Irrespective of class, culture, and religion, cinema is one of the driving passions in the
Indian Subcontinent. Hindi Action Cinema is the first book to cover the history of action
films made in Bombay.
The book opens with the silent period, tracing the emergence of the genre in the
mid-1920s, when women also began to feature in action roles. Then it examines the
socio-economic factors responsible for the films and popularity of figures like Master
Vithal, Ermeline, Fearless Nadia, Dara Singh, Amitabh Bachchan as well as other, more
contemporary figures of Hindi action cinema.
Considering the social ground that shaped these films' mode of action and their
distinctive mise en scene, Hindi Action Cinema examines the changing economies of film
production, distribution, and exhibition in Bombay over eight decades. In the process, the
book raises new questions about the nature of this film genre and challenges established
conceptualizations of the relationship between a film and its socio-economic context.
The book will appeal to students and scholars of film and cultural studies as well
as to the general reader interested in Indian cinema.
About the Author
Valentina Vitali teaches film history and theory at the University of East London.
Rajkumar Santoshi's Ghatak/Lethal (1996) tells the Story of Kashi Nath (Sunny Deol), the son
of a nationalist hero who sets out to free the residents of a small town from the
terrorizing regime of arch-villain Katya (Danny Denzongpa), Ghatak features several fights
and nearly all of them are witnessed by a (diegetic) crowd. The final confrontation between
Kashi and Katya inscribes the spectator in the viewing position of the crowd, standing by
and cheering as the hero kills the other man. This type of mise en scene is very common in
action cinema and there is nothing particular about this film that one cannot find in many
other action movies. Except, that is, the time that knew Ghatak as a film. I first saw it as
a newly released film in 1996. I was then living in Allahabad, in the north Indian state of
Uttar Pradesh, at a time when the popularity and influence of the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP) was fast rising in the Hindi belt. Watching the film's closing scene from my balcony
seat, I remember thinking then that I was seeing a film that was part of a swelling
cultural-ideological wave which would be flooding large parts of the county for a long time
to come. In many ways, this book emerges from, and is an elaboration of, that impression of
seeing a film, not simply as a story or as a cultural object that may or may not be a work
of art, but as an integral moment of an unfolding historical process.
Conventionally speaking, one might say that this book is about the relationship
between history and cinema. The problem with such a formulation is that it risks suggesting
that cinema is one thing and history another, the relationship between the two being a
matter for historians and film theorists to discuss in an interdisciplinary exchange.
Historians have many useful observations to make about films and about cinema as a cultural
form, while film scholars have written insightful things about the history of their object
of study, but juxtaposing cinema and history as distinct, though related, fields of enquiry
obscures the fact tat cultural forms emerge from within history. The question is thus less
about how a film's relation to history should be understood, than the reading and
understanding of films as technologically and industrially bundled discursive constellations
animated by the very substances and rhythms that we refer to as history. Films are primary
sources every bit as much as statesmen's diaries, minutes of governmental meetings, or the
objects and detritus that can be found on the sites of ruined cities. Just as historians
have to pay serious attention to the specificities of the media in which source material is
encountered, so the specificities of cinematic discourses considered by film theorists are
not separate from, but are an integral part of historiography.
When films have been examined as primary sources, attention has tended to focus on
two particular aspects of the indexical dimension of films. The most widely practiced
approach has been to examine what the films' stories have to say about events or periods
already defined and labeled by historians. Plots, dialogues, and their settings are
scrutinized to identify historically pertinent information in what film scholars call the
pro-filmic event, that is to say, in the 'reality' recorded by the camera and the
microphone. Although documentaries and newsreels are the types of cinema privileged by this
approach, it is generally conceded that documentary aspects may also be discerned in fiction
films. For instance, in the 1950s some French critics regarded feature films as
quasi-documentaries about actors: a film starring Ava Gardner was seen as, among other
things, a film about the actress Ava Gardner. There are merits to this proto-modernist way
of reading films as being also about the materials with which they are made, but, in
practice, because of the reductive understanding of a film's 'materials', this remains a
rather limited approach to cinema as history.
A second, more sophisticated, way of dealing with cinema as history has been to
examine a film as a historical account marked by emphases and omissions that are due to
state- or self-censorship, lack of money, or psychic repression. This approach, pioneered by
Marc Ferro 1988  and Pierre Sorlin (1980), involves measuring the film retrospectively
against other historiographic accounts that, although not necessarily taken to be
'truthful', are nevertheless understood to be offering a fuller and more objective picture
than the one presented by the analysed film. The film's emphases, omissions, or simply
'distortions' are examined by resorting to certain techniques of psychoanalysis-and
especially to Freud's account of the four processes of distortion at work in dreams.
The information disclosed by such an approach can provide useful clues to the way a
film functions as a text-in-history, bearing the marks of the geo-temporal location, of the
conditions of its production and/or circulation, and of the institutions that regulated
both. But this approach has also tended to put more emphasis on what is not in the film,
rather than on assessing what is. For instance, in his analysis of Lev Kuleshov's Po
zakonu/Dura Lex/By the Law (1926), Ferro maintained that 'the historical and social reading'
of this and other films enabled historians 'to rach invisible zones in the past of
societies-to reveal self-censorship or lapses (which remain in the unconscious of
participants and witnesses) at work within a society (1977: 20). Along the same lines,
Sorlin argued that cinema.
Psychoanalysis can have a significant role to play if we are to understand how
thoughts and intuitions are transformed as they are made to migrate from one level of
consciousness to another, or from one medium into another. But, as Freud once said, there
are times when a cigar is not just a cigar, that is to say when it stands in as a symbol of
some other preoccupation. However, it is equally important to be able to tell when a cigar
is just that, what brand it is, what economic circuits must be operating for that cigar to
get to that smoker in that film at that place and time, and why someone such as that smoker
may want to purchase and smoke it. By attaching importance exclusively to a film's
distortions, that is to the relations between the visible and the invisible (or repressed),
the approach pioneered by Ferro and Sorlin overlooks many of the complexities that the
visible (and the audible) itself involves: its direct and immediate (or unmediated)
implications, rather than its more or les hidden associations.
Questions about the relationship between films and history and the reading of films
as historical documents imply that a film is inserted into a social context and that its
functioning as a text, its capacity to produce meaning, is informed and limited by that
context. The story of the study of cinema has been marked by many attempts at grappling with
the question of how material socio-economic arrangements shape cultural production and,
through culture, modes of thinking. Conceptualizations national cinema, that is to say of a
cinema's connectedness with the historical constellation that generates it and which, by
addressing that constellation cinematically, cinema in turn helps to shape. As Siegfried
Kracauer argued in 1946: 'Through an analysis of the German films, deep psychological
dispositions predominant in Germany from 1918 to 1933 can be exposed-dispositions which
influenced the course of events during that time and which will have to be reckoned with in
the post-Hitler era' (1974:v).
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