Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
Imagination and the Other
Abstract and Keywords
The chapter looks at the problem of urban centre and the periphery, as well as the production of the Other in neoliberal India and new Hindi cinema. The Other here means one that is outside of the new emergent middle class—it can be a rural otherness, but often—the urban, deprived lower orders of the society. Drawing heavily upon psychoanalysis and the work of Slavoj Žižek, the chapter theorizes the insecurity of the urban middle class and its relationship to its Other, and the urban periphery by taking films NH10 and Highway as key examples.
In one of the most important scenes in NH10—outside Gurgaon (now Gurugram), in the brutal wilderness of Haryana’s Other India—the film’s protagonists Meera and Arjun are traveling in their SUV and lose their way. Arjun stops the car at a roadside dhaba to ask for directions. As he walks over to the men sitting there, Meera stays alone in the car. She sits on the passenger seat. All of a sudden, a man, a local villager, appears next to the side window and asks if they were looking for the road to Basantpura, which they were. Meera does not say anything; she looks scared and rolls up the side window. Arjun comes back to the car and they drive off slowly. Meera looks in the rear-view mirror and sees the man looking at her. The mirror, like all rear-view mirrors of the motor vehicles in India, states: “Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” The scene is very brief and despite the drama that unfolds later in the film, the reflection of the Other leaves an imprint in the unconscious. Meera looks at the Other’s reflection with fear and disgust. Indeed, as we learn later in the film, the Other is much closer than it appears—much closer than Meera and Arjun, an upper-middle-class couple having corporate jobs and living in a cozy luxury apartment in Gurgaon, may wish.
NH10 works through the dichotomy of self and Other and makes use of spaces that are outside the dreamy lifeworlds of neoliberal or (p.25) global India. By outside, I mean the material spaces geographically outside the major metropolitan areas—small towns and villages that, in relation to the 21st-century city, are located in another time, in another space. The Other and the Other space of the emergent class are knowable and physically close but, mentally, are far removed and the knowledge of the Other resides in the unconscious. Such spaces are created in relation to other spaces and are heterotopian emplacements or place-images. In the case of urban India, they are forged in the process of urban transformation, and marginal because they are placed on the margins for a purpose. Such (em)placement, such relevance of the Other for the construction of the self is one of the psychoanalytical objects of inquiry. However, in visual culture and in the process of mass mediation, the importance of the Other as a symbol of what the emergent self is not migrates from the unconscious into popular culture and this “dark side” of new urban India’s self in the making is more evident than before. Films that depart from the city but clearly remain within the city in casting their gaze at the peripheries form an important part of new Hindi cinema. If films focusing on transforming lives in the cities could be seen as examples of imagining the self, the films focusing on small-town India or Other India imagine, to some extent, the lives of the Other, but more importantly, the relation of urban self and the peripheric Other. I would call the trend of many films to drift away from the dominance of urban center as the center of imagination a desire for the Other. This desire could be two-fold: it is a desire for Other India—peripheral, unruly, marginal in terms of what are the target audiences of such films. A desire for the Other is also a more mundane desire for other esthetics, a desire for difference and a differentiated cultural product. So, the difference in this case also presents us with multiplicity.
Otherness and Neoliberal Imagination
Peripheral spaces of the Other in many films representing rural or small-town India function as unreal or semi-real places. Their function is to provide a space, the Other space of the Other India, against which the neoliberal and largely urban India could negotiate its self. In (p.26) addition to positing a positive thinking and reducing any potential for dissent, these films forge a duality of self and Other by encoding spaces with unreal, magical and exciting qualities. I would call these semi-real spaces neoliberal heterotopia. NH10 also projects trajectories of movement or navigation in neoliberal space—the film refers to a highway leading further away from the comforts of upper-class dwellings in Delhi. New Hindi cinema’s imaginary journeys, therefore, are “the prostheses of accelerated voyages”, as Virilio (2009: 71) describes the phenomenon. We need the slum-dweller, as without one, we would not know what to become. As Stiegler (2014: 32) puts it, “it is a time about which we do not know what we should think” as the hyper-industrial epoch is a time of misery, because we do not know what we should be or how the market helps us. Also in the case of the new upper classes in urban India, cinematic journeys into a different space are a commodified answer to such existential disorientation of the emerging neoliberal human being. The market produces peculiar brands through which we can singularize. The films in question therefore transition toward post-cinematic form in becoming thingified. In this sense, films become tools that we can make use of for constructing the self.
