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Understanding Indian Movies

Understanding Indian Movies
Culture, Cognition, and Cinematic Imagination

A cultural-cognitive analysis of Indian cinema intended to increase understanding and appreciation of Indian films in the English-speaking world.

Series: Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture, Edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, Arturo J. Aldama, and Patrick Colm Hogan

October 2008
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305 pages | 6 x 9 | 69 halftones |

Indian movies are among the most popular in the world. However, despite increased availability and study, these films remain misunderstood and underappreciated in much of the English-speaking world, in part for cultural reasons.

In this book, Patrick Colm Hogan sets out through close analysis and explication of culturally particular information about Indian history, Hindu metaphysics, Islamic spirituality, Sanskrit aesthetics, and other Indian traditions to provide necessary cultural contexts for understanding Indian films. Hogan analyzes eleven important films, using them as the focus to explore the topics of plot, theme, emotion, sound, and visual style in Indian cinema. These films draw on a wide range of South Asian cultural traditions and are representative of the greater whole of Indian cinema. By learning to interpret these examples with the tools Hogan provides, the reader will be able to take these skills and apply them to other Indian films.

But this study is not simply culturalist. Hogan also takes up key principles from cognitive neuroscience to illustrate that all cultures share perceptual, cognitive, and emotional elements that, when properly interpreted, can help to bridge gaps between seemingly disparate societies. Hogan locates the specificity of Indian culture in relation to human universals, and illustrates this cultural-cognitive synthesis through his detailed interpretations of these films. This book will help both scholars and general readers to better understand and appreciate Indian cinema.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Indian Movies and the People Who Love Them: Universality and Cultural Particularity in the Cinema
  • Chapter One. From Mythical Romances to Historical Sacrifices: Universal Stories in South Asia (Ardhangini, Baaz, and The Terrorist)
  • Chapter Two. The Film and the World: Global Themes, Local Movies (Nishant and Sholay)
  • Chapter Three. Once More, with Feeling: Human Emotions and Cultural Imagination (Mother India, Bandit Queen, and Shree 420)
  • Chapter Four. "So, What's the Deal with All the Singing?": The Cognitive Universality of the Hindi Musical (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . . .)
  • Chapter Five. Seeing Indian Style: The Brain and Its Visual Culture (Umrao Jaan and Fire)
  • Afterword. On Watching Indian Movies
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Patrick Colm Hogan is Professor in the Department of English, the Program in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.


For anyone interested in film, the importance of Indian cinema can hardly be overstated. It is the largest film industry in the world, and probably second only to Hollywood in global influence. Vijay Mishra points out that Indian films are seen "by an average of 11 million people each day" (1). Jigna Desai explains that "Indian cinema has a long past and has been an international cinema familiar to viewers from Russia and the Middle East to parts of Asia and Africa for many decades" (40). Kabir notes that "Indian films are unquestionably the most-seen movies in the world" (Bollywood, 1).


Yet, as Desai also remarks, Indian cinema has been "unknown to many Westerners" (40). Fortunately, this is changing. The wide availability of DVDs with English subtitles has made Indian movies more accessible in the west. The presence of a growing Indian diaspora has also helped to introduce Indian films to English and American viewers. The expanding interest in Indian movies is evident in the recent publication of many works on Indian cinema, and perhaps even more importantly in the influence of Indian cinema on such popular western movies as Moulin Rouge. The growth of scholarly study on Indian films, along with the increased impact of these films on western directors, shows the degree to which Bollywood has made its way into the cinematic imagination of Europeans and Americans. As Hans Robert Jauss might put it, Indian movies have begun to affect our "horizons of expectation," the ways in which at least some westerners understand and respond to films.


But this impact has, in some ways, only rendered the apparent strangeness of Bollywood more salient. Indian films remain "distant" for most western viewers; they remain partially inaccessible, foreign, difficult to appreciate. Indeed, this is true not only for Europeans, but for many Indians. Recently, I was speaking with two Indian friends who asked how I could write about movies such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham . . ., how I could "get over" the treacly sentiment of these works. But I don't think that there is anything to get over in this case. In my view, K3G (as it is known) is not treacly nor fluffy, but a subtly crafted and highly ironic film.


