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Mahadevan (1)

Mahadevan (1)

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Published by: Lucien Chardon on Jun 17, 2012
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03/27/2014

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Robert B. Pippin, Fatalism in Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, forthcoming). Chapters of the book have already been published as ‘Agency and fate in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai’, Critical Inquiry, no. 37 (2011), pp. 214–44, and ‘Philosophical film: trapped by oneself in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past’, New Literary History, no. 41 (2010), pp. 517–48.

though he certainly intended to kill her, when it came to performing the act he was unable to do it. Pippin’s point is that as political subjects with desires, aims and dreams, there are certain things we might all intend, and say that we intend, but when it comes to acting upon those intentions we are often unable to do so. Intentions may be explained, while actions are very much harder to account for. Pippin offers no clear answers; rather, his task in this book is to flesh out some questions or issues that might be of use to political philosophy and, in his hands, these films philosophize awfully well. Like Hagin’s Death in Classical Hollywood Cinema, Pippin’s is not a long book – only 155 generously spaced pages – and he can hardly claim to have dealt comprehensively with the films of Hawks and Ford. But I was genuinely surprised to see what he unraveled from these films. If I sensed there was something of a lost ambition in Hagin’s book – that the stakes of death in classical Hollywood films had somehow gone missing – then the ambition of Pippin’s Hollywood Westerns is genuinely impressive. His book frames little less than a new way of seeing three films and a wellrehearsed generic tradition. Pippin also promises more: a book on film noir which takes up many of the themes that emerge in Hollywood Westerns. I imagine it will be worth reading.3
doi:10.1093/screen/hjr065

reviews

Anustup Basu, Bollywood in the Age of New Media: the Geo-televisual Aesthetic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, 262 pp. S U D H I R M A H A D E VA N

Anustup Basu’s book is a theorization of the mainstream Hindi cinema that emerged between roughly 1991 and 2004. Hindi films blend an assortment of local and international genres (spaghetti Western plus mythological plus action), dramaturgical modes (action, melodrama, comedy), song–dance sequences, aesthetic systems, even seemingly incommensurable epistemes, in what the film industry itself calls the ‘masala film’ – the word ‘masala’ denoting a spice mixture. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s thought, Basu contends that these ‘assemblages’ and eclectic combinations are neither contradictions nor a sign of postcolonial India’s incomplete engagement with modernity. Instead they are part of the very historicity of the Indian postcolonial situation. While Hindi cinema has always been ‘both infra- and international’ in its stylistic exchanges, the broader globalization-related transformations since the 1990s have added a new dimension. Three decisive developments since the 1990s provide historical context to Basu’s study: economic liberalization, a resurgent Hindu nationalism, and the ushering in of a ‘borderless’, global system of ‘electronic media exchanges’. Obviously these developments have profound implications for Indian

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statehood, national becoming, and the relation between the citizen/subject, sovereignty and the law. Basu’s interest, then, exceeds the cinema to encompass ‘a political analysis of the globalization of culture and urban life in a third world situation’ (p. 6). Indeed, there is a significant engagement with political theory and philosophy in the book as a whole, and especially in the first part, which sets the conceptual ground for the readings of particular films in what follows. Basu’s central assertion is that the changes of the 1990s have ensured that Hindi cinema has become more explicitly ‘geo-televisual’ in its aesthetics. Although he defines geo-televisuality in its simplest sense as ‘the projection and reception of words and images over great distances’ (p. 40), his discussion also suggests that it is more: it is the reflexive capacity to posit a place in the world at large from a secularly cosmological vantage point, a space-age-initiated bird’s-eye view, inaugurated by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 by the Soviets (and discussed by Hannah Arendt, from whom Basu draws his argument). How this dispensation is figured in Hindi cinema between 1991 and 2004 is the book’s major interest. Although the geo-televisual has always been present in Hindi cinema, most obviously in films like An Evening in Paris (Shakti Samanta, 1967) and Love in Tokyo (Pramod Chakravorty, 1966), by the 1990s it becomes ‘informatic’ in nature. Basu defines the ‘informatic’ as a regime of power, and an ecology where the ‘speed and density of interaction’ between knowledge, practices and institutions establish the rules of the game, as it were. (p. 95) Knowledge, as a process that unfolds in time and involves the procedures of logic and causality, and the use of reason to resolve contradictions, turns into information, characterized by an instantaneity of dispersal. This has political consequences. Older, axiomatic forms of supremacist Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) have become easily contiguous to metropolitan aspirations in the Indian popular political landscape, as witnessed in the ‘India Shining’ slogan popularized by the Hindu right. Signs and emblems of tradition can be orchestrated in groundless combinations with neoliberal pieties. Basu sees these combinations as producing sensation for and as ‘desiring and pleasure-filled bodies’ (p. 101). What these combinations emphatically do not possess is a relationship of correspondence to preexisting truths. The ‘new’ nationalism that emerges in this process is ‘defined by its affective strength’, not by its ability to ultimately circumscribe the geo-televisual within a top-down hegemony of national identity, as had been the case in earlier decades (p. 6). Drawing on a wide array of films in the second half of the book, which is dedicated to a series of close readings, Basu carefully unravels a number of related issues: human agency and citizenship in the new era of technofinancial informatization; the transformation of the city and the village; the uses of myth and repetition in the epic melodrama from Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) through Deewar (Yash Chopra, 1975) to Aatish (Sanjay Gupta, 1994) and Vaastav (Mahesh Manjrekar, 1999); the

