Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Not As Good As...": The 2009 Best Picture Oscar Nominees

With the expansion of this year's Oscar nominated best pictures from five to ten for the first time since 1943, in what would appear a transparent attempt to insure higher broadcast ratings (by not leaving out another The Dark Knight), one variable remains constant from previous years' selections, whether five or ten: the absence of most of the year's actual 'best' English-language films from the list. Among 2009's ten selections, the only unequivocally deserving for this writer is Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008; pictured), which extends the director's adrenaline-junkie subject to the Iraqi war context, without succumbing to the standard antiwar moralizing that remains (to its unending detriment) the default mode of the cycle. That Jeremy Renner also received a nomination for his charismatic, picture-carrying lead turn, qualifies as one of the most pleasant surprises, and perceptible selections, among this year's choices. Otherwise, it would seem that Oscar voters, as they almost always do, got it wrong. Below are the remaining nine films (listed alphabetically) and nine selections I would have preferred - or I suppose eight with a ninth, non-qualifying recommendation.

James Cameron's AvatarNot As Good As: Henry Selick's Coraline (pictured)
The Connection: 3-D.

Though Bigelow-ex Cameron's Avatar features the year's most luminous color palette and absolutely does mark a major leap forward in 3-D aesthetics - with its subtle, cubic, three-dimensional field - this all-time box office champ also presents an exceedingly muddled, and highly contradictory, shifting critique of western civilization, imperialism, industrialization and militarism. Never mind the (obscenely wealthy) naked emperor behind Avatar, it is for you to save the world - in the way he says, of course, not by emulating what he does. By comparison, Coraline, though it is no less a work of exceptional care and craft, lacks both the technical and political ambitions of Avatar. Yet, Selick clearly exceeds Cameron intellectually in his allegorization of digital, diegetic spaces, where the conceptual world extends only as far as the limits of what the filmmakers have built. Selick helps us to understand the art he makes.

John Lee Hancock's The Blind Side
Not As Good As: Friday Night Lights [TV] (pictured)
The Connection: High school football.

Okay, so I am not suggesting that the Oscar committee faulted in looking past the Peter Berg-created television series . What I am saying, however, is that as a portrait of southern, Christian America - and the world of high school football - there is nothing comparable in American visual culture today (particularly on the level of quality) to Friday Night Lights. Where The Blind Side is a cliché factory in virtually every respect (whether it is the film's screenplay, its performances or even its look), Friday Night Lights not only treats a subject like none other on American television, but it does so through a hand-held shooting style that looks even less familiar. Friday Night Lights belongs to the televisual, long-form twenty-first century idiom that theatrical cinema rarely equals.

Neill Blomkampf's District 9Not As Good As: J.J. Abrams's Star Trek (pictured)
The Connection: Post-Cloverfield science-fiction.

It's rare, if not unprecedented for a science-fiction film as small as District 9 to secure a 'best picture' nominee. (No film benefited more from the new rules.) And while Blomkampf's work is certainly a passable effort in the Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2008)-mode, Abrams's directorial effort from 2009 ranked as one of the most purely pleasurable pieces of blockbuster filmmaking this year - not that District 9 aspires any less to the tent-pole classification. Here's one instance in which the bigger film truly was better, even if still suffers in comparison to Cloverfield itself (and to that film's theorization of the digital image's palimpsestic nature). Not that ten films a year ago would have led to the then very deserving Cloverfield's inclusion.

Lone Scherfig's An Education
Not As Good As: Jane Campion's Bright Star (pictured)
The Connection: The March 2010 Vanity Fair cover.

As very solid as the charming An Education is (and for this writer it is the second best among 2009's choices), Campion's return to her 1990s form nevertheless bests it easily, and every other film chosen this year. While it shares with An Education an outstanding female lead performance from a young actress and a very impressive, un-nominated supporting male turn, Campion's extraordinarily imagistic mise-en-scène and her strong focalization of female desire - she remains ever the 1970s-brand feminist narrationally - unquestionably elevates her latest over the nominated pick.

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds
Not As Good As: Judd Apatow's Funny People (pictured)
The Connection: Jews and the cinema.

Among this post's comparisons, the Tarantino vs. Apatow verdict is the one that I most suspect I will reverse in future, when inevitably I overcome Tarantino's problematic revisionism, and can focus instead on his always impressive formalism. For now, I remain firm in insisting that Tarantino's transformation of Holocaust-era Jews into suicide bombers, and his dream scenario in which the cinema takes down the Third Reich, both lack, shall we say, nuance, if not also a minimal moral footing. On the other hand, the unfairly maligned Funny People provides a clear-sighted portrait of its real world-based protagonists, and particularly of the Adam Sandler persona. Sandler (whose input into the film is far more interesting than Apatow's - another reason for possible future revisionism) continues to make some of Hollywood's most interesting choices, without ever receiving the slightest recognition. A Sandler nomination would have been an uncharacteristically gutsy for the Academy.

Lee Daniels's Precious
Not As Good As: Clint Eastwood's Invictus (pictured)
The Connection: Post-Obama racial politics.