The so-called “newness” or reification, whether we speak of developments in Hindi cinema or of any new “cutting edge” cultural developments, is itself a problematic category. Boris Groys (2014: 3) argues that “the peculiarity of the concept of the new prevalent in the modern period resides, after all, in the expectation that, eventually, something so definitively new will emerge that there can never be anything still newer thereafter”. He further states that “the desire for the new is the desire for truth” (Groys 2014: 9). Capitalism historically strives for newness in all spheres of life, for the evaporation of solidity (Berman 2010). Neoliberalism accelerates such desire for the new and the speed of transforming relationships to the phenomena is ever stronger. The desire of the new may be the desire for truth, but what happens to the psyche of the “new” neoliberal subject when the emergence of newness is integral to the process of acceleration—both in terms of economic, sociocultural transformations and in terms of vision? What does this do to the perception of self and Other, as well as of material (p.27) environment? Is it not the disappearance, instability and ephemerality we should be talking about, as Virilio does? Emergent newness in the form of new artistic forms of expression must be critically evaluated, especially speaking of such media as cinema, given the extreme nature of commodification under neoliberalism.
Newness can be and always should be interrogated, as it has all the potential of being one of the sources of happy consciousness. In neoliberal times, newness and innovation are far too often celebrated as indications of entrepreneurial qualities of homo oeconomicus—qualities that are valorized more than any others. Emergence of new alternatives and innovations are loudly greeted in a vast array of circles—among consumers, critics and in the media. As if the alternative to mainstream culture is indeed a schizophrenic movement disrupting the limits of capitalism, as if alternative and seemingly independent cultural work by its mere existence confirms that not everything belongs within the discourse of neoliberal capitalism (Deleuze and Guattari 2004). As Mark Fisher (2009: 9) claims, “‘alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are style, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream”. Deleuze and Guattari (2004, 2013) have explored the depths and problems of capitalism and possibilities and impossibilities of subversive, nomadic flows and rhizomatic formations. According to them, the capitalist system or capitalist discourse has two limits—internal and external—and they call the latter a schizophrenic limit, or we may say, the ultimate subversive alternative crossing the boundary of alternative or independent art that functions as a necessary part of neoliberal discourse. According to Deleuze and Guattari (2004), capitalism perpetually displaces its limits so they could never be reached. When “alternative” moves outside of what is acceptable, capitalism pushes the limit, incorporating such subversion as part of its own discourse. A system or discourse must have oppositional elements functioning within itself if it wants to continue functioning without major disruptions. But these elements never question the system—they function to affirm it. We may call this quasi-oppositional element a difference. This difference must exist in order to act as an affirmation of the system’s self. In time, of course, (p.28) new differences emerge; small particles are born like small cracks in the system, but as soon as they are born, they get reterritorialized as integral part of the system. One never knows how or when or in what form such difference or newness might emerge, but one thing is certain: it would never be left to live a life of its own, it would never be allowed to function in a rhizomatic existence. The birth of difference or newness or counter-culture is both needed and expected. As Deleuze and Guattari (2004: 272) say, in the voice of the system, “we’ll always find a place for you within the expanded limits of the system, even if the axiom has to be created just for you”. Furthermore, they say that the system “has a peculiar passion for such things that leaves the essential unchanged” (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 275). I propose to locate the emergent esthetics as precisely such newness or difference—a peculiarity a system has a passion for, but difference that is allowed to exist only because it has already been reterritorialized as an internal part of the system at the exact moment of its birth. There is, of course, a theoretical possibility of breaking out, of an element that the system fails to capture in its net, that it fails to reterritorialize. Such a particle can fly all the way to reach the external limit, which Deleuze and Guattari (2004) call the schizophrenic limit. In a crucial passage, they make the following statement, which is central in understanding the current situation in “alternative” cinema, which is hardly alternative to anything besides stylistic transfigurations:
Schizophrenia, on the contrary, is indeed the absolute limit that causes the flows to travel in a free state…. Hence one can say that schizophrenia is the exterior limit of capitalism itself or the conclusion of its deepest tendency, but that capitalism only functions on condition that it inhibit this tendency, or that it push back or displace the limit, by substituting for its own immanent relative limits, which it continually reproduces on a widened scale. (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 267)
The present discourse of neoliberal India needs such “alternative” or “indie” styles, spaces, semi-real places and the dispossessed that no longer come to haunt the privileged by their mere presence because “the poor are no longer at the gates; bosses live in enclaved communities a (p.29) world away, beyond political or legal reach. Capital and its workforce become more and more remote from each other. Here is the harsh underside of the culture of neoliberalism” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 13).
