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  • Writer's pictureRAJULA SHAH

Film Criticism/ ALOCANA

"Past time we called a film a film, beyond the labels of Fiction, Non fiction, Experimental et al." I find miiself repeating, wondering if it means anything to the students given to taxonomy. That film directors throughout history have continued to work through and across categories, bending genres, defying stereotypes, reinventing the wheel many times over in their work is there for everyone to see, what if hidden in plain sight.

All the same, the checkboxes seem to be in place as before. Clearly someone must benefit from keeping the categories intact and the checkboxes kicking. Though it's not as clear how much we all lose by the default arrangement that keeps everything that does not fit or bring returns, invisible and out of distribution cycle. More often than not, what gets left out is the part most real, likely to stir tame-d hearts and challenge dull-ed minds to ask something more from life or themselves. With the real stuff dreams are made of held back in the sieve, what passes through is most likely a conditioned, insipid, spectacle fed entertainment, propaganda & promotion. With the utter impoverishment caused by a narrow vision and a straitjacketing akin to chopping the foot to fit the shoe, what if the shoe glitters?! World is all the poorer for money continuing as the bad master we were told it was and all the national icons, idols n heroes being up on the billboards for sale.

What is it like before and after the categories came on? What do the dividing lines separate? What gets left out? Where does the left out go?

It is the Film Criticism course. Mii first online course designed for FTII. We are in the midst of the corona pandemic lockdown of August 2020. It is a diverse class ranging from bloggers, engineers, fashion photographer, film buffs, cyber security professional, film students, Phd. scholar of Film studies, Cinematographer & Sound recordist et al. Bright young Filmmaker Mukul Haloi is the teaching associate. We begin with the many meanings of the Sanskrit word Alocana as seeing, perceiving, survey, view, considering, reflection, criticism et al.

We enter Cinema history, with the one reeler reality films of Lumiere brothers, Train entering station. Even in the very first films, that pass off as 'reality', we begin to see the fiction from fact in the design and planning. We then move through the first fiction feature (Silent) Birth of a nation, by D.W. Griffith that invited some flak even in its time for the blatant racist homilies it dished out, ironically inspiring the Soviet Russia filmmakers, serving in turn to propel the Party propaganda machine.

Fiction made in Communist Russia had to tow rigid party lines and anything independent faced a ban as much as in Hitler's Nazi territories or Pinochet's Chile. Mussolini of course went out of his way to send 'documentary' film crews to several countries, and is credited with building world's first film archive at Luce, Rome! In the world fraught with world wars, it didn't help much if one were Sergei Eisenstein or Jean Renoir. If they thought you could be of use to them, as a Rossellini you even ran the danger of being asked to take charge of the State film production. Of course one could choose to be an exile, or opt out of the duress at the cost of one's work never to be shown in public, which Eisenstein did with his Ivan the Terrible II. It was banned; only to be screened 10 years after Eisenstein's death in 1958 and most of what was to be part III was simply destroyed. Yet, these outcasts, rebels, exiles continued to find ways of working, as we discover from works suppressed in their time, coming to light later. In Chris Marker's Last Bolshevik, of course we come to know how particular Stalin was when it came to 'documentary'; with each film reviewed personally by him before permission was granted. While in films for promotion, Stalin was in fact played by a model standing in for him!

Everyone in the course by now is enough puzzled about the 'neat' categories of fiction, non-fiction, experimental, propaganda, corporate films, we yet seem to play by.

Is Art so dangerous? Isn't Cinema entertainment?

Does one get banned, prosecuted or exiled for entertainment?

So how does it all work? What is Art? What is its relation with everything else? Who gets to write the History? What are the forces at work? Who is to blame? How does one begin to understand the inter-connections of things apparently disconnected? There are questions galore in the young and not so young minds. The idea of course is to begin to see things for what they are. But that is the difficult part. It seems there are bigger-than-individual forces at work and there are individuals who continue to question it by what they profess and work through. There is much sifting and sorting to be done as also some reading between the lines. A Critic's role is not as simple as it may sound.