Assuming I am right about this (as I hope readers will agree by the end of the book), why is it that so many viewers see K3G differently, mistakenly judging it to be both saccharine and moralistic? In part, this sort of misunderstanding has nothing to do with the "Indianness" of Indian movies. Rather, it is the result of a cross-cultural division between art and popular culture. My friends would not have been surprised had I expressed enthusiasm for work by an Indian art director, such as Satyajit Ray. Indeed, much of the academic work on Indian cinema has been organized around the division between popular and art films. As Mishra notes, "Indian critics such as Chidananda Das Gupta . . . have divided Indian cinema into two almost irreconcilable parts: an art cinema meant for the self-conscious transnational aesthete (and therefore eminently suitable for critical analysis) and a popular variety (a lower form and therefore not an art object) meant for the general population and the diaspora" (xviii). This is not to say that all writers necessarily valorize "art." Some critics reverse the standard hierarchy, celebrating popular work at the expense of the "difficult" filmmakers. As Prasad puts it, "popular Indian cinema has attracted a considerable amount of attention as the site of an authentically folk culture" (15).


My own view on this issue is closer to that of Leslie Fiedler, who rejected the "unfortunate distinction" between "High Literature and low" (13) from early on. There are popular works that are complex and worth close examination, and popular works that are simplistic. There are art films that are complex and worth close examination, and art films that are simplistic. For this reason, I will not pay a great deal of attention to the division between popular and art cinema, mainstream and alternative films. The division will enter only in the second chapter, when I pair a paradigmatic alternative film, Nishant, with a paradigmatic popular film, Sholay. I will point to differences between the two. However, I hope to show that the similarities between the two are profound and consequential as well.


In any case, the art/entertainment opposition is not the only factor inhibiting viewers' comprehension and appreciation of Indian films. Indian movies are as complex as literary and cinematic works anywhere else. They require the same plenary attention, the same reflection and detailed analysis. We should not expect viewers to understand intuitively all the subtleties of Indian films any more than we would expect them to understand intuitively all the subtleties of European or American films. This too is true for both Indian and non-Indian viewers.


My primary aim in writing this book is, therefore, to provide an account of Indian films that helps viewers comprehend and (critically) appreciate those films. Indeed, I hope to provide a way for viewers to understand and respond fully to a range of Indian movies, not only the specific films I analyze. In other words, I hope to provide the reader with knowledge and skills that are generalizable, knowledge and skills that will help him or her to view, and to enjoy, a wide range of Indian movies.


In connection with this, I have tried to choose films that allow me to explicate generalizable cultural particulars (not particulars that are peculiar to a given film). Moreover, I have sought to relate these particulars to more accessible cross-cultural patterns. For example, just as biblical stories have had a great influence on western literature, stories from religious epics frequently structure plots in Indian films (the general point is widely acknowledged, though not often considered in detail; see, for example, Dissanayake and Sahai, Sholay, 9-12, and Mishra 4). Just as Aristotelian ideas of unity and Romantic theories of expression have influenced European drama, the theory of rasadhvani has had effects across Indian arts (a point also noted by some authors, though rarely developed; Joshi provides an interesting exception). I have set out to explicate these and related topics in such a way that the reader can follow their development in the individual films I am analyzing, understand their generalizability to other works of Indian cinema, and recognize their relation to cross-cultural patterns.


