Cinema and its spatial predicates: landscapes of debt
in search of justice

by Akshaya Kumar

Cinema in India has found it difficult to unlock the embrace of male stardom, notable exceptions notwithstanding. Across the spectrum of Indian film industries, stardom has been not only constitutive of production design, but also central to the commerce of film projects. Among other things, this has had a deep impact on industrial image-making practices, which often seem too frontal, in order to stage a direct encounter between the stars and their audiences.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Cinematic landscapes have thus been the key casualty in this sustained flattening of images that unfailingly accumulate around the star. Stars have effectively become the entirety of film landscapes, to the extent that the memory of popular cinema remains hinged to stardom.

However, stardom itself has been deeply tied to the popular aesthetics of social mobility, the aesthetic-political kernel of which, as I have argued elsewhere, has an overlapping history—that of cinema and the city.[2] The urban emergence and spread of popular cinema around the industrial quarters of post-Independence urban India then engaged narratively in a productive conversation with star-protagonists’ cinematic journey to the city as an outsider. But since the late 1990s, there has been a gradual flattening of the social mobility narrative arc. Stardom’s unprecedented command over film narratives as well as their visual grammar in the twenty-first century, then, is followed by a wider disappearance of India’s diverse cultural and political landscapes, the contrasting hues of which were central to the earlier interactions between cinema’s stories and the city. That is, Indian cinema dramatically changes in both narrative emphasis and depiction of landscape in the 21st century due partly to and in dialogue with broad social changes. The diminution of the social mobility narrative is indeed compensated for by scripting transnational locations for action showdowns or dream sequences, but such cinematic landscapes have only offered refuge to fugitive social aspirations; more often now scripts stage a fantasy dialogue across global capital, investor-friendly national brands and tourist destinations.[3]

This essay raises the question of analyzing cinematic landscapes to re-evaluate the spatial predicates of popular cinema from its margins. As we step out of the stardom-centric visual grammar of popular cinema, what sort of spatial language do we witness on screen? In this essay I wish to situate the cinematic representations of landscapes as sedimentations of human volition, memory and habits, shaped in deep time. In the two films I discuss at length [Sonchiriya (Abhishek Chaubey, 2019) and Photograph (Ritesh Batra, 2019)], the question of cinematic and social landscape invites us to interpret the habitus (Bourdieu), or the dwelling (Heidegger), upon which concepts the discussed films make vital contributions. Towards a broader trajectory in which to place these films, one could think of Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Titli (2014), Gurgaon (2017) and the web-series Paatal Lok (2020). While all these films cleverly investigate spatial contrasts and actions of relatively unspectacular subjects, they do not challenge the thematic and formal dwellings of popular cinema as directly as Sonchiriya and Photograph do.

In Sonchiriya, the geographical indicators of the landscape amplify the rugged commonsense notion of caste society – righteous, obstinate, delusional, and cruel in unpredictable proportions. The volition and memory embedded in people’s understanding of the landscapes, therefore, follow from the narrative tension around caste conflict. In Photograph, however, the narrative re-arranges a fragmented geography of aspiration and self-realization, extracting its building blocks from the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) – Hindi popular cinema’s ground-zero. But in doing so, the audience’s ordinary way of seeing and using popular cinema is thrown into sharp relief against its key predecessor – portrait photography. The landscape of Photograph is then saturated with the memory of an older version of popular cinema, rendering the city of Bombay as the script’s spatial predicate. But it also uses photography, as I shall establish, to discuss an unredeemed debt. To discuss such a trajectory, in my understanding of the relation between cinematic and social landscapes, I use the key term “predicate” as indicating those ways of rendering spatiality that affirm, support, or reinforce the cinematic proposition offered in the film. In a sense, then, these are predicates upon which the cinematic subject is mounted, or which help found the cinematic subject in fundamental ways. What is key to this argument is the dialogue between cinematic rendering of spatiality and the existing spatiality of built architecture, lived spaces and geographical features; and beyond that, the mutual constitution of media representations and larger social determinants.

In discussing the predicates of popular cinema, I assess how cinema recasts the film audience’s cinematic habitus into an industrial-entertainment commonsense understanding of how to make and distribute feature film. The critical distance maintained by the above films from the cinematic habitus occasions a formidable reckoning with the prevailing industrial commonsense, which remains caught within the data vortex built around overwhelming box-office numbers, however dubious they may be.[4] While returning to the issue of audience habitus via Simmba (2018), I shall reckon with the genre-based segmentation of Hindi cinema since about 2005, in which new affordances have been built for advertising within the media industry.[5] For example, foregrounding the star-body as the pre-eminent landscape within the film characterizes big-budget blockbusters – a template that Simmba predictably traverses. In contrast, only in the crevices of the box-office release calendar do aesthetic-political alternatives like Sonchiriya and Photograph briefly emerge. However, since late capitalism strategically offers the appeal of a differential array of choices, within those, the impact of any radical choice, as discussed below, may be forestalled.

Landscapes of popular memory

This paper discusses two films which challenge popular memory by questioning the “structuring structure” of cinematic narration.[6] One of the key features of this hidden structure has been the trauma of fragmented citizenship – an inability to forget the political wounds inflicted upon the terms and character of one’s belonging.[7] Cinema has not only been a key forum for this public mourning, but it has also facilitated a dialogue on the questions of community, traumatic remembrance, rights of access and contestations over privileges. As this paper argues, the deliberation over such questions in cinema keenly resonates with its commitment to render spatial predicates in memory and landscapes to acknowledge the social/political debts in general, and to understand the ground of film history in particular.

