Friday, February 24, 2012

A response to Ravi Vasudevan's article: The Exhilaration of Dread: Genre, narrative form and film style in contemporary urban action films

 Sajit M. Mathews


            Film is a powerful medium. Nobody has a debate on that. Films have grown in the last century from being a fantasy and a hobby affair to be one of the largest industries of the world. What was taken for granted in the beginning is today, a field of specialization and research. And this huge cultural product and entertainment industry has to go through so many processes, since a huge sum of money is involved. That apart, the quality of films needs to be scrutinized on a regular basis. This check should be in qualitative terms, whether our films are up to the set standards.
            But a qualitative check is not all. There are a million ways in which films influence human lives. Millions of people who throng to cinema halls everyday enter the halls with different purposes. Cinema is not just a medium of entertainment. Cinema has powerful influence on what people think, decide and do. Such consequences make films all the more important. Film can fall into the hands of propagandists and malicious people, who can use to subvert human minds for their purposes. For this reason, there need to be constant analysis of what goes on in cine field.
            Off late, we are doing well in looking at the cinema, audience, its present, past and future. We should continue to look so. Ravi Vasudevan’s articles are a ‘looking at’ of academia, at the cinema of our country. They use the methodology of social sciences to analyze films and related issues.
            In this paper, I have summarized three of his articles and added my responses to them in the form of reflections and comments.

About Ravi Vasudevan

Ravi Vasudevan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). He completed his research on the history of Indian nationalism at Jawaharlal Nehru University and subsequently on Indian film melodrama at the University of East Anglia. His present research concerns are the history and theory of film and media experience. He is part of the Sarai programme of CSDS, which he co-directs with Ravi Sundaram. He runs the film and contemporary media transformations component in the Sarai project Publics and Practices in the History of the Present: Old and New Media in Contemporary India. Vasudevan teaches on film and is guest faculty with the Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, and the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. In 2004 he coordinated a lecture and film series for the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.*
Vasudevan is a member of the editorial collective of the Sarai Reader series and the advisory board of the film studies journal Screen. He has edited Making Meaning in Indian Cinema (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000). Vasudevan also undertakes film curations regularly for Sarai. In 2003, he curated the film series ‘Selves Made Strange: Violent and Performative Bodies in the Cities of Indian Cinema’ for the exhibition on contemporary Indian arts at the House of World Cultures, Berlin.*
Vasudevan bases most of his studies on the Bombay film industry, the premier and biggest in India. The article The Exhilaration of Dread is a study of the narrative form and film style of the modern urban action films, emanating from Bombay. It appears to me that the article as a whole is composed in rather loose style. Ideas about city and city life and films come in and out of the article in a random style. In this particular article, Vasudevan talks about audience, duality of audience-entertainment relation, progress and shift of style in narrative techniques, play of city on the psyche of audience and spectator and spaces used in these action films.*
(* : Source: Internet)

Article : The Exhilaration of Dread: Genre, narrative form and film style in contemporary urban action films


            This article deals with the relationship of audience with the form of film, transformation in narrative structures, new awareness and knowledge these films brought about, relationship between space, politics and realism, and such films. The article is analysed and personal reflections are added.

Audience’s relationship with the Entertainment form

Vasudevan situates this study in the Bombay film industry of 1980s. Audience of those times is seen as having a dual identity relationship with films. While enjoying the film as spectator, they also are injected with anxiety about the life in the city. These action films of 80s provided the audience with ample opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of viewership, provided all kinds of entertainment, songs, sensual satisfaction, etc. But along with these incentives, films also filled the audience with a sense of dread- ‘a gathering sense of anxiety’ according to Vasudevan. This sounds quite realistic as a film is a reflection of real city life. The dangers of city are not visible to everyone. A film could very well spell out such fears. So the audience becomes more and more aware of what goes on around them. This awareness makes them look around with anxiety and they see more than they were seeing earlier. This is what a genre of films over a long period of time could do to a people.

Narrative structures

            From the article, we could allude that the earlier narrative techniques used in Indian films were usually based on binary opposites. Examples given are: east/west, country/city, police/criminal, public/private, etc. These binaries bind the form of the film itself to a certain frame. He points at the depressed and dystopian urban subjectivity of Bombay of mid 80s as a reason for this shift. Thus, in the new sensitivity, there were no clear-cut differences between the good and the evil. Good also could be a failure. Legitimate reasons and aspirations also could end up in death and un-fulfilment- as reality is most of the times. In this way, I would say, Indian films began to look at real life in films.
            The new style was basically confusion! This confusion was based on the portrayal of continuity between the binary opposites, shown earlier as belonging to water tight compartments. Vasudevan says, this conveys a sense of the contemporary urban imaginary as a kind of maze. In fact, it is not only a maze, but also a mess. Unstable and dangerous subjectivity governed the anxiety of audience.

New awareness

            These city action films made the audience aware that all are vulnerable to the terrors of the city. Fear, terror, unimagined danger, etc are part of the city, and anyone could be into it at any time or the day or night. The displacement of focus from binary opposites to related continuities left the audience without explanations. Consequently, vulnerability became the awareness. Vasudevan says, this has something to do with the way life is imagined in the city. Films have used acts of terror and fright to generate both fear and pity! Parinda is cited as an example. An act of terror invites the fascination of the audience in many ways- the burning of Anna’a wife and son. The psychosis of Anna is attributed to this act. But we don’t know if it is real or fake. However, this psychosis gives him the right to dominate others.
            Vasudevan also says that there is always an extra diegetic in films- a force or intelligence that drives the narrative in its ways. It can be director, conventions or its transmutation. Important thing is that, this intelligence appears to assume that the source of terror in the city always slips away, beyond the field of knowledge, into some cavernous other space. This is so real, and is noticeable in our films. The villain is not the real cause of the terror. There is another force or intelligence that designs all these. That force seems to be evading the camera, and the final resolution. It awaits another chance to come back, leaving our apprehensions open ended.

