Stability as a Contemporary Metaphor in the Downfall of Indian Cinema

Stability is the bedrock of the Indian aesthetic tradition. Its gradual erosion is one of the singular factors contributing to the decline and downfall of this tradition. Nowhere is this more visible than in Indian cinema.
Stability as a Contemporary Metaphor in the Downfall of Indian Cinema

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”BINGE WATCHING“ IS A TERM whose popularity has soared in direct proportion to the detonation of the OTT epidemic. The first usage of the word binge, recorded in A.B. Evans’ Leicestershire Words, Phrases and Proverbs (1848), was as a dialectical verb meaning, “to soak in water a wooden vessel, that would otherwise leak; to tighten up; putting hot water into a churn to make the wood swell before putting in the milk.”

A.B. Evans, the Headmaster of the Market Bosworth Free Grammar School also supplies another delightful connotation of binge: “A doyed a-bingein' [i.e., died binging] is a not uncommon comment on the death of a drunkard, implying that his constitution was not strong enough to stand the process of making himself drink-proof.”

By 1854, binge was used both as a noun and verb to almost exclusively mean “soak up alcohol, drink heavily.” In fact, the Kannada-ized English word “tight,” has retained the original connotation of binge: i.e., heavy intoxication. Some phenomena are universal constants.

Around World War I, the usage of binge extended to gluttonous bouts as well. Fast forward seventy years and the term, Binge-watching trumpeted its appearance in 1996, the gilded age of videotapes and the dawn of DVDs in America.

A year later, Netflix was born as a DVD rental service.

Fifteen years since, binge-watching has been transformed into a quasi idiom in what is known as popular culture, and OTT has globalised binge-watching and Americanised Indian cinema in an asphyxiatory sense.

On the consumer side, the ongoing binge-watching frenzy evokes Somerset Maugham’s terse but eerie description of the visuals of those infamous Chinese opium dens of the early 20th century:

It is dimly lit. The room is low and squalid. In one corner a lamp burns mysteriously before a hideous image and incense fills the theatre with its exotic scent. A pig-tailed Chinaman wanders to and fro, aloof and saturnine, while on wretched pallets lie stupefied the victims of the drug. Now and then one of them breaks into frantic raving. There is a highly dramatic scene where some poor creature, unable to pay for the satisfaction of his craving, with prayers and curses begs the villainous proprietor for a pipe to still his anguish.

Maugham has painted in prose a compelling miniature of addiction. Without stretching the analogy too far, the “villainous proprietor” in our context can be likened to faceless and impersonal technology which literally pushes the binge-watching fix in gazillion packets of Zeros and Ones at lightning speeds right down into our palms.

The global OTT streaming market is currently valued around $ 140 billion and is pacing ahead roughly at a CAGR of 15 per cent. The spinoff or ancillary market that it has spawned is the movie/web series review industry, which has created thriving, niche media houses and wealthy, individual reviewers. These are substantial if not undeniable economic indicators of the extent of normalised binge-watching.

Even without making any value judgements about the binge-watching phenomenon, there exists an eminent case for examining the course of a recent social and cultural trajectory.

Chalo, picture dekhne chalte hai!

“GOING TO THE MOVIES,” “chalo, picture dekhne chalte hai,” used to be the ubiquitous indicator mostly denoting an event involving family or friends or both. To a large extent, it still is, and it cohabits with the rapid and pervasive incursions made by OTT. But the haste with which all production houses across the world are scurrying to hawk their goods on streaming platforms barely weeks after the theatrical release tells a separate story.

In pre-liberalisation India, movie-watching involved deliberate planning, budgeting and project execution. The first victims of the post-liberation era were the drive-in theatres. These were not merely movie-watching expeditions but a gamut of sensory experiences one used to boast about. Single-screen theatres were felled next, and the ensuing consequences are familiar to most of us living in the regime of multiplexes.

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But the underlying social impulse or outlook towards cinema had remained the same for decades: apart from being just another form of entertainment, cinema was simply a pastime or an enjoyable hobby at most. Among other things, technology, globalisation and wealth-generation at unprecedented levels have altered this social and cultural landscape in a far-reaching fashion.

Two other intrinsic forces were at play as well.

The first was that the middle class India of the pre-liberalisation era actually frowned upon watching movies excessively, regarding them as corrupting if not corrosive influences. This socio-cultural attitude has proven to be one of the most durable civilisational inheritances, having its origins almost in the dawn of drama.

Every Dharmasastra treatise unequivocally and unanimously warns about the tainting influence of drama and reserves severe condemnation for actors. Likewise, every text on statecraft including the Arthasastra recommends unleashing spies to invigilate the behaviour and lifestyle of actors and to track their movements.

Spilling well over into the 19th century, Europe also had punitive laws punishing actors who entered a village or town proper on the grounds that they would corrupt and debase the morals of fine young virgins belonging to respectable families. For centuries, actors were forbidden from receiving sacraments unless they gave up their immoral profession. A phrase that I heard in my childhood about actors emanated from the perceptive tongue of an impoverished Kirana shop owner. It has stayed with me: “yeh sab log toh bade kothi ki Randi hai.” (All these people are whores inhabiting opulent brothels). It might sound harsh and vulgar even, but recent revelations from Bollywood have unambiguously proved that reality trumps even the vulgarest imagination.

The pre-liberalisation era in India also boasted of an impressive marquee of truly well-informed and some, rather erudite reviewers who were able to place both a specific movie and cinema overall, in perspective. It is still a treat to read those archives, and especially, the standard of movie reviews published in South India were truly exceptional and remain a collector’s delight. Filmmakers were justifiably terrified of these reviewers.

There was also a non-filmy side to this: it was only on rare occasions that filmmakers and film stars were called upon to discourse on issues beyond films…on everything from the GDP to Mangalyan.

Woven with the first was the second force. This was the class that comprised both filmmakers and refined connoisseurs. It correctly regarded cinema as an art form and an aesthetic experience. This was not merely an outlook or an academic approach that this class had consciously cultivated. It was the natural flow of a millennia-old aesthetic tradition that they were proud to have inherited, imbibed and then infused into their cinema.

The essence of the two aforementioned forces is that a healthy balance and stability were maintained. Propagating agitation, promoting extremism and pushing the toxic Leftist ideology using cinema as a cloak was still nascent. That propaganda would come much later as we shall see.

Stability as the Bedrock

STABILITY WAS THE BEDROCK of Indian cinema. Stability is what produced hundreds of eminently watchable family dramas which were not only commercially successful but some also became classics. Stability is what prevented movies with repetitive themes from becoming tainted with staleness. Stability is what disbarred the ennui that comes from over-familiarity.

Stability was the bedrock of Indian cinema because it has its durable roots in the Indian aesthetic tradition itself. It is precisely what birthed the hundreds of Ramayanas and Mahabharatas and derivative literature and art over several millennia, sprawled across the entire sacred geography of Bharatavarsha in multiple languages. Poor A.K. Ramanujan who wrote his masterly nonsense titled 300 Ramayanas failed to grasp this fundamental truth of the Indian aesthetic tradition.

The erosion of stability is perhaps the single largest contributor to the near-comprehensive destruction of Indian cinema. Stability is also a great, contemporary metaphor of the decadal decline of Indian cinema. Its most visible manifestation is what is known as Bollywood.

But to understand how things plummeted to this pathetic nadir, we need to go to the very origins.

To be continued

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