Interview | 'I See an Erasure of Minorities in Big-Budget Indian Films'

Philip A. Lutgendorf, professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies, discusses Indian Cinema and medieval South Asian literature and literary traditions amongst other things.

Philip A. Lutgendorf taught Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa’s Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature for 33 years, retiring as Professor in 2018. His book on the performance of the Hindi Ramayana, The Life of a Text (University of California Press, 1991) won the A.K. Coomaraswamy Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002-03 for his research on Hanuman, which appeared as Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey (Oxford University Press, 2007).

His interests include epic performance traditions, folklore and popular culture and mass media. He created a website devoted to Bollywood. His research on the cultural history of tea drinking in South Asia was supported by a Fulbright-Hays Senior Overseas Research Fellowship (2010-11). He is presently translating the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas as The Epic of Ram, in seven dual-language volumes, for the Murty Classical Library of India/Harvard University Press. He served as President of the American Institute of Indian Studies from 2010-2018 and continues serving AIIS as chair of its Board of Trustees.

Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey,
Philip Lutgendorf,
Oxford University Press Inc, 2006

In an interview with The Wire, Lutgendorf talks about the distinctiveness of Indian film, the representation of Muslims in popular cinema in India, the relationship of modern Indian literature to its medieval and ancient antecedents, and much more.

You say that Indian film operates with aesthetic sensibilities distinct from those that govern many other film traditions. You also say that this has something to do with the rasa-based aesthetic theory of the Natya Shastra and also with the history of South Asian literary traditions and texts (ranging from the epics to the Kathasaritsagara to Sufi tales). Could you say a bit more about this distinctiveness of Indian film?

In the mid-1990s, I organised a seminar for film studies faculty at the University of Iowa, introducing them to a selection of Hindi films, including classics of the so-called “golden age” (like Awaara, Mother India, Pyaasa). I did this because Indian popular cinema was virtually unknown among film scholars in the US at that time. They all knew Satyajit Ray as a token Indian director and that he was considered an “art cinema” auteur, standing in contrast to a “commercial” industry – but they knew nothing about the latter. Alternative cinema has its place, of course, in India as in the US, but no one would write off mainstream Hollywood masterpieces like Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach and geniuses like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock etc., just because that industry has also always produced a lot of formulaic garbage.

Credit: Wikipedia

So, I wanted my colleagues to know about Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor (in his heyday!), Guru Dutt, and so forth. Even with the terrible quality VHS versions that were available in those days, some of them were impressed (Prof. Corey Creekmur, a scholar of Hollywood genre films and musicals, declared Pyaasa to be one of the greatest films of all time and has since written and taught about it extensively). And I remember Dudley Andrew, a great scholar of American, European and Japanese cinema (he now heads the film studies program at Yale), remarking to me, after watching Mother India, to the effect that, “All the cinemas I know play by more or less the same rules….but this is a different aesthetic universe!”

So that set me thinking about cultural differences and about what is Indian about “Indian cinema.” Later, I published an essay called ‘Is There an Indian Way of Filmmaking?’ (2006) –  playing on the title of a wonderful piece by one of my graduate mentors, A.K. Ramanujan, “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?”

Like him, I tried to avoid cultural essentialisms and Orientalist clichés about “eternal India,” yet I was interested in certain continuities in storytelling style (such as a preference for long, episodic, multi-generational narratives, often with “framing” by storytellers who are also characters in the tale) that can be clearly seen in the epics and Puranas as well as ancient entertainment fiction and early modern Urdu daastans and in the subcontinental taste for long, operatic music- and dance-dramas serving up a rich banquet of sequential emotional “courses,” that runs all the way from the Natya Shastra to Kathakali, Raslila, Parsi Theatre, Nautanki and of course, masala films. I feel that these (and other) precursors reflect cultural preferences that, in turn, helped shape the evolution of Indian popular cinema as a distinctive art form, particularly after the advent of sound in 1931.