Another crucial element in the transformed cinematic landscape is the constant presence of the Other in its many forms. In the most obvious instance, the Other can be seen as the village juxtaposed to the city, poverty as opposed to affluence and subalternity as opposed to hegemony. A number of scholars have pointed out the centrality of a village in the context of Indian imagination, both in terms of a cinematic one and more broadly as part of Indian modernity. Many have emphasized that a village as an idea has played an important part in imagining the urban life (Inden 2001; Nandy 2007). Sanjay Srivastava (2014: 95) relates the colonial romanticism, commodification of it in neoliberal India and transformation of the idea of a village into a commodity—spaces where one can “experience ‘authentic’ rural food and entertainment” and wander in “purpose-built ‘ethnic villages’”. These are the actual spaces performing a function in subject formation. Such spaces are the Foucauldian heterotopias that I will speak about throughout the book. On the imaginary level, there are other imagined spaces that contribute in fueling the imagination of the middle class and the consolidation of feeling and belonging to the middle class and related sensibilities.
A prevalent trend that most of the new Bollywood films share is the focus on the dark side of city life—an urban uncanny, incorporating different elements of film noir form, like Talaash (Reema Kagti, 2012); Anurag Kashyap’s work like That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010), Ugly (2013) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) or even Dibakar Banerjee’s interpretation of a Bengali classic making it even more noir than the original, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). Most of them in one form or the other have a threatening and disruptive otherness present as a crucial element. The film form of noir has had a tremendous impact on the new Hindi cinema, either consciously (as in the case of Anurag Kashyap) or unconsciously. In this book, I do not intend to focus on the technical aspects of film-making generally important in the analysis of (p.30) noir but will look at the films sociologically, at the social reality that made the new imaginary possible. Here, indeed, one can observe a general trend on the global scale: social transformations do cause the emergence of nostalgia for the seemingly uncomplicated social relations of the past, fear for the present and paranoia for ephemeral age of social change. This aspect, the dark imagination, is one of the key problems analyzed in this book.
Many films do focus on the space that is peripheral to the class they are aimed at—this space can be the urban underworld, uncanny upper-middle-class space or a mofussil periphery. The films construct what I would like to term the “Other India”, but in any case, gazing is performed from the metropolis and it is directed at the space in-between, both real and imagined at the same time—a space we may call heterotopian (Foucault 2000). Why do such heterotopian spaces of small-town films appeal to those who have little to do with small towns in real life? Prasad (2000: 67) in his influential book Ideology of the Hindi Film states that:
From the organic space of the north Indian village to the high-tech tourist spots of the world, the feudal structure demonstrates how powerful its ideological hold was and to an extent still is. This structure could incorporate consumerism and other “modern” features without damage as long as it did not slide into a position of affirmation of new sexual and social relations based on individualism. The “foreign” values that came in for vicious criticism occasionally were a code word for democracy and a capitalism based on the generalization of free labour.
The ideological tensions of the 1990s that Prasad analyzes in his study—the mental journeys from “organic spaces of north Indian village” to the “high-tech tourist spots”; the unease about the modern, the foreign, the sexual newness, objects of desire and desire infused with dread—all this has transformed in the first two decades of the 21st century. Transformed, reterritorialized, but present nevertheless. New social relations and the emergence of new subjectivities can be viewed as a break from the “feudal family romance” that dominated social imaginary as well as popular Hindi cinema for a very long time. (p.31) Consumerism and new hybrid cultural norms no longer have a need to negotiate the potential “damage” Prasad is talking about. Democracy, capitalism and neoliberal “foreign” cultural practices became an integral part of the new Indian middle class’s emergent self. The new Indian middle class may be small compared to the massive sections of society outside the realm of “neoliberal dream-worlds”, but the imaginary of this dominant class, its global and local visibility, as well as influence of its cultural codes as a dominant class produces an aspirational culture—a desire to become a part of this class, a desire to consume and internalize its cultural sensibilities.
