31 May 2012

A Visit to Hans, being some notes on alterity and cinema

To Prashaste Sinha, 
“Brave in her shape, and sweeter unpossessed.” 

Cinema is such an integral part of much of urban human life that quite often we don’t concretely articulate what we might have to object to it. Like most experiences and commodities, engaging with alterities in this case too provides a range of valuable insights. 

First, the conditions of cinematic reception, the ways in which movie halls are constructed and prostituted – made available as part of the commodity market – easily become naturalised. Cinema, as the critic has noticed, is such an instantaneous form of artistic consumption that it engrosses and orients wholly towards its own internal dynamics much more than to the conditions of its immediate consumption. Given that, the module of consumption which offers greater tangible comfort in a basic sense of being finds easy acceptance and is readily integrated as natural and indispensible. 

Comfort, however, is not quite the objective universal. True, there is a sense in which comfort can be standardised and conceived in qualitative terms as a hierarchy of instant and utter sensual gratification, but the contextuality of the concept still coexists and so makes comfort also a matter of choice, perception and circumstance. Part of all of this, of course, is the economics of comfort, the cost of creating, sustaining and consolidating comfort – or comforts as the unacknowledged case usually is. 

The case of movie theatres seems somewhat similar. Comfort devolves on seating, on air conditioning, on screen, projection and sound quality respectively and on the availability of snacks. More than these tangibles, however, comfort is a corollary of the successful creation of an illusion of comfort, of the presentation of signs – from flooring and carpeting to sanitary fixtures – associated with comfort. Cinema is in any case a peculiar art form that has since its inception continuously reinvented itself to be ahistorically contemporaneous; not surprisingly, then, the visual paraphernalia of a sanitised modernity has more or less unquestioningly been an inherent part of its fashioning as the carrier and site of progressive prosperity. The movie theatre as much of Hindustan seems to know it today is precisely the consolidated product of these motifs and impetuses: we associate comfortable cinematic reception with the multiplex module not as much because that is comfortable in a comfort qua comfort sense – if such a sense does exist – but because it represents and fulfils aspirations of class and national mobility and the attendant desires for sanitised, instantly consumable entertainment. 

In such a scenario, the fact that entertainment, and the same form of entertainment, has different modules is an undesirable truth. A visit to Hans Cinema in the Azadpur area of the Capital reinforces as much. Hans is what in middle class colloquialisms is usually dismissed as a cheaparh hall, the bastion of Bhojpuri cinema frequented by destitutes and low income parts of the populace. The bourgeois visitor to Hans is at first more or less naturally struck with the exotic, and disturbing, otherness of the prospect. Class prejudices being too pervasive, the cheaparhness of Hans is, again, a factor of perceptual economics and all the attendant notions of comfort and respectability, cheapness itself being an essentially comparative qualification premised on fiscal dynamics. 

But even given the validity of these bias induced standards – for standards there must be, criticism being impossible without them – Hans is not cheaparh in many ways. The tickets are, to say the least, inexpensive, ranging from a maximum of thirty-five to a minimum of twenty. The movies are usually family dramas in the currently understood and appreciated stereotype of family dramas – romance, action, suspense, tragedy, union – and are mostly sourced from Bhojpuri and other allied, so-called regional industries. The hall itself is situated on the junction of the Grand Trunk Road with the city’s Inner Ring Road and stands opposite to Azadpur gaon and Azadpur industrial area and is flanked by high income Model Town residencies on one side and the service sector industries of Bara Bagh area on the other. It does not, from the outside, give an impression of neglect, but neither does it give the reassuring sense of unceasing maintenance of the quintessential multi-chain multiplex. 

The crowd too was of a socio-economic composition that can be thought of in similar terms. Most of the patrons seemed locals from the nearby gaon and slum cluster and seemed qualified, by their appearance, for censure from bourgeois eyes: one expected hooting, whistling, jeering and comment, just as one expected, mainly by the appearance of the theatre, semi-pornographic, crude cinema. Yet, such typical biases proved unfounded and the patrons seemed possessed of as much demeanour as those of any of your posh multiplexes. The movie, certainly simplistic in much of its technique, had as much skin and crassness as any of your regular, mainstream Hindustani cinema and the plot, nothing much to boast of, required as much willing suspension of disbelief as much of our conventional blockbusters. Most interestingly, the hall itself, the theatre from inside, was remarkably egalitarian in its structure, allowing, like the Elizabethan stage, all economic classes – vis-à-vis ticket purchasing capacity – the same, albeit gradated in terms of air conditioning and upholstery, access to the same entertainment. 