Consider rasa theory, the theory of aesthetic emotion initially developed in ancient Sanskrit texts. First, I discuss the cross-cultural, indeed universal, principles manifest in rasa theory—universal principles that have led some cognitive scientists (such as Keith Oatley) to take up rasa theory in a neurocognitive context. Second, I treat the cultural particularity of the theory, countering the objection of some critics that it is "ill-defined" (Dwyer and Patel 28). It is important to consider such culturally particular accounts of emotion because emotions involve processes. These processes are initiated by particular sorts of cues and are often sustained by particular decisions and actions on the part of the people experiencing the emotions. In my view, the emotions are the same across cultures. However, the cues and related responses may differ. The differences are superficial, but they may be consequential in particular cases. Take a very simple example. Suppose Sunil and Bob meet an attractive and engaging young woman who has colored the part in her hair. Sunil realizes that this means she is married, thus he does not open himself to the possibility of romantic involvement with her (e.g., he does not approach or address her in certain ways, imagine his future relationship with her in certain ways, and so forth). Bob, in contrast, does not understand this. Over the course of several weeks, he develops romantic feelings for the young woman. In part, this development is out of his control. But in part it results from his initial openness to seeing this woman in a particular (romantic) way, with all the actions, interpretations, and imaginations that such openness entails. The same point holds for literary experience, and bears directly on the importance of rasa theory. The culturally specific aesthetic practices articulated in rasa theory bear on the way viewers open themselves to particular emotions in particular contexts. In connection with this, then, I analyze three films in terms of rasa theory. The purpose of the analyses is not only to show something about these three movies, though all three films are important and influential. It is also, and even more significantly, to provide the reader with knowledge and skills that he or she may extend to other Indian films.


An examination of cultural particularity is, then, central to the following analyses. However, my treatment of cultural particularity is somewhat different from that of most writers in cultural studies over the last few decades. Specifically, I hope to advance readers' understanding and appreciation of Indian film, not by insisting on cultural differences, but by locating cultural particularity within cross-cultural patterns. I pursue the second task primarily by drawing broader theoretical principles from cognitive neuroscience. But why should cognitive neuroscience provide understanding and appreciation in a way that, for example, post-structural approaches have not? Why should we consider empirical studies of emotion and the human brain any more illuminating to ordinary viewers than, say, Homi Bhabha's reflections on "temporality as the desire of the daily plebiscite" (310)?


Here, I need to set out some basic ideas of the book. First, understanding and appreciation are based on shared principles. This is true both within and across cultures. Suppose I am talking with Jones. I understand what Jones means because I share a range of principles with him. My understanding of Jones is not based on my differences from him. It is based on my similarities with him. At least until recently, it was commonplace in the humanities to argue that we understand the Other only by affirming his or her difference. This idea responds to a real problem, but it offers a solution that is itself no less problematic. The problem is projection. I may assume that Jones and I share certain ideas or attitudes that, in fact, we do not share. Thus I may falsely attribute particular sorts of commonality. However, the solution to this problem is not to affirm difference. Indeed, affirming difference is ultimately a matter of giving up on agreement, discussion, mutual influence, even mutual comprehension. The solution to projection is, rather, to figure out just what our commonalities really are. The solution is to get our shared principles right—a point made, in somewhat different terms, by Kwame Appiah, among others (see Appiah 58).


If the problem of misunderstanding arises between two people in the same culture—and we all know from experience that it does—the danger of misunderstanding seems all the more acute for people in different cultures. Here, too, humanists have often maintained that it is particularly crucial to affirm cross-cultural difference. But, in fact, if the problem of projection increases across cultures, so too does the problem of affirming difference. Indeed, it becomes politically acute—and in precisely the opposite of the way commonly assumed by writers in the humanities. It has overwhelmingly been the assertion of difference, not the assertion of sameness, that has been politically deleterious. Affirmations of difference have underwritten all forms of cultural supremacism. No one claims that his or her culture is better than another culture because the two are the same; one claims superiority only over cultures that one believes are different.


In cross-cultural study, then, it is crucial neither to project false commonalities nor to affirm difference, but to determine just what it is that we actually do have in common. The shared principles that define our commonality are what linguists call "universals." Universals are the only basis on which we can build cross-cultural understanding. The point applies not only to conversation, but to all types of communication, including those embodied in literature and film. Indeed, the point applies not only across but within cultures. In conversation, in literature, and in film, the most fundamental principles that my neighbor and I have in common are not cultural. The fact that we both have access to the same kitchen appliances would be meaningless if it were not for the fact that our memories are structured in the same ways, our cognitive processes are virtually identical, our emotional propensities differ only marginally. What connects us most deeply to one another are just those universal principles that we share with contemporary Indian (or European or Chinese or African) filmmakers, ancient Indian (or European or Chinese or African) poets, and, indeed, everyone else.


