28 January 2012

THE DISCREET CHARMS OF A FILMI DIALOGUE


The two most recent books in Film Studies published by Permanent Black are 
 Ravi Vasudevan's THE MELODRAMATIC PUBLIC 

 
and Monika Mehta's CENSORSHIP AND SEXUALITY IN BOMBAY CINEMA.


Below, the two authors converse with each other about their books and related matters:

RAVI VASUDEVAN ASKS MONIKA MEHTA …

1. RV:     Censorship is often considered a negative act, as something which cuts out images and sounds. Could you outline the rather different theoretical premises of your book? I’m particularly interested in the way you pose the relationship between censorship laws and practices, and film-making's own relationship to the acts of cutting, selecting, and classifying.
MM: As you mentioned, censorship is most associated with the practice of cutting, and the censors’ are seen as film “cutters” or “hackers,” who distort a “complete” film or a “director’s vision.” My task in the book is to draw attention to other practices of censorship, namely, certification and classification in order to show how they frame our understanding film, impact film-going practices and define a film’s potential audience.   In addition, I wish to show that these practices also are central to film production and distribution.  After all, editing (i.e. cutting) is central to film-making and to the production of meaning.  This editing is done both keeping in mind and actively soliciting distributors, reviewers, and now, audiences’ opinions.  Editing also helps craft or undermines stars’ careers.  More recently, the practice of including deleted scenes on DVDs cultivates cinephilia and autership as well as generates profits.

2. RV:       How would you position your book in relation to recent feminist interventions in censorship debates in India, especially regarding issues of sexuality?
MM: I am indebted to the recent feminist censorship on censorship.  For example, both Ratna Kapur and Shohini Ghosh’s work has been very important to me in terms of thinking about women as sexual agents as opposed to sexual victims.  More generally, their work, along with work of other feminist scholars, has informed my thinking on agency and resistance to practices of censorship.  Like most feminist work on censorship, my work is interested in thinking through how female sexuality is produced through the process of cutting (state censorship and film production); it extends feminist scholarship by examining how practices of certification and classification produce normative notions of sexuality.  To that extent, my work conceives of sexuality not only as “exposure”, “nudity”, genital acts or their anticipation, but also as reproduction of tradition (e.g. kinship relations). 

3.    RV:     Your book undertakes novel research through its ethnography of the censorship process, shifting, or at least expanding focus beyond the realm of laws, official decisions and so on. How does this complicate our understanding of censorship?
MM:  By spending time at the Central Board of Film Certification, speaking with officials and Examining Committee members, I realized that certification was central to process and practice of censorship.  Also, I saw varied hierarchies at play when members along with the Regional Officer viewed films. I observed that context, language, and class played significant roles in their assessments of films. Class was not only central to how they conceived of the potential viewing audience, but also to their interactions with one another.  Thus, I came away with a more complicated understanding of the operations of a state institution.   I also discovered the conversations amongst the members’, and the reasons for particular decisions were radically reduced and edited in the official records.   It alerted me to the potential silences in the official documents.

4.  RV:      Could you outline the archival resources we need to research censorship as  a process, not only in terms of policy and institutional history, but as a history of the pressures it has been subject to, and of the strategies exhibitors and viewers use to circumvent its authority?
MM: The records, which would provide a macro-view of state censorship, include government acts, reports commissioned by various governments on cinema (1927, 1951, 1969, 1981), supreme court and high court judgments on cases, and parliament debates and discussions on censorship.  To understand the micro-practices of state-censorship, one would need to look at the Central Board Film Certification’s records on each film.  These records generally include information about film’s certification, cuts, classification, and a summary of examining committee’s discussion.  In cases that are controversial, the files also include internal memos and letters, letters from the public supporting or protesting a film, and legal documents. These documents reveal that the state is not a monolith; in addition, the letters from public both show alignment with and resistance to state practices. The film and its visual cuts would also be important to view. Film magazines and  newspapers provide insight into the industry’s views and audiences’ opinions on this process. Finally, I think it would be useful to examine exhibition practices—considering both interpolation and cutting—often occurs at these sites.