Though Oscar-favorite director Eastwood's Invictus does not represent its auteur at the top of his form (like one of the Academy's only truly deserving 'best picture's,' Million Dollar Baby, 2004), it does best the majority of this year's choices inasmuch as it is the latest in the director's seismic readings of the collective American mood: in this instance, America in the immediate, early-2009 afterglow of the Obama election. Lee Daniels's Precious, by comparison, features a racial politics that is astonishingly regressive thanks to its capacity to inspire audience disgust in its African American characters. Really, any other 2009 release would have been preferable to Precious.

Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man
Not As Good As: James Gray's Two Lovers (2008; pictured)
The Connection: Middle-class Jewish life.

Joel and Ethan Coen's "Job" without redemption ranks as the runner-up in the least-likable nominee category (to that other 'Job' minus redemption narrative of 2009, Precious). Where it is nowhere near as objectionable in any sense, the Coen's cruelty has rarely been as evident as it is in this second consecutive misfire following co-career-peak, and deserving nominee, No Country for Old Men (2007). Gray's exceedingly precise, stylistically mimetic Two Lovers, which is no less grounded in middle-class Jewish life (though it feels infinitely more authentic to this writer), never seems to have been on Oscar's radar, in spite of being the finest English-language US release of 2009. Oh well, as this post should attest, not making the Academy cut matters very little in qualitative terms.

Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's UpNot As Good As: Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (pictured)
The Connection: Animation.

2009's clear animation pick, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, can at least claim a 'best animated film' nomination, even if it will lose inevitably to the latest Pixar juggernaut. While there is nothing wrong with Up exactly, there is a large degree of critical calculation in its overtly sentimental, aging-protagonist narrative. (In other words, we have genre-revisionism here, though to what end is less clear.) Fantastic Mr. Fox, on the other hand, is certainly the film that its director wanted to make, whatever the box office - or critical - consequences. Moreover, Anderson's latest ranks among the year's most unambiguously personal films, extending the very familiar style, thematic universe and subject (of a stressed or broken family persevering) into unfamiliar, stop-action territory. Wes Anderson, not that Oscar would know it, is one of the leading auteurs of the contemporary American cinema.

Jason Reitman's Up in the Air
Not As Good As: Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (pictured)
The Connection: Business travel.

Lastly, we have a film that was appointed to its nomination and a second that was fated to come and go with at best auteurist critical esteem (which it incomprehensibly lacked, for the most part). Where both films largely inspired ambivalence, the prior track records of the two directors could not be any different: the son of a successful director whose indie film successes have uniformly manifested an at best indifferent visual style, and a pioneer of the same independent cinema who has been responsible for some of the strongest American films of the 1980s and 1990s. So, naturally, Up in the Air and its staggering indifference gets the nod from Oscar over the visually and intellectually ambitious The Limits of Control, the director's best in ten years at least. The Academy Awards would not be what they are without such serious omissions.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Narratively-Integrated Spectacle: Bollywood and the "Cinema of Attractions"

Intuitively, no contemporary commercial cinema better exemplifies Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attractions” model than does that of the Indian subcontinent.[1] This cinema, commonly described as ‘Indian popular cinema’ or ‘Bollywood,’ is famously spectacle-driven in its emphases on “sets and costumes, action sequences (‘thrills’), [its] presentation of… stars, grandiloquent dialogues, song and dance sequences, comedy interludes and special effects.”[2] While narrative is present and even conspicuous in Indian popular cinema’s “melodramatic… system of dramaturgy” – which displays “the characteristic ensemble of Manichaeism, bipolarity, the privileging of the moral over the psychological, and the deployment of coincidence in plot structure”[3] – narrative has not tamed the effects of spectacle.[4] As prominent Indian film scholar Ravi Vasudevan has put it, “the relationship between narrative, performance sequence and action spectacle is loosely structured in the fashion of a cinema of attractions.”[5]

The films of director Manmohan Desai represent a particularly compelling site for the examination of the term’s portability to the South Asian context. Best known for his “masala” genre collaborations with Bollywood mega-star Amitabh Bachchan,[6] such as their 1977 blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony, Desai himself has acknowledged that his work consists primarily of a series of “items” [7] or “highlights”[8] that Dwyer notes subordinate the narratives in which they appear.[9] For Dwyer, Desai’s films operate according a principle of accumulation, “piling item on item” – for instance, Bachchan’s star persona, the film’s song and dance passages, comedic interludes, and stunt fighting sequences – until “a state of parody is reached.”[10] (David Chute rejects this designation of parody for Amar Akbar Anthony, though he adds that the film “does exhibit a knowing awareness of its own absurdity.”)[11] In any case, Desai’s films seem to demonstrate the suitability of ‘the cinema of attractions’ as an explanatory model for the Bollywood mode of filmmaking, whether one considers its amassing of spectacular elements or its preponderance of direct address that echoes the “recurring look at the camera by actors” in the early cinema.[12]
At the same time, the limitations in applying Gunning’s model to the Indian popular cinema are equally visible in Desai’s work. ‘The Cinema of Attractions,’ as instantiated both by the author’s eponymous piece and also by Gunning and André Gaudreault’s “Early Cinema as a Challenge to Film History,”[13] is first an argument for early film periodization, dividing the era into phases defined by “the system of monstrative attractions” and “the system of narrative integration” consecutively.[14] In the context of the Indian popular cinema, however, the film’s attractions are regulated and determined by their narrative functionality – even in the extreme example of Desai’s cinema.

