Volume 5 : Cover Topic - Contemporary Indian Cinema Society & Culture (3)

Black and the Crisis of Indian Neoliberalism

Dennis Redmond


Part of Bollywood' undeniable charm has always been its acute ene of timing. Mehboob Khan's Mother India (1957) captured thes immering rural class warfare at the dawn of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, while Ramesh Sippy's larger-thanlife Flames [Sholey] (1975) tapped into the seething urban discontent at its end. More recently, Ashutosh Gowariker's The Tax [Lagaan] (2001) effortlessly rebroadcast the admixture of sleek neoliberalism and virulent neo-nationalism characteristic of the late BJP era. But as Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black (2005) goes to show, there are times when the culture-industry runs ahead of its own clock.

Black is as much of an anomly in contemporary Bollywood as the defeat of the Far Right in India's 2004 elections. While the film's title suggests the ironic negation of India Shining, it would be more accurate to read the film as a subtle (albeit unconscious) commentary on the larger crisis of India's own indigenous neoliberal project.

The film's storyline focuses on the education of Michelle McNally, born blind and deaf, by a troubled but gifted teacher of the disabled, Debraj Sahai. Yet Bhansali did more than just deftly avoid every Bollywood and Hollywood cliche about disabilities in the book. He created a film which resonated with some of the deepest proto-politicl anxieties and geo political concerns of contemporary India – concerns shared, in turn, by mych of the global semi-periphery of the contemporary world-system.1

The result was a film which swept away the hearts of the Indian mass audience, while igniting the imagination of professional critics. In the midst of a culture-industry famed for visual and acoustic excess. Black had no song-and-dance numbers, no improbable romances, and no neo-paternalistic reconciliation scenes. Instead, Bhansali employed camera shots which never let go of faces, balletic panoramas straight out of the Jon Woo playbook, a sophisticated musical score, and a tigtly-spun script, whic borrows just what it needs from Artur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962), the classic Hollywood version of the Helen Keller story, and not a jot more.

Part of the credit is due to the scintillating presence of the Big Boss himself, Amitabh Bachchan, in a sublime performance as Debraj Sahai, Michelle's teacher. Yet if there is one single reason for Black's success, it is the astounding performances of Ayesha Kapoor and Rani Mukhherjee, who play the child and adult roles, respectively, of the sightless, deaf but determined Michelle McNally. Mukherjee previously held minor roles in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). Yet this is unquestionably her breakout performance. Over and over again, she proves to be the perfect counterplayer for Bachchan's titanic onscreen energy. Sangeeta Gala intensively trained both Bachchan and Mukherjee for their roles, and Bhansali had the insight to restrain the camera and let his actors fill up the screen. This is all the more suprising, considering that Bhansali's previous films featured a more conventional, male-dominated cast, as well as plot themes which never strayed far from the Bollywood canon. Bhansali's 1999 Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam [Straight from the Heart], starring Salman Khan, Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai, showcased the clash of Indian and Italian national identities in an otherwise mainstream romance comedy, while Devdas (2002), a remake of the 1954 Dilip Kumar original, was a lush costume epic featuring Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai.

Arguably, Black is the belated corrective on the neonationalism of these earlier films. While the film is set in the colonial 1920s, it never names colonialism as such. Even more striking is the fact that the central visual theme of the film is the polar opposite of black, namely white. The film begins with a white snowfall, and traverses a number of starkly lit environments, before ending in a white hospital room.

This visual palette has three significant effects on the storyline. First, it dissociates the characters from their immediate time-period, making it easier for us to imagine them crossing over into our own time-period – or put differently, making it easier to see what was already neocolonial about the colonial era. Second, the stark backgrounds and restrained contumes serve to accentuate the physical frames and dialogue of the characters – in particular, the profusion of sign-language and spoken English, which lends an unusually rich sense of linguistic and somatic density to the film. The effect is to reconcile the intensity of a black-and-white film with the spatial openness of the color panorama.

Third, and perhaps most interesting of all, Michelle and her Anglo-Indian family are not marked as national bodies, in need of salvation (or repudiation) by a national hero. The ambiguous figure of the Anglo-Indian family, with one foot in the British Empire and another in a feudal landholding class, is upstaged by the even more ambiguous role of Debraj, the brillant but alcoholic teacher who rescues Michelle from a life of complete noncommunication.

