And why Hindi movies are the way they are
Sometimes I look out of my apartment’s window and can’t help but feel as a caged animal would.
The manner in which urban life dehumanizes an individual does not perhaps come as a surprise to me, at least not anymore. The glacial, almost precise, process by which modern life lulls you into a state of suspended animation is an act of violence in itself, almost an assisted suicide.
I think the prime purpose of education is to kindle false hopes in gullible children in a world which is driven by cynicism and besotted with contradictions. Education creates a symmetrical notion of the world, a linear interpretation of order that is essential to construct a version of the world which is patently false. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) referred to the human mind as a ‘delusion generator’ (in God’s Debris, a thin but powerful book), a machine which deliberately simplifies concepts and ideas so that humans can be more comfortable with the absolute lack of explanation for their, and this world’s, existence.
The human mind also introduces the notion of one’s central importance in the world he or she inhabits. Most of us, oblivious to the vastness of this universe and the mind-numbing algebra of destinies, assume that somehow our lives are more special than those of others. Life, of course, has ideas of its own. Through its own cold logic, life extracts its vengeance from individuals who are either exceptionally strong or ridiculously weak, leaving out all the others to whom it does not even reveal itself. Through life’s relentless machinations, the delusion of one’s centrality in the scheme of things gives way to recognition of defeat, and then perhaps acceptance.
Acceptance of defeat is a beautiful event in itself as the silent destruction of the mightiest of egos takes place over infinitesimal amounts of time. Egos, nurtured over years, are brought to their inevitable closure, somewhat like a star collapsing on itself to become a black hole towards the end of its life. ‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London is one of the finest examples of how acceptance of defeat explains the cruelties of life and the mercifulness of death (This short story can now be read at Wikisource).
Moving over to less sour ramblings, has anyone noticed that there is a pattern to all candle-light vigils that our populist media / sections of our ‘enlightened’ populace conjure up? They are always held when temperatures are less than extreme. In cities of Northern India, whatever the cause, a candle-light vigil will never be called for in the searing summers. Our sincere friends factor in the discomfort provided by such weather conditions and call for these events only in more balmy conditions.
I recently started lecturing in Verbal Ability for competitive examinations and was pleasantly surprised at how stimulating the experience was for my brain cells. Long forgotten references, etymologies, cultural and religious concepts, facets of languages and historical minutiae came back to me as torrential rain. It was nice to know that my brain had stored all that knowledge safely in a small compartment of its recesses and had given me immediate access when I needed it.
For example, why do children’s stories employ animals as substitutes for humans in all stories (the technical term for this is anthropomorphism)? This is done because when humans are ascribed names the names in themselves grant a character to that human. For example, if there are two boys in the story named Prashant and Pappu, the children (their minds being complexity reducing machines) would subconsciously ascribe sophistication to Prashant and coarseness to Pappu. It is better to convey conflict and its resolution through the use of animals rather than humans because it can otherwise create false notions in the young hearts of children. A conflict between Singhania and Kumar, whatsoever the story, has strong class underpinnings and authors try to shield the children from such biases.
The Hindi film industry too is a primitive being, catering to an audience which is childish in its tastes and immature in its understanding. That is the reason in the 1970s and 80s movies would use names to signal character traits. A person named Vijay could do no wrong while a smuggler would always have an exotic, fancy title. A Popatlal would invariably be a buffoon and a Monica or Suzy invariably the vamp (largely because we needed to externalize the negative elements from our culture). The film industry failed to recognize that humans were beings independent of the stories that their names told.
This crude understanding of the world also pushed actors to create ‘universal’ screen names. Therefore, Yusuf Khan had to become Dilip Kumar (Kumar is one of the most common surnames or middle names in India, employed both by the richest sections as well as the poorest and Dalits). Dharmendra and Jeetendra had to remove their surnames to appeal to the non-Punjabi speaking audiences in India (The Kapoors, on the other hand, had a very strong pre-partition identity).
To speak to a wider audience, our movies also had to conform to nonsensical stereotypes. To convey our country’s plurality, we had to bring in the kind neighborhood chacha, a pious Muslim who was shown offering namaaz atleast once during the course of the movie. People from any other religion had to be pious but conciliatory – the Sikh’s house would be shown with a prominent photo of Guru Nanak and the Christians would be inevitably seen with their crosses (when they were not getting drunk or stringing their guitars).
And the villain could never be a non-Hindu for fear of stoking communal passions. Either he was a Hindu or a Hindi-speaking guy with a relatively foreign identity who dressed up in sharp suits and smoked expensive cigars (people like Zibisco or Mogambo or Shaakal). Surprising, but these flat characterizations continue to exist in many of our more recent movies because our minds look for simplification and not stimulation.
This brings me to the obsession of modern Indian parents with the names of their children (those who have read my earlier entries would know that I use the word modern with several teaspoonfuls of salt). I have seen couples around me titling their children with the weirdest of names, some with Latin/Greek and probably Aramaic references (of course references from Sanskrit or perhaps Pali are passé). I do not understand why a child should be burdened with a weird name just to convey to others a distorted sense of the relative ‘education’ of its parents. Given this, I also hope that someday people start naming their children in hieroglyphs or in the script of the Indus Valley Civilization. What can be more avant garde than that?
This rather random post (which is fine given that most of my posts are random) brings me to this season’s end. I touched upon some diverse stuff and I hope that people reading my ramblings have to some extent enjoyed them.
(Written in 2010)