Bollywood, in the realm of the kitsch
DISCOVERING BOMBAY’S STUDIOS
| “Bollywood cinema? That’s kitsch!”: this statement probably stands as a universal truth for us westerners. Excessive, flashy, artificial and bad taste, Bollywood seems to be a thousand miles away from the refinement of high art. As a German word – and thus a concept specifically related to industrial countries which are saturated with identically manufactured goods – and as an anti-artistic concept, can we actually use the word ‘kitsch’ to describe a cultural product from a country which has a different historical, social and political context? Does kitsch exist beyond cultural borders and beyond our western gaze?
19th of February, 2011, RC Dairy. An old farm situated in the surrounding area of Mumbai now houses the capital’s studios. The smell of the animals remains but the Bollywood style colours have managed to get there and impose their presence. I am meeting Sushant Singh, a rising star of the independent from Bollywood Indian cinema. He welcomes me into his upstairs dressing room, he is friendly and talkative. He has been cast as the “villain” in the eponymous TV show Gulaal following his outstanding performances in various ‘serious’ films. His character has a moustache and make up emphasizes his already quite dark complexion. This is in marked contrast to his performance yesterday, when he was presenting Wanted High Alert with a light skin and closely shaved. We are in a small village in Gujarat, where the dark skin symbolizes his ‘dark’ character, in the same way as the presenter’s light skin serves to attract the audience. Sushant’s Dushyant outfit consists of white dhoti (trousers), golden yellow kurta (long shirt) and a yellow and fuchsia scarf. Did I hear you say kitsch? No need to panic if you think the colours are flashy, it is simply because you need to get use to this extravagant sparkle… However, the kitsch is not just in what you can see.
The sets are amazing: we are in the village chief’s house. Impressed, I ask Sushant: can we actually find such mansions in Gujarat? He answers yes, it is possible. In addition, the pieces of furniture on display were made precisely where the show is set, for the sake of authenticity. The show does not reach record breaking viewing figures but it is much loved by critiques who appreciate its cinematic quality. The show’s makers want to reach, technically speaking, an equivalent to film quality. The excessive furniture, the flashy colours, the logic of excess: it feels like we fell straight into a kitsch dream. But what if our use of this word ‘kitsch’ is only a sign of our arrogant language which changes everything that erases singularity and sobriety into anti-art and accepted alienation? (1) The Punjab is usually the favourite location in India to set filmic narratives. If more and more directors are using the Gujarat as a filming location it is not just because it represents a new geographical space on TV but also because it is a very colourful State. Colours: that is what India loves, because they are exciting and vivid, the more there are the better. The costumes are admittedly more shiny and richer than those of the actual villager’s. They look more like party clothes but this is not surprising in a country where colour is a cultural requirement. These colours are far from greys, browns and beiges of a Parisian’s outfit. For the Parisian, vivid colours seem to be an attack on good taste and the rules of social etiquette. Thus, if the sets and the costumes appear to be what is most visibly kitsch according to us, from an Indian perspective, the word is inadequate. Even more inadequate to describe Gulaal, a show which insists on filling the narrative frame with authenticity. However, we have to look beyond the final product at the conditions of its production in order to define the kitsch criteria.
Sushant Singh is on the shoot everyday. He receives his lines on the day, in his dressing room. Depending on the time he has to shoot, he gets more or less time to memorize and to get use to his lines. He admits that at the beginning he found it hard. But with time, he got to know his character well and acting Dushyant is now evident once he is on the set. And anyway, there always is a prompt around to remind the actor of their lines. The sequence is shot in small sections so that the actors only have to memorize a few words at a time. There are also a lot of close ups, typical of Bollywood cinema, in which all of the emotional intensity of the scene has to be in the character’s faces without the help of any words to express feelings in front of the camera. There is also a prompt to help the actor imagine the scene in case he/she has to act reaction to a scene that has already been shot. Are these kitsch conditions of production ? This is nevertheless not so far from Fellini’s methods. He used to not give the actors any script in order to direct them straight on the set, for the sake of spontaneity. He was especially concerned with the spontaneity of the actor’s body. He would go so far as to work his actors body like a sculptor does with it clay. This is what Kleist defines as the grace of the marionette; the marionette’s body moves without being aware of itself. Kleist, in On the Marionette Theatre, uses the example of a young man who, whilst drying of his foot, looked at himself in a mirror and realized he had the same posture as an ephebe in a famous painting (2). Having become aware of how beautiful his gesture and position were, he never succeeded in repeating them. According to Kleist, grace can only be found in a spontaneous body.
Because the writers of the show are frequently replaced, script inaccuracies can appear. In this case, the actors have to modify their lines themselves in order to make them coherent again with the character’s logic and also to make sure that dedicated viewers will not find mistakes. But these are just the uncertainties of mass production: spending the whole day on the set, shooting in a rush in order to broadcast immediately, changing the writers from one day to another, writing the script in a rush and using only basic shooting techniques. For example, to shoot a family argument the makers would use a wide shot in order to show all the characters involved – simple and efficient. To show an emotion they would use a close up on the actor’s face, unflinching, staring directly into the camera. To display dramatic intensity they would use thunder sound effects and tight shots on the action showed several times from different points of view, as well as shots of characters’ reaction visible only to the audience while the main characters are oblivious. Overall, this looks a lot like industrial conditions of production. It is also true that there is a real lack of time and resources. The show has to be shot very quickly, without wasting any time, in order to feed Indian imaginations with sparkling images. When the viewer watches TV, he/she wants to escape reality, to immerse him/herself in a dream, in a cathartic space, which helps him/her to bear daily life.
French people sit in front of their TV, turn on the first channel (TF1) and get entertained by the ‘freaks’ of reality TV shows, to a point where they saturate the collective imagination. By contrast, when people watch TV or go to the movies in India, they want to escape reality. They do not escape into a realm of the grotesque, or the horrendous, but rather into the sublime. The trick is that in Bollywood, sublime means excess, exuberance, an abundance of colours and outrageousness. It is therefore very far from Kant’s definition of the sublime, and from our own romantic imaginations (3). But does that give us the right to a define Bollywood’s art in terms of a definition that is rather anti-artistic? Does that give us the right to subsume the aesthetic of Indian cinema into the aesthetic of the kitsch, which has a negative connotation and which is a concept specific to the western world?
Special thanks to Sushant Singh
Translated in english by Suzanne Daurat
(1) A.-A. Moles, « Objet et communication » in Communications, Paris, éd. du Seuil, 1969, n°13, p. 20.
(2) Heinrich Van Kleist, On the Marionette Theatre, 1810.
(3) Kant defines the sublime in terms of two temporal moments. First, the soul is elevated when confronted with nature’s beauty, this is a time of wonder. Second, the moment of the fall and of the realisation of the miserable human condition confronted by the unfathomable immensity of Nature, similar to Pascal’s conception . “For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all.” (Pascal, Thoughts, §72)