As a group we undertake what becomes a critical lesson in LOOKING via Image-making. We begin with John Berger's Looking at the history of imaging in Art/ Painting across cultures and through the ages, study woman in the gaze of man and via the lens of Politics, Ideology & Propaganda, arrive at Advertising. Berger, as always is illuminating. Some have heard of him, but none save one has actually 'read' him as he ought to be read or seen. I see he has finally become a 'classic' in the way Calvino talks about - texts that no one actually reads, coz they are supposed to have been read by everyone already! His insights on what constitutes a gaze, the role a patron/ commissioner of the artwork plays in its making and how it affects the construction of images that serve to keep the conditioned self and society in place, set everyone thinking. And there is Laura Mulvey on gaze as voluntary reading for homework.

In the assignment each student builds, all the terms hitherto thrown up in the discussion around the politics of image viz. Conditioning, Gender, Culture, Religion, Ideology, Politics, Society, Stereotypes, Media, Market et al walk right into everyone's presentation. Most people have not thought about or noticed things that come up for review. Some are shocked at what 'Looking' may constitute, and wonder if they have been Looking at all. Some see for the first time the shrewd invisible forces at work behind the 'apparent' or 'visible'. Some are aghast at never having perceived how much of a construct their own gendered selves are. Some are relieved to know what always seemed to trouble them has a real basis and that individuals in history have come down strong on it. Some wonder why such things do not constitute their education?

We move to the Film Director as Critic. Slowly criticism seems to become a courageous, independent, creative act from a twice removed act it is generally believed to be.

All the students in the course are educated, middle class adults, most of them, earning a living as professionals or preparing to enter their field of work. The assignment on Image construction becomes an exercise in 'Seeing' ourselves and our environment as we usually don't. Everybody is amazed how the popular images we are continuously surrounded with, reek of hidden agendas of power, politics, ideology, morality et al. I work an assignment alongside, working the historical aspect with vintage ads. Inspite of mii knowledge of the same, there is enough here to nauseate mii.

It's curious that it is not a class in Feminism or gender studies. But in image and representation, what meets the eye across assignments, is the 'idea' of man, woman and image of the idea-l woman constructed as reflected in the male gaze throughout history.

Dead Leonard Cohen sings in mii ear 'I don't like your fashion business Mister! And I don't like the pills that keep ya thin...' What if it calls for a can of sanitised worms! The messages thus coded subtly yet crudely in the adverts are a veritable lesson in the schooling of a society by perpetuating stereotypes, albeit in the garb of manufacturing new desires or even just raising the bar to keep up with the new desirable.

Vintage ads match the morals of their time. She must know the do's and don'ts that keep her in the race for the eligible wife or whatever. She must behave. There are costs, she is told. The form is that of jest, and you are required to not worry about who the joke is on.

Lysol promises the woman "feminine hygiene" to save her marriage, or even buy her a 'second honeymoon'. The advert from the great depression time, when birth control was a crime, is also said to have contained an undercover message that it worked as contraceptive too. It does not require too much imagination to visualise in just what ways a product eventually marketed as toilet cleaner would have wrecked women's health. And why it wasn't a crime.

For our purpose of studying the Image politics however, its clear whatever the message in words, it mostly serves to annotate the picture. That ‘a picture speaks more than a 1000 words’ has forever been used to affect unsuspecting masses into believing all sorts of lies.

Values the Market professes generally reflect the conforming to the upwardly mobile desire norms of their time. The best strategy is of course to perpetuate what the majority already wants to believe in, no matter its implications; only commitment being multiplying consumers any-whatsoever-how. Humour more often than not, is used as bait, to camouflage blatant lies, insidious arguments or scripting in a misogynist message as perfectly 'harmless'. These undercover myths circulated thus, infiltrate deep; stay on in the bloodstream as a latent virus for centuries to come.

That women must seduce men and keep them seduced; that the black skinned must serve the 'superior' white skinned; that soaps change skin colour are some subtexts delivered over and above the product that tend to persist across ages and cultures.

And what ought men to be like?

"Why do men go to war?" I ask mii friend's little son after seeing his G.I. Joe stop motion animation.

"To protect the women", the gallant lad promptly answers.

I ask him "who do the women need protection from?"

To which he quips: "From men of other nations!"

I am confused. Am I talking to a 10 year old?!

In America of course, Everything is for sale. Including the gun.

That they need a woman to sell this 'product' too, is not surprising, somehow.