The reason is that the key innue of the film is not visuality per se, but communicativity. Bhansali taps into the preeminent ideology, wish-fulfilment and technological iron of the multinational era, namely communication – whether through cellphones or the Internet, TV broadcasting or VCDs. This may explain why Michelle's story does not come to a happy end with her initial acquisition or language, a.k.a. her symbolic entrance into the space of national culture. Instead, we follow her frustratingly slow and painful mastery of writing and literary competence, all the way to the university level. Put another way, Michelle is that rarest of all things in Bollywood, the laboring subject. This is a deeply subversive move in a neoliberalized Indian culture-industry dominated by the ethos of market gratification and speculative consumption, keyed to the codes of patriarchal benevolence. One of the most consistent forms of this benevolence is the Bollywood marriage-plot, which had two major functions in the post-1947 era. In addition to disciplining female bodies and domesticating female labor-power, the marriage-plot also reconciled the clash between the older communalities and the newer commercialisms, by recourse to the figure of the benevolent patriarch. Khan's Mother India, for example features a mother who steps into the disciplinary shoes of the absent father in order to uphold the marriage-plot, while the twin romances between Veeru and Basanti and Jai and Radha in Sholay are literally and figuratively policed by Thakur, that ambiguous symbol of a wounded but still-powerful nationstate. Even Lagaan features a late variation of the marriageplot, namely the love triangle between Bhuvan, the hero, Gauri, his future bride from the local village, and the Elizabeth, the sympathetic Englishwoman who teaches the villagers the rules of cricket.

Black almost completely negates the marriage-plot, although its lingering afterimage is still visible in the subplot involving Michelle's sister. There are two intriguing models for Bhansali's strategy, one derived from the Hong Kong film culture and the other from the rich tradition of India's late 20th century women writers. Many of the leading Hong Kong wuxia or action-adventure films of the late 1970s, for example Drunken Master or Snake in Eagle's Shadow, portary the hero subverting the rule of the Chinese family patriarch through an arduous program of martial arts training, salted by moments of creative improvisation. The second model, visible in classics such as Sulekha Sanyal's The Seedling's Tale (1956) as well as the greatest works of Ambai and Mahasweta Devi, is the reappropriation of the European ‘‘bildungsroman’’ or coming-of- age narrative as a form, which discloses the struggle of Third world women for education and literacy as part and parcel of the worldwide struggle of laboring bodies for dignity and social justice. Both strategies are present in Black, in the form of the emphasis on women's professional empowerment and mobility outside the family sphere, and the gestural simplicity and balletic energy of the wuxia films. Both themes converge in the use of sign language, and one of the key motifs of the film is the use of hands to draw, paint or mould messages on surfaces of all kinds.

This suggests, in turn, that the 1920s setting of the film is what Zezek would term a geopolitical MacGuffin – a false clue, meant to distract us from the workings of quite another narrative. Certainly, Bhansali's strategy of critiquing contemporary neocolonialism by using the 1920s and 1930s a template is not unknown to the east Asian cinema, where Yimou Zhang's pre-Revolutionary settings in his classic concubine films, Red Sorghum, Judou and Raise the Red Lantern. But where Zhang reappropriates the Chinese concubine novel in order to both celebrate and subtly critique the Dengist party-state, Bhansali is interested in the specifically South Asian Social transformation.

The key clue here is the ‘‘missing marriage’’, the abortive love affair between Debraj and Michelle, where a brief moment of mutual physical attraction triggers their separation. Debraj's lifelong vocation as a teacher is trotted out to provide an immediate explanation, but this is unconvincing. Debraj has clearly never been (nor aspired to be) a Mahatma. How, then, to explain this sudden burst of self-renunciation? What may seem to be a gratuitous plot twist turns out, on closer inspection, to be a brilliant move, which raises the narrative to a whole new level. Debraj must go, simply because Catherine is finally developing the power to transform communication into action – the power, in short, to autonomously desire, or in culture-industrial terms, to be her own director. This complicated internal transformation is portrayed by Mukherjee with astonishing subtlety and skill, most notably in her graduation speech to her classmates. Although she dedicates the speech to her absent teacher, her stage presence, her performance and her achievement are indubitably her own.

