Monday, April 5, 2010

Hyderabad Blues

(This was written by me and my best friend Ramya way back in 2002 for an assignment for the subject Communication Theories)

Watching a movie for pleasure is an undemanding hobby, but critically analyzing it calls for the exclusive observation of the most miniscule details, as well as a thorough knowledge of the subject implicated. Ingeniously criticizing that sector of the Indian society where money is the barrier between people, where caste discriminations still prevail, and where women are still objects of ridicule, the director of the movie, Nagesh Kukunoor, has brought to the trained eye’s notice, depictures of Marxism, Feminism, Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Semiotics.

We as students Mass Communication, have critically analyzed the film ‘Hyderabad Blues’ , after fragmenting it into the above-mentioned definable categories. In the pages to follow, the two-hour movie has been discussed in detail with respect to these areas of communal studies ...
• Synopsis
• Definitions of the theories of Marxism, Feminism,
• Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Semiotics
• Application of these theories in the movie
• Conclusion

Movies today are scarcely based on reality, excepting the handfuls of them made by directors who have created history. In the midst of this labyrinth strutted with moviemakers struggling to lure their audiences, Nagesh Kukunoor has made his own road to success. “Hyderabad Blues,” his directorial debut venture, is a realistic and subtle comedy about a young man who returns to his homeland from the ever-appreciated United States after twelve painstaking years. The movie is a ludicrous revelation of the Indian lifestyle, the social stigmas, the blind faiths, and the general hypocritical attitude of people towards Non Resident Indians.

The movie, in a subliminal level, is relevant to the director’s life. Kukunoor, a chemical engineer based in the United States plunged into the film-scenario with a relatively meager two million rupees, and produced and directed the articulate movie in a stupefying span of seventeen days. This is what many would define as a low-budget film. Nonetheless, the only factors which give that away are the amateurishly shot scenes with erratic camera movements, the poor lighting in certain indoor shots, or the sporadic display of dialogues by some of the obviously proletarian cast members. These apart, the movie is a fascinating and laudable attempt to bring forth the harsh realities of the life of an Americanized Indian, trying to fit into what was once ‘home’.

Varun, the protagonist of the movie, played by Nagesh Kukunoor, returns to his hometown Hyderabad, after twelve years in the United States. Having left the country as much an Indian as anyone else, Varun returns to find himself a confused twenty eight year old, struggling to understand his true values. His culture is alien to him, and the very faith he used to believe in is now deplorable. He is at a culturally shocking point where he cannot relate to his country of birth as much as he can to his country of adoption.

Varun’s parents, rather than being happy about his long-due return, are overjoyed at yet another ‘object’ to boast about - their ‘eligible’ son and his two lavish cars. Relatives pour over to visit him keeping in mind all the young marriageable girls they know, and Varun is welcomed with a newfound respect by all of them, including his maidservant owing to his job and salary. He is immediately showered with luncheon invitations, and every member of the family tries to gather his attention. Throughout the get-together, women are seen gossiping about Varun and his ‘unacceptable’ lifestyle in the States.

Varun’s changed attitude to the Indian lifestyle, his health conscious diet regime, and his perspective of privacy reflect the American in him. Moreover, his friend Sanjeev, played by Vikram Inamdar, a chauvinistic red-blooded typical Indian male, complies to an arranged marriage which takes Varun by surprise. Sanjeev’s betrothal to Seema provokes Varun’s parents with a greater momentum to find him a bride, as he is by all means more eligible than Sanjeev, and is capable of demanding the ‘highest price’. “I’ll have twenty girls lined up for you. You have the highest price because you are US-returned,” says Varun’s mother in a deliberate attempt to cajole him into getting married.

During Sanjeev’s betrothal, Varun meets Ashwini, played by Rajshri Nair, and what follows from there is a constant attempt by him to woo the lady doctor, who considers Varun to be a pseudo, a ‘wannabe-American’. Ashwini, who hates anything or anyone remotely American, finds herself arguing with Varun at the drop of a hat.

With much difficulty, Varun manages to barely convince Ashwini that he ‘likes’ her, and would like to get to know her better before committing himself into a relationship. Much against her principles, Ashwini agrees to go out with Varun. After a debatable first date, where Ashwini is hesitant to be seen in public with Varun, she becomes more open to dating him. Varun is flabbergasted at how intricately he is being watched by every neighbour and relative, and is bemused at the fact that one’s privacy is at the control of others. He is furthermore amused at his parents’ attitude towards Ashwini for belonging to a different caste.