Accordingly, the following essay will challenge the descriptive merit in applying ‘The Cinema of Attractions’ to Indian popular cinema emphasizing precisely this relationship between spectacle – ‘attractions’ – and narrative form in two separate works from two distinct periods (both of which, I should add, are discussed extensively by Vasudevan and Dwyer alike). The first, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), represents the ‘classical’ phase of Bollywood cinema, wherein “the induction of the sensational attractions of action, spectacle, and dance into the social film” was “encouraged” by a “drive for a larger audience.”[15] The second is Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony, which exemplifies the “new regime of representation” that emerged in India’s post-1970 blockbuster (or ‘post-classical’) cinema, and was grounded in a “system of typage.”[16] In each case I will employ close readings to adjudicate the relative value of Gunning’s conception. Following these two case studies, I will consider in closing whether the application of ‘the cinema of attractions’ model to the Indian popular cinema might follow from its ideological expediency rather than from its descriptive value.


Pyaasa & the Look into the Camera

Actor-director-producer Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (a.k.a. Eternal Thirst or Thirsty One) opens with nocturnal imagery of a lily pad-covered pond. The camera pans laterally across the surface of the water, tilts upward and then cuts to a man in the distance lying on the ground. Flowers fall on the gentleman (Dutt’s protagonist Vijay), with stringed, South Asian instrumentation accompanying the arrival of each individual bud. Vijay begins to recite poetry in a sing-song cadence that speaks of “these smiling flowers,” “these fragrant gardens” and “this world filled with glorious colors.” The non-diegetic soundtrack provides light backing as he continues singing of the bee’s pollen and so on, with shots to precisely match his verbal imagery. Dutt’s protagonist is a poet, seemingly inventing his verse out of the surroundings he inhabits, which moreover strongly echo the natural settings from Satyajit Ray’s pivotal realist Pather Panchali (1955) released two years earlier. Indeed, Dutt emulates not just the location shooting of Ray’s film but also the impoverishment of its intellectual protagonist and the social conscience that famously made Pather Panchali a target of actress turned politician Nargis.[17] In Pyaasa, Vijay is chastised for writing poetry that “talks about unemployment” rather than the more suitable subject of love.


Of course, Vijay also composes romantic verse, as we see in his first encounter with prostitute Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman). In this instance, Gulabo is actually singing Vijay’s poetry, which his brothers sold to a waste paper dealer for the paltry sum of ten annans. Vijay hears the verse (without non-diegetic orchestration) as he sits on the other side of a waterfront park at night. Interrupting her, Vijay asks her to “listen” and begins to explaining himself as Dutt cuts into a medium-close-up of Rehman with her back turned to the camera. Gulabo swings around and looks directly into the camera; her face is illuminate by a soft, frontal light source that leaves the edges of her round cheekbones in deep shadow, as she begins singing “Jaane Kya Tonne Kahi” (“who knows what I heard?”). Non-diegetic orchestration commences in the middle of this opening lyric. With the line’s repetition, Dutt cuts into a closer composition of the actress, still looking directly into the camera, as she faces it in the same three-quarters profile established in the prior shot. The camera follows her with this same tight framing as she moves to her right, never diverting her gaze from the camera. At the end of this couplet, Dutt moves back out matching screen direction as she now stares just out of the frame. Gulabo backs away from the camera and Vijay moves into the frame following her inviting gesture. Dutt reverses between the actors until the song recommences with “I felt my heart awaken, I felt such elation” as she again stares directly into the camera. Dutt follows this composition with a close-up and two additional re-framings that continue to showcase Gulabo staring directly into the camera. With a match cut on her movement left, Dutt follows her panning through a series of classical columns, even as the orchestration continues. With another set of lyrics, Dutt cuts back in though Gulabo is now looking slightly off camera to her left, commensurate with her sudden spatial separation from Vijay. Kneeling, she continues her song waiting for the gentleman to reach her. Eventually, as we see her moving progressively back into the frame, Vijay steps into the foreground momentarily blocking the camera as he follows the woman – their glances presumably meeting in every instance they are cast upward. As Gulabo and Vijay descend into the enframed space, the scoring ceases and he begins to interrogate her anew about the song she was singing.


Throughout the above musical sequence, Dutt orients his actor’s looks and particularly Rehman’s toward rather than across or away from the camera. Consequently, Dutt’s aesthetic, which will recur often in Pyaasa, though in many future cases it will be paired with push-ins or pull-outs from the actors depicted alone in the frame, shares the aforementioned ‘look at the camera’ that Gunning postulates as central to early cinema aesthetics. As Gunning observes, “this action, which is later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusion of the cinema, is here undertaken with brio, establishing contact with the audience.” The ‘look at the camera’ is thus a relational act foreclosed by illusionism; it is a moment of truth, of presence that is denied by classical cinema’s false sense of reality and its efforts to construct a separate diegetic world.


Yet, Dutt’s systematic use of this technique manages to preserve the ‘illusion’ of a coherent diegetic space. While the director’s technique no doubt emphasizes the spectacle inherent in his display of his beautiful female lead, lit with a soft, nearly frontal light source, we as spectators do not loose track of Dutt’s position beside or in most instances directly behind the camera. This arrangement highlights Pyaasa’s straightforwardly reflexive schema as the spectator sutured in the diegetic space is none other than the director himself; Dutt places his Vijay in the place he shares as the film’s director – behind the camera. Parenthetically, Dutt’s next film,
Kaagaz ke phool (1959), treats the subject of a practicing filmmaker, making the implied reflexive content of Pyaasa – present in both the above editing strategy and also in its depiction of Vijay as poet, a medium that is analogous to Dutt’s particular craft as a director – explicit.

In short, Dutt’s editing strategy, effectively matching his actors’ eye-lines through rather than across the apparatus, serves two purposes: to emphasize the spectacle inherent in his presentation of his beautiful actress and to signify his status behind the camera as the film’s director. Yet it is a strategy undertaken within the parameters of narrative cinema – though Dutt embraces and indeed emphasizes spectacle, the spectacle does not exist to challenge or conflict with the narrative. Rather Dutt has discovered a technique to ground his ‘attractions’ in narrative, to emphasize the spectacle inherent in looking at the film’s female lead without arresting the narrative flow. Her look into the camera is integrated into a diegetically-situated economy of looks.


Johny Walker & the Comic Interlude

Like Rehman’s prostitute Gulabo, Johny Walker’s head masseuse (Abdul Sattar) is introduced singing one of Vijay’s songs, “Sar Jo Tera Chakrasye,” in an effort to sell his services. Dutt starts this initially scoreless sequence with a shot of Walker[20] approaching the camera from a position just above the ground. Walker advertises his head massages holding his oil container above his head and imploring those around him with his extraordinarily nasally voice (a source of comic spectacle in its own right). The misty, palm tree-filled setting is noticeably tropical, which the subsequent scoring reflects through its Brazilian-inflected theme. This slowly building non-diegetic soundtrack is accompanied by a second diagonal composition through which Walker
moves. A cut-in to medium close-up features the gentleman advertising “massage, oil massage, make things gleam!” Following another cut, Walker swings toward the camera now singing, or more accurately miming, “if your head reels with pain, or your heart sinks in gloom… Don’t fret, leave it to me; I’ll set things right soon.”

Unlike Rehman, however, his gaze is not continuously directed toward the camera, even if Dutt frequently utilizes close-ups during the sequence; rather, Walker scans from his right to left looking for customers onto whom he can ply his trade. Thus, when contrasted with Walker’s glances away from the apparatus, Rehman’s recurrent looks into the camera appear even more firmly calibrated to reflect the spectacle of her beauty. Likewise, the absence of a sutured spectator within the narrative reinforces the particularity of Dutt’s position in the earlier sequence, and as such the plausibility that it was intended to connote his participation in the story metaphorically behind the camera.


However, this is not to suggest that ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakraye’ wants for spectacle. Here, the ‘attraction’ takes the form of the comic interlude, serving as a break or even ‘relief’ from the prevalent suffering and sadness that dogs the film’s male protagonist. Walker performs his trade, singing and invasively applying his professional skills on his clients, which on occasion takes the form of Walker pounding on his clients’ heads, as if playing a drum. Here, Dutt has supplied the sounds of woodblocks and bongs to augment Walker’s performance, and thus to reinforce his privileged status as narratively-supplied comic interloper. His buffoonery is endorsed by the film’s soundtrack.


As Walker mimes a long note, staring off into the distance, he catches a glimpse of Vijay. Turning back to the gentleman whose head he is massaging, Walker insists that Vijay is a “great poet,” and that it is his song that he has been singing. Consequently, what may have seemed to be an extra-diegetic musical number (an embellishment on top of the diegetically-grounded trade he is performing) not unlike the sound effects supplied in his drumming, is acknowledged instead to be diegetic. Within the film’s fictional world, he was in fact singing while performing his head massages. Indeed, this comic interlude as a whole belongs to the film’s diegetic construction, even if the orchestration of the musical number and the sound effects of the drumming non-diegetically (and anti-naturalistically) ornament the sequence. The comedy in fact issues substantially from this derivation from the world stipulated by the diegesis.


While ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakraye’ has the effect of breaking the mood of Dutt’s film with its broad physical and verbal comedy, it is not allowed to stand alone in the narrative (as the simple moment of Walker’s introduction into the narrative). Rather, it introduces a skill that he will later ply in order to assist Vijay in escaping from a mental asylum, where the latter his held against his will. While the act of massaging heads may itself be arbitrary – though not unprecedented in film history: Ginger Rogers practices a similar trade in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942) – Dutt reuses it causally within his narrative. Where it seems to stand outside the narrative in this earlier instantiation, it later proves to be efficacious in moving the narrative forward. In other words, even the least narratively-integral elements of spectacle in Pyaasa (compared that is to the actress’s beauty or the film’s sung poetry) are made to serve the story’s progression; they are integrated, even retrospectively, into the film’s narration.


The Problem of Playback Singing

Before moving on to Amar Akbar Anthony, it is worth acknowledging the success with which Pyaasa overcomes the technical limitations shared by all Bollywood musicals of its era. During the 1940s, Indian popular cinema began to utilize “playback singing” in which the songs were pre-recorded by professional singers and then mimed by the film’s actors.[21] These numbers were mixed without additional sound effects, no doubt as they were and continue to be aired on radio and marketed independently from the films themselves.[22] As such, textural variations emerge between the playback musical passages and the recorded dialogue.


Dutt’s solution to this challenge (in the discussed work) is to introduce his musical sequences in increments. A key example is “Ho Laakh Musibat,” the song number that precedes ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakraye.’ Here, the musical theme that will eventually swell with the commencement of the playback singing, is introduced near the end of the prior sequence – a flashback where Vijay first encounters his earlier love Meena (Mala Sinha) in a collegiate classroom. From here, Dutt cuts to Vijay and Meena’s subsequent love affair, detailed first in a montage of the pair playing badminton. In this intermediate step, Dutt’s soundtrack has become more upbeat with the inclusion of a xylophone over the prior instrumentation. At the completion of this brief musical interlude, Dutt cuts again to a frontal close-up of Vijay singing “our love will survive every trial.” With this cut, the texturally-distinct playback recording is audible, though since Dutt has progressively primed us for the sudden burst by introducing the theme first in an earlier passage – where it is accompanied by diegetic sound – and then by increasing its tempo and volume with added instrumentation (and the sudden absence of diegetic sound effects), the effect is less jarring than it might have been. Certainly for any spectator with even a cursory familiarity with Bollywood cinema, the presence of a song at this moment is not only unsurprising, but in actuality, expected.


Similarly instructive is ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakraye,’ where once again the theme is introduced before the playback singing begins in earnest. Here, the prior recording starts with an instrumental passage that Walker voices over with his screeching cadence (‘massage, oil massage, make things gleam!’) before he begins miming the playback singer’s smoother voice. Likewise, the scene concludes once more with a single note held by the playback singer and mouthed by Walker, which is cut off with the actor’s sighting of Dutt’s Vijay, leading the former to recommence the film’s dialogue. As he began singing almost as a natural elaboration of his sales pitch, he stops just as quickly with his sudden recognition of his friend’s presence. He has been singing therefore within the film’s diegetic world. Rather than being distinctive and ontologically separate, the musical and non-musical are permeable states in Pyaasa. They flow into one another, or as Dwyer has so eloquently put it, “Dutt’s films… often move from dialogue into song and dance so smoothly that the transition is barely perceptible, like the moment at which Fred Astaire stops walking and starts dancing.”[23]

More accurately, however, a film such as Pyaasa moves smoothly from dialogue to song, rather than to song and dance. Pyaasa’s song sequences are again largely composed of close-ups of the lip-syncing actors with few exceptions. The lone sequence that might qualify as a song and dance number, “Tang Aa Chuke Hain,” depicts Vijay and Meena ballroom dancing in an ethereal, dream landscape. However, the fog that engulfs the setting prevents us from seeing (at any point) either of the lead’s feet. As such, Dutt renders his couple dancing without making the activity itself spectacle. Rather what is spectacular in this instance is the fantastic setting with its waves of fog, its circular staircase to nowhere and its rows of lampposts. Dance is simply a vehicle for the pair to pass the time in each others’ arms in this heavenly, ‘attraction’-like setting.


The Spectacle of Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony

By contrast, the Amitabh Bachchan star vehicle of the 1970s elevates song and dance to the same prominent status that music alone occupies in the films of Guru Dutt. For example, in the first Amar Akbar Anthony song number to feature Bachchan’s Anthony as a soloist, “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves,” the setting is itself a dance with Bachchan as the sequence’s primary human spectacle. ‘My Name is Anthony Gonsalves’ opens at an Easter Day dance to which the Catholic lead Anthony has invited new object of desire Jenny (Parveen Babi). Desai opens with a panning establishing shot of a dance floor onto which a giant white Easter egg is being transported with the words “Happy Easter” printed on the front. Up-tempo dance music is audible in the background as Desai cuts and then pushes in to Jenny and her bodyguard Zebisko (Hercules). The filmmaker reverses 180° to the egg, whose top is rotated to reveal Bachchan in a top hat, tuxedo and monocle seated in the gimmicky object. Desai then cuts in to a close-up of Bachchan with a series of loud screams audible off-camera. The director reverses back 180° to the dance floor where the thrilled partygoers charge toward Bachchan and the camera (Jenny and Zebisko move more slowly in the middle of the group). Cutting back to another frontal framing of Bachchan in full, the actor screams “wait, wait, wait” before launching, now standing, into the following nonsensical English-language monologue: “You see the whole country of the system is juxtaposition by the hemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own pomposity.”


To this, Desai reverses a complete 180° once again to the partiers who scream “What?” in unison, staring directly into the camera. Back to Bachchan in low-angle with one leg resting on the exposed top edge of the egg as the playback recording commences, the actor lip-synchs the eponymous English-language lyric. Desai reverses to a group of young women staring into the camera who repeat an undecipherable line before returning to Bachchan, who with another cut is framed diagonally; he exits the egg, walking down a set of stairs as he continues to sing in Hindi. At the bottom, he turns to the camera, waving his finger at the apparatus as he dances hunched over, leaning on his umbrella. In this song he assures us “in this world I’m all alone, an empty heart and an empty house as well” as Desai cuts to a frontal push-in of Jenny dancing and then back to a two of Jenny dancing in the lower left corner and Anthony/Bachchan staring at her, cropped at his knees, just left of center. Bachchan then grabs the actress’s arm, opens his umbrella and saunters with her onto the dance floor away form the white tuxedoed Zebisko. He tells her: “In them, a lucky girl will reside.”


As the song proceeds hereafter with an instrumental passage, we see Bachchan in the background dancing, hat in hand, as he looks directly into the camera. This interval is followed by an unexpected gesture in which he hands the flower in his hand to a girl other than Jenny. Zebisko responds by pounding him on the top of the hat, which knocks Anthony down. As he looks up, dazed, we see his kaleidoscopic point-of-view. After rubbing his eyes and resituating himself, Anthony continues his song as he slinks around Zebisko implicitly calling on the larger gentleman not to swing at him. Upon doing so he continues miming, all the while looking directly into the camera. Like ‘Jaane Kya Tonne Kahi’ in Pyaasa, Desai relies overwhelmingly upon the look into the camera.


Of course the differences with that number are equaling telling. First, ‘My Name is Anthony Gonsalves’ lacks an obvious reflexive subtext – any identification of Bachchan with the camera would lack Pyaasa’s semantic weight. Second, the spectacle in Amar Akbar Anthony is less immediately identifiable as that of the actress’s beauty: unlike Dutt who lights Rehman differently than he does himself, Desai’s hard-lit color cinematography provides a neutral field for all of the sequences’ performers, and especially for Bachchan and Babi. Babi does not have an independent place in the spectacle; she, as her character Jenny, is the object of Anthony/Bachchan’s desire. Third, Desai’s camera focalizes on Bachchan’s identity and performance throughout. As the sequence opens again, it is the revelation that it is Bachchan’s Anthony in the Easter egg that encourages the first frontally-framed look into the camera, as well as the gasps and on-rush of the party-goers. Anthony’s presence, like superstar Bachchan’s, is sufficient to encourage female screams.[24] Thereafter, he performs as much for the camera as he does for the persons in the ballroom, commonly singing and dancing directly to the apparatus – compared to Rehman or Walker who uniformly sing for others within their film’s diegetic world.


When Jenny for instance looks directly into the camera, Desai uniformly pairs her gaze with a reverse to the object of her vision, Anthony. However, when the framing is reversed with Bachchan looking into the camera – as with the passage noted where he gestures to Zebisko not to strike him – Desai does not necessarily follow his look into the camera with either Jenny’s or indeed with the looks of any other figure in the room. In one of the scenes discussed above, Desai cuts from Bachchan/Anthony’s look into the camera to a diagonal composition of Anthony grabbing another woman’s arm, continuing to dance, then a frontal shot of Anthony between two ladies with the actor turning his back to the camera and displaying the number “420” in the inside of his jacket. Following this gesture, Desai returns to Anthony who then taps Jenny on her shoulder with the woman suddenly turning around. As such, Desai breaks his previous strategy of following looks into the camera with their 180° reverse angles. The subject of these looks into the camera, it becomes clear, is not Jenny, nor is it any other figure embedded in the diegesis, but rather the film’s spectator. That is, Desai has afforded the film’s most popular star the privilege of direct address without any attempt to suture his looks into a diegetically-grounded spectatorial economy. Bachchan’s Anthony is allowed an awareness of the film’s spectators that the film’s supporting players generally are not.


Desai plays on this strategy late in the film’s final musical number, “Anhoni Ko Hani.” Here, in a gesture in which Anthony reveals his masked identity to his beloved Jenny, Bachchan pulls down his beard and winks into the camera. In this instance, however, Desai follows the look with a 180° frontal reverse of Jenny who has only belatedly discovered his identity. As such, Desai renews the direct address strategy of ‘My Name is Anthony Gonsalves,’ and its alternation between performances directed to the spectator alone and those which receive a surrogate viewer in the diegesis. Yet in this case, Desai effectively achieves both, utilizing the former effect in the first look (we do not expect this reverse given the extent to which the look into the camera is utilized throughout ‘Anhoni Ko Hani’ in particular) and the latter with the cut to Jenny. Bachchan maintains his privileged relationship with the audience, and is nonetheless retroactively re-sutured into the film’s diegetic world. He continues to read as the spectacle within the narrative, even when the reverse shifts the look into an embedded economy of looks.


The Role of Narrative in Amar, Akbar, Anthony

The privilege given Bachchan is extended likewise to the film’s other two titular leads, Amar (Vinod Khanna) and Akbar (Rishi Kapoor) in ‘Anhoni Ko Hani.’ Here, Amar, Akbar and Anthony each look into the camera, disclosing their hidden identities by name as progressive lyrics in the song: “Amar,” “Akbar,” “Anthony.” Consequently, the song and dance sequence’s immediate narrative purpose is fulfilled – to let the brothers’ captive lovers know that their men are present and prepared to save them – even as it is achieved without any attempt at narrative economy; it takes much of the length of the song for the brothers, dancing and singing into the camera, to get close enough to reveal their identities to the women. This lack of economy follows from its more symbolic function: to celebrate the eponymous leads’ belated realization that they are in fact long-separated brothers. As such, the utilization of direct address throughout this passage represents the characters’ acknowledgement that they now know what has been evident to the spectators since the film’s commencement. In their knowing looks into the apparatus, they tacitly tell us they have caught up to the film’s story. Narrative is in short imperative in this most reflexive of scenes.


