaders. Having no option, he resigns. Interpreting the developments, Rama Raju says that the people’s action is a lesson which history has not yet taught chameleon-like politicians. He adds that the incident will become the foundation stone for democracy as also a vedam for future generations. He raises slogans, Bolo Swatantra Bharat ki jai and Vande Mataram and collapses. A freeze frame of the falling hero and a card with Eenadu (this day) on it in red brings the film to a close.

    Cinema Janam and Its Spaces

    There are throwaway references in the film to the actions of politicians that shame the entire Telugu race (jati), recalling NTR’s speeches on insults and injuries to the Telugus. Extending the film’s political critique, Koteswara Rao is made to bear some resemblance to M Chenna Reddy, a baton-wielding former Congress chief minister. Defections engineered by Koteswara Rao recall Chenna Reddy’s success in winning over opposition MLAs after the 1978 election (Innaiah 1986: 158). There are also sarcastic references to the chief minister, whom we do not see in the film, spending most of his time in New Delhi.

    Eenadu creates multiple equivalences between cinema and politics. Interestingly, in spite of references to communism and regular sightings of red flags, Rama Raju’s relationship with the communist parties and party politics in general remains fuzzy.

    And yet he a pure political agent – he has no life outside his politics, nothing that can be called personal. There is no hint of intimacy between Rama Raju and Lakshmi (Pulla Rao’s wife). His doting sister’s attempts to integrate him into her family or share its wealth fail repeatedly.

    The film makes an interesting link between the political churning of the period and the film star. The line-up of the spectrum of communist organisations (from the RSU on the extreme left to the mainstream left trade unions) behind Rama Raju is accompanied by repeated references to Krishna’s films. In the opening sequence, our star-protagonist is seen in a new genre setting – recognisably that of the red film with its flag-waving crowds. What he brings with him is his superstar status, manifest in multiple references to his earlier screen roles, and the capacity to attract crowds of people. The juxtaposition of documentary footage of generic crowds and “real” crowds of diegetic onlookers and fans who wave, run or simply gather in strength around Krishna at outdoor locations, offers a demonstration of the power of the star as a rival, and indeed superior, rallying point to the political party. In this star-protagonist, around whom the masses gather spontaneously, we have found the agent of the revolution. Whereas the red and yellow party flags demonstrate the political intent of the masses, the star-protagonist alone can ensure that their energies are channelled towards transformative ends. Notice that the villains rise to power during Rama Raju’s absence, as if political unrest has somehow thrown up false leaders.

    Whereas in the Malayalam version communist graffiti provides the backdrop of some of the action, especially in the basti, in this film such pedestrian realism is shunned. Instead we see posters of Krishna’s earlier films marking the city as a space that is under the constant gaze of the star.9 At one point in the film we see a poster of Alluri Sitarama Raju pasted on the foundation of a Gandhi statue and the hero points in the general direction of the statue/poster while reminding the MLA about sacrifices made by freedom fighters for the nation. Cinephilia thus replaces party ideology as the context against which the action is played out.

    Cinema itself is presented in the film as the resource for resolving the crisis of political representation. Masses condemned to be ruled by manipulative and self-seeking representatives are in a state of rebellion. Naturally, the leader of the rebellion has to come from without the political system, and that outside corrupt politics is cinema. Having set up the problem of political representation, the film performs its naming act, interpellating the crowd as a particular kind of political agent to underscore cinema’s importance for the resolution of the crisis. During the climax, Rama Raju refers to the crowd as an ocean (praja samudram) and also a gathering of Telugu biddalu (children). The gathering is also compared to the collective that brought the mighty British Empire to its knees. The power and purposefulness of the mass is thus stressed, but in effect it is the magnetism of the leader that is foregrounded. There is a memorable scene of Rama Raju blocking the path of Koteswara Rao’s procession by lying down on the road. Instantly, the entire crowd follows his example, leaving the politicians and policemen standing.