Ashis Nandy has argued that cinema is a slum eye view of politics. He stated that “the popular cinema … is also the disowned self of modern India returning in a fantastic or monstrous form to haunt modern India” (Nandy 1998: 7). While the haunting may be far more complex nearly two decades after Nandy wrote these words, the main reason why his argument is no longer valid is the reversal of the object of desire. The fearsome Other does haunt what he calls modern India but it is a different India that is haunted, and haunted differently. A mofussil, a small town or a village as an idea is no longer a “pastoral ‘paradise’” for the urban self he talked about (Nandy 1998: 5). Peripheries are no longer imaginary spaces of origin one desires, and translates that desire into cinematic form for, nor are there any needs for imaginary journeys to cities. Instead, we need imaginary journeys into the peripheries, but these are very different from the ones performed by Mrinal Sen, whose work Nandy (2007: 72–97) discusses. These are different imaginary journeys from the ones performed by Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer or Deewar (Mazumdar 2007: 1–41). A film is a dromoscope, to use Virilio’s (2008) notion, a vessel: a “ship” functioning as a vehicle into the unconscious that helps us travel and, by doing so, forming our subjectivity. As Foucault (2000: 185) has said, “in civilizations without ships the dreams dry up”. But such dreams can also be deeply disturbing ones, with neurotic imaginary of becoming-self bringing no solace, only fear, delirium and anxiety.
With accelerating speed and technological innovations, the reality transforms from a solid one into a liquid, to use Bauman’s (2000) term. (p.32) With the rise of television, social networking, mobile technologies and Internet as platforms to disseminate submission to the capital, reality transforms into what can possibly be called a virtual reality or a virtual space that functions according to very different rules of gravity. It is very important to emphasize that such “liquidity” and immateriality in India almost exclusively belongs to the urban upper-middle class, which gets increasingly removed or isolated from the material reality outside its space. This class—the main benefactor of neoliberalism: the consumer and the producer of images about itself and an epitome of a “good life” ambiguously “casts disenchanted eye to the world”, as Jacques Rancière (2009: 37) has put it. Simultaneously, it re-enchants the space outside in the fashion of a theme park, of exotic unreality. Akhil Gupta (2012: 21–2) in his work on structural violence rightly states:
One must keep in mind that certain classes of people have a stake in perpetuating a social order in which such extreme suffering is not only tolerated but also taken as normal. All those who benefit from the status quo and do not want to see it changed then become complicit in this violence against the poor. In a country like India, the perpetrators of violence include not only the elites but also the fast-growing middle class, whose increasing number and greater consumer power are being celebrated by an aggressive global capitalism.
The films that can be seen as belonging to alternative esthetics of the present times are produced by and for this class, which celebrates itself and is celebrated as global India. Such an India, in addition to tolerating suffering, which Gupta (2012) refers to, and living in its microcosm of shopping malls, multiplexes and sports utility vehicles (SUVs), re-imagines or re-enchants the rest of India in such a manner that poverty becomes esthetically beautiful, even romantic. This class celebrates itself and its lifestyle probably less vigorously than before when it comes to the imagination, but casts its eye toward its Other, fetishizing it, perpetuating the status quo of inequality, but nevertheless needing it in order to have its new self consolidated. Neoliberal esthetics therefore sublimates crisis and compliments what Gupta (2012) calls a structural violence against the poor. Only that in the present case, this (p.33) violence against the Other takes a form of representation; it becomes representational violence in order to satisfy the pleasure one gets from imagining otherness.
