Is there ‘fantasy’ in Indian cinema? The answer isn't as clear as film enthusiasts might believe

MK Raghavendra

Jul 01, 2018 12:18:25 IST

Indian popular cinema was long considered ‘fantasy’ by film theorists, the psychoanalytical school led by Sudhir Kakar characterising it as a ‘collective daydream’. This is because popular cinema is not ‘realistic’ in the accepted sense, and was broadly considered ‘escapist’ for refusing to contend with everyday issues. In fact, art cinema as a separate category emerged in the 1970s under Indira Gandhi only with state patronage — since popular cinema was not seen to be fulfilling its social obligations. Still, ‘fantasy’ as we understand the term deals with what is imagined and with possibilities; trashy novels which also try to get the reader involved in the lives of the rich and powerful are not ‘fantasy’.

The term ‘fantasy’ is therefore not being used correctly in describing Indian popular cinema. Fantasy would be tracts like The Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland; it would include the supernatural and science fiction. Hindi films like Koi…Mil Gaya (2003), Krrish (2006) – and the Ramsay Brothers horror films in which ‘shaitaans’ let loose upon innocent people – are apparently fantasies but not films in which audiences escape into affluence or participate in the happy resolution of melodramatic crises. Mythological films about epic characters like Rama and the Pandavas replete with gods and miracles are also not ‘fantasies’ as we understand the term.

Film began, as most readers will know, as the documentary. The Lumiere brothers recorded events like ‘workers leaving factory’ and ‘train arriving at station’ on their camera. A while later a magician named Georges Melies understood that since events recorded on the camera had a ring of truth about them, they could be used for illusion. He therefore made fantasies like A Trip to the Moon and Kingdom of the Fairies. What united the Lumieres and Melies was an acknowledgement of a reality that could be caught by the camera. When Melies embarked upon fantasies, the underlying presumption was that it corresponded to what could be imagined, not something present in the actual world but subjectivity of some kind. The two aspects of cinema represented by the Lumieres and Melies eventually became the capture of the real and its subjective perception respectively. The world itself cannot be known without locating an observer in relation to it and the view of the observer is the subjectivity that all understanding necessitates.

When DG Phalke made the first Indian film he was inspired by neither of them but by an obscure film called The Life of Christ, and embarked on the mythological genre, his first film being Raja Harishchandra. Phalke insisted that his film was ‘realistic’ because it gave manifest shape to what was known to be ‘true’. Even when Indian cinema moved out of the genre of the mythological it continued to practise the same kind of ‘realism’, tell stories conveying messages corresponding to ‘truth’ or wisdom. We may gather that the truths sought by Phalke correspond neither to an external physical reality which can be caught nor an inner reality; they are truths corresponding to traditional belief. Popular cinema hence took the shape of a transparent fable with one-dimensional characters and situations to convey these truths. The characters in popular films are like the fox or the monkey of the fable; if any more complexity is introduced, the message will not be delivered. The messages themselves are familiar ones from the epics, the puranas and the utterances of wise men.

Is there ‘fantasy’ in Indian cinema? The answer isnt as clear as film enthusiasts might believe

The more we study Indian cinema the more are we convinced of the paucity of fantasy in it. Here, a still from Krrish

Generally speaking three possibilities are acknowledged in fantasy. In defining ‘fantasy’, theorists concentrate on the response generated by the ‘fantastic’ events in the story. ‘Fantasy’ creates a situation in which the audience experiences feelings of hesitation and awe provoked by strange, improbable events. If the implausibility of the events can be explained rationally or psychologically (e.g. as a dream, hallucination), then the term ‘uncanny’ is applied. In stories like Lord of the Rings, in which an alternative world or reality is created, the term ‘marvellous’ is considered most appropriate to describe the work. By these definitions, The Exorcist would be fantasy while the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles (in which the supernatural is suggested) is uncanny.

All three categories noted only exist in relation to the physical world and our acknowledgment of its underlying reality — that cannot be fully known. The strategy of fantasy is to exploit the reader or spectator’s wavering commitment to the rational by introducing an outside element into the narrative. The ghost is the element which briefly makes us forget/doubt the rationality of the world, which we have been taking for granted. In the ‘uncanny’, the rational world triumphs when the ‘fantastic’ element is proven false, and ‘contamination’ by it is negated. The ‘marvellous’ exists as an alternate reality in relation to the one we inhabit. It, essentially, celebrates the capacity of the human imagination which can create its own world to rival the one bequeathed by nature. Thus if the supremacy of the world perceived by the senses is rejected, all three kinds of the ‘fantastic’ are hindered.    

Indian popular cinema admits neither the supremacy of an external world perceived by the senses nor a subjective viewpoint on it. Its insistence is on truths not derived from sensory experience but on infallible received wisdom. A maxim most people learn in school is that education brings out the knowledge already present in people. Obviously, knowledge like agricultural practices or metallurgy cannot already be present in us and one presumes that the knowledge ‘already present’ is wisdom of some sort supposedly possessed by Brahmins, who have been custodians of theoretical knowledge and passed it on.