In sum, our understanding of Indian cinema—or, for that matter, any cinema—must first of all be based on universal principles, on ideas, sensitivities, impulses that we share, whatever our national origin or cultural milieu.


The most fundamental universal here concerns art itself. Every culture produces verbal art (see Kiparsky 195-196). Why is that? The answer to this question is suggested by the literary theories that have been produced by every major literary tradition. Though the emphases differ, these traditions (European, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Japanese) all indicate two main purposes for verbal art—roughly, "to teach and entertain" (in Sidney's famous phrase [138]). Recent work by evolutionary psychologists, such as Steven Pinker, draws similar conclusions (How 539). I would say more technically that the main purpose of literary art is to communicate emotion. (This is sometimes viewed as a Romantic idea. But, in fact, it is stressed by early Greek, Sanskrit, Japanese, Arabic, and Chinese theorists, well before the development of Romanticism.) Its second purpose, usually considered more elevated, is to communicate themes. In other words, verbal art is cross-culturally understood to involve feeling in every case. In addition, theorists tend to see the articulation of consequential ethical, political, or religious ideas as important for verbal art, if sometimes absent from purely entertaining works. While emotions and themes may be communicated in different ways, the most common way of communicating them in verbal art has been through narrative—narrative itself being a universal property of verbal art. With the development of the cinema, these universals come to be manifest in fiction film as well.


But these universals clearly leave a great deal up in the air. Indeed, to some extent, they rephrase our dilemma. If the main purposes of art—including film—are to communicate emotions and themes, usually by way of narrative, then we are still left with the problem of how we experience these emotions or understand these themes and narratives in particular cases. In other words, we need more detailed, more fully specified universals. We need precisely articulated principles of emotion, theme, and narrative that we share cross-culturally. It is not sufficient to state the general principle that everyone has verbal art and that this art vaguely includes some sort of emotion, theme, and narrative.


This is what leads me to cognitive science. The research programs gathered together under the rubric of cognitive science provide us with the best current understanding of precisely what it is that cultures share, because they provide us with the best current understanding of what people share. From narrative structure to visual construction, cognitive neuroscience—though far from infallible—comprises the best complex of theories available.


This is not to say that I intend simply to draw on already established cognitive results. In a very real sense, there are no results that are established in this way. To study Indian film through cognitive science is a worthwhile undertaking only if it is simultaneously a testing and development of cognitive ideas. It should not simply be an application of those ideas, an attempt to fit works into a theory that is accepted as if it were a religious dogma. Rather, a cognitive study of Indian movies, or of anything else, should be part of an ongoing research program that works through the received ideas of neuroscience and related fields, sometimes modifying or even rejecting those received ideas. My hope, then, is that the various cognitive analyses in this book will not only enhance our understanding of Indian cinema and clarify the basic principles of cognitive neuroscience as they bear on the study of film. My hope is that they will also advance the study of cognitive universals, along with our understanding of the relation between universals and cultural particularity.


In connection with this, the main body of the book is organized by reference to the fundamental universals of narrative, theme, and emotion. In separate chapters on each topic, I consider both the cross-cultural patterns (e.g., universal story prototypes) and their cultural specifications. Of course, film does not communicate its emotions and themes solely by way of narrative. It includes sound and visuals. Indeed, even narrative information may be suggested by such formal features as camera work or song. In the fourth and fifth chapters, then, I turn to music and visual style. Here, too, there are universal and culturally particular elements.