The process of cinematic transformations embedded in the neoliberal cultural project coincided with overall media transformations, emergence of new media forms and new patterns of film consumption. The content of the films may often seem socially and politically relevant, at times addressing sensitive issues (for example, political corruption, developmental problems and various forms of violence and poverty). There might be an instinctive impulse to celebrate the emergence of newness, a more realistic one, which departs from the so-called escapist fantasies that dominated Hindi cinema earlier. However, before celebrating the newness of new Hindi cinema, we should stop for a while, as the newness offered by this genre and their representatives is far more complex than it might seem at first. Newness, innovation and cutting-edge developments in all spheres of life are some of the most exalted elements in the neoliberal value system. In arts, too, innovation, relentless transformation and transmogrification is valorized and celebrated. Steven Shaviro (2010: 45), drawing upon Gilles Deleuze’s (2005) concept of any-space-whatever and its “unlimited possibilities” as space of “pure potential”, claims that capitalism effectively exploits such possibilities and potential in commodifying such spaces and spheres of human activity in the form of “events, experience, moods, memories, hopes, and desires”. Any form of art, indeed, any cultural activity is bound to be commodified and it is up to the producers of art and culture to negotiate their freedom, invention and the possibilities of critique within the commodified space. Transforming Hindi cinema in this case is wholly a product of the market appealing to and representing shifting sensibilities, quietly producing hopes and desires as needed by the market. However, though it is a differentiated product, it makes use of its alternative potential in representing the transforming space of the real world.
It is useful to analyze these problems in applying a spatial concept of heterotopia, introduced by Michel Foucault. According to him, heterotopia is an actually existing place—a place that is ambiguous: real, (p.34) but simultaneously infused with imaginary qualities. In every society, any heterotopian emplacement has a function and functions in relation with real places. Heterotopia, therefore, is “actually realized utopia in which the real emplacements, all the other real emplacements that can be found within a culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable” (Foucault 2000: 178, emphasis mine).
Such space, therefore, needs to be treated as localizable, while simultaneously being outside. A real space, which could be treated as being in a problematic relationship with reality itself. If a single screen of the yesteryear was an open space, the multiplex is an exclusive, closed space; it is a space constructed in order to tame the unruly masses, to civilize them or to initiate them into a civilized mode of consumption. It is a closed space because it filters out the unwanted elements—the poor, the subaltern if you will, the pavement dwellers. Just like at a shopping mall, one can consume in peace. Next to the mainstream masala, you always have what has come to be known as a multiplex film: a film or product specifically designed to be consumed only at a multiplex, by a certain crowd. Of course, such films can be consumed at home as well, on a plasma TV set, in the tranquility of one’s living room. What is being projected is the space of the Other or other India in terms of who the main “receiver and consumer” of the film is.
Heterotopia, the way I use it, is a space produced by cinema: it is imaginary, but curiously resembles and wants to resemble real life. It is ambiguous: it is real but simultaneously infused with imaginary qualities. Any film can qualify for such a description. In every society, any heterotopian emplacement has a function, and functions in relation with real places. Cinema as a heterotopian space with all its neoliberal implications does complicate the picture, as the space is imagined on screen and is physically removed from a real place and transplanted in a multiplex. Cinema does make us travel to such a heterotopia, experience and consume difference, primitivism and violence by remaining spectators, without getting involved, safely in a comfortable seat of a cinema hall, because this is the life of the Other—not our life, always someone else’s. By buying a ticket, we are sold a peculiar “holiday (p.35) package tour” into a heterotopia of either primitive India, violent India or India in crisis. This constructed space is always someone else’s India, which can be experienced, providing an illusion of living. Living elsewhere, and perhaps, in another time.
Heterotopia has a function in relation to the remaining space. In the present case, it creates a space of illusion that denounces all real space, but an illusion that is needed as the Other life, as the experience of the Other life. Consumption, therefore, in this case, is needed in order to constitute a self. In a neoliberal culture, consumption constitutes a neoliberal self. Imagination, power of images and the illusory nature of reality are all very important. “Shining India” therefore, in order to imagine itself, needs to re-enchant the rest of India and construct it as a kind of imaginary space. Indeed, it has to imagine it, and to feel, to experience through the medium of an image what it is like to dwell in that Other India, what it means to live a different life. In this way, dusty towns in the middle of nowhere and highways leading away from gated comfort zones become heterