Dancing Behind the Tree of the Real

By Navneet Alang

For all its cachet and global recognition now, I grew up hating Bollywood films. That’s not a terribly original thing for a ‘South Asian child of immigrants’ to say, but there you go. When I was young, I think I disliked them because I was relatively sure Hindi films were mostly comprised of middle aged women crying — every other scene containing a melodramatic reading of “Lekin, kyon beta? Kyon?” (But, why child? Why?) Aaand cue the histrionic weeping.

But when I got older and started to form opinions on culture and art, it was the lack of realism that bothered me most. While to this day I am no film connoisseur, it is still realism that appeals to me. My favourite films of the past few years (save Transformers 2) have all been largely understated, quiet, and most definitely unlike the typical spectacle of Bollywood.

And for whatever experiments in postmodernity and historiographic metafiction that have swept through literature, western film still seems generally committed to a vision of ‘realistic truth’ – or, in the case of fantasy or sci-if, at least internal coherence. To witness a mainstream Hindi film, then, with its generally blatant disregard for verisimilitude can be jarring for the western viewer. When one sees not only a song erupt mid film, but the characters move inexplicably to the Swiss alps, the B.C. Rockies or the streets of New York, it upsets one’s suspension of disbelief. The penchant for melodrama, the ‘absurd’ deployment of deus ex machina, the black and white construction of who is good and who is evil – all of it commits that great sin against realism: it abandons the everyday for the exaggerated and unbelievable in the service of spectacle.

But all of what I typed above also commits its own sin: it attempts to judge the aesthetic output of one socio-historical context by the standards of another. This is, generally speaking, a mistake. But though art and entertainment can occasionally be universal, they are mostly not, more often instead being products of the time, place and thought of the culture(s) from which they sprung.

Part of this has to do with the function a given work plays in a social context. Here’s Nirpal Dhaliwal in The Guardian (quoting a Sony India exec) explaining why Bollywood can seen so sprawling and scattered to non-Indian audiences:

“[Bollywood] has to appeal to a very wide demographic here. It’s not a finely segmented market like in Britain or America. Each film has to appeal to grandparents, parents, and children of various ages. Cinema is often the only entertainment choice Indians have, so it has to appeal to every member of the family as well as to different income, literacy levels, and various regional and language groups. It needs to please those who pay £5 in the multiplexes, but also those paying 10p in the lower stalls, who want overemphasis in the story and the acting, who want to whoop and clap.”

This need for inclusivity means that a typical Bollywood film is a romance, comedy, family saga and action movie rolled into one. That, Shridhar acknowledges, gives westerners the impression that they are “loosely written, meandering and don’t make sense”. But Indians are instinctively forgiving. “People will watch a film and know that the next 15 minutes isn’t going to be for them. It might be a dance sequence, or a ‘hand of God’ scene that’s for the grandma sat next to them. Bollywood films are more like a live circus or a variety show than a western three-act concept of a movie.”

That’s a little ungenerous, given how sophisticated the plotting and acting in mainstream Hindi film has become. But it does point out that the big Bollywood film is not ‘Indian Film’ as much as it is a genre or style, like the summer blockbuster or issue film. It is meant to perform a function in society, often becoming the common, shared space through which the Indian public processes issues, change and ideas. It also has to cut across demographics, the divisions of which in literacy and lifestyle are essentially inconceivable to a western audience. Understand that millions of  Indian cinema attendees also can’t rely on regular electricity or read the signs at the door when they enter. (Edit: and that hundreds of thousands arrive at the cinema in new, air-conditioned cars carrying iPhones and Blackberries.)

But there’s something else running under all this too. What does the commitment to realism get us? Why do we want art to be ‘truthful’?

That is of course far too large a question for me to answer. But it’s one that has permeated western discussions of art since Plato famously banished the poets. And one current that has consistently appeared is that art should ‘hold a mirror up to reality’, and in being shown the reflection, we recognize and learn something about ourselves and the world we live in.

But what underpins that idea is as straightforward as it is complex: there is an important relation between what is shown, what we see and what is true. We do, after all, ‘see the truth of the matter’ – not hear or smell it. The visual counts. What is true can be shown, and therefore, to show the true is important. It’s also based on the idea that, even within postmodern pluralism, we believe an honest film can show us some small something of what it is to be human.