In the course of the book, I discuss eleven films in some detail. I have tried to include instances of the major categories in Indian cinema. However, my selection is not in any way proportionate to the actual production percentages of various types of film. Rather, I have chosen films that I feel merit consideration, films that, in my view, have achieved some sort of artistic excellence. Four of these films come from the 1950's, the "golden age" of Bollywood—"the most creative and innovative decade in Hindi cinema" (Kabir, Bollywood, 16). Another four have been produced since 1990, reflecting my view that Indian cinema has experienced a sort of renaissance in that period. While most of the films are in Hindi or Urdu, one is in Tamil and one is in English. I have included films by some of the directors who are often considered the best in mainstream Hindi cinema— Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, and Raj Kapoor (see ibid., 123, and the quotation from Johar on 124; see also Thoraval 71)—and an award-winning film by one of the best-known directors of the alternative cinema (Shyam Benegal). One chapter treats the highest-grossing Hindi film; another treats what is probably the most widely known work in Tamil (the only one readers are likely to find in the local Blockbuster). There are films by Muslims (Mehboob Khan and Muzaffar Ali) as well as Hindus, and so forth. In short, though not quite representative, the selection of films is diverse along several important axes and should therefore allow the reader access to a wide range of movies beyond those discussed directly in the book. The one obvious gap is the absence of any film by Satyajit Ray. I have chosen not to include Ray as he is the most widely discussed Indian filmmaker in the English-speaking world. As such, his work is less in need of examination. Given limited space, it is, I believe, better to include a less frequently analyzed director in his place.


More exactly, the first chapter treats plot, considering the three universal narrative prototypes—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial tragi-comedy—and their cultural particularization in three Indian films. The chapter begins by explaining the three prototypes, their structure and origin. It goes on to examine an instance of each type. First, it takes up the romantic structure in relation to Ajit Chakrabarty's Ardhangini. Cross-culturally, the romantic plot treats the desire of two lovers to be united and the social opposition that temporarily prevents their union. This social opposition is commonly based on some status discrepancy between the lovers (e.g., class difference). Ardhangini specifies this plot by, in effect, making the obstacle one of caste. I say "in effect" because the treatment of caste in the film is unmistakable, though it is only implicit. Indeed, this is one reason for the effectiveness of the film. Chakrabarty also draws on Hindu myths of Siva and Parvati to develop the narrative and characterization.


The heroic plot has two components. In one, the national hierarchy is threatened by a rebellion; in the other, the nation as a whole is threatened by an out-group, commonly through invasion. To treat this genre, I take up Guru Dutt's widely misunderstood film, Baaz (Falcon). In recent years, Guru Dutt has come to be admired as one of the greatest directors of Indian cinema. However, Baaz is almost uniformly viewed as a failure, even an embarrassment. At best, it is simply passed over by critics. This is, I believe, a serious error. Indeed, I would argue that Baaz is one of Dutt's finest works. Part of the difficulty is that the political aims and historical references of Dutt's film have not been recognized. In particularizing the heroic plot, Dutt collapses the history of European colonialism into a single narrative. He alludes to a range of historical persons and events in order to present a story that is not about a particular usurpation of social authority. Rather, it treats a sort of repeated usurpation that extended over centuries. Moreover, Dutt directs this entire condensed narrative toward what was, at the time of the film's production, a current political concern—the continuation of Portuguese colonialism in Goa.


Finally, sacrificial tragi-comedy treats communal devastation (e.g., famine) and the offering of a sacrifice to end that devastation. In order to discuss this structure, I turn to a celebrated Tamil film, Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist. Sivan's film is also historical, presenting a fictionalized version of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group seeking a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. Sivan clearly uses a sacrificial plot to characterize the main character's suicide bombing. To develop this plot, he also draws extensively, though implicitly, on a sacrificial Tamil epic, The Ankle Bracelet, that appears to have influenced the leader of the LTTE.