Still Bachchan’s performances specifically, in both ‘My Name is Anthony Gonsalves’ and ‘Anhoni Ko Hani,’ generally emphasize the elevated status of non-narrational spectacle in Amar Akbar Anthony; the “accent,” to quote Gunning, seems to be on “direct stimulation,” in this case the cinematically filtered encounter with one of the world’s biggest stars, rather than of the procurement of a diegetic world that Gunning notes as central to the process of ‘narrative integration.’[25] Yet, the weak “diegetic effect” produced by the look into the camera does not entail the absence of the cause-and-effect narrative logic that is fundamental to the ‘system of narrative integration.’[26] To see the manifestation of this logic in Amar Akbar Anthony, it is necessary only to look to a single, apparently minor detail in one of the film’s earliest sequences: the presence of gold in a stolen vehicle’s truck. The fact that such a detail would appear minor, parenthetically, follows from the melodramatic excess that has already preceded it in the film’s first ten minutes: a man, Kishenlal (Pran), is falsely imprisoned; his wife Bharati (Nirupa Roy), has contracted tuberculosis; his children are starving; he has been forced to clean his boss Robert’s (Jeevan) shoes with his white jacket coat; Robert was guilty of the crime for which Kishenlal was imprisoned; Kishenlal shoots Robert, who reveals he is wearing chain mail; etc.


Returning to the featured item, Kishenlal has stolen a car from Robert following his failed assassination attempt; the vehicle, unknown to the car thief, contains the gold in its trunk. This produces a car chase, the first of many in the picture. After Kishenlal drives his vehicle off a cliff, he is presumed dead and the police prevent Robert’s henchmen from going near to the vehicle. Kishenlal, who had in the meantime discovered a suicide letter from his wife and left his three boys beside a statue, discovers the metals and sneaks off with the item. This in turn reverses his and the wealthier Robert’s fortunes, compelling Kishenlal to later implore Robert to wipe his shoes with his shirt sleeve. Robert does so and then replicates the assassination attempt, with the exact same result. However, at this instant, the police intervene, and the now destitute Robert regains the upper-hand after shooting a police officer and stealing away with the loot. The gold in other words remains a narrative agent in periodically reviving Kishenlal’s and Robert’s feud during the first half of Amar Akbar Anthony.


Of course, there are other events with even greater causal significance contained in the above chase scene. For instance, there is Bharati’s suicide attempt which leads her outside during a lightning storm, wherein she is blinded by the flash of a lightning bolt (presented in an on-screen special effect). This prevents her from recognizing her own separated child (the infant Akbar) with whom she shares a vehicle; and in spectacular fashion, this also provides for her later miraculous recovery during an Islamic religious celebration – where a second special effect conveys her healing. Likewise, the boy’s separation (after Kishenlal stashes them by the statue) initiates the film’s primary plot device: namely of three estranged brothers, who have been raised in different religious traditions, and who will reunite in the film’s final act detailed above.


Ultimately, as these collective passages indicate, spectacle is commonly narratively-grounded in Amar Akbar Anthony, whether it is an assassination attempt, a car chase, or a woman’s blinding and then miraculous healing. The ‘attraction’ does not demand that the narrative be arrested, but rather is presented within the flow of the story, as an incident that will have further narrative ramifications. Consequently, Amar Akbar Anthony does not belong properly to the ‘system of monstrative attractions’ as its ‘highlights’ are not exclusively extra-diegetic, but in many instances, function causally within the narrative. What Amar Akbar Anthony demonstrates is not a cinema opposed to ‘narrative integration,’ but rather one in which this task is complicated by the tonal and generic ‘items’ presented in the text, but where it remains fundamental to the picture’s overall shape. It is a work that eschews Hollywood-style economy without fully rejecting its causal logic. If there are moments that strain credulity in Amar Akbar Anthony – one of the most extreme features Anthony mid car chase posing as a scarecrow in a field – these incidents weaken the illusion that the diegesis created could in fact exist and that it is being viewed unawares. These moments however do not curtail the function or even the centrality that narrative plays in Indian popular cinema. (Even in this last instance, Anthony’s implausible posture as the scarecrow serves a narrative purpose: to save the collapsed Jenny from her pursuers.) In sum, the popular film industry of the Indian subcontinent is at once a cinema of spectacle and one that is narratively grounded and causally propelled. It is a narratively-integrated cinema of spectacle – or even attractions.


Conclusion

As is apparent, I am not objecting to the use of the term ‘attraction’ to describe the spectacular content of Indian popular cinema. What does seem ill-advised, however, is the application of Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions’ conceit to a tradition that relies so heavily on both the attraction and its narrativization. Indeed, both Dwyer and Vasudevan precede their assessments of an attractions-like quality in Indian popular cinema with a discussion of its ‘melodramatic’ ‘system of dramaturgy.’[27] Moreover, Dwyer in particular discusses Bollywood’s spectacle in terms of narrative integration: again, Dutt’s song and dance sequences are noteworthy for their ‘smooth’ transitions between dialogue and music. Even the indisputably spectacle-based Amar Akbar Anthony is no less remarkable for its process of narrative integration than for its numerous attraction-like ‘highlights.’[28] Amar Akbar Anthony’s narrative excesses, from the countless reversals of fortune to Bharati’s loss and return of sight to Anthony’s disguise as a scarecrow, are arguably what make the picture so distinctive today.