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function of song–dance sequences as ‘luminous openings’ away from state-sanctioned forms of being and becoming. In the new dispensation, the industrial city of earlier socialist-realist and ‘developmentalist’ modes in classic Hindi cinema, with its labouring bodies, dirt and grime, makes way for the information city. In Mumbai Se Aya Mera Dost (Apoorva Lakhia, 2003), a film that pits feudal patriarchy against the emancipating power of television in rural India, villagers encounter a television for the first time and, as a result, bypass industrial developments, emerging as avid fashionable consumers and reflections of a geo-televisual universe of sights and sounds. They leapfrog from a state of nature into assemblages of metropolitan desires. As Basu puts it, ‘the images of the telegenic village, as well as images of television-in-thevillage, are components of a metropolitan power’s conversation with itself’ (p. 126). The cinema here functions not as a source of representations of anthropomorphic figures but of ensembles of humanoid and machinic attributes. In Nayak: Asli Hero (S. Shankar, 2003), the hero cleanses Mumbai of its corruption in twenty-four hours and the entire day’s proceedings are broadcast live. The regime of power here depends on a contract of total visual transparency, one that bypasses the ‘disabling dialectics and plural interpretations of liberal polity’ (p. 141). In Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1997), the story of a male radio journalist’s fascination with, and love for, a female suicide bomber, the song sequences open up a space for representing unremitting desire that would be impossible to endorse or actualize in the rest of the film. The assemblage of technorhythms, Sufi musical influences, rural Indians in spotless costumes as virtualized ‘ethnic chic’, and the impossible fantasy of the female terrorist ‘as beloved’, all these ‘exert an ontological pull that removes figures of desire from an embattled geopolitical milieu of the nation-state’ (p. 172). In a science fiction film like Rudraksh (2004), a technologically aware and consumerist religiosity transforms technology itself into ancient Hindu mythic material. Science fiction becomes scientific myth, as it were. What binds Basu’s discussion of the various films is the Deleuzian emphasis on an ontologically unstable conception of assemblages as formations in perpetual movement that disfigure the very totalities that claim them. Permeable boundaries between tradition and modernity have always characterized Hindi cinema. The significant change in contemporary Hindi cinema is the absence of grounding, prior hierarchies and conceptions of national identity that would give these boundaries a clear representational function. Contemporary informatic ecologies, therefore, cannot be understood simply in terms of ‘representational politics and conscious ideological devoirs’ (p. 235). This has implications for how the cinema is conceived. Basu seems little interested in the codes of storytelling or in close analysis (or indeed, in spectatorship and modes of filmic address) for their own sake. He also rejects the utility of ethnographic study or a simplistically determinist historical grounding for the films he considers, although he does carefully and thoroughly set up the historical context for the period
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1

Ravi Vasudevan, The Melodramatic Public: Film Form and Spectatorship in Indian Cinema (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2010), p. 354.

2

Gregory J. Seigworth, ‘Cultural studies and Gilles Deleuze’, in Gary Hall and Clare Birchall (eds), New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006, pp. 107–27.

under scrutiny. Far more productive than conferring narratives with a primary ideological or aesthetic function would be to attend to the movements of assemblages, the contagions that course through a film. Such contagions can give rise to utopias as much as to violent and dominant myths (p. 16). Ideologies are expressed through affective strength. The geotelevisual operates at the level of tissue and nerve, at a neurological stratum of habit and regulation of shock, as Ravi Vasudevan puts it in his assessment of recent Deleuzian trends in Indian film studies. What is of interest is a ‘meta-narrative that tells another story, the extent to which the cinema is immersed in economies of desire, sense perception, speed’.1 That said, in the films interpreted by Basu the ideological instabilities that exceed and escape the very totalities that seek to circumscribe them may well remind the reader of an earlier, Raymond Williamsesque paradigm of cultural studies. Gregory Seigworth has discussed the remarkably similar ontological cast in Williams and Gilles Deleuze.2 Compare for instance, the relative autonomy that Williams ascribes to experience as a domain that escapes the subject, the fixed, the known, the explicit, and Deleuze’s emphasis on the nomadic, on lines of flight, on de- and re-territorializing movements, on experience as experiment. Likewise Basu’s eloquent parsing of the push and pull between cosmic and secular temporalities, between Dharmic and secular law, between the epic melodrama and the various forms of disenchanted realisms that have marked Hindi cinema, could all perhaps be reformulated in terms of Williams’s structures of feeling, or of his distinctions between dominant, residual and emergent tendencies. Basu’s study ends in 2004, at the point of the emergence of a new kind of urban niche cinema catering to the mall/multiplex venues and audiences. Basu’s book and its densely theoretical prose make for occasionally challenging reading. Agamben, Foucault, Deleuze and Etienne Balibar meet on the same pages as Hegel, Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, at a dizzying pace. Nevertheless, this book underscores how the cinema can serve as an enormously productive constituent of a sustained engagement with political theory. It serves as a concentrated theoretical traversal of the cinema at a moment of politicized globalization in India. As such, it is both a necessary and a singular work.
doi:10.1093/screen/hjr064

reviews

Jaimey Fisher and Brad Prager (eds), The Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Detroit, IL: Wayne State University Press, 2011, 431 pp. L A R S O N PO W E L L

Writing film history has become difficult in an age mistrustful of grands récits. To define a new period requires giving it a name, and marking it off

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