The second chapter turns to theme. To a great extent, universal themes of narrative may be derived from the narrative prototypes and from the general structure of stories. In fact, Chapter One necessarily treats some of these themes. Rather than repeating topics treated in the preceding chapter, I focus on a single theme associated with heroic tragi-comedy, a theme of particular importance in an Indian context—violence. This theme is bound up with a surprising recurrent feature of heroic narratives. Specifically, heroic tragi-comedies often end, not with the victory of the heroes, but with some sense of remorse over the misery produced in the course of securing that victory. They end, in other words, with an "epilogue of suffering." I consider two films in this context. The first, Nishant, involves a clear epilogue of suffering, particularized in such a way as to support nonviolence. It reinforces its thematic point by using a central Hindu epic, the Ramaya'na, as a narrative model. The second film, Sholay, also draws on the Ramaya'na. But, in contrast with Nishant, it alters standard motifs of the epilogue of suffering in order to oppose the political valorization of nonviolence, a valorization most famously supported by Mahatma Gandhi. These two films appeared in the same year (1975). The former is a paradigm of the Indian art cinema, and the recipient of numerous awards (Best Film and Best Screenplay from Film World magazine and the National Award for Best Film). The latter is one of the biggest popular blockbusters in the history of Hindi cinema.


Chapter Three considers emotion. It begins with an outline of a cognitive account of emotion. It then turns to the theory of aesthetic emotion or "rasa" that arose with classical Sanskrit traditions in the arts and that has continued to be important in Indian classical dance, music, and elsewhere. Rasa theory is fundamentally a theory about empathy and the particular forms empathy may take in relation to a literary work. Romantic love was the emotion most emphasized in rasa theory. However, since most of the films discussed in the preceding chapters are romantic, I set that rasa aside to consider three other emotive genres—those focusing on anger, sorrow, and mirth. In connection with this, I briefly consider evolutionary psychology, arguing that, in the case of these three emotions, empathic responses have a special, adaptive relation to children.


To treat empathic anger, I take up Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen—according to Shyam Benegal, "possibly the greatest film ever made in India" (Gokulsing and Dissanayake 109). This film treats the life of Phoolan Devi, India's notorious "bandit queen." It has a particular political purpose—to make viewers angry enough about caste and gender oppression to do something about them when they leave the theater. It systematically develops our empathic anger in the course of the film. Moreover, it does so to a considerable degree by stressing physical cruelty to a child, the young Phoolan.


For empathic sorrow, I turn to the most famous melodrama of Indian cinema, Mehboob Khan's Mother India. I begin this section by considering cognitive accounts of melodrama. I go on to discuss how the self-sacrifice that characterizes melodrama is often a parental self-sacrifice for the benefit of a child and that, in keeping with this, empathic sorrow is particularly intensified by separation in attachment relationships (e.g., mother/child relationships). Mother India has been one of the most successful and one of the most lauded films of Indian cinema (see Sumita Chakravarty 149 and Chatterjee 79-80). It makes particularly subtle use of mother/child attachment and separation. First, it repeatedly reverses the parenting roles, making the tiny Birju mother his own parents. Second, it reverses the final sacrifice, for in the end the mother feels that she must kill her own son. Khan draws extensively on K'r's'na legends to develop his characters and the audience's relation to those characters. He also draws on Marxist ideas to present an implicit criticism of independent India—a criticism inseparable from the emotional response fostered by the film.


Finally, I consider mirth. I argue that mirth has an evolutionary function in giving us pleasure in the oddities of actions, speech, and appearance that are characteristic of children, though by no means confined to children. To explore this, I look at a work by a comic genius of Indian cinema, Raj Kapoor. Specifically, I examine Shree 420, often considered Kapoor's best film (see, for example, Thoraval 88). In this work, Kapoor presents us with an allegory of Indian self-government (swa-raj) as the character Raj has to choose between the westernized elite, represented by Maya (whose name means illusion), and the people who embody both learned and popular Indian traditions, represented by Vidya (whose name means knowledge) and Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges). As in Mother India, the argument of the film is fundamentally in keeping with Marxist ideas, specifically those advocated by the All-India Progressive Writers' Association. However, in this case, the themes of the film are developed through mirth. Moreover, that mirth is clearly bound up with Raj's childlike character. Indeed, our affinity with Raj is in part dependent on the affection we have for him as a sort of child.