Despite their misgivings and arguments, he stands by her at a most difficult time, her father’s demise. Varun, surprised by the heart-stabbing cultures that still prevail, merely questions, not criticizes them. Initially eager to leave back to the States, Varun finds himself extending his vacation to get to know Ashwini better. Sanjeev advises Varun to not treat Ashwini as one of his conquests, and prompts him to propose marriage to her, much against his beliefs. “You publicly held her hand. When are you marrying her?” says Sanjeev to Varun. Seema, on the other hand, hypocritically advises Ashwini to get to know Varun better before committing herself, much against her beliefs.

Together they paint the town red for a brief period, following which all hell breaks loose. Varun, after seeking Ashwini’s consent, attempts to kiss her, and she reacts negatively. Having had enough of her anti-American tantrums, Varun leaves Ashwini. Succumbing to her mother’s wishes, Ashwini complies to marry some man she has never met before, right at the time when Varun decides to beg and plead her to take him back. Hearing about her engagement to another, Varun promptly allows his male ego to dominate his better side by proposing marriage to Sandhya, a relative of his who has been trying to win his attention ever since his arrival. Towards the end, the duo realize that they wish to marry each other, and following a lot of undue commotion, much against the movie’s initial tempo, Varun and Ashwini marry each other.

Kukunoor, bearing in mind a fragile concept, has directed the movie more on a personal note, than as a ‘money-minting’ commodity. “This film is not a deep deliberation as to which place is better, but simply a personal search for home,” says the young and promising director-producer. Nonetheless, the movie projects several flaws, such as for instance, the fact that logically Varun should have been a sixteen year old when he left to the States, or further down, when he allows himself to succumb to the temptations of blind faiths by wishing a wish at the temple, after ruthlessly claiming that ‘religion is built on fear’. Nevertheless, the movie projects a delicate image of India today, although it was set back in 1996.

Nothing is wrong when every single person on earth looks at the sun and tells that it is a star. There could be a few voices in the wilderness trying to shout over the others to be heard that it is the sun, but they would be described or branded as fanatics. When no one contradicts, the sun in the due course will be called a star and many other things will transform slowly. Many who know very well that it is the sun and not the star, would not express out of fear of a branding or exclusion from the society that is flourishing in its ideologies. This is in short the theme of the film.

According to Marx, Class refers to groups of people who have similar relations to the means of production. That is, they get their living in the same way. Thus the working class works the modes of production; the capitalist class owns the means of production. In between these two distinct classes are others: the middle and lower middle classes, who can be for example, small business owners or management or trained professionals. Marx also recognised that there can be fractures within each class (for example between skilled and unskilled workers or between trained professionals (i.e. diploma holders) and those who have made it to the same status through work on the ground and so on). Class is based on objective differences among sets of people and defined quite negatively, as in opposition to other sets of people: a set of people who will forge a class identity to protect its interests against another class. Therefore class is about not just economic relations but also power relations.

According to Marx, Ideology is the practice of reproducing social relations of inequality. The ruling classes not only rule, they rule as thinkers and producers of ideas and so control the way the nation perceives itself and, just as importantly, they regulate the way other classes are perceived or represented. From this ‘misrepresentation’, that is, the ruling class’ assumption of their natural right to govern and to determine the status of their classes, comes Marx’s idea of ideology as false consciousness. ‘But the subordinate classes also act with false consciousness,’ says Marx, if they accept that their position is natural, that is, if they accept the prevailing ideology as it makes sense of their subordination.

Voyeurism is the act of viewing the activities of other people unbeknown to them. This often means that the act of looking is illicit or has illicit connotations. We pay to go to movies, but once we are seated before the screen we are positioned as voyeurs, as a spectating subject watching the goings-on of the people on-screen who are ‘unaware’ that we are watching them. It is from this positioning that we derive pleasure. Known as Scopophilia, pleasure in viewing, Voyeurism is not limited to the spectator however. The camera that originally filmed the action is also a voyeur. Often there is a voyeuristic positioning of a character within a film.

Fetishism refers to the notion of over-investment in parts of the body, most commonly the female body. Thus in films, women’s breasts or legs are often ‘picked out’ by the camera and are thereby over invested with meaning. In psychoanalytic terms, voyeurism and fetishism are two strategies adopted by the male to counter his fear of sexual difference.