Simon Schama has argued that one of the distinguishing attributes of landscapes in contrast to nature is that memory always pervades the former.[8] This makes landscape a profoundly human artefact as within yet opposed to nature. Lukinbeal also calls landscapes a “veritable arena of cultural politics”[9], which either contradict or affirm the dominant narratives of identity. Martin Lefebvre (whose vocabulary I use here) argues that landscape is a form of “spatial predicate”. He distinguishes between setting and landscape by arguing that speaking of “a setting is already to offer an interpretation and to assert a property (a predicate) of the filmic space presented in the frame”.[11] In contrast to a script’s setting, then, the cinematic landscape is freed of such a bounded interpretation that could relegate it to the background of narrative events. In speaking then about the visual proportions that determine the “voice” of landscapes, Lefebvre writes that “as long as natural space in a work is subservient to characters, events and action, as long as its function is to provide space for them, the work is not properly speaking a landscape”.[12] To me, this suggests that for landscapes to have a voice, they must be rendered commensurate and proportional to corresponding human characters.

While these spatial predicates invite us into cultural history and representations, they also mediate a dialogue between geographical and social underpinnings of cinema. Cinema’s characters, therefore, do not merely inhabit a space, but their destinies are essentially determined by the spatial predicates identified by audience habitus or viewers’ previously established cultural assumptions as landscapes. For Sonchiriya’s bandit-rebels, the ravines of Bundelkhand signify a state of exception on their own terms, just as Bombay does in Photograph, with its longstanding association with narratives of social mobility within and without cinema. The landscapes are not only central to these films, but the characters appear resigned, to some degree, and unable to take full charge of their destiny, owing to the spatial predicates of their predicament.
The three films discussed in this paper at some length render landscapes and popular memory in sharply contrasting ways. Sonchiriya’s landscape is more directly identifiable as having peculiarly dusty and arid gorges where life forms appear sparsely, whereas the landscape in Photograph and Simmba does not attract autonomous attention. In Simmba, there is a kind of reification within the industrial-entertainment idiom that works how large industrial farms and massive containers key to international supply chain logistics appear to the shopper while in a supermarket. What we witness instead is a neat and strategic editorial ordering of lived spaces and built architecture. The most common typology of industrial cinema is of a set of films that tread on a second-order topology, made upon a distilled memory of popular cinema’s spatial system. In this regard, the two films’ treatments differ greatly – while Photograph navigates this sedimented topology towards critical revisioning, Simmba only offers second-order spectacle to garnish the popular scripted blend of rape-revenge and uniformed vigilante justice. To question landscape, therefore, is a way to address the spatial predicates of popular cinema, and to assess how political aesthetics may be manifested.

The choice of any political aesthetic poses some key questions. It seeks either to suggest new visual forms that offer paradigmatic shifts in visual culture, or to situate existing forms of visuality within new critical settings, where they are allowed to offset or revise the meanings that the viewer may be habituated to. Landscapes and memory, as I seek to establish below, are crucial to this political exercise in both ways. They may challenge existing forms by introducing new ruptures in cultural politics, or they may reinforce some cultural politics in celebratory affirmation. The critical revisioning operationalized between revenge and justice, and between photography and cinema, renders the topology of unacknowledged social debt to help mount “messy” ideas such as caste-society and social mobility. If building such critical awareness demands probing and tentative navigation of viewers’ cinematic habitus, in contrast, blockbusters are marked by cocky citations and signposting the box-office endorsement of their ancestry.

Most of Indian popular cinema having been funded by dubious financiers and first-time producers, the capitalist control of the industries had been particularly slippery before the corporatization began in twenty-first century. Now, in its attempt to regulate popular audiovisuality and mass attention within the world media system, neoliberal capital has also left its overbearing editorial imprint.[13] Editorial intensification in popular cinema, particularly in Hindi cinema after 2005, now consistently regulates cinema’s spatial economy at the levels of scripting, filming, and postproduction, especially editing. Increasingly, Hindi films pack many more shots within every sequence, navigate transnational spaces with unprecedented frequency, and are shot with great precision and efficiency. Hindi film industry’s spatial economy has thus undergone industrial consolidation in terms of the portfolio of scale, ambition, efficiency and diversity.

Cinematically, a clever use of landscapes – whether open vistas and tourist destinations as backdrops, or cities and small-towns rendered in genre-toned visual grammar – has followed from neoliberal capital’s accumulative and differentiating axes. Landscapes as life-forms have no use in such a rendering. In contrast, Sonchiriya and Photograph are vital critiques of this industrial landscaping of popular cinema and they illustrate how the spatial predicates of political aesthetics could be mounted on film history. While these films did not create much of a stir at the box-office, their dissenting observations challenge us to take stock of the popular cinema habitus.

Nagraj Manjule's second film, Sairat (2016), aestheticizes landscape in the service of melodrama to step away from both - realist narration and Marathi cinema's regional bearings. See Kumar (2021) for more. The web-series Paatal Lok (2020) explores the world of crime, via a particular case that connects different quarters of the national capital region with Bundelkhand, Punjab and Nepal. The series gradually reveals that Delhi is not so much a metropolis as a circus where scores of navigation pathways intersect, and are harvested for power-brokering without ever redeeming its debt to the outside.