    What do we make of the crowds that materialise at regular intervals in the film? Murari (nd: 182) points out that Krishna had

    december 10, 2011 vol xlvI no 50

    made use of crowds of fans and curious onlookers (who inevitably turn up at outdoor locations) in his earlier films. The climax of the star’s home production, Devudu Chesina Manushulu (V Ramachandra Rao, 1973), was shot against the backdrop of such crowds. The practice that Murari credits Krishna with inventing is one of incorporating cinema janam, who hang around at shooting venues, into the fiction. As a result, the star and his fans appear in the same frame. In Eenadu, this practice reaches its high point as we see the thoroughfares of Vijayawada choked by thousands of people. The camera packs them into the frame tightly, recalling newspaper photographs of NTR’s campaign, which highlighted the capacity of the star-politician to gather the masses around his person.

    During the film’s remarkable climax, Krishna and the crowds are seen together in the Gandhinagar area of Vijayawada’s Three-Town, the heart of coastal Andhra’s film business. The scene of the final confrontation between the villain and the masses can easily be identified as Sanyasi Raju Road, whose entrance in the 1980s was flanked by Dr Rai’s Sex Clinic (now Bakshi Hospital) on the left and Alankar theatre on the right. Coincidentally, this is exactly the point at which a visitor to the city, making his or her way from the railway station or bus stand, turned into the streets housing the city’s film-related real estate. In other words, this is a location throbbing with cinema janam. The climax has the crowd making its way out of the Gandhinagar area – in the same direction that filmgoers move after screenings – to confront the villain. The protesters in all likelihood comprised the locality’s morning show crowd. There is a further layering of references to cinema in the climax when, at the very end of the film, Rama Raju bares his chest daring the police to shoot him in precisely the manner that the rebel does in the climax of Alluri Sitarama Raju. When the hero exposes his body we see that it already has bleeding wounds, as if the rebel has travelled across time to make an appearance in the here and now.

    But, of course, it is Krishna offering an insight into the film star’s ability to transform the film spectator into a mobilised political subject. The invocation of history to critique present-day politics is thoroughly mediated by the star’s own cinematic past. The star as mobiliser stands before cinema janam recalling his screen roles and re-enacting them to mobilise them. The subject thus mobilised is a film buff, indeed a fan, many times over – he or she has gathered to watch the star perform on and off screen and has the reading competencies to catch the multiple intertextual references to the actor’s oeuvre.

    Eenadu suggests that politics is a field crying out for the intervention of cinema. The political intent of the crowd and the complete mastery Krishna/Rama Raju has over it, and the references, even in his death, to the other (Alluri Sita) Rama Raju are all indications that cinema is implicated in mass mobilisation in complex ways. It is a site for crowd formation and also an interpreter of its agency. The crowd in the film does not have a voice. But the leader will speak on its behalf and also interpret its silence.

    Conclusions

    Popular Telugu films of the 1980s conceive of urban public spaces as sites of political action. What is interesting about the period

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    december 10, 2011 vol xlvI no 50

    and its films is the implications they have on discussing the urban commons. If we were to include cinema in discussions on the urban commons, given the nature of the beast that is the cinema, we are left with no choice but to detach the study of city spaces from the quest for good politics – or rather not misrecognise the former as an always/already site for the latter.

    NTR in 1982-83 was part of a relatively new problem for the Congress (I) – the entropy of the political subject that was constantly displaying a propensity to form a mass in the course of multiple and (only) occasionally overlapping axes of mobilisation. From 1967 onwards, when the first major Maoist uprising took place in the Srikakulam forest, Andhra Pradesh has continually witnessed a series of agitations and mobilisations involving large numbers of people. In the post-Emergency period, Naxalite groups became increasingly important players in localised mobilisations of tribals, backward castes, unorganised workers, and students. New constituencies, such as dalits, were assembled from older ones. The prominent axes – caste, occupation, region and language – do not fully account for the tendency that was established even before NTR arrived on the scene and continued long after his election. What we can say with certainty is that there was a proliferation of mobilisable constituencies and agents who were engaged in their mobilisation. Cinema was bringing the mass gathered before the screen faceto-face with a version of itself on the screen, framing a mode of political participation that was pivoted on leader figures marked by their distinction from those they led. Crowds of the kind seen in Eenadu are certainly no public. They are the mass ornament of the leader.

