Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Imaging Deities and Deifying Images
Review of Celluloid Deities – The Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India by Preminda Jacob, Orient BlackSwan
Celluloid Deities is about banners and cutouts that, for almost half a century was ‘an integral part of the visual processes by which Chennai’s residents made the cultural texts of Tamil cinema and politics their own’. Film making was always an industry where inscrutable vagaries of audience preferences coupled with the massive volume of financial investments put at risk every product. But behind each such venture that enters the market is also the irresistible allure of windfall profits and fame. It is such elusive push and pull factors that propel ‘culture industries along schizophrenic tracks, spinning from conservative reaffirmations of the status quo to wildly creative high-risk ventures’. Ironically, in politics too, matters are not very different. With the gradual evacuation of politics and erosion of ideological differences between coalitions, the fortunes of individual politicians and parties also follow the same track. The second part of the book, in fact, has a chapter dedicated to ‘political cutout’. The central questions around which the study and its methodology are organized are: ‘How did the social and political context of these images produce particularities of their subject matter and artistic style? How did a local audience perceive them? And how are we, from an international and global perspective, to perceive and historicize them?’
Structured around two sets of research questions, the first four chapters of the study probes the status of banners and cutouts as art objects by focusing on their production and semiotics of the medium, as to who created these images, their conditions of production, and the aesthetic criteria they employed. The next two chapters on The Coalescence of Tamil Nationalism and the Cinema Industry and The Political Cutout, analyses the social, political and religious contexts of these images to map the complex functions of cinematic and political imagery in contemporary South Indian society. The last two chapters examines the relationship between the notion of darshan and spectatorship, and the future of cinematic spectatorship.
The job of the cutout and banner advertisement workers is to amplify and magnify the desired impact of their subjects, something that has increasingly become tough and unenviable. Their work is at once a craft, an art form, and a means of livelihood. Most importantly, it is a kind of work/art that is evanescent by its very nature; mounted with great aplomb, its relevance wanes after a few weeks, the material itself gets faded or defaced, and it is soon removed and recycled. This could be the reason why no artist preserves their creations in this field, which again impinges upon their creation as art and places them somewhere between ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’. But their work is an endless and chaotic play with size, colour scheme, layering, mass, scale, likeness, composition, positioning of figures, font type, design and placement, and one that changes according to locality and target population. What makes the study interesting is the way it delves into the dynamics of this sector, drawing out both the grind and routine aspects of the job, as well as the creative and spontaneous, bringing forth a lot of surprising insights into the workings of banner advertisements and their multiple agendas of art, advertising and propaganda.
The breadth and scope of the second part of the study is vast and it analyses this evanescent media in the background of the larger context, that is, as ‘representative of cyclical shifts in media: from melodramatic theater to academic painting; from academic painting to cinema; from the moving image to film stills and, finally, from the photographic images of cinema to banner painting. Each successive mode of visual representation derived its popularity by entwining the emotive power of rasa with the unambiguous binaries of melodrama’. In the process, the study brings out a lot of interesting insights on Tamil cinema and stardom, as well as the celebrity cult in Tamil Nadu and its political dimensions. But while exploring the complex relationships between film, fame, charisma and political fortunes, in certain places, one can feel the ‘weight’ of such a wide scope. It sometimes pans across certain complex and nuanced concepts and historical moments in a compressed and simplified manner. Instead of as part of main body of the text, they could have been provided as detailed footnotes and references.
Celluloid Deities, as a pioneering attempt in this area, is undoubtedly a significant contribution to film/cultural studies in India.