GENESIS OF THE INDIAN POPULAR CINEMAThe Seventies: Ways Of Escape - part one
(Graham Greene: Ways of Escape).
"The myth (of seventies' popular cinema) contains a searing criticism of society... Society does not work... it is weak and ineffective In such an environment the myth directs the ambitious or talented individuals to reject social values in favour of a strong independent group."
Greene's observation is extendable to the Indian cinema viewer in the seventies. India in the seventies became a good place to escape from War in 1971; social unrest; emergency; weak coalition governments; the restoration of the mainstream party; the steadily increasing inflation eroding the power base of the old middle class; the rise of the new rich - the brash robber barons; the proliferation of the urban poor in the sprawling slums; their steadily growing links with the mafia - smugglers, drug traffickers and plain criminals who connected at the other end to the nouveau riche; the rise of the impoverished peasants under ideological activists; the increasingly barbarous communal riots sparked off by the awareness that the centre is not holding, and power is up for grabs; the explosion of high living in the cities - the high rise apartments, the vulgarisation of the Indian culture by the Euro-American cultural invasion which alienated the urban middle class from the people; the corruption of the people themselves by cheap films and lowered standards of elite behaviour; the astonishing advances in science, specially defence oriented areas juxtaposed with the failure of the onslaught on poverty.
An astonishing kaleidoscope and a variegated scenario unequalled anywhere else in the world. It is not surprising therefore, that a sea change came over the popular cinema in the seventies. The change was not merely an escape, the hunger was not merely for strong leadership. There was a whole shift in the sensibility of the Indian people at all levels and this was responded to by the change in cinematic styles and themes - not in a direct but distorted,and to an extent,complex fashion.
Umberto Eco, the Italian semiologist, has dealt with the similar change in Europe and America. A summary of the relevant reflections in his Travels in Hyper-Reality (Picador 1987) is given. The Pax Americana is breaking down and the barbarians are threatening civilisation. Insecurity is the key word. Such a climate generates outcasts, mystics and adventurers. The grip of rationality and reason is loosened. This does not mean that institutional religion is coming back. What is emerging is a vulgarised, crude adoration, a sense of terror, and an irresistible fascination for the powerful and the omnipotent: This analysis is applicable to the influences on our cinema. We have our own variations of adorations and of the omnipotent.
The film is about the vicissitudes of one Satyavati, daughter of a Brahmin priest who becomes a devotee of Santoshi Ma, a goddess created as his daughter by Lord Ganesh. As a result of her prayers Satyavati gets Birju, a farmer, as her husband. But the devotion of Satyavati to Santoshi breeds jealousy - both in the heavens and on earth. The wives of the gods warn Satyavati not to continue her devotion to Santoshi, but Satyavati is steadfast. As Das says, "This leads to a great conflict between the principles of Shakti represented by the goddesses and Sati represented by Satyavati". Satyavati is separated from her husband and subjected to torture by her in-laws. She is brought to the brink of disaster by the goddesses before Santoshi Ma decisively intervenes and lifts Satyavati and her husband to prosperity.
At first sight, the story would appear to be an account of a female Harishchandra whose salvation is effected by the familiar device of deus ex machina. But the environment of the seventies is present in a number of obvious ways.
A second difference is the importance given to rape scenes. There are two attempted rapes on Satyavati. The second is more explicit. The camera focusses on breasts and stretched legs. The pandering to sexual titillation is as obvious as in the very recent film Param Dharam,whose title also aspires to sacredness. A last feature of the film is its crass surrender to materialism. When Birju is raised to riches by Santoshi Ma, he makes a crude display of wealth. From beggary, Satyavati is raised to an expensive sari-clad, big mansion-living status. The contrast with Sant Tukaram of so years ago where the sant gently chides his wife and children on their greedily grasping the finery sent by the king could not be more obvious.
If Santoshi Ma escapes by way of mythological victory, Pakeezah escapes by way of defeat which is well concealed by exquisite nostalgia, by a romantic paean to a precise, if flatteringly, remembered past.
Unlike other Muslim socials there is little joy here. Pakeezah wins by its ambience which is built up by songs, sets, dialogue and music.
Pakeezah's songs are an unforgettable legacy to our nation. They sum up, celebrate and exhaust a culture marked by deliberation, light play and a romanticism that hovers on the edge of sensuality. This is why two more forays into Lucknow/courtesan culture - Umrao Jaan and Mandi - could not touch the hearts of the people. Meena Kumari in her last memorable performance tolled the bell of this particular brand of romance well and truly. She wrote finis to that genre. Serious students of Muslim socials should watch her close-ups in Pakeezah - resignation, amusement, finicky distaste, sophisticated egoism - all flash across in brilliant succession.
The dialogue very faithfully reproduces the rhythms and flavours of living speech. This is a culture half in love with easeful death.
Shakti: "energia", consorte di una deità, energia femminile attraverso la quale agisce il dio, soprattutto Shiv; Satī: "sposa fedele"; figlia di Daksha (figlio di Brahmā) e consorte del dio Shiv, si immola sulla pira per un'offesa recata dal padre allo sposo.
in "Cinema in India", Vol. II, No. 1, January-April, pp. 24-27
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