Semiotics analyses the structural relations, within a system, that function to produce meaning. Signs can be understood only in relation to other signs within the system, and this occurs, in the first instance, in two ways. A sign derives meaning simultaneously by what it is not and by what it is in combination with.

Feminism, suggested by the book ‘Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory’, in any medium must perform one or more of the following functions:
• Serve as a forum for women
• Help to achieve cultural androgyny
• Provide role models
• Promote sisterhood
• Augment consciousness-raising

Applying these theories to the film, the following observations can be seen ...
The film starts with the frame of the rising sun and a female driving a scooter to get to work. The director probably tried to communicate the theme of the film through this shot. This movie maintains an equal balance between supporting the staunch feminists and anti feminists. The first scene is said to provide a role model, which has a close connection with a dominant ideology. This ideology is a part of feminism where women believe that performing a particular task is development or freedom, and places them on par with men. From the feminist point of view a woman is equal to man, and tries to attain that stand by trying to be like a man. Driving a scooter are actions, which are normally pertaining to masculine features, and a female performing that operation is said to attain equality.

On his arrival, Varun seeks the blessings of his parents, portraying semiotics. Much against his perception of the country that he visualizes a moment too soon, such a symbolism is contradicting to his character. Varun’s mother plays the typical Indian mother concerned only about her family and it’s welfare, revolving in a sphere of set rules, not confused the least upon what she is doing. In her opinion her son is an eligible bachelor and marriage proposals swarm him. Her son who owns two cars and a house in US fulfils her attitude towards advancement in life. She depicts a good mother and a good wife and thus epitomizes the Indian mother. She is a staunch believer of traditions and places a lot of expectations on her son. Her hypocrisy is revealed when she succumbs to the bait thrown by Shashi aunty, which is not being called ‘dowry’.

Hierarchically, almost in every binary opposition, the female corresponds to the weaker, powerless, and negative sex. For instance: Activity/ Passivity, Sun/Moon, Culture/ Nature, Day/ Night, Father/Mother, Head/ Emotions, Intelligible/Sensitive, Logos/ Pathos. Indian movies portray women in two dominant ways, the docile quintessential, or the hated vamp. On the positive side, “Polite, traditional, homely, passionate, lovable, altruistic, chaste.” On the negative side, “Jealous, revengeful, stupid, arrogant, egoistic.”

Shashi aunty portrays a character which is depicted negative, though not in its fullest sense, and Sandhya belongs to that section of the society which is in all dreams about migrating to a foreign country perceiving it be an escape from reality, and is groomed with the feeling that aiming for that dream and attaining that through marriage is not wrong. Therefore, being a parasite is considered a good thing.

Though this attitude is prevalent, not all women fall under this category, like Ashwini who plays a doctor and tries really hard to prove that she does not belong to the blood¬sucking group. Her pretensions and prejudices against US returned Varun is slowly removed when she understands that he is not just another guy who is in search of a maid and therefore needs an Indian girl to get married to. Though she is outgoing and tries to convey that she is not a conservative girl she does not allow Varun to come and pick her up from her house as she is not ready to fight the battle against the society which does not encourage friendships between men and women. She creates the impression that she is a western girl when she drinks but the Indian in her is revealed in the very act of slapping Varun when he tried to kiss her. She is a mixture of ideologies and finds it difficult to maintain a balance. She does not oppose the ritual after her dad’s death, as she can do nothing when she knows that her mother is ready to accept it.

When asked by Varun as to which movie to go to, she suggests “Hum Aapke Hain Kaun” , a family movie. Given the choice, a man would opt to watch a suspense, thriller, or action film. Women are perceived to have a liking for docile, family oriented films, or it is simply because of the character portrayed by Ashwini, a woman unwilling to succumb to anything foreign, and therefore no English films.

Sanjeev proves a chauvinist when he opens up about his idea of the women who he aspires to get married to (soft spoken, sweet, not a working girl). He becomes very cynical when he remarks that Varun does not know the intricacies of Indian women. His perception of Indian women is found common in most Indian men whose expectations about their better half is the same. Trying to put up with this mentality is very efficiently described as being practical in life. Sanjeev can be considered fortunate to have wedded Seema, who proves a typical match for him, who finds him suiting her expectations of being an Indian husband who could take care of her for the rest of her life financially, that is by not sending her to work. While simultaneously, Seema projects images of modernity by claiming equal partnership in a marriage, and thereby enforces on Sanjeev responsibilities that he didn’t know were his too, such as cooking three days a week.