In order to understand why this isn’t a culturally universal idea, I’m going to be a bit crazy and quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s take on the concept of two truths in various facets of early Buddhist, Indian thought. Honestly, you can skip the quote, but it seems right to at least put it here:

To sum up, though this entry provides just an overview of the theory of the two truths in Indian Buddhism discussed overview, it nevertheless offers us enough reasons to believe that there is no single theory of the two truths in Indian Buddhism. As we have seen there are many such competing theories, some of which are highly complex and sophisticated. The essay clearly shows, however, that except for the Prāsaṅgika’s theory of the two truths, which unconditionally rejects all forms of foundationalism both conventionally and ultimately, all other theories of the two truths, while rejecting some forms of foundationalism, embrace another form of foundationalism. The Sārvastivādin (or Vaibhāṣika) theory rejects the substance-metaphysics of the Brahmanical schools, yet it claims the irreducible spatial units (e.g., atoms of the material category) and irreducible temporal units (e.g., point-instant consciousnesses) of the five basic categories as ultimate truths, which ground conventional truth, which is comprised of only reducible spatial wholes or temporal continua. Based on the same metaphysical assumption and although with modified definitions, the Sautrāntika argues that the unique particulars (svalakṣaṇa) which, they say, are ultimately causally efficient, are ultimately real; whereas the universals (sāmāṅyalakṣaṇa) which are only conceptually constructed, are only conventionally real. Rejecting the Ābhidharmika realism, the Yogācāra proposes a form of idealism in which which it is argued that only mental impressions are conventionally real and nondual perfect nature is the ultimately real. The Svātantrika Madhyamaka, however, rejects both the Ābhidharmika realism and the Yogācāra idealism as philosophically incoherent. It argues that things are only intrinsically real, conventionally, for this ensures their causal efficiency, things do not need to be ultimately intrinsically real. Therefore it proposes the theory which states that conventionally all phenomena are intrinsically real (svabhāvataḥ) whereas ultimately all phenomena are intrinsically unreal (niḥsvabhāvataḥ). Finally, the Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka rejects all the theories of the two truths including the one advanced by its Madhyamaka counterpart, namely, Svātantrika, on the ground that all the theories are metaphysically too stringent, and they do not provide the ontological malleability necessary for the ontological identity of conventional truth (dependent arising) and ultimate truth (emptiness). It therefore proposes the theory of the two truths in which the notion of intrinsic reality is categorically denied. It argues that only when conventional truth and ultimate truth are both conventionally and ultimately non-intrinsic, can they be causally effective.

Now this is all very complex, and only a tiny snippet, and I can’t at all claim to understand it in any thorough way. What you can get a sense of reading through it, though, is that the idea there is a one-to-one relationship between what we can be shown in reality and what is ‘ultimately or ‘unconventionally’ real is not the same in ‘Indian’ thought as it is in ‘Western’. The very fact that the theory is called ‘two truths’ is itself already a sign that we are working in a very different set of rules, one in which immanent, experienced reality is not the same thing as ultimate reality. If you’ve ever wondered why, as Pankaj Misra said in Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime, that Hindus can believe the immanent world is nothing, yet still be great capitalists, there you have at least the beginnings of an answer.

This, I admit, is a very circuitous way of saying the following: cultures are complicated, and the ways in which they construct their art are related to the ways in which they have constructed their thought. What constitutes the good in art or even entertainment is something that is part of the swirling, unstable mess that is a cultural context. And it’s not like culture is ‘a thing’, fixed and unchanging. It is an ongoing set of practices, beliefs, languages and ideas that all together form a dynamic force that is itself both a product and producer of history. And if how you judge art is about what you like and what you think is right, then judging is is mostly a culturally specific act. Bollywood, like any cultural product, is working within that specificity — and, when possible, should be treated as such.


My favourite Indian film is one many NRIs (Non Resident Indians) have been chattering a lot about lately. It’s called Udaan (Netflix link), and is a story about a teen boy who gets kicked out of school and has to deal with his demanding, stern father, whom he eventually resists. It is an understated, quiet film – much closer in tone to the early work of David Gordon Green or, perhaps more accurately, Satyajit Ray, while still owing much to modern Bollywood technique. It’s very much my kind of film: simple, mostly about people talking, and focused on a small set of characters.

But if you are looking to understand what the ‘anti-realist’ nature of Bollywood film does best, I have two suggestions: the massively successful 3 Idiots, and the lesser known but great Khosla ka Ghosla. Both, when judged by western standards, are fragmented, ‘over-the-top’ and ‘unrealistic’. But, in a way that’s slightly hard to explain, that over-the-top-ness is necessary, as each film tries to articulate something about how India is changing. It’s almost as if the complexity of both the sub-continent’s history, and its emergence into a nation state composed of radically disparate elements in only 50 years, makes the over-the-top-ness a narritival and experiential necessity.

Now, especially in India and its film, is not the time for subtlety. The changes occurring are too vast, profound and seismic in nature for small shifts of light or facial expression to matter very much. You could, in fact, probably argue that the Western aesthete’s emphasis on subtlety as a goal is itself a product of relative social, cultural and artistic stability and uniformity. It is a luxury that history is yet to give India.

So as the IIFA awards descend on the city, and with it a slew of commentary about Bollywood, good and bad, if you can, embrace the melodrama and give up the fetish for realism — all the while, keeping in mind that as the waves of modernity crash into the walls of history, it helps when they’re really really big.