The fourth chapter turns to sound, specifically music. Most Indian films are musicals. Many western viewers find the use of song and dance in Indian films to be disorienting. Even Indians often dismiss the song interludes as fluff. However, they are quite serious productions, often the most complex and significant sections of a film. In this chapter, I address the functional relation of the musical interlude to the three main components of narrative film—plot, theme, and emotion. For example, I argue that the freedom of the interlude allows filmmakers to communicate narrative and thematic ideas that would otherwise be difficult to present, especially in the Indian cinema with its strict codes of censorship. I illustrate the often remarkably subtle use of interludes in these three areas by treating one of the greatest box-office successes in the history of Indian film, Kabhi Kushie, Kabhie Gham . . .


The fifth chapter considers the other sensory mode of cinema, vision. It begins by dividing the discussion into editing and lighting/color. I discuss some of the universal principles of vision as these bear on cinema, and particularly as they bear on our emotional response to films. From here, I examine the ways in which the standard system of editing, called "continuity editing," both accords with our perceptual tendencies and may be violated in such a way as to produce particular perceptual, emotional, and thematic effects. To develop this point, I consider Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan (which received the Filmfare Award for Best Director). This film concerns the life of a girl who is kidnapped and sold into prostitution at a young age, then grows up to be an accomplished poet, singer, and dancer. Ali uses the story to present themes drawn from 'Sufi mysticism—themes of the illusory character of material life and the ultimate identity of one's soul with God. In the course of the film, Ali repeatedly violates standard principles of continuity editing. He has two purposes in doing this. First, he wishes to intensify our emotional response by violating our expectations in particular ways. Second, he wishes to make thematic points by frustrating—and thus redirecting—our interpretations, at times by creating impossibilities in the story world.


Finally, I consider the operation of color and lighting. In the course of her controversial, award-winning film, Fire, Deepa Mehta makes systematic use of colors to communicate her main themes and manipulates lighting for both thematic suggestions and emotional effects. Indeed, Fire is a film that is almost impossible to understand if one does not pay attention to visual style. For example, Mehta repeatedly associates the women in the film with the colors of the Indian flag (orange, white, and green), suggesting that the hope for India's future lies in new forms of connection undertaken by women. The first sexual union of the two main characters—Radha and Sita—presents the viewer with a particularly striking image. One of the women is in orange. The other is in green. They are separated by the white bedsheets. But this is not only a union of women. It is also a union of communities (orange representing Hinduism; green representing Islam). When they are finally and fully joined at the end of the film, Radha and Sita meet in a 'Sufi shrine, 'Sufism itself being a union of Hinduism and Islam. Mehta stresses and emotionally enhances her thematic points by the systematic use of two lighting techniques. First, she associates diffuse, boundariless, bright light with repressive religious orthodoxy. In contrast with this, she gives us sharply outlined silhouettes to communicate an almost tactile sense of union between the women.




Again, Indian cinema is one of the most vibrant in the world. It is not only entertaining, but beautiful, moving, and thematically subtle. My hope is that readers of the following chapters will not only learn something about these particular films, but will be inspired to go and watch more Indian movies, appreciating them more fully. Such appreciation derives simultaneously from an understanding of cultural variations and from a sensitivity to cross-cultural constancies. The patterns in these films are not idiosyncratic. They are cultural specifications of emotional, narrative, perceptual, and other universals. In relation to this, I hope the following analyses help to advance our understanding of film generally—its narrative organization, thematic structures, and emotional impact, as well as its use of music, editing, light, and color. Moreover, insofar as it advances our understanding of film, I hope it advances, in some degree, our understanding of the human mind as well. The creation and experience of art are universal processes of the human mind. They are central to human life, both individual and collective. For example, it is virtually impossible to imagine even a single human life, not to mention an entire culture, without the telling of stories. If our cognitive science does not encompass such processes, it is fatally incomplete.