Of course, the very fact that demeanour and decency were considerations in this scenario, and at that considerations premised on distinct economics of being, indicates the continuance of biases even as they are challenged and interrogated on other planes. We tend, that is, to take such experiential economics as is out of the common currents of our analyses and engagement in ways indicative of our own biases and though that seems natural in many ways, it is nonetheless responsible for much avoidable injustice to peoples, places and perceptions. 

A visit to Hans demonstrated as much. The movie, nothing much to speak of in the untrained audience’s sense of judgement, was still entertaining in its own right; the hall, nothing much to speak of by bourgeois standards, was still comfortable in its own way. The own of here is significant: one judges by one’s own standards, but faced with alterity and difference one must consider one’s own loci and their fundamentals as much, if not more, than the other’s existential basis. We who are accustomed to the comfort economics of multiplex cinema must interrogate the basis of that comfort, the conditions on which it is provided and what that persuasively invisible process of availability entails: if other industries, as much regional – or national – as so-called Bollywood, can work and be consumed on more equitable basis, on basis reflective, even if unintentionally, of economics comparatively less discriminatory of class and the largely superficial paraphernalia of culture and taste, then there seems no convincing reason for the supposed mainstream to not operate similarly. 

That it does not indicates not as much the exigencies of recovery or the indispensability of comfort as the pervasive hold of extensive, unscrupulous profiteering on these forms of production, dissemination and consumption. In that sense, to be used to certain modules of consumption and to have sets ways of conceptualising socio-economic dynamics is perfectly alright, as, to a lesser degree, is holding on to them when faced with alterities. What we must endeavour when faced with such alterities, then, is to interrogate the basis of our own conditionings and rationalisations and see whether they themselves cannot be bettered in ways which would make them more equitable and oriented towards a communal sense of welfare and well-being, the community being, as the proverb goes, of all, for all and by all. Cinematic consumption has the potential to set such standards and Hans, even if unintentionally, leads the way.

27 May 2012

On Family Life

Does your family also work like a constitutional monarchy? Recent events and sustained observation has forced me to conclude that mine does.

The parents, of course, are hierarchical heads of state, a joint position inherited by blood and marriage and as such in continuance of the divine right. The sad burgeoning of the bourgeoisies has over time diluted the strength of the crown and powers are increasingly devolved onto the middlings, but the prestige and respect attendant on the double throne still survives. In any case, the constitution is but unwritten and compound more of tradition and convention that clear-cut legalities of a law.

Politically, therefore, the state is a form of feudal federalism in the fluid style of the Stuarts. The thrones share and control a number of important ministries, but a few are still the preserve of lords of the chamber and yet more are shared betwixt the crown and its dependencies. The Treasury, for instance, is shared equally amongst all revenue generating members of the state and the Exchequers jointly deliberate the expenses of the realm. The Foreign Office too is shared by all major members of the Royal Council and relations with other potentates are determined as much by individual agency and effort as by combined writ of the Council.

Of course, like all mechanisms one hardly realises the amount of behind-the-scenes work which goes into making this fluid yet fixed structure keep going seamlessly. It’s only when some rupture disturbs the normal functioning of the realm that you become aware of the underlying layers of complexities which prop the system. These ruptures can be of various kinds, but what their occurrence provides is an insight into the ways in which the state functions.

Such a rupture occurred recently with the issue of the state car. A new vehicle being purchased for the purpose, the matter of disposal of the old one became contentious. Much of the Council argued in favour of an immediate phasing out, but the member for affairs cultural and supernumerary arguing strongly for continuity and heritage a reluctant case was made out for conservation of the car.

Therein ended the first of many meetings. The issue being so tangled, a series of deliberations could not settle it. Inter-ministerial memorandums of understanding and mutual interest were come to, lengthy analyses conducted and reports prepared. Comment was invited from experts financial and mechanical, the Foreign Office consulted heads of other allied potentates and a holistic white paper was prepared.

Of course, that wasn’t just it. As in all senatorial setups, debate categorised the process at all stages, but what mattered the most was not the rhetoric of the moment but backstage alignments and confederacies. Members of the Council sent feelers to each other, the thrones themselves issued bilateral negotiations and the black clouds of chaos so threatened the matter that the original issue stood the risk of obfuscation amidst piles of red tape and tangential deliberation. All seemed lost and at the risk of becoming a dreaded official secret erased from public memory till, as, again, is wont with such forms of governance the highest power issued a directive and so the matter resolved. Backstage considerations must indeed have been involved, but in the best traditions of family life all was conducted with that sign of imperious command that put the matter to rest: fully, completely and amicably.