The point is that Indian popular cinema relies equally on the production of spectacle and its narrativization. For Charles Musser, the weakness of ‘the cinema of attractions’ is its de-emphasis on storytelling, which according to the author “played a more important role in early cinema than Gunning has been willing to recognize.”[29] Musser adds: “only in cinema’s initial novelty period (1895-1896, 1896-1897) was the cinema of attractions dominant.”[30] This is no less the case with Indian popular cinema than it was for American film art in the era of Edwin S. Porter.


So what then accounts for the concept’s apparent attractiveness to Indian film historians? Why ‘the cinema of attractions’ rather than spectacle, particular as its constitutive binary does not seem to hold within the Indian context (as any scrutiny of Vasudevan or Dwyer reveals)? The reality is that Gunning’s category serves to legitimize a cinema lacking other politically-engaged bone fides: after all, this is a commercial, star-based cinema, noted for its melodramatic excesses, and only occasionally attuned to the social realities of the Indian subcontinent. ‘The cinema of attractions’ aligns Indian popular cinema against the bourgeois ‘system of narrative integration’ and its transformation of a potentially libratory turn-of-the-century “popular entertainment” into an ideologically-retrograde form modeled on the legitimate theatre.[31] ‘The cinema of attractions’ is politically-expedient spectacle; it imputes the values of the avant-garde and ‘third cinema’ to a form that shares Hollywood’s economic imperatives. Bollywood gets to be both popular and oppositional.


Yet, the reality of the Indian popular cinema is again that of a narrative-based art – though an art that incorporates disparate ‘items’ to an extraordinary degree. The strength of the ‘attraction’ terminology is its connotation of free-standing instantiations of spectacle (following on its fairground origins). This is particularly true certainly for Bollywood film music, which Dwyer notes “is crucially important to the producer since its sale to a record company may cover around half the budget of a film.”[32] Hence, it is not simply that Bollywood cinema presents the spectacular, but that these ‘highlights’ may be consumed independently – not unlike fairground items or the ‘views’ of exhibitionist-organized early film program. The author continues: “but [music] also acts as a marketing device shortly before the film’s release… Thus the film audience is already familiar with one of the major attractions in advance, allowing it the pleasure of seeing already known material integrated into the wider film narrative.” In other words, this most discernible element of spectacle becomes an ‘attraction’ through its ‘narrative integration.’



[1] Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde” reprinted in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).
[2] Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 30.
[3] Ravi S. Vasudevan, “The politics of cultural address in a ‘transnational’ cinema: a case study of Indian popular cinema” in Reinventing Film Studies, eds. Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (London: Arnold, 2000): 131.
[4] The precise quote alluded to her is “effects are tamed attractions.” Gunning, 328.
[5] Vasudevan, 131.
[6] David Chute, “Amar Akbar Anthony” in Film Comment 38 (3), (May/Jun 2002), 52.
[7] Dwyer and Patel, 31.
[8] Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, revised ed. (London: British Film Institute, 1999): 430.
[9] Dwyer and Patel, 31.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Chute, 52.
[12] Gunning, 380.
[13] André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning, “Early Cinema as a Challenge to Film History” reprinted in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded.
[14] Ibid., 372.
[15] Vasudevan, 133.
[16] Ibid., 158.
[17] Nargis criticized Ray’s films for “exporting images of India’s poverty.” Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, 162.
[18] Gunning, 380.
[19] Ibid.
[20] By referring to “Walker” rather than “Abdul” – in contrast to Dutt’s and Rehman’s characters whom I often referred to by their character names Vijay and Meena – I am arguing that Dutt is almost exclusively showcasing the Walker comic persona in lieu of creating a multi-dimensional character. The same, it is my contention, cannot also be said of Dutt’s or Rehman’s characters.
[21] Dwyer and Patel, 36.
[22] Ibid., 35-6.
[23] Ibid., 37.
[24] To conceptualize Bachchan’s status within Indian popular cinema, consider Rajadhyaksha and Willemen’s claim for “Hindi cinema’s biggest star actor”: namely that “his productions eventually determined the health of the entire industry.” Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, 49.
[25] Gunning, 383.
[26] I am using the term “diegetic effect” in the manner set forth by Noël Burch who stipulates that ‘diegetic effect’ is the “general experience of classical film… at the level of reception.” Burch, “Narrative/Diegesis – Thresholds, Limits: Noël Burch Questions the Centrality of Narrative to the Experience of Film” in Screen 23 (2), (July/August 1982), 16.
[27] Vasudevan, 131.
[28] For a full account of the film’s narrative, see the appended plot segmentation.
[29] Charles Musser, “Rethinking Early Cinema: Cinema of Attractions and Narrativity” in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, 410.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Gunning, 383.
[32] Dwyer, 39.