The apparent realism of the reel

Indian cinema has redefined ‘normal’. Emotional experiences in response to a film have become how we react to reality.

Published: 04th April 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd April 2021 02:05 PM   |  A+A-

History; Fiction; Movies; World War 2; Hitler

For representational purposes

Considering that most TV news reportage is high drama, it is not surprising that the developments involving the police force in Maharashtra have been compared to a Bollywood script. The news of a top cop with over 60 reported ‘encounters’, who was suspended for over 17 years and joined a political party before being reinstated, does make for a compelling story. One cannot blame the media for adding masala to the proceedings. However, the events’ apparent normalisation is worth noting and, dare one say, a scary portent of things to come. Like many things, Indian cinema has redefined ‘normal’ to such an extent that emotional experiences in response to a film have become how we react to reality. 

In the 1970s, real-life figures such as Haji Mastan, Karim Lala and Varadarajan Mudaliar were popular in cinema, both in front and behind the camera. This was an era where the upright cop in Zanjeer (1973) and Ardh Satya (1983) was the mainstay of the narrative. Going beyond the purview of the system to resolve issues was seen as a desperate measure. 

The gangster genre remained comparatively under-developed and under-explored. Screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar led many to believe that Mastan’s life as a dockyard worker inspired Vijay in Deewar (1975), despite some of the film’s iconic imagery appearing to mirror Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954). If on the one hand, the crime genre in the 1990s celebrated the gangster with films such as Parinda (1989), Shiva (1989), and Satya (1998), on the other, films that hailed the vigilante cop somewhere justified the action. Mainstream cinema’s larger-than-life cop gained a sense of realism in Sarfarosh (1999). Once the ‘encounter specialist’ was discovered in Encounter: The Killing (2002), Company (2002), Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), and  Khakee (2004), the cop was transformed. 

Popular cinema claims that much like how film audiences do not run out of the auditorium at the sight of a beast or a shooter, the audiences’ emotion is evolved for adaptive action. The darkened cinema hall and the projection on a larger-than-life screen can provide sufficient stimulation. Perhaps this is why the cop is either someone who is corrupted or someone who will break the very law he/she is bound to uphold to protect it. This might be a simplistic notion, but Nico H Frijda’s cognitive theory of emotions sheds light on the emotional experiences in response to film.

Frijda suggests that “most action responses are not fixed responses to emotional stimuli but the result of appraisals of what they mean for a person’s concerns in light of the situational context”. The way popular cinemas depicted the ‘encounter specialist’ is much like how Tony Montana from The Scarface (1983) or Vijay Dinanath Chauhan in Agneepath (1990) represent themselves as essential cogs in the wheel—the bad guy needed for the rest to feel good. Irrespective, there is little difference between the viewer’s contextual frame for the complex appraisal of the reel’s apparent realism and the real.  

Gautam Chintamani
Film historian and bestselling author


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