5.    RV:    For some time now you have been interested in a more global history of Bombay’s Hindi cinema, looking at the emergence of new genres and modes of address, but also how Hindi film has exercised a presence in other film-making contexts. This is arguably a major current nowadays, with several articles, books, and anthologies devoted to “Global Bollywood”. What is your perspective on the study of contemporary global film cultures?
Studies of “Global Bollywood”, transnational Chinese films, Iranian films produced in exile (to name a few) expand our understanding of globalization and film production, de-centering Hollywood as an authoritative site.  These studies help to demonstrate that globalization is not a one or two way street, with Hollywood always occupying a central role.  Benny Toratis’ Israeli film, Kikar Ha-Halomot/ Desperado Square, which I have written about, draws our attention to different routes of film circulation and the distinctive pleasures of Hindi cinema.  Most importantly, it shows that the transnational circulation of Hindi cinema is not a phenomenon of the present.  The film both remakes and visually quotes Raj Kapoor’s Sangam.  I very much appreciate the fine textual analyses which consider how family, diaspora, and desire have been addressed and represented in post-liberalization Hindi films as well as ethnographic studies have thoughtfully considered the current reception of Hindi films at various diasporic locations.  These studies largely focus on the present.  In doing so as a whole, they suggest that globalization and the transnational circulation of Hindi films are contemporary phenomena.  I hope future scholarship examines earlier histories (of not only Hindi cinema’s) but Indian cinema’s circulation.

6.     RV:       Name 6 books, outside your field, which have been important to you.
MM: I’m going to cheat a little on this one because in addition to film, postcolonial and partition studies have been important research and teaching fields for me: Assia Djebar’s Fantasia:  An Algerian Cavalcade; Raymond Williams, What I Came to Say; Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land; Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark; Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Khol Do” and “Sharifan;” Gyan Pandey’s The Construction of Communalism in North India.



MONIKA MEHTA ASKS RAVI VASUDEVAN …


1. MM:  The concept of melodrama has been central to your scholarship. Why does this concept appeal to you?
RV: In the early 1980s three films, seen in very different contexts, made a strong impression on me. These were Mukaddar Ka Sikandar (Prakash Mehra, 1978), Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957),  and Subarnarekha (Ritwik Ghatak, 1962). They're very different movies, but I recall being startled by their capacity to capture, without inhibition, deeply felt emotions, of loss, of marginality, of victimhood. These movies developed strong expressive registers, if in different ways; and they were shot through with all sorts of contrivances at the level of plot, most notably of coincidence. What looks like contrivance from one angle comes across as relentless fate from another. The performance style, heightened form, and relentless, almost ruthless logic laid bare by these movies urge us to consider how destinies and histories, public and private, are entwined; how large historical transformations can be captured through individual lives. The method may be foolhardy in its bid to convey large, often inchoate feeling, but the results can be fascinating. What I discerned instinctively when watching these films evolved into more systematic analysis and reflection, prompted by reading Thomas Elsaesser, and then Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill on the phenomenon of melodrama. Often seen as realism’s other, melodrama emerged as mode of story-telling and expressive form intimately tied to realism but refusing realist protocols of plausibility, causal logic, actorly restraint. Its appeal and interest lies in its recourse to a certain grandness of design, its breaking of boundaries between the public and the private, and its bid to engage the big picture of historical change. Melodrama is then a key to understanding how the world has changed in the modern epoch, and international scholarship suggests how productive it has been as a category with which to explore the film cultures across the world.




