On history and film: notes on Bollywood

SHIV VISVANATHAN

MODERNITY can be deceptive as a mask, with its emphasis on history, rationality, its emphasis on the linear, making myth and even utopia appear regressive. One of the greatest intellectual markers of modernity is the idea of objectivity, providing a sense of the real, the concrete and the empirical. Positivism in that sense is only a method for making modernist assurance, double sure. The Correspondence theory of reality is a critical ritual in this context. The modernist sense of history is testable, objective and encompasses all the above. How often it is that one hears modernists mourn that Indians have no sense of history.

Yet, as I read history as a printed text, I often reach back to the idea of the Harikatha, to the ritual practices of oral storytelling. I contrast the two. History demands accuracy, objectivity. Yet, as I listen to the Harikatha, I sense a different sense of authenticity and reality. History as a discipline insists that we choose between dualisms, between objective/subjective, recorded/oral, true/false. But the Harikatha offers us a plural world of interpretations. The Body speaks in a different tenor from the technologies of the text. The oral possesses a range of narratives, and epistemologies of truth, while written history is caught in the so-called objectivity of the written text.

I sense contemporary forms of narrative often stand in a liminal position in terms of historical objectivity. I was thinking of Hindi film in particular. It smacks of the oral. Seen as memory, its two greatest creations, the song and the ‘dialogue’ evoke orality. They demand repetition and invention. I sense the idea of India, Bollywood style, cannot be historical. As Raimundo Panikkar suggested in a different context, India, and I would add Bollywood, moves happily between a continuum of myth and history, tilting more to the former.

I was thinking of more examples. Consider, for example, the idea of Socialism in India. One senses that as ideology, Socialism can be a tedious catechism, especially as socialist realism. Socialism, to the Indian middle class, was not the welfare state. It was a wonderful myth of sharing and frugality within family and neighbourhood. The Ambassador car evokes this conviviality more than the nationalized bank with its impersonal loans. Nothing more boring than socialist realism has been invented in recent time. The more socialism oozes number, productivity, policy, the more skeptical one gets. Socialism as the novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy hinted played down the storyteller. Its need to be scientific and objective robbed it off the magic of myth.

I was thinking of Lawrence Thornton’s classic novel on disappearances Imagining Argentina. Magical realism captures truth in a lived sense in a way socialist realism cannot. One listens to the resonance of the body, the other responds to the impersonality of body counts. Why is it that in many contexts, statistics, documents, proof does not add up to capture the essence of a phenomena? When I think of socialism in India, I reach for Raj Kapoor. He captures the impish, childlike innocence, the romance of socialism in a way a cantankerous Ram Manohar Lohia could not.

Socialism in real life and film does not convey abstract ideologies. Socialism had a sense of people and the neighbourhood, which official politics could not capture. In India, socialism was a romance, with Stalinism it was a dismal science erasing history in the name of history. History as erasure and rectification seems to be a constant obsession of modern regimes. The socialism of the cinematic Raj Kapoor was everyday if not historical, an ode to hope, more real because it could combine the everyday and the utopian. The clown rather than the proletariat dominates the cinematic stage. Hindi movies captured socialism as caring, better than any economics textbook or tract on poverty. The poor live in memory while development erased the poor in the name of fighting poverty.

Consider a more recent example, the plight of the Congress party, struggling between myth and history. In a real sense, the Congress evokes the myths and metaphors of the freedom movement, created by Nehru, Gandhi and a host of other stalwarts. The Congress as myth needs rechanging, but the Congress reduced to the current state of history makes us confront the problem of the family, targeting Rahul and Sonia as failed specimens. The Congress has to have a sense of history but to sustain it for the future, it has to be reinvented as myth, a myth of alternatives, a new myth of unity and non-violence, a myth of an impossible hypothesis that brought improbable people together. The Congress is a failed myth because people are trying to revive it historically. It lacks an epic quality. It is nostalgia puffing up to the size of an anecdote. To infect it with the cortisone of history is futile. It needs the poetics of a new myth.

The importance of myth for the idea of India today can be understood if we look at the three myths that sustain India. The first is science. Science in India has never been a search for method or truth. It has been more a search for character building, as role building in the autobiographies of P.C. Ray, M. Visvesvaraya and Gandhi. The idea of the scientific temper as embedded in the Constitution is vague enough to be either. In fact, the recent Covid epidemic captures the myth of science as the myth of science policy. Science in India is a handmaiden of state competence.