    But, of course, a democracy’s politics is not the same thing as democratic politics. The popular offers us an excellent opportunity to study the former. The thrust of the argument of this essay is not that cinema’s significance as a site for acting out social and political conflicts is to be doubted. It is rather that an excessively normative vision of the commons can close off potential exchanges between cinema studies and urban studies. Cinema studies’ contribution to debates on the commons could well be this – while there is little doubt that the commons are political battlefields, there is no guarantee that constituents of the urban commons are dedicated to good politics. If the discussion on the urban commons were to be agnostic to the nature of economic activity in the spaces under consideration (for street vendors are as much a part of contemporary capitalism as malls) and the kind of politics these sites facilitate, then the notion would be invaluable to a variety of disciplines, cinema studies included.

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    Notes

    1 Clapp and Meyer point out, “It is characteristic of common goods that it is difficult to exclude others from access or advantage; the right to exclude is considered to be a fundamental right of private property. Subtractibility means that when one individual uses a common good, it subtracts from the total amount of this good available for others to use” (2000: 6).

    2 There are parallels between the careers of NTR and his Tamil counterpart MGR from this point, which can be traced to Kathanayakudu (K Hemambharadhara Rao, 1969), remade in Tamil with MGR in the lead as Nam Nadu (Jambulingam 1969). The hero, a clerk in a municipal office, takes on a syndicate of villains, including a politician, a contractor and a fair price shop owner. He battles the villains on behalf of the urban poor who have occupied government land to build their houses.

    3 The genesis of the screen mobiliser coincided with the rise to prominence of Indira Gandhi in national politics and the turn to left-populism by the Congress (I). In the early 1980s, when NTR crossed over to politics, he had to his credit some 300 films, including dozens made in the previous decade in which he repeatedly played a leader of the masses. In film after film, crowds of people were addressed, educated, consoled, saved and generally represented by the hero who almost inevitably belonged to a higher class-caste background.

    4 See Balagopal (1987a and 1987b) for analyses of the political significance of NTR’s rise and the consequences it had for the rural poor.

    5 My argument here is similar to Jeffrey (2000), who, working with a revised version of Habermas’ conception of the public sphere, notes the social and political consequences of the increased consumption of newspapers in different parts of India. He remarks that newspaper-induced public activity “need not be liberal or benign … ‘public’ is not a synonym for ‘loving’, ‘harmonious’ or ‘wise’” (217).

    6 The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures Jeffrey cites show that Eenadu’s circulation reached a new high in the reporting period January-June 1983 when NTR was elected chief minister.

    7 The red film genre in Telugu was coeval with a similar genre in Malayalam. Ratheesh Radhakrishnan argues that Sasi and scriptwriter T Damodaran, the latter a known left sympathiser, worked together on the “mass film” or “red film” (2010: 37-40). The distinguishing feature of this genre in Malayalam, Radhakrishnan notes, is that unlike films made by communist sympathisers in the 1970s, there was no investment in socialist realist aesthetics. Like the films of the Sasi-Damodaran team, Telugu red films featured communist party activists as mobilisers of the masses, fighting corrupt and morally degenerate political elites. Interestingly however, these two parallel developments do not seem to have been influenced by each other. With the exception of Eenadu, which was a remake of Sasi’s Malayalam film with the same name made earlier in 1982, I have not found evidence of a Malayalam counterpart being a point of reference for a Telugu red film.