2.  MM:    The Melodramatic Public refers to films that traverse almost a century of Indian cinema. In what ways has the use of melodrama in Indian cinema shifted or changed?  More specifically, what role has technology played in re-crafting melodrama?
 RV: One of the issues I wanted to stress is that melodrama and popular cinema are not the same thing. The popular is a compendium of things that have appealed to audiences over time, including song, dance, comedy and so on. Melodrama intervenes in the popular format to facilitate a form of navigation, to cultivate a narrative architecture which shapes spectatorship as an emotional experience. Crucially, the private public axis, the home, its dispersal in the world, and its recovery, provide a key narrative itinerary. Melodrama could cross genres, as I try to suggest in examples from social, historical, and even mythological and devotional films. The public/private architecture is key to melodrama, and my argument is that while melodrama is often seen to be contrived in the way it personalizes big events and historical change, its architecture ensures that the personal is not properly personal, for it’s always publicly rendered. This comes across in various ways: in the failure of the couple to separate out into a nuclear unit, or the implication that such privatized resolution is inadequate to the larger, inclusive drives
demanded of justice. There is publicness not only in terms of narrative architecture, but also in the way characters express themselves and scenes are staged, with a higher pitch and resonance. More privatized forms of melodrama, centred on the household rather than on the wider public realm, did  emerge, especially in Bengal, and cultivated more fine-grained sentiment. And this has tended to develop in the contemporary epoch, with new genre formation, as I'll discuss later.

Technology is a fascinating subject in melodrama studies. In the first instance, I think stage technology contributes significantly to film, and the sensational components of the so-called Parsi theatre, documented by Kathryn Hansen, Anuradha Kapur, and others, suggest lines of influence on film melodrama: painted backdrops in studio sets, miracle scenes motivated by divine manifestation, and as the continuing tradition of Andhra’s Surabhi theatres shows – very much inthe tradition of the Parsi plays – the influence cuts both ways, with theatre simulating cinematic effects of the dissolve and parallel editing. If theatre affords one node of technological intersection, then the radio and gramophone seem  important reference points for the particular musical and dialogue structures – sentimental and declamatory – which compose melodramatic form, and which for which playback is particularly important. We will observe, especially from the 1950s, various other stylistic intersections, including American noir chiaroscuro and Soviet montages “horizon” shots. All of these lend a particular global period specificity to Bombay melodramas. These issues need to be better explored, as does the use of zoom shots that emerged from the 1960s and gave melodrama’s sensational qualities a new fillip, sometimes tediously so. In the book, I try and develop an argument about how digital formats and their challenge to cinema’s association with realism provide new challenges to rethinking melodrama’s symbolic drives.


3.   MM: Discussions on  spectatorship (and formal analyses of film texts) have assumed that the spectator is an “individual” or a singular entity.  In contrast, The Melodramatic Public invites us to think about spectatorship in terms of a community, or a “public”. Could you comment on how this theoretical move expands our understanding of spectatorship? Through this theoretical move, do you seek to question a conventional disciplinary division between the film spectator (the domain of film theorists) and audiences (the domain of mass communication or more recently, anthropology and sociology)?  If so, what do you find problematic about the division?
RV: Film Studies developed a disciplinary space from the mid-1990s in India by working in close dialogue with a cultural studies in which a post-colonial political theory had a strong presence, There was a fairly sustained complication of the idea that the sovereign individual subject and citizen defined the horizon of historical possibility. Community often emerged as a key alternative frame; I think this works sometimes for cinema, as in the notion of a community of readers/viewers/listeners who share cultural references and way of making meaning. But to suggest that subjectivity was defined or bounded by trans-individual sense of self failed to engage a more complicated spectrum. The alternative idea of a cinematic public, solicited by a kind of ‘direct’ address from the screen, offered to me this possibility of a spectrum, where different ways of engaging the spectator – individual, communal, social – could have a coexistence. And yes, this move seeks to explore on-screen and off-screen discourses to connect better with the variety of things that an audience was simultaneously exposed to. Recently, the work of Sabeena Gadihoke, on a well-known 1960s scandal, explores how a public is constituted through multiple registers, including tabloid sensationalism, photojournalism and film narrative; Ranjani Mazumdar is another scholar expanding the way we can think about cinema by situating it alongside technologies of visualization and travel, of fashion and interior design and urban planning. And a quite different sense of publicness emerges from Shikha Jhingan, whose work on the film song, sound and interiority suggest that the cinematic public can, in some instances, be a very intimately conceived one, too.  All of this holds onto a film's textuality but avoids too inward a disciplinary discourse by expanding the frame of reference and research.