Mythological films even today attract audiences because their portrayals correspond to belief and this is also true of Baahubali in which the film-maker gives the names of known kingdoms to the spaces his story is set in. This is not to say that audiences are unaware that NT Rama Rao is not the god Krishna but that they are reasonably convinced that the way Krishna is represented corresponds to the god in his essence. How this conviction came about is uncertain but it was evidently constructed over a century (at least), with the oil paintings of Raja Ravi Varma playing a large part. Our mythological films are closer to the reconstructions of Arthurian legend than to The Lord of the Rings. Arthurian legend, although it has a basis in actual history, also incorporates magical elements.

Moving on to ‘fantasy’ and the ‘uncanny’ in Indian cinema one of the most widely seen examples of the ghost/horror genre in the mainstream, which otherwise seems confined to ‘B’ films like those of the Ramsays, was Bees Saal Baad in 1962. This is an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles with a ghost replacing the dog and may also be taken to belong to the category of the ‘uncanny’ since the ghost is a trick. But the film actually begins with a pre-title sequence involving the ghost but where it is also revealed to be a trick. After an old man sees the apparition and his heart fails, a pair of human feet walk up to him; the dead man is lifted up and placed in a cart — work not expected of a ghost. The meaning relayed by the film upfront is that there are no ghosts in this world and that most things are products of rational intent. Bees Saal Baad was made in the final years of the Nehru era and this message may be understood as pertinent to Nehruvian modernity.

The more we study Indian cinema the more are we convinced of the paucity of fantasy (all three categories) in it. The basic issues are whether there is any visible motif corresponding to the ‘occult’ that defeats human explanation in narratives and if there is the acknowledgement of a ‘real’ beyond human comprehension. It is not as though there were no magic and rituals associated with the paranormal in films, but the ‘magic’ is akin to technology or science in that its effects are predictable. It does not embody unknown aspects of reality; in the Kannada film Apthamitra (2004), for instance, ghostly entities and spirits from a hoary past submit to manipulation by a psychiatrist. There are elements of The Exorcist in Apthamitra but in Friedkin’s film, psychiatrists fail to understand Regan’s condition.

The reader may wonder if other kinds of imaginative works in cinema like science fiction (SF) and films for children should not also be examined in the context of Indian cinema. Looking at science fiction first, we could define SF as imaginative literature produced by technological developments of today and the expectations from them. It should be evident that all fiction films with elements found in SF cannot be legitimately termed imaginative SF. Aliens as an explanatory device feature frequently in daily news. This has meant that ‘SF’ motifs increasingly crowd popular film plots. One recognises Spielberg’s ET-The Extra Terrestrial (1982) as family drama and Predator (1987) as an action film with Schwarzenegger fighting an enemy with superior capabilities. A superhero film is also not made SF by the protagonist being from another planet. For something to be SF it must test the imagination over what is scientifically possible. Koi... Mil Gaya is a reworking of motifs from ET-The Extra Terrestrial although the message of the film pertains to Indian science being disparaged in the West; the first event is the protagonist’s father trying to make contact with aliens but being mocked by colleagues. One could interpret Koi...Mil Gaya as an affirmation of Indian technology — just when ‘technology’ was the buzz word in the Indian business space and Indian IT was making waves.  It does not test the imagination over what is humanly possible and does not truly qualify to be called SF.

As regards children’s films, a genre long meant for children was ‘nonsense’ (the archetypal work being Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and the rationale was that since a child’s imagination had not yet been fettered through learning about the limits of the possible, writers of children’s literature could exercise their own imaginations by writing for children. In other words, children’s literature is not literature deemed unfit for adults but something that actively tests their tired imaginations. Similarly, children’s films are films which are imaginative and not films about children.

But when one moves on to the best regarded children’s films from India one finds a noticeable shift in thematic content. Children only feature as protagonists and the shift is towards adult content, with romance or conflict with adult villains becoming a key ingredient. Barring a few exceptions like Bhootnath (2008) and My Dear Kuttichathan (1984), the fantasy element is conspicuously absent. The films appear, in fact, to be centred on the adult world and its tendencies with regard to children, which are social ‘truths’. As instances Taare Zameen Par (2007) is about the insensitivity of the adult world to differently enabled children; Stanley Ka Dabba (2011) describes the travails of an orphan boy in school; Chillar Party (2011) shows children fighting politicians intent on exterminating stray dogs; Rockford (1999) is a school romance with alleged child molestation as a subplot. It is evidently difficult for Indian films to be ‘fantastic’ and this is essentially due to its certainty about the world, which it believes has been fully understood by tradition.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Jul 01, 2018 12:18:25 IST

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