Our imagination flies, said Vladimir Nabokov, and we are its shadow on earth. In Hindi cinema, our imagination has stopped flying, and the earth is now barren, blasted and shadowless. This drying up of imagination, this shriveling of the mind hasn’t happened overnight, but has played out, like a mournful dirge, for some years now. The crisis consists precisely in the fact, said the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. The old in India died before the onset of liberalisation, and the new still hasn’t seen the light of the day. At times, you see its crowning, but then it --- perhaps because of the menacing darkness, perhaps out of strange timidity, perhaps out of chaotic confusion --- refuses to come out of the womb of imagination. Is imagination, which is unable to send forth a new being to replace the old and doddery, dead? What are the reasons behind the crisis in Hindi cinema?
Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth, said Nietzsche, because they don’t want their illusions destroyed. After the Indian flag was hoisted in 1947, cinema tilted sharply towards the left, and a soapy socialistic zeal underpinned it for a time. This was the time when Raj Kapoor serenaded the masses with his bumpkin brashness and Guru Dutt scripted lavishly mounted scenes of lament and Mehboob Khan birthed Mother India and celebrated the new Indian ethos, which was largely Victorian but had a folkish Indian patina around them. The women slaved away in houses; the men worked their bums off in fields; and the misfits were swatted away into an always boiling cauldron of amnesia. Awry and absurd things the nation wanted to forget as it forged a new and straight and socialistic path in all its postcolonial glory. Hindi cinema developed a language and grammar, modelled on the successes of Soviet greats such as Eisenstein and Pudovkin. And it developed its own illusions, which had the nation in their thrall for some time. Somewhere, in the 70s, as Bachchan rode with all his disheveled and turbulent angry-man persona into tetchy Indian consciousness, the illusions began to founder. But the truth -- of an angry, seething, restive, unruly nation -- was not seen by the wizards of Hindi cinema. Or they, enamoured of the corny and cloying illusions they spun and their chokehold on the audiences, pretended to be blind. The saccharine language of their cinema and its melodramatic grammar just could not understand the rage-filled nuances of India that was slowly having a million mutinies. Imagination began to have its death rattle in the mid-80s, and finally stopped breathing when liberalisation with its lapidary logic and luxuriant largeness and lightning locomotion became the new Indian imagination. Cinema, grown gargantuan on the illusions it had fostered when India wore a leftist loincloth, could not cope with the changes and went behind the neoliberal curve the nation took to find its voice. This was the time when the Joker became the Hero in cinema and buffoonery became a cultural leitmotif. Truth remained out of bounds, dragooned in despair. The layers of unnecessary fat cinema acquired during the socialist years could not be shed as it revelled and wallowed in its illusion-fed obesity. India started leaping ahead and cinema stayed stuck close to the Hindu rate of growth. The Karan Johars and Sanjay Bhansalis mounted their DeMille-type extravaganzas and laid a sumptuous feast of illusions, but somehow the truth evaded them. India needed a Nuri Ceylan or an Asghar Farhadi who could shatter illusions and show us the mirror and lead us, like all good art, to truth; but what we got was a gobbledygook of glitz and grandiloquence. Hollow illusions harking back to some vague past or a teflon magnificence that stood shakily on a Gucci scaffolding with neoliberal screws to tighten it.
I can’t go on, I’ll go on, said Samuel Beckett. The first part of that Beckettian aphorism is true of the Hindi theatre movement, but the second is so distant from it. As distant as Kashmir is from Kanyakumari. Hindi cinema never borrowed much from modern theatre. The angst of Mohan Rakesh remained tied to the stage and unfortunately never travelled to the screen. In America, the laboratory of cinema, theatre has always provided support to Hollywood. Talent and technique together have travelled to California from the prosceniums of New York. All the magic of this combination is visible in films such as August: Osage County, which is based on a Tracy Letts play about a sundering family. Sadly, Hindi theatre has more or less shut its shop. Because illusions can’t sustain theatre, which is more lifelike than cinema.
Alongside the implosion of theatre happened the slow death of the Nayi Kahani movement in Hindi literature. Not that Hindi cinema borrowed much from the likes of Nirmal Verma and Kamleshwar, but the stories they penned had the potential of being turned into good cinema. In the 70s, a parallel movement of cinema sprung up that tapped into some of these stories, but the language and grammar of these films were borrowed and painfully grafted on to Indian cinematic tenets. What resulted was boring cinema, a soporific counter to the mindless entertainment being produced from the byzantine gullies of Bollywood. Our films lack stories and this explains the recycling factory that has now become a crucial pivot of Hindi cinema. Even songs, which remained a domain of the angry and lament-filled poet in the years after Independence, are now being borrowed and twisted to the pell-mell beats of mangled globalisation. The Nayi Kahani movement, had it lived, would surely have found resonance in today’s cinema. But some stay doubtful because Bollywood and its ludicrous language still has no space for a brilliant zeitgeist-capturing writer like Uday Prakash.
After the souring of globalisation and neoliberalism, the language of cinema has veered from love of identity to nationalism to downright idiocy. The streak of identity politics has been nicely tapped by directors such as Anurag Kashyap, who have gone local to cheerlead provincial panache. Remove them from this milieu and you get Bombay Velvet, a metropolitan film but a magnificent disaster. As politics gets ugly and undone, cinema’s language and syntax will continue to climb up and down like a sensex graph.No art passes our conscience the way film does, said Ingmar Bergman, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark room of our souls. A recent film that went into the dark room of the soul was the Tamil indie Super Deluxe (though it had philosophical mumbo-jumbo and syrupy confusion as denouement), but the story is not shaping up for Hindi cinema. The dark room of our souls are bare, waiting for a presence -- that luminescent light from the Bergmanesque magic lantern --- to step in. Does anyone know how long will the wait be?