The great Indian thali

From ancient navarasas to genre-specific films, mainstream cinema is dishing out fare to suit all palates

Decades ago, back in the days of black and white Door­darshan, the no­ted music director Salil Chowdhury was asked by an interviewer, “What does it take to qualify as a music director in Indian films?” Chowdhury exp­lained that an Indian composer needs to have a vast repertoire in order to deal with the wide range of emotions and situations that a commercial film encompasses. From love songs to songs of separation, from devotional songs to cabaret, songs sung in parties and picnics, tribal numbers to modern rock-and-roll, and the occasional folk-inspired song sung by a marginal character like a faqir to express the hero’s emotions at a point when he is absolutely down.

The account brilliantly exemplifies the nature of average Indian cinema that once graced the Indian screens. It’s not for nothing that Indian commercial cinema came to be defined as a complete thali, where you have everything from rice and chapati, to daal and sabzi, followed by a non-vegetarian item, accompanied by papad and dahi and rounded off by a sweet dish at the end. Besides, you have the ubiquitous pickle and onion to spice up your gastronomic passage through the diverse course.

One major reason for this craving for variety could be traced back to our cultural heritage since ancient times, in the complex narratives of Ramayana and Mahabharata that were peopled by diverse characters and covered the entire gamut of human emotions. The Indian navarasa theory, based on Bharatamuni’s ancient treatise Natyashashtra elucidated nine rasas or emotions and their roles in performing arts — erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrifying, odious, marvelous and shanti or peace, which was added later on. The word rasa literally means juice!

Indian popular cinema, knowingly or unknowingly has been deriving from these nine rasas since its inception in liberal doses at a ratio and manner where each emotion stuck out at the expense of the other without cohering to look like an organic whole. Not that it mattered to the Indian audience, who was satisfied with the tableaux which followed one after the other, each defined by a dominant rasa, motivated by the dramatic requirements of the story at that particular point, with an interval thrown in between for cigarette break.

Moreover, each rasa was further broken into parts. Hence you had the vamp and the heroine, epitomising two different aspects of the erotic emotion: the former representing the forbidden carnal psyche of the male protagonist, socially unacceptable, while the latter signified the socially acceptable, but equally desirable manifestation in her sexy sari avatar.

Indian cinema has come a long way since. Discounting the usual big budget fare starring the biggest stars of the industry, that play safe in terms of subject matters and treatment, mainly because of the huge amount of money and risk involved, medium and low-budget films have been pushing the envelope with varying degrees of success. With their unusual storylines, narratives have become leaner and smarter, chipping away the unnecessary flab to arrive at the core of its plot without beating around the bush. Voluptuous vamps have made way for slender heroines who no longer hesitate to shed their clothes without apology, sharing equal screen space with their male counterparts, in their own terms.

Does it signify a radical break from the past? Not really, for all such experimentations come with their quota of uncertainty and commercial obligations and compromises. Hence a unique subject — by Indian standards —like Imtiaz Ali’s Highway is bogged down by unnecessary sentimentalism and a half-baked script, resulting in some cringe-worthy scenes that refuse to raise the film beyond its unusual premise. But at least the effort is commendable.

Perhaps, the one individual who can be credited with the significant change in the past two decades in Hindi commercial cinema — from its movement from masala mix to genre specific ventures — is Ram Gopal Varma. Notwithstanding the senseless fare, he has been churning out in recent years. He, and an entire generation of filmmakers he inspired, broke away from traditional filmmaking mode and directed it towards no-frills accounts of gangster stories where even the erotic rasa was weaved into the narrative seamlessly without sticking out like a sore thumb.

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, film instructor and writer)

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