Can Indian Cinema still provide intellectual leadership as a genuine local artform?


As one rare genuine local artform Cinema can provide intellectual leadership but it is under threat

Literature, politics and bureaucracy are hobbled by their compulsions of foreign markets. Middle class is floundering in the absence of a truly indigenous framework. Media is still figuring out new realities where its business, values and authority is on a fluid cross section. Cinema of India has sufficient indigenous base and flavour to give a vibrant intellectual leadership to the people. However, it is facing new challenges that may prove difficult to surmount. 

 The Indian tendency of getting foreign models for various aspects of national life is very pronounced. For example, the Constitution relied on heavy borrowing from various sources including colonial Acts. Similarly, various SoPs of the army, academia or bureaucracy are borrowed. Reforms initiated in the early 90s, to a great extent, were based on templates provided by the multilateral institutions. That in itself is not wrong as full play was given to the local conditions and genius in development and interpretation of these initially borrowed enterprises. While this saved the country from falling into lawless anarchy due to competing demands and aspirations and absence of framework, borrowed or otherwise – the emergence of the indigenous intellectual frameworks suffered. These leading institutions, with the exception of  the Constitution, suffered from the distance from the psyche of the nation as they didn’t  link  the so called ‘high’ and ‘low’  segments of the country. The absence of local opportunities kept the professional talent tuned to the parameters and demands of the global networks and sources of payment. This dependence, while giving global exposure and keeping many streams of the nation’s cultural life financially lubricated to stay afloat, had severe implications for the authenticity and usefulness for intellectual vibrancy of the country. 

 Literature – Small god of little things

Take the example of literature which is supposed to be a reflection of local milieu and sensitivities. In India also this is so, especially for the so called vernacular or the regional literature of Indian languages. However, English and Hindi literature suffered from the pathologies of initial absence of paying institutions and, in case of Hindi, inferiority complex of the elite. Today, due to the relentless march of English education, India has emerged as a reasonably big market with publication and literary festival opportunities for the authors, poets and other content creators. However, for prestige, foreign shores are still much sought after. Initially even financial sustenance was dependent on foreign publishers. This leads to corruption of writing and literature. The focus of creators is directed to foreign audiences.  Writing for the foreign audience relies on more detailed description as the atmosphere being communicated is alien to the target audience. When audience comprises of the people of the similar upbringing and environment i.e domestic audience, communication can adopt a telegraphic leanness. Focus is on communicating and co-creating meaning rather than on conjuring an alien environment. In indigenous surroundings and domestic audience, much is pre-understood and literature is more of reflection on the realities, imagination, playfulness, times and history of the land rather than an outlandish description for an audience which needs to be won over by an exotic flourish. Literature  that is supposed to be arbiter, reflector and the arena of the intellectual, moral and aesthetic values somehow degenerates into a performance to elicit tips from a rich foreign crowd. This and, to a large extent, the situation of ideological domination in media, are the reason for exceedingly uncharitable if not outrightly wrong lamentations by notable Indian authors in western media outlets selling a picture which these publications will never use for their own country. This is not poverty porn or disaster porn that is being sold to these outlets. It is just the adroit use of the ‘sense of the exotic’ by these authors and latching on to the bandwagon of portrayal of India as an entity grappling with the paradox of great resurgence and appalling horrors. Even the economic and technological strides are also grasped only when they pass through the prism of exoticism. Such a literature of intellectual repertoire may become a pawn of the power play or aspirational style but can never become the vanguard of epoch and society shaping intellectual live current.  This aspiration for potentially empty style has further ramification for local language litterateurs and intellectuals. They do not get the nourishment of their top talent.

 Hindi Hurtland

This is particularly true for Hindi heartland. In sheer numbers and government lip service, Hindi is the envy of all the other Indian languages. However, Hindi is the only language that, for a very considerable time, has been abandoned by the elites of Hindi heartland. Hindi heartland is perhaps the only major linguistic heartland whose film industry is situated outside it. Technical and intellectual growth along with literary flowering has seen a serious setback in the recent few decades. Other, regional languages due to historical, regional and ethnic regions cannot be abandoned by their elites and have held their own against the onslaught of English. English, despite mushrooming of ‘English Medium’ schools, remains outside the grasp of much of the Hindi heartland populace. This has created a lasting hurt, humiliation and inferiority complex in the region which has been tapped very skilfully by the political elites for fomenting an anti-elite bias for ideological purposes. Absence of confident Hindi language is another serious lacunae in the intellectual firmament of India. The vanguards of the nation need to be in a position to refashion identities and provide a direction that is self-assured and inclusive. Literature clearly is not in a position of doing that.