When she finally runs into a frail, debilitated Debraj yeras later, she has developed the tenacity and wherewithal to confront a very different kind of absence – Alzheimer's disease has robbed him of his memory and identity. In fact, Debraj's ultimate role is probably closest to the role of the debilitated mother in European director Krzysztof Kieslowski's film Blue. But where the mother symbolizes a decrepit national broadcasting space, replaced by a henceforth pan-Europan mass media, then Debraj's fate is clearly meant to symbolize the crisis of quite a different mediatic space. Given Bachchan's overwhelming stature in Bollywood, this can be nothing less than the contradictory market position of the Hindi-language Bollywood film, whose formerly impregnable national monopoly is being challenged by foreign media producers, as well as regional film and television broadcasting industries within India itself. This challenge is not merely metaphorical. According to the media firm Screen Digest as well as industry analysts, total revenues of the India TV market reached $ 2.87 billion in 2003.2 Of this amount. TV advertising expenditure or ‘‘ad spend’’ totalled $ 1.06 billion. (By comparison, 2003 TV ad spend in India's closest demographic equivalent, China, is estimated at $ 3.31 billion). The European Audiovisual Observatory estimates that Indian cinema sold 2 billion tickets last year, yielding box office revenues of roughly $ 646 million.3 Today, television broadcasting has displaced the Hindi-language cinema as the main revenue source of the Indian mass media.

If Bachchan can be said to symbolize the crisis of the Bollywood film-industry, then Michelle can be read as the symbol of India's own indigenous video culture, which has succeeded at carving out its own market niche in the teeth of the most ferocious competition. What Black provides, in short, is a self-reflexive critique of the media culture spawned by Indian neoloberalism during the 1990s.

On the negative side, this neoliberalism led to a Westernstyle process of whitening, as foreign satellite and cable TV programming began to privilege bland, homogenous beauty queens over identifiably Indian actresses (the emblematic shift from Nargis to Aishwarya Rai). This is also evident in a spate of recent Bollywood romances, e.g. Nikhil Advani's Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), where Shahrukh Khan's character 9s reduced to the mere agency for the creation of a whitened, neoliberalized couple, indistinguishable from their Hollywood equivalents.

On the plus side, India's indigenous media industry began to thrive as never before, as local and regional programming emerged to challenge foreign imports.4 As the Mumbai World Social Forum goes to show, contemporary Indian resistance movements against neoloberalism have begun to tap into this programming in a number of interesting ways.

Debraj's departure can thus be read as the curious selfabnegation of an Indian state which, beginning in 1991, began to literally and figuratively forget itself, allowing a constellation of indigenous India and multinational capital to impose its own brand of neoliberalism on one-sixth of the world's population.

This is confirmed by the conclusion of the film, where Bachchan and Mukherjee achieve an almost transcendental level of on-screen intensity. The scene alludes to Michelle's first breakthrough, when she learns the world for ‘‘water’’ be tactile association (at the time, Debraj had to practically dunk herr into a fountain). The key word at the end is also ‘‘water’’, only the issue is no longer the transformation of tactile impressions into words. It is, rather, the symbolic restoration of Debraj's lost national memory, via a profound gesture of multinational solidarity: one hand communicates with another, tracing out the fragile symbolic hope that the Ice Age of Neoliberalism is, at last, coming to an end.


1. ‘‘Global semi-periphery’’ in this context is defined as regions of the world-system which are located outside of the First World, but which have daily access to television, films and telephones. This world include the former Second World, plus coastal China, urban Indonesia, urban India, and much (although not all) of Latin America, Eastern Europe and Russia, and Southeast Asia – or roughly 60% of the planetary population.

2. Data from Indian Television.Com's report, co-authored by Anil Wanvari, CEO, Indian TelevisionDotCom and Vivek Couto, Executive Director, Media Partners Asis. Web: http:// indiatelevision.com/

3. This is from the European Audiovisual Observatory's Focus 2005 report. Web: http://www.obs.coe.int/

4. One of the interesting side-effects of this media boom is the emergence of thriving regional media cultures, especially in the Tamil, Kannada and Telugu-speaking regions of India. On the level of media production, one could point to the creation of the Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. In the cinematic field, Rajiv Memon's Kandukondain Kandukondain [I Have Found It] (2000) is an excellent example of a Tamil language movie which rewrites a classic Jane Austen tale into a south Indian neo-nationalism. In Menon's version, the heroine is wooed by a former military officer turned entrepreneur, whose body has been damaged in a counterinsurgency operation, and by a glib neoliberal speculator, who has dazzling wealth. In the end, the speculator's wealth turns out to be largely fictitious, while the indomitable spirit of the ex-officer ultimately prevails.



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