Indian cinema is notoriously underrepresented at international art cinema festivals (like Cannes). Do you think this has something to do with the peculiar aesthetics of Indian film that are not easily understood or appreciated by non-Indian/non-South Asian audiences?

The aesthetic and storytelling conventions that I have just mentioned certainly make popular Hindi films “hard to see” for many Western audiences, who are accustomed to more linear and simple plot-lines, a supposed “realism” (in which people don’t express themselves in song and dance except in highly specific contexts and genres) and films that run no longer than 100 minutes. The history of occasional, unsuccessful attempts to market mainstream Indian films to Westerners (usually by deleting song sequences) is well documented; but there has never been a true “crossover” success. Some directors would, of course like – and no doubt deserve – more worldwide recognition, but at the same time, the tastes and expectations of the immense South Asian audience (not to mention fans in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia) have generally set the standards and have also guaranteed, for hit films, a gratifying box office return.

However, on a more limited scale, mainstream Indian films do find fans in the West, even among non-desis. I have regularly taught survey courses, at the University of Iowa, on the history of Hindi film, and there were always Anglo-American students who “got it” and became enthusiasts. The internet facilitated such cross-cultural investigation and viewing. After I started my “Philip’s Filums” website, I sometimes got the most unexpected “fan mail” – like a message from a gora in a small town in the American Midwest, with no particular India connections, but who had become a huge Meena Kumari fan, had seen every film of hers, and who wrote to me about a small error I had made in my notes on Pakeezah  (1972)! Such rasikas exist, even in the most unlikely places, but they do not constitute a mass audience for theatrical releases.

You have followed Indian cinema for a long time. As you must be aware, films that deal with certain historical events and persons face a lot of controversy in India today (like Padmaavat). In the current political situation, it also seems that any film that portrays Mughal or other historical Muslim rulers in a positive light is bound to face severe opposition. Do you think that there is more political hostility to positive representations of historical Muslim figures today than there was in the past (say 20 or 30 years ago)?

A number of scholars of Hindi cinema have written about the gradual “saffronisation” of feature films, beginning in the early 1990s and paralleling the rise of Hindu nationalist and Right-wing parties espousing a majoritarian and specifically anti-Muslim ideology. I largely concur with these observations, although fortunately there have also been exceptions to this trend. I do see a marginalisation or even erasure of minorities, especially in big-budget films, or at best their crude caricaturing (as in Bajrangi Bhaijaan), though this also happened in earlier decades.

But the Hindi film industry – which (like other art forms in which talent is more important than ideology, such as music or mysticism) has always been richly diverse in its personnel – at one time produced a number of sensitive, big-budget films centred in and taking an appreciative view of South Asian Islamic culture. I am thinking of the genre of so-called “Muslim socials,” like Barsaat Ki Raat, Mehbooba (1976), or Guru Dutt’s wonderful Chaudhvin Ka Chand; there has been nothing like this in recent decades, and this no doubt reflects the changed political climate. And though you refer to the uproar over Bhansali’s film as a supposed insult to a Hindu queen, it’s portrayal of a Sultanate-period Muslim king is particularly crudely stereotyped and can only contribute to the simplistic but reigning master-narrative of conquest and rule by “oppressive” Muslims.

Joseph Goebbels. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I also see an increasingly fascist tendency reflected in film aesthetics and specifically in choreography, sets, and crowd movement. The increasingly synchronised dancing by large numbers of people, often in “Hindu” contexts (glossed merely as “culture/samskriti”) recalls to me the views of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and his policy of Gleichschaltung (“coordination, synchronisation”) which both meant making Nazi ideology pervasive of all aspects of German life (as the RSS seeks to do with its notion of “Hindu” samskriti), and also mesmerising people with spectacles of mass participation that displayed satisfying visual symmetry and “order” (think of the Nuremberg rallies…or the imaginary world of the Baahubali films). In cinema, these fascistic visual trends have been facilitated, I feel, by new technology, especially CGI.