Women and children continue to sell the bulk of the products in our place and times too. Studies explain that they also constitute the bulk of the consumers. The film stars and sports icons, riding on their popularity quotient, eager to play Idols to the society, seem to play by the dumbest of books- the chequebook. Except by now Everybody knows money can buy you the hottest star to sell your substandard product or if you like, to dance at your son’s wedding. What matters if the product be bad, fake or potentially dangerous. The star kids are not going to use it anyway. The onus sure is on the public, to use their heads, if they have any or face consequences for the idol worship or latest trends they are addicted to.

Every image constructed carefully, intent on seducing the consumer working with invisible but deadly keywords like : Greed. Ambition. Division. Rivalry. Discrimination. Violence. Fear. War. Do they even know how idiotic, vulgar and offensive they appear to a discerning eye? An icon of what?! And where are the censors?!

Stars are now sometimes being questioned for playing the brand ambassadors for unethical companies, products/ practices viz. gambling. Some people think that the stars must be made accountable for putting their face and voice behind such. Stars say they don't mean harm. Just 'playing' a role written for them. How can they be held responsible? The apparently harmless blame game is allowed to play out by the media. Besides, Successful people must know how to take things in their stride, mustn't they?

Who then is responsible? The consumer?

"I am at the receiving end" s/he says.

Filmmakers say they only give the public what it wants!

And so on and so forth. The brains, talent, skill behind the subtext and the catchy concept remain conveniently hidden. We have heard it said often that the best of the talent/skill pool in India has for the longest of time been on loan to the advertising or corporate industry. Serving its end pays their bills they say. And bills are best paid making a fast buck, spending minimum time, working safe and in style alongside fashion icons, with zero accountability. What's more, the adverts do not carry credits of the team designing the seduction-prop for luring an average aspirational middle class family. All art they have learnt, is at the service of manufacturing, sustaining, perpetuating and parading the fictive as fact and vice versa. No matter the consequences or to whom-so-ever it may concern.


The tipping point came with the newly released advertisement of Pepsi mocking striking students, coinciding with the nationwide student protests starting from the Film Institute, Pune in 2015. The campaign's cool tagline was: 'Irresistable Pepsi ends hunger strike'. Its besides the point that I never thought Pepsi was cool. The timing was impeccable. It took some solid research to figure out the credits behind the realisation. Apart from the insinuation in the idea itself, it was practically 'well done'. But even as I dish-cover-ed that the hitting-below-the-belt advert, taking a pot shot at the 'solidarity' of the students was shot by one of 'our own' ace cameramen, I gave up the ghost. Here was the corporate speaking a language, the State would give anything to speak, making a mockery of the historic moment of student protests all over the country. Something ended there and something else began. One hardly knew the ground beneath one’s feet, one didn’t know where to draw the picket line anymore, between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

All over again, for the first time, it was disempowering to realise where the student protests against the State or now corporatization of State, may have continued to miss the mark all along. There were serious gaps in the language we speak; chasms between what we want and what we say & no stake whatsoever in the costs involved. The images we construct do not talk to the words we speak. The spectacle we are surrounded by on all sides does not see eye to eye with the reality there is. The schizophrenia in store, for playing gaming partners in an apparently harmless and respectable game of just passing the ball has come to pass. If it only reveals the schism that has always been there in human psyche or prophesies an insular isolated future for the individual, is for time to tell.

Even as we wade neck deep through the dark pandemic waters, its the Market-State that get to play slayer-saviour by turns. Only now there is a sense of losing mii language every time I speak. Words I used to know do not seem to have the same meanings. Nothing is what it appears to be. I am forgetting what I need to remember. Here, Himalaya is a company, Nature's basket is a grocery store, Patanjali is a product, Splendour is a bike, Dove is a soap, Zen is a car. Everywhere, Love & Like are buttons, Smiles and Frowns are frozen and Clap is muted... Noble is a prize, Nirvana is a rock band and Transform is a tool. And like it or not, we are in this together.

Kabir is turning in his grave.

World appears upside down in his centuries old prophetic vision. The form that the poetry takes is that of Ulatbansi- image as paradox. ...the river is sinking in the boat.

We need a New language.


Note: all the adverts appearing here are part of the essay.

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