Film culture, politics and Industry

First Published:IN SEMINAR, NUMBER 525, 2003 (APRIL)

In this essay I discuss a familiar question: what do we make of film as industrial product and film as cultural entity? For the purposes of the essay I use ‘film culture’ in a restricted sense to refer to film consumption, or the sphere of circulation of the cinema among various audience groups. At the very outset I wish to point out that I make a number of statements, at times provocative ones, without providing satisfactory clarifications or evidence. This is convenient way to deal with difficult problems. However, I may be forgiven for opting for the easy way out in the light of the constraints of space (and the inability to provide detailed footnotes).

In the context of Andhra Pradesh, possibly other parts of the country as well, film consumption is linked to politics on the one hand and the film industry on the other. I am not referring merely to the famous ‘south-Indian’ case of fans associations of the film-stars-turned-politicians. On the contrary, we need to ask foundational questions of film culture that may in fact have been obscured by the overt linkages between film and politics as witnessed in the MGR and NTR phenomena. Yet, fans associations in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and, increasingly, even Kerala, should alert us to deeper connections between film cultures and politics. It is my contention that these connections exist even when there are no direct links between audience groups and political parties and even when fans associations themselves are absent. Indeed, fans associations, regardless of what can be said about their linkages with the politics of linguistic identity/nationalism etc, are but one expression of that something that we may have missed in our anxiety to make sense of the obscene overlap between the cinema and politics.

I will draw attention to the circulation of Hong Kong action films in India in order to skirt around the politics of linguistic identity. Despite the popularity of the genre and some of the stars associated with it in different parts of Andhra Pradesh, it is almost certain that there have never been fans associations of a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan in this state. In fact, fans associations of Hong Kong stars are so emphatically absent that there was no competing response to the inauguration of the All India Jackie Chan Fans Association in Vijayawada. As it turned out this association was one of the attempts by a local distributor to generate interest in the latest Jackie Chan release. He hoped that ‘real’ associations of the star’s fans would be established in response to the announcement. The distributor’s failure to elicit a response is more evidence that fans associations and language politics are inseparable.

However, considering the fact that fans associations are institutions marked by their obsessive engagement with the cinema (noisy celebrations within the auditorium, decoration of cinema halls), which is carried to spaces outside/beyond the cinema hall (organizing poor feeding, celebrating religious festivals etc under the aegis of the association), we notice that a similar process is at work even in the case of Hong Kong films. I have in mind those martial arts schools/academies that exhibit rather direct allegiances to Hong Kong films and stars. There are of course ‘respectable’ martial arts schools run by experts who sneer at films and stars. But there are others like the Dragon Fist Martial Arts Academy, Hyderabad. It is named after a Jackie Chan film (Dragon Fist, Lo Wei, 1978), has an office displaying a large Bruce Lee poster, and is run by a man who tried unsuccessfully to make a Telugu martial arts film called Karate Fighters. The school’s publication, Martial Arts, often features local and Hong Kong action stars such as Suman, Vijayashanthi, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on the cover. And then there is Sampathi Ramana, the chief instructor of Okinawan Goju-Ryu Universal Martial Arts, Madanapalle. A
house painter by profession, Ramana is an important organizer of the Balija caste and an activist of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is also an active member of the fans association of the Telugu film star Chiranjeevi who belongs to his caste. For the last 13 years he has been a karate instructor. Five years ago he established the karate school which he currently heads. Classes are held, among other places, in the compound of Jyothi Talkies which screens martial arts and sex films. Ramana was inspired to learn karate after watching the films of Bruce Lee and Arjun (who featured in Telugu action films). He watches all Hong Kong martial arts and action films released in the town and often takes his students to watch (and learn from) these films (Interview, 8thFebruary 2001). Some martial arts schools are therefore fans-association-like formations insofar as they are institutional spaces for the acting out of the obsession with the cinema. With hindsight, we can see that the fans association itself is only one such space.