A small but telling example of this visual aesthetic may be seen in the everyday life of Banaras, a city with which I feel a close connection. I lived there for more than a year in the early 1980s when I was doing research on Ramcaritmanas performance traditions. To the major attractions of this ancient pilgrimage city in those days – the temples of Vishvanath and Sankat Mochan, Ramnagar Fort and Sarnath – has now been added another: the nightly ‘Ganga Ki Aarti’ at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in which a half-dozen or so identically dressed, strapping young priests perform a perfectly-synchronised, even rather calisthenic ritual with giant oil-lamps, to blaring loudspeaker accompaniment, that is witnessed nightly by thousands of pilgrims and tourists, and that many websites describe as a “famous spectacle” of the holy city.

I don’t know exactly when it was started, but it is definitely what scholars call an “invented tradition.” There was nothing of the sort in the 1980s, or even in 1990 when I was again living in Banaras while researching Hanuman’s Tale. I have since seen it and it is certainly impressive—but what is striking to me is that it is nothing at all like the raucous, individualised and somewhat anarchic style of worship that goes on in most popular temples (here I think of Sankat Mochan on a Tuesday evening, or Govind Dev Ji in Jaipur on just about any day – to name two personal favourites because of their unique atmosphere and strongly devotional bhaav) or in the context of most Hindu festivals (think of Holi in Braj, in which I have happy memories of participating). What I mean to suggest is that entertaining “spectacle” also does ideological work (as Goebbels and Hitler well understood) and that today there is a disturbing confluence, in many places, of Big (depersonalised) Religion, Big Governments (led by chauvinist and populist strongmen), Big Business, and….Big Movies.

Some people in India bemoan that Indian writing in English has very little to do with the classical or medieval literary traditions of India/ South Asia (Sanskrit or vernacular). It is thought that Indian writers in English, who write stories and novels, know more about and borrow more from European literary traditions (for mostly obvious reasons). Reading Kalidas or the Ramcaritmanas, for instance, is not particularly fashionable (in certain circles). Do you think this is true? Or do you think that these literary traditions nonetheless have some influence on modern Indian writing (especially the writing in English)?

On the one hand, Indian writing (and writing by South Asian diasporic writers) in English is something of which Indians can rightfully be proud. Indians have a knack for languages, due to their richly multi-lingual society (a feature of subcontinental life that I have always presented positively to my American undergraduate students, most of whom are depressingly monolingual, or even frightened by bilingualism). Already in 1835, Macaulay in his notorious ‘Minute on Education’ noted how perfectly some Indians were using English and since then (and of course helped along by educational policies that Macaulay helped put in place) Indian writers have earned well-deserved laurels on the English literary stage. In the US, most university English Departments now have a professorial position in “Postcolonial Literature” and though this includes coverage of writing from former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, writers of South Asian heritage inevitably loom large in the curriculum and many of the faculty are similarly of South Asian background.

The Life of a Text: Performing the ‘Ramcaritmanas’ of Tulsidas,
Philip Lutgendorf,
University of California Press, 1991.

But one effect of the global prestige of English – and Indians have always been keenly sensitive to the prestige value of learned languages (Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian each played this role in their day, of being what Ramanujan called “father tongues”) – has been the eclipse of the so-called vernaculars and their rich and ancient literature and the relentless imposition of an “English-medium” education system that emphasises literature in that language (as well as the nonsensical idea that “science” or even “modernity” can only be expressed through it). I see this reflected even in some recent writing that supposedly retells and celebrates “classics” like the Ramayana. In 2004, I published a long review of two new versions (by Ramesh Menon and Ashok Banker) which I called ‘(Too?) Many Ramayanas,’ parodying the title of a well-known edited volume (Many Ramayanas) about the multiplicity of the tradition.

What was striking to me was that the retellings by these English-language authors (whose exposure to the epic also came primarily from other English-language versions) had been strongly influenced by a Judeo-Christian cosmology of good and evil and by the imagery of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy saga, the Star Wars movies (ironically, because George Lucas is himself said to have been influenced by an English narration of the Ramayana that he heard from Joseph Campbell!) and video games. These influences produced a “flavour” that seemed to me like a distortion of the story, even though the basic plotline remained the same: a flattening of some of the complexities of characterisation that have always fascinated audiences and spawned multiple interpretations.