Space in Bollywood

            Here, Vasudevan tries to bring symbolic narrative dimensions and narration mechanism in terms of links between key Spaces used often in films. Those spaces familiar to terror and dread are police stations, dark alleys, courts, busy market, den of criminals, etc. These place have gained the representational capacity to speak for themselves now. Why space becomes important for audience? It’s because, no space is a safe space. There is a surveillance mechanism that penetrates through every kind of walls and secrecy. So the basic assumption in such films is that you are being watched everywhere- home, office, market, bus, train, even hide outs. This overarching gaze presupposes the characters’ ability to receive the hints of him/her being watched. No space is a safe space- for characters and audience!
Physical space is redefined and reinterpreted in the narrative as the internal space of the characters, and in turn as that of the audience. Codes available elsewhere are used to generate terror of physical space- resembling interior space. The logical structures of the underworld and the physical (architectural) structures in which the underworld functions are connected to each other by the fashion the latter is filmed. The dark alleys, shadowy rooms, carefully arranged careless halls, atmosphere of dampness, cobwebbed attics, etc. stand for the interior- psychology of those involved in such places. The audience is dragged into such spaces, both physically and mentally. This is terrible.
Vasudevan mentions why the gothic lineage of these structures is significant. These spaces disclose the inner logic of their narrative worlds. He also quotes Mazumdar as arguing that all these are self conscious drawing on of codes generated elsewhere (post-war American genre of film noir). That is, using codes that are historically available for us. Wherever the origin is, such films have changed the texture of our viewing pattern.

Space and Audience

            The history of Hindi filmdom is punctuated by formal transformations in the technology and style of international cinema. Global availability of ‘new’ changed things within India. 70s saw a transformation in filmic representation of Bombay, to accommodate the emergence of a character and urban subjectivity: says Vasudevan. Within this ‘new,’ the city remained a stage, rather than becoming a realistically evoked space. The reasons could be our tradition in drama based film making. City space, though considerably expanded within films, still worked as a background for new types of conflict, subjectivity, etc.
            One of the interesting notes of Vasudevan is that in such films, the audience is not left in their seats in the cinema, to look figures cast against a background. They are drawn into the film they are to flow amongst objects and figures within the space-rime of the fictive world. This involving cinema drags audience to interact with the form of cinema. The familiar sights on screen and expected responses transport us. Narrative comes to a halt. It becomes spatialised. Later, it takes the audience to engage in a dialogue with the space, and the objects within it. This is because the space in these movies is the urban space, which is integral to the urban dweller. So it is easy for urban audience to get into a discourse with the space.

Climate and space

            The climatic condition of the urban space is also important to films. They help to generate moods. The space which is already associated with various moods, when painted with climatic conditions, there emerges another texture which qualifies the space.

Railway station

            Railway track and station are extensively used to indicate the proximity of death, terror and danger in everyday life - Existential condition of city life/the urban. The presence of railway in the city is used to create a sense of the everyday vulnerability of the crowded city to the railway accident. As described in the article, the villain could get rid of the key witness in a case against him, by plunging a cigarette into the witness’ hand. The city trains are naturally jam-packed. The victim had to leave his hand in unexpected pain and he falls out and dies- as easy as that. A natural accident is created. Such scenes suggest more than the chances of everyday life- something precarious, something unsaid. Probably, this kind of suggestions have increased the urban anxiety even while enjoying every moment of it.
            Railway tracks run parallel to each other, and parallel to urban life. A derailing of either of these parallels could pose danger to each other. This is an aspect of urban life. When camera moves parallel to the track, there is double presence accompanying the audience.

Realism and Reality Effects

            Use of realism in the 80s is attributed to the attempts to reduce explanatory force. The phenomenon of place being abstracted into a non-identifiable space of the globalised imagination took place in the early 90s. But in the urban action films, there is a strong orientation to local constructions of the city, mainly because Bombay functions as part of a national imaginary. Realism in such sense is there in the movies. Then comes the reality effects. These are auditory or visual cues which suggest that which is unexplained, that which doesn’t directly link with the characters. These effects enhance the experience of the movie space. This can afford to perceive incidental space, unlike realism procedure.
Another issue discussed here is how social world and terror tend to overlap everyday. Since the movie locates itself in the city which the audience is familiar with, the characters who are in danger are similar to the audience in the cinema. The same audience who sit in the theatre may be unaware of the dangers that are passing just outside or over the theatre. May be in their courtyard, a gang is hiding to attack another gang or even his/her family! Thus, such films problematise the inside/outside world in the city. Here we see how realism is used or adapted to the popular multi-diegetic format of the hindi films, using spaces of multiple narrations, to insert the spectator into the cinematic imagining of the city.


            The article, from the beginning hints about the politics of the city influencing film and the other way around. Character formation and space composition are influenced by the current political scenario. The single hero, wandering in the city of the 70s is replaced in the 80s with a group of youngsters sitting in city corners. This sense of joint political action has gone into films. This is seen as an echo of the worldview of the Shiv Sena in Bombay. The VP Singh government’s attempts to implement the Mandal Commission report and the subsequent uprising are other backgrounds to such political developments in these films. Cinema gains lofty position in giving an overview of political scenario in the city. As we see in the film Satya, the camera is placed above the Deity of Ganesha, to look upon the scene of chaos, where the gangster turned politician is bleeding to death. Here, camera along with the audience is privileged to see what people in the mess cannot see. People are made to witness this terror from another angle altogether. Head on engagement between present/ politics/ screen and audience has been a recurrent subtheme of our films.