Soumabrata Chatterjee investigates the changing trends of violence in Indian cinema. There is now a delineation between the aesthetisation of violence and the politicisation of violence, he says, which is becoming a trendy option through which society views its own problems.
Before I start talking about the term ‘violence’ and how it relates to a new trend in Indian cinema, I would like to take a moment and reflect upon the philosophical background, which made me come across the observations, which I am going to make in the course of this article. Reading an article where Derrida engages with Levinas, I come to realise this: We do not engage with the ‘other’ as a complete, self-satisfied subject. Simply put, when we talk to others, when we relate to others, when we think of them, when we write about them, or when we see them, it is through that interaction that our subjectivities come into being. We are born through an engagement with others. Thus, we are always in motion, rediscovering ourselves as we go along, not just through an act of self-exploration but through engaging with others who are our friends, family or mere strangers. We are never ‘complete’, always in the process of ‘becoming’.
This is easily understandable when we think about cinema and the type of characters in it. Or we think about a novel or drama (except in cases like absurdism or other avant-garde theatrical forms). There is a plot and it generally moves forward, revealing bits and pieces about the characters as we go along. Watching the film is thus a process of discovering what happens to which character, how Shah Rukh Khan will woo his lover, or how Salman Khan will save his lady-love from trouble. It is however more than just discovery; just think what happens when you re-watch a film. You re-watch a ‘Sholay’ or ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and every time comes to be a different experience. Why this flux? If we are fairly solidified subjects encountering a story whose end and means are all known to us, then it shouldn’t be different every time. Yet, it is… It is because it depends on the nature of that particular interaction. It is what shapes us, how we view the characters, how we might have missed some detail before and that reopens our process of interpretation all over again.
So what happens when we see violence on screen? Different forms of violence elicit different types of emotions. Violence in gangster films have been there in Bollywood since long and the trend has been celebrated in films of Ram Gopal Varma and Anurag Kashyap. Then what is this new kind of violence I am talking about? One that comes across in films like NH10, or Badlapur… Is it a new kind of world order that is defined through these films? Perhaps one where the moral standpoints are so blurred that we cannot distinguish between what is good or evil. But then, our traditional understanding of films as something contributing to society falls apart. Films cannot be expected to function as the moral of our society. It cannot mirror our foibles; it does not have a social function. Rather, moving beyond all boundaries, it is just cinema for cinema’s sake. But then maybe that is what our society has been reduced to. Maybe we are just a society for society’s sake. We are just a civilisation for civilisation’s sake.
But then, going back to Derrida and Levinas, nothing can ever exist for itself. To make meaning, one has to move beyond what we are, towards what we can be in different contexts. Same can be said about cinema. Cinema cannot just exist for its sake. It has to engage with the viewer. And if we go by the philosophical strand I was talking about earlier, the viewer and the cinema (his object of interest) are born together. Every time we watch a film, we define it and it defines us.
The fourth wall never existed. Now, even the idea seems defunct…
Violence on screen is no different. Violence on screen imitates violence off screen. Just look at the rape case of Ranaghat or the mysterious death of the law student (both in West Bengal) and you would know what I mean. But violence has always been there. It is not a recent phenomenon. Also, why am I talking about one kind of violence? There is linguistic violence; there is cultural violence and even violence, which happens at the subliminal level. Then why am I focusing on a particular type of violence? It is because the two types of films that I chose portray physical violence as a moment of liberation. And that is why its politics needs to renegotiated.
Case 1: Badlapur
Varun Dhawan goes on a killing spree after his wife and kid are killed in a bank robbery incident. Through the course of the film, we witness how violence can be commodified and sold. Dhawan rapes a prostitute, kills another innocent woman who has nothing to do with his revenge except marrying one of the robbers, and he also uses moments of intimacy to gain leverage with another woman who is an activist for criminal rights. Now, I know that cinema is amoral and secular in itself as a medium but when it is directed by a particular individual, and is formed through discussion then it becomes a mini-world in itself. This film is radical insofar as it tries to portray that forgiveness is a bigger attribute than revenge. At the end of the film, we emphathise with the villain, Nawazuddin rather than the anti-hero that Dhawan turned out to be. I will come back to this film alter…
Case 2: NH10
Anushka Sharma and her husband take a wrong route, and the cliché takes them down an encounter with a group of men and a particular shady area where the villain kills his own sister because she has married the love of her life. Anushka’s husband (played by Neil Bhoopalam) interferes not because he really wants to save the woman but because he is slapped by the villain (played by Darshan Kumaar of Mary Kom fame). There is the quintessential battle between masculinities which fight it out at the expense of the females, even reducing their presence to mere rants and a wonderful kissing scene and some sex jokes. But the director finds his motto of female power and suddenly Anushka Sharma is killing everybody on the bad boys’ team because they have killed her husband. It is interesting how subliminally, the death of her husband or at least paralysis (textual and real) brings out the voice of the female. It is the classic case that the female finds her voice after the masculine ideal is shut down. There is no other way it seems…
Viewing these two films I would like to make a distinction between the aestheticisation of violence and the politicisation of violence. The two films I have discussed above are classic symptoms of a new trend in Indian cinema towards rampant aestheticisation of violence. Violence is considered to be an end in itself. There is no political agenda behind itself. There is no politicisation of the main problems highlighted in the film. When the film ends, the purpose ends too. It is just a canonization of violence for violence’ sake. Violence is not just considered as the means to an end. If that would have happened, then I wouldn’t be writing an article about it. It is just violence as an end. Violence is seen to be a solution for the characters on screen but the violence on women which happens off screen is put under the carpet. There is a split between the inspiration and the model. Cinema in its crude reflective form is symptomatic of the societal trends. These films do not initiate a discussion or introspection into the larger affairs at hand. It is satisfied by salvaging revenge for the characters on it. By politicisation, I mean that there should be a longs-standing dialectic between the violence as imagined on screen and violence as performed off screen. Let us consider the rape scene in Bandit Queen or where Seema Biswas is forced to walk naked to fetch water from the well. The politicisation of such a scene showed us that the violence on screen can initiate a discourse regarding how violence (in real life) can be class-specific or even caste-specific. Or even the multiple violent rape scenes in Matrubhoomi where a world devoid of women still reserves its brutal ideologies of masculine domination. It talked about how violence is distributed among different masculinities, which formed different hierarchies of its own.
In some scenes of NH10, Anushka Sharma is looking at things scribbled on the wall. Things like “randi, saali” (prostitute)… It is through these textual fissures that she comes in contact with the real, material world outside, one which always puts a limit on her desire, on her act of becoming, on her needing male assistance, on her type-casted as a virgin and a whore. The writing was on the wall, literally. Yet, Sharma shrugged that off and went on killing and claiming revenge as something she had to do. I have no problem with that formulation. Violence, as Frantz Fanon once taught us, is sometimes necessary for decolonisation (of fear, of subjugation, of domination…) but this violence has to point somewhere else. It has to encounter its ‘other’, in the real world.