Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gangsters, soaps and TV rituals

Among the readings for global television, both Shanti Kumar and David Morley argue that globalization is not necessarily a uniform, uni-directional and universalizing force. Instead, they contend that it poses a challenge to neat theoretical categories and pushes us to develop methodological approaches that can contend with the often chaotic effects of the process(es). Key to this re-evaluation for both Kumar and Morley is the need to shift our attention to ‘area studies’ or specific local contexts through which the repercussions of global media exchanges can be concretely mapped. At the same time, they argue for the need to view local interventions in relation to the flows of capital and broader institutional categories that frame these movements. 

Kumar deals with the disciplinary implications of such a move, arguing for the need to shift from a comparative approach that privileges Western theoretical categories towards an imparative approach based on dialogic understanding. Morley, on the other hand, focuses on methodological questions, arguing for a qualitative and empirically-grounded approach that puts pre-formed theoretical categories to test and looks at how exactly different groups participate in global media flows. Questioning sharp dichotomies between public/private and global/local tendencies, Morley argues that the macro-level analysis of ideological processes must begin through micro-level case studies. Focusing on domestic TV-viewing, he asserts that the space of televisual consumption is neither entirely ‘public’ nor ‘private’. Communication technologies are incorporated into the domestic sphere but also transform it by connecting the intimate experience of tv-viewing to a collective national register. He looks at the ceremonial aspect of this consumption, claiming that television is complicit in not only representing the event but performing and creating it. 

What exactly are the dynamics of this liminal space and how do the domestic rituals of tv-viewing connect to the formation of national identities? Some of these concerns are addressed in the opening sequence of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), a gangster-epic film that covers eight decades in the life of a small town in Eastern India overrun by the coal mafia. Director Anurag Kashyap, one of the leading proponents of alternative cinema in India, draws heavily on international generic conventions to bring to life a history that has often been neglected in mainstream discourses in this two-part, 5 hours 20 mins long saga. The film’s narration sets up an opposition between a sanitized political history of modern India versus the complex and often chaotic forces in play at the local level by intercutting footage of landmark national events with the semi-fictional universe of Wasseypur’s coal gangs.

The opening shot of the film, set in the present day, begins with the blurry image of the opening credits of the hugely popular soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (English: Because a mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law, too), known for its regressive treatment of gender issues. The camera slowly zooms out in a single long take, revealing the setting -a local grocery store that has temporarily been converted into a communal viewing space. The shot ends violently and abruptly as the TV is riddled with bullets, indicating the arrival of gang members in the locality. Aligned closely with a patriarchal and Hindu majoritarian worldview, the soap’s sterile universe of domestic bliss stands in stark contrast to Wasseypur’s visual and verbal excesses replete with sex, drugs and violence. Interrupting the scene of the soap’s ritualistic consumption, the film sets the stage for an interrogation of the common public national identity that it seeks to inculcate. The disruption and de-centering of the televisual thus becomes key to the film’s project of creating alternative mythologies that account for local and regional histories.

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