“She’s beautiful, gorgeous, ... ” and many such remarks made by Sanjeev while selecting a girl for marriage is a typical example of scopophilia. “Stop staring at her ... she is your sister in law ... ”, addresses Sanjeev to Varun about a girl who is not yet his wife. Sanjeev is male chauvinism personified. As much as he feels protective and possessive about the woman he wishes to marry, he ogles at other girls present during his betrothal ceremony, much to Varun’s surprise, to which Sanjeev remarks, “I’m just doing my duty as a man, yaar”. Although the movie does not project a woman enticingly, Sanjeev’s dialogues are examples of abstract fetishism.

Nonetheless, Sanjeev and Seema depict the typical Indian couple whose expectations are similar and they therefore have a compatible marriage life. Seema, who has graduated from Osmania University, a renowned institute, portrays a typical Indian girl ready to accept traditions, and tries to merge with the culture by turning into a doll wearing a silk sari with head bowed down, waiting to be examined by the bridegroom. ‘Since she was ten she has helped me in the cooking’ is the introduction made by her mother who believes it to be the essential thing to sell her daughter and they are not wrong as the deal is made to a group who is of the same ideology.

The protagonist Varun hails from a middle class family in Hyderabad. It is a culture shock for him when he returns to India after almost twelve years and says, “I followed traditions blindly when I lived here, but now I question them too.” The rational American in him finds fault with almost everything that happens, which for an Indian would be nothing of importance. He ridicules the marching buffaloes, the atrociously loud devotional music, or the pollution surrounding his neighbourhood, to which his mother remarks, “There is nothing that can be done, so why do you men complain”. He does question traditions and customs and blames that religion is built on complete fear, but he submits to the impalpable belief, which is said to flower blessings on him as found in the case when he bribes the god and remembers very well the odd-number offering logic referred earlier by his mother.

He has proved that he has no ego nor strings attached through a few scenes: when he patiently waits for Ashwini at her clinic and when he sits in the pillion behind Ashwini.

Another chauvinistic character who does not have physical appearance in the movie is Ashwini’s father who made his wife give up her dreams of becoming a Doctor. Nonetheless he suppressed only his wife, as he was a good father who never stopped his daughter from becoming a Doctor.

Varun is also blamed for being chauvinistic by Ashwini, to have come to conclusions about their relationship without her formal consent. Her emotional upheaval is the outcome to communicate that she is not one of those women like Sandhya who would long for such a proposal to immediately pounce upon.

“As women had 50% reservation it wasn’t tough getting a seat in medical college.”
“I took casual leave ... this is what you enjoy when you are working for the government”
“March is good for weddings; no haircut on a Saturday.”
“I am afraid about the wagging tongues.”

These are but few of the lines spoken by Ashwini, Sanjeev, Varun’s mother, and Ashwini’s mother respectively, that put India and the Indian system on a deplorable pedestal. The cunning tackling of a police constable and his immediate response, the atrocity done to a widow, the rude treatment given to a patient by Ashwini and her explanation given, and many a more situations bring to the forefront the observations made by the US returned American on the Indian society. He also strikes a balance when he says that there are pitfalls in the American society as well but the country has been good to him and he is trying to take the best from both.

The audacity of the Indian mentality to shun people because of castes, the ridiculous distinction of people based on their monetary status, the willingness of society to try and win the respect of a monetarily superior member. .. these display traces of Marxism.

Falling at the feet of one’s elders for blessings, Deeparathi, a (colourful) Telugu film, the path blocking buffaloes, silk sari during poojas and festivals, the holy sun in between different situations, the difference in the background music (a different note when auspicious and another one during the funeral, and yet another during a party) are subtle imageries of the presiding traditions.

In conclusion, Kukunoor’s attempt is a majestic one, succeeding in its mission to uplift the women of a country long foreseen as impoverished, and lagging. Through the eyes of an Americanised Indian, he has depicted the atrocities of a society in a gently mocking fashion. People belonging to similar categories are known to strongly oppose the film, while the coming generations are sure to consider it a tool for appraisal.


Rums said...

Woah Vidsss! Definitely a pleasant trip down memory lane :) Now I'm also reminded of all the work we put into our journal :D

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