The Covid epidemic showed that science rather than being a form of knowledge was a symptom of state competence. The play of numbers during the epidemic was neither a search for facticity or truth. It was a body count India of state competence, a way of showing that India still was midlevel as a competent state. Neither suffering nor truth affected the narratives of science policy. They were merely substantiating the myth of state competence. History is sidelined when investigating the question of Covid.

Democracy too has a similar presence. It is a spectacle, performance of openness of society, of the availability of citizenship. The vote is symbolic of the power of citizenship. But when democracy as myth gets reduced to electoralism we face the empiricism of history, the cold fact of majoritarianism. Democracy as myth sources or struggles to source the contradictions of modernity. Electoralism is banal history which exposes irony rather than solving it. One faces the parody of democracy degenerating to authoritarianism and confessing we have no answers.

Bollywood too is a similar myth. The sense of Bollywood as myth confronting the sordid history of Partition was articulated poignantly by Saadat Hasan Manto. For Manto if Partition was the tragedy of politics and history, then Bollywood or Bombay Talkies was the answer to it. Bombay Talkies as culture, as the myth of syncretism meets the dualism of nation states. Bollywood was a weave of languages, musical skills, scripts, love stories that challenged the empty hate of Partition. If the Soldier Sardar Sucha Singh died searching for the No Mans Land between India and Pakistan, Bollywood represents syncretism of cultures. Manto was Bombay Talkies greatest gossip columnist. He understood the romantic togetherness Bombay Talkies created as a thesaurus of styles.

Manto writes of an Indian filmstar’s visit to Pakistan. The crowds that thronged around the car made you wonder if Partition had ever happened. Even today the syncretic unity of Bollywood is enough to upset bully boy ‘historians’ of the Shiv Sena.

The very script of Bollywood created a conversation of dualisms. Bollywood as myth was perpetually solving the clash of dualisms modernity raised. It mediated between town and country, the rustic and the sophis-ticated, between loyaty to the family and commitment to the law. The doable becomes a significant solution that Bollywood affects uniting Seeta and Geeta, Ram aur Shyam. The double as psychic myth is a recog-nition of everyday conflict and the power of myth to reconcile them. It is Bollywood’s resolutions of major normative oppositions that makes modernity liveable. Otto Rank’s idea of the double reaches its most creative fusion in the Bollywood resolution of modernities’ dualisms.

The South Indian movies too showed why history alone won’t work. The NTRs and MERs won elections presenting themselves as myth and ideology, as exemplars of a way of life. The DMK as a party won because many of its leaders were major script writers who understood the logic of film and history. One senses that Rajnikant and Kamal losing the veneer of myth find themselves abandoned to the banality of history. Myth works a magic that ideology cannot.

In fact, Bollywood and southern film teaches us that to historicize becomes more a bulldozing of ideas rather than a return to history. When the communalist rapes a Muslim woman and feels history has been revenged, he is murdering history not just a woman. Facticity as a fragment does not quite add a wholeness to history. The recent attempt to attack Bollywood by politicians shows them as seeking to redeem history by destroying the myth of Bollywood. The attacks on Sushant Singh Rajput to Shah Rukh’s son Aryan, can be seen as communalism’s attempt to strip Bollywood of its sense of myth. The tension between myth and history is critical and lifegiving. India is seeking a different narrative of modernity. Call it Filmi’, it still needs to be explored as a life-giving possibility.

One must be clear that historicizing film does not professionalize narrative. History is not a search for truth but an attempt to create a political character, create history as a costume ball to make it authentic as a period piece. The struggle is the same, whether one is discussing Shivaji or Rocket Boys. Rocket Boys creates a myth around scientists like Bhabha or Sarabhai. Critiques have pointed out various errors of fact. But they read them like statutes. The Rocket Boys is inventive and creates a myth which Indian science desperately needs. Without myth, culture feels little incentive to be excited about science. Autobiographies need archetypes, exemplars, and legends, because it is legends who guarantee the magic of science. The laboratory fact is necessary, but it does not add to the epic sense of science.

The sad thing is when history is rectified in India, truth wears a uniform. One misses the playful costume ball we call myth which makes truth more liveable and interesting. Maybe history needs to be a less puritanical act of rectification. Then maybe a playful Bollywood could try out history and another Manto could write about it.