 Steel frame with a dead heart

 Bureaucracy, that ‘steel frame’ and the real mover of the governance, also could not free itself from colonial trappings. District Magistrate, a relic of colonial centralization of power in the young white men who were epitome of developmental, revenue, judicial or even technical panacea of district was replicated in its entirety by Sardar Patel, who, understandably, was more concerned about the continuity and stability than inclusivity and diversity. After all he inherited a fragmented polity with a baggage of horrific partition which put paid to any pluralistic decentralising aspirations. The elite mai-baap bureaucracy proved a strong vehicle of continuity but not proved to be a leader in guiding the country in the voyage of discovery for its true calling.

 Politics – too selfish for new aspirations 

Politics of the age is so singularly electoral that key requirements got concentrated on tropes of winning elections. This made politics a hunting ground for any political entrepreneur to take up the task of reshaping or generating identity and value systems for the society. If Congress could create a veritable lifestyle in the pre-independence period, much of it was done without the baggage of a quest for electoral victory. Electoral angle came quite late and dilution of the umbrella of Congress can easily be attributed, to a large extent, to it abandoning the social regenerative work. It is very important at the time of mass resurgence of people coming out of chronic poverty in a poor country to have a political and intellectual framework to channel the new energies. We haven’t done too well there.  

Middle class – muddled mediocrity

 A middle class has emerged, a happy occasion all around as many of them came out from abject poverty. However, in the absence of inclusive, co-created intellectual life and a creatively i.e. non electorally mediated political space, this middle class became a very fertile ground for religious fundamentalism, technological determinism and overall decline of values of politeness, inclusion, forbearance, tolerance and conciliation. Technologically savvy middle class, relying on instrumental value of pursuing knowledge streams with vocational prospects to the detriment of humanities, mother tongue, temperance and humility in education, is a vivid reality of our times. This further blunts the chances of emergence of intellectual vanguards in a healthy manner.

 Cinema- an indigenous artform 

Cinema is one medium that still gives some hope despite Hindi films being uprooted from its heartland Hindi film industry.  Hindi Films, along with equally powerful so called regional cinema have emerged as an arena with all the advantage of indigenously created medium representative of local genius and intellectual verve. For all its borrowings, Indian cinema has a character of its own and is identified as an independent flavour of India’s offering in the field of art and culture. It also has what VS Naipaul termed as ‘suffrage of all’ as it connects the ‘high and low’. As cinema is created for a local audience, much of its nuances are local and shared at the indigenous level, giving it the heft and character of a sui-generis and self-directed intellectual stream. It has been an arena of high-brow intellectualism and also the lowest common denominator in the public taste leading to an alchemy that can represent the nation’s aspirations. International outlook came into cinema through modern masters who despite being enamoured of the dominant film movement on the global level, could not afford to delink from the local sensitivities. Pather Panchali and Sholey had many aspects of foreign provenances, still they are quintessentially Indian. The same cannot be said about the literature of Newspaper columns that are written for a foreign audience with mandatory exotic callishentics.

 New pressures

 Because of this valued position of cinema, adulteration of this art form by economic reasons (Multiplex, funding and more), NRI compulsions and most importantly right-wing projects of de-urduization and ultra-nationalistic imposition is all the more worrying. None of these forces are new in a sense. Economy of cinema has always been an issue which has been impacting the cast selection and other artistic aspects of the medium. Underworld funding, distributor network, availability of screens have always been important but with multiplexes and very high ticket prices public character may undergo a change and cinema’s position as people’s art (masses as consumers at least) will severely be impacted, diluting its USP.

 Similarly, since the very beginning, Hindu mythology and warriors provided a steady stream of subjects to Indian Cinema. Mythology and historical and folklore warriors, due to their embedding in popular psyche, have been a lucrative source material for films. However, today’s push has a political angle and is being done both as a manifestation and aggravating  factor. Earlier, mythologies were truly reflective of popular imagination where multi-religious community folklore of Alibaba, Harun, Samson, Laila Majnu, Heer Ranjaha, Hanuman, Ramayana was thriving along with historicals depicting Taj Mahal, Akbar, Alaxender. Today’ efforts of Tana ji, Prithviraj, war movies etc are less reflective of the existing desire for these topics but a kind of very targeted move to shape cultural sensibilities in a particular direction. These are more for augmenting the ultra-nationalistic climate for ideological gains than an unforced reflection of zeitgeist. Absence of Muslim stories which had both acceptability and market earlier, is a tell-tale sign. Increasing intolerance for certain subjects and touchiness resulting in violence are bound to dampen the variety or diversity quotient. Whatsapp is full of such complaints regarding imaginary insult to Hindu motifs and more importantly about a supposed glorification of Muslim characters which is difficult to understand except in the framework of polarization and right-wing upsurge. Cinema, in today’s political scenario, is very clearly part of the elite bashing that is the key ingredient of this upsurge. This does not bode well for one truly indigenous art form capable of providing intellectual leadership in these troubled times. This calls for a staunch vigilant attitude and a commitment to diversity. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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