    8 This tragedy has many parallels in real life. James Manor (1993) draws attention to the regularity with which death and disability have resulted from the consumption of hooch in Indian cities. Citing newspaper reports, Manor points out that between 1972 and 1992 there were least 15 major incidents of liquor poisoning, claiming the lives of around 2,000 people in different cities. In 1981, the worst of these incidents took place in Bangalore, killing more than 336 people. In 1982, there was an incident in Vypeen, Kerala (Manor 1993: 18). The film was not off the mark in directly implicating powerful politicians and the police in the tragedy. Manor notes that the man accused of brewing the poisonous liquor in Bangalore was

    88

    released on bail due to the efforts of “a senior figure in the Congress (I) Party” who visited the accused in jail and pressured officials into releasing him (1993: 139).

    9 The films include Alluri Sitarama Raju but also, for example, Mayadari Malligadu (Adurthi Subba Rao, 1973) in which he plays a village ruffian sentenced to death by hanging for a crime he does not commit. He accepts his fate, spreading cheer among his fellow prisoners and is saved at the last minute when the truth is discovered.

    References

    Balagopal, K (1987a): “An Ideology for the Provincial Propertied Class”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 22, No 50, pp 2177-78.

    – (1987b): “Karamchedu: Second Anniversary”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 22, No 33, pp 1378-81.

    Clapp, Tara Lynne and Peter B Meyer (2000): “Brownfields and the Urban Common: Common Property Frameworks in Urban Environmental Quality”, Center for Environmental Policy and Management, Kentucky Institute of Environmental and Sustainable Development, University of Louisville, Working Paper, accessed on 20 August 2011, http://cepm.louisville.edu/Pubs_WPapers/PDF_ Docs/commons.pdf.

    Editorial (1983): Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre, Eenadu, Vijayawada edition, 6 January, p 3.

    Fraser, Nancy (1996): “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press), pp 109-42.

    Freitag, Sandria B (1991): “Enactments of Ram’s Story and the Changing Nature of ‘The Public’ in British India”, South Asia, Vol 14, No 1, pp 65-90.

    Habermas, Jurgen (1989): The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Oxford: Polity Press).

    – (1996): “Further Reflections of the Public Sphere” in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press), pp 421-61.

    Hansen, Miriam (1991): Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).

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    Hess, Charlotte (2008): “Mapping the New Commons”, paper presented at the 12th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, England, 14-18 July.

    Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W Adorno (1982): Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum).

    Innaiah, N (1986): State Government and Politics: A Study of Andhra Pradesh Politics, 1885-1985

    (Hyderabad: Scientific Services).

    Jeffrey, Robin (2000): India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-language Press

    (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    Kumar, Udaya (2007): “The Public, the State and New Domains of Writing: On Ramakrishna Pillai’s Conception of Literary and Political Expression”, Tapasam, January, April, pp 413-41.

    Manor, James (1993): Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City (New Delhi, Newbury Park, London: Sage).

    Murari, Katragadda, ed. (nd): Telugu Chalanachitra Nirmatala Charitra 1931-2005 (Hyderabad: Telugu Film Producers’ Council).

    Narayan, Venkat S (1983): NTR: A Biography (Sahibabad: Vikas).

    Naregal, Veena (2001): Language Politics, Elites and the Public Sphere: Western India under Colonialism

    (New Delhi: Permanent Black).

    Negt, Oskar and Alexander Kluge (1993): Public Sphere and Experience: Towards an Analysis of Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

    Newstoday (1982): “Ee ‘Cinema Jananni’ Nammaku. Bolta Padtav”, Eenadu, Vijayawada edition, 3 October, p 1.

    – (1983): Rajakeeyalante Natakalu Kadu, Eenadu, Vijayawada edition, 2 January, p 1. Orsini, Francesca (2002): The Hindi Public Sphere 1920-1940 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    Ostrom, Elinor (1990): Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press).

    Radhakrishnan, Ratheesh (2010): “What Is Left of Malayalam Cinema?” in Sowmya Dechamma C C and Elavarthi Satya Prakash (ed.), Cinemas of South India: Culture, Resistance, Ideology (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 25-48.

    Rao, Venkat I (2003): Oke Okkadu (Hyderabad: Monica Books).

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