But again, being (by temperament) an anecdotal person, I cannot resist pointing to an interesting exception to the general rule, especially since it involves some of my own work. A few months ago, I got an e-mail from a Delhi-based novelist, Amitabha Bagchi, saying that he had just published his fourth novel, called Half the Night is Gone, that it was partly inspired by my 1991 book on Manas performance, The Life of a Text and that he would like to send me a copy. I was astonished and of course honoured by this, and I also happened to be on my way to India, so I was able to meet Bagchi in person and talk with him about his work. A professor of computer science at IIT Delhi, he writes novels in English in his free time, but he also (and this is unusual for someone with his background) reads voraciously in Hindi. I won’t say too much about this very interesting novel (which has gotten some press and online coverage) except to note that it is preoccupied with the destiny of Hindi literature in India, filled with quotations from premodern poets (especially Tulsidas), and has a character who becomes a Manas kathaavaacak in Banaras by studying with one of the great Ramayanis whom I had profiled in my book.

Bagchi told me that, although he had known of Tulsidas and the Manas as “classics,” my book made him aware of the immense literary and performance culture that was (and in some places still is) centred on the epic, and which he felt drawn to portray in fiction. I continue to feel gratified that my “dull” academic scholarship could have had this much effect on a contemporary Indian artist!

Philip Lutgendorf at Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, flanked by Ashok Vajpeyi and Harish Trivedi after a panel on the ‘Ramcaritmanas’ and on the translation, ‘The Epic of Ram’. Credit: Bharat Tiwari

Do you think there is a way to make medieval north Indian literature (for instance Awadhi literature) more interesting and palatable to a modern Indian audience (in the way, say, Shakespeare is to an English or American audience)?

In short, yes. And by way of example, I would like to talk about the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI). Endowed by Rohan Murty, it is modelled on the Loeb Classical Library of Greek and Latin, which has existed for more than a century and now comprises more than 500 volumes. The idea is to put out, every year, four or five fresh, scholarly, but readable translations of pre-1800 works in all South Asian languages, in dual-language editions of the same basic format, beautifully printed and reasonably priced (the Indian paperback editions, distributed by Penguin, are subsidised and quite inexpensive). The series is especially intended to reach the English-medium educated, who may have grown up with little or no exposure to pre-modern literature in local languages. The first set of books was released in 2015 and the series already includes titles in Hindi, Kannada, Pali, Persian, Sanskrit, Sindhi, and Telugu and classics in more languages are on the way.

In 2010 I was commissioned to do a new translation of the Ramcaritmanas for MCLI. I pondered this for a while – there were already nine complete English translations and though I don’t care much for them, I questioned whether I could do better. In the end, I decided to try, because I have lived with this text for nearly four decades, and also because it has such an immense presence in north and central India. With the MCLI format, the editors decided that Tulsi’s Epic of Ram (as we decided to call it) would come out in seven volumes; so far, four have been published and Volume 5 is in production now. I have used a free-verse format, and readers can easily compare numbered verses to their Awadhi/Hindi originals on the left-hand facing page. I consider it impossible to reproduce the wonderful rhyme and metrical musicality of Tulsi’s verses, but I have worked hard to preserve a certain “momentum” (I think of the Hindi word gati) through economy of language, and to avoid the turgid, prosaic quality that I find in most previous renderings.

I hope I have succeeded in making this beautiful and influential epic more accessible to the English-educated; only time (and readers) will tell. But it has been a wonderful personal experience for me to work on this and to engage in almost daily dialogue with Goswami Tulsidas – I recall Raman (Ramanujan) saying that if you really want to know a text well, you should translate it. It has also been a great privilege to work with the MCLI/Harvard editorial team, who, because of Mr. Murty’s generous gift, are able to devote tremendous care and attention to every volume—something that is increasingly rare in the mostly unprofitable world of academic publishing.