Sunday, 18 January 2015

Musings on pop-culture

While one agrees that pop-culture can not be taken as a serious narrative of a nation, yet to some extent a country's thought process can be gauged by it. It would require a separate post altogether to explore the origins and widespread dissemination of pop-culture, so I would restrict this post to understanding its ideas, messages, techniques and concepts in our times.

Hollywood continues to be a dominant factory churning out influential movies year after years for Western and (to an extent) non-Western world. Without naming him, in one of the interviews, a certain "Mr. Perfectionist" of "Bollywood" was asked the question as to why we do not produce movies like Inception? The answer from this individual was something to this effect: dream within a dream within a dream - they are able to think so much and bring it down to the level of execution; we're not even able to think!

This answer is telling at multiple levels and in multiple ways. 

Let us look at the maker of Inception and the ideas which his movies bring to the audience. Nolan is probably the finest example of (if one is to speak in terms of how the French use this term) Anglo-Saxon abilities and skill in cinema. He was born to a British father and an American mother and holds dual nationality - there is a lot more which can be written to add details to this point, but that will be tangential to the key argument this writer wants to make here. Some of the ideas which his movies point toward are: exploration of space, exploration of dreams & illusions, that of morality etc. Despite having made movies on such diverse subjects, there are some points which remain common in all of them: dead wives, for example ;). Ok, jokes apart, on a serious note Nolan almost always seems to know his subject too well and more importantly, he is building upon the tradition of Western knowledge in all these subjects - this includes the knowledge of film making (note down this paticular point, we'll get back to this) as well. One can look for the list of books he read during his early years to make out why he seems to have an almost impeccable grasp of the complex stories he is telling. He does it without diluting the original thinker and yet explores something new. Readers are recommended to read the articles here and here for more.

From an American point of view, his latest film Interstellar has the echo of the grand march of History, under the Western flag: the Manifest Destiny or Frontier myths - both closely associated with the idea of American Exceptionalism. So when TIME magazine puts him on the cover page, there should be no surprises, he is continuing and further strengthening, nurturing the Western (Anglo-Saxon) worldview. Understanding this point is important as it is key to understanding the comparatively abysmal state of popular movies in India.

This writer is no fan of Filipino movies, but I would invite anyone reading this to please watch the popular Filipino hits of recent times and then compare their artwork, dialogues, stories, narration, plot devices with popular Hindi movies. Some may be surprised to find out so much similarity in them. For example: exploration of relationships among youngsters, characters delivering dialogues in their native language and then switching over to (American) English seamlessly, shot/photographic composition etc. It is worth pondering upon as to why a civilization as old as ours is producing material  which is non-distinguishable from a former American colony. 

Let us now get back to the point I mentioned earlier viz. knowledge of film making. Here, I would like to generalize and not restrict it merely to Nolan movies. Let us pick up one area: photographic composition. Western visual media in general, and movies/music videos etc. in particular, almost always use a rule of photographic composition called the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is fairly simple. It states that the object of interest should never be placed in the dead center of your image/shot. Rather, imagine a 3x3 grid dividing the picture/frame into 9 equal squares or rectangles, and then the object of interest should be placed at one of the intersections or at the border of/inside one of the "thirds". Below are two examples of this rule. First one of them is a landscape shot, while second one is a macro (close range):

Note the placement of the tree, skyline and mountains in the first and the flower in second image. Both of them are classic rule of third shots. Next time you watch TV serials, documentaries, music videos, movies, play PC games or look at a hoarding at traffic lights, notice how many times you come across this rule.

Let us continue our discussion on the rule of thirds. When one digs further into the origin of the rule of thirds, one learns that it has evolved as a result of the aesthetic beauty which was observed when paintings were drawn with such visual grammar during the Renaissance period. Not that the Renaissance artists knew it beforehand, but over the course of time, the similarity between these paintings which were regarded as beautiful, culminated in formation of this rule. There are hour long lectures available online where seasoned professionals talk about "going beyond the rule of thirds" - this is to say that a picture can still look interesting if one breaks the rule of thirds, but the consensus is that ninety percent of the times, the rule will work and produce a more aesthetically appealing photograph. Students of photography -both in Western as well as non-Western societies- are taught to use this rule (among others) to create more appealing photographs. Now please note that you're conveying a completely Western concept of aesthetic appeal to your students by teaching this (not that it should not be, but it is a point worth noting for our discussion).

This rule of thirds was adapted and translated to still photography when the technology became available, and it also moved to motion pictures when video cameras came up. It is here that one has to note the continuity of traditional knowledge of aesthetic sense into new technology related media. I hope the readers can now make out where I am going with this. 

Similarly, there are other philosophical, religious, social and cultural ideas which have seamlessly transitioned from other areas of Western knowledge into Western pop-culture. It is precisely this reason that when a movie gets awarded at Cannes or Oscars, apart from the usual Western socio-cultural view, it also has to live up to other standards of Western arts. 

In contrast to "Bollywood", if one looks at the Japanese movies (watch the beautiful Tale of Princess Kaguya for example), one finds that there is a unique visual grammar which distinguishes them from Hollywood - this applies both for their animation and live-action features. The natural question that one asks now is that why is it that we have failed to create equally strong works of art and entertainment in pop-cultural realm in modern times? The answer to this is fairly simple: unless there is a genuine revival of Hindu arts, philosophy, music, paintings etc. and their adaptation in new technology, our pop-culture will remain a cheap imitation of foreign products. One does not see anyone picking up the rasa theory and providing a critique of the above mentioned aesthetic rules. In terms of stories, again one is disappointed at the woeful lack of originality and complete disregard for our history. One can read more about this and find out why one of the greatest writers in Hindi, Munshi Premchand, was disappointed from Bombay film industry and returned to his native. One savors at Inception but has not even heard about bANa's kAdambarI. We've countless different art forms, let us just take one example: shadow puppets - in my very humble opinion, it's visual style had immense potential for display in animation, but I do not see any attempt in this direction -not that I am recommending closing down of the real shadow puppet shows, but merely asking for it's translation. 

Until the time we get to a stage we see a Hindu Renaissance happening, we are likely to remain copycats and wowed at Anglo-Saxon talent.

1 comment:

  1. One would have wished this article to be more elaborate. It conceals more worth than it exposes (pun intended).

    The article is very interesting and I request you to write a sequel.