4.  MM:    The Melodramatic Public points to new genres which have emerged in
post-liberalization India.  What industrial and political changes have made possible these new genres? What new elements in film form or grammar have these genres introduced?  Do these genres assume and constitute new publics?  If so, which ones?
RV: I draw attention to how new genres, including gangster films, erotic thrillers, ghost movies, road films, and so on have emerged. None of this is meant to suggest that other, hoarier genres such as the family social film have been displaced, and, as we know, it was this genre which attracted most attention and spectacular box office returns when it was revamped by the Chopras and Karan Johar to target audiences abroad and in India. The multiplex, offering possibilities of targeting niche audiences in small auditoria for longish runs is one part of the story, a possibility exploited both by smaller players and by corporates who realised the importance of product differentiation. The other part relates to the multiple revenue streams now available, moving beyond theatrical exploitation and the sale of music rights, onto a spectrum of televisual and dvd related returns, which the small player could utilise as much as the big producer. Formally, some of the new genre work mirrored elements of comparable Hollywood genres, but never in quite the same way. Often centred on the modern couple, and models of romance, household economy and consumption profile associated with them (cars, condos, supermarkets), it’s very rare that they can resolve matters within the precincts of the couple, or reproduce its space as autarchic. They often carry a sense of unease with new lifestyles. Politically, this may relate to the continuing uncertainty of urban transformation, the question Partha Chatterjee poses when he asks, rhetorically, “are Indian cities finally becoming bourgeois?” The parallel question, have Indian films finally achieved their aspiration to be like Hollywood, leaves a similar trail of imponderables that arise from the glaring inequities within which we live.


5. MM:  Could you tell us about your current research on documentaries? What lines of inquiry are you pursuing and what methodologies are you adopting?  Through this research, which concepts in film studies are you interested in re-thinking or developing?
RV: Well, I’m really enjoying this new project, without really always knowing where it’s going. My plan was to explore non-fiction films in all their diversity, from official films such as newsreels, propaganda films, wartime films by army units, through to a host of short film and non-fiction genres, with names like “topicals” and “actualities”, as well as films made for and about industrial processes, promotional films for particular industries and products, travel films, cultural films, training films, instructional films, educational movies, many of which would be shown outside theatres, in classrooms, factories,
corporate offices, army barracks, clubs, associations, trade unions. I’m particularly interested now in amateur films, a term which needs to be complicated as there were significant intersections between the amateur, the official and the professional. I suppose the project is about how film came to acquire such a presence at so many different levels and contexts, from the most public to the most intimate, how it in a sense becomes continuous with life in the twentieth century, and what this means. In the process I hope to contribute to an emerging trend in Film Studies scholarship, which is to look at the way an infrastructure emerged, based on the circulation of technology, industrial organisation, state intervention, and the movement of practitioners across different spaces. Many of these issues overlap in crucial ways with so-called mainstream film culture, as infrastructures are shared amongst different types of cinema, and I
hope there will be interesting connections which might ask us to think afresh what going to see a movie meant.

6.  MM:    Name 5 or 6 favorite books outside your core research areas.
RV: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Scandinavian crime novels, (Sjowall/Wahloo, Mankell, Larrsen, Nasser,
Nesbo)
Glaswegian crime novels (Rankin, Denise Mina)
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
A Princely Imposter? By Partha Chatterjee
Writing Social History by Sumit Sarkar
Cultural History: Between Representations and Practices by Roger Chartier
The Birth of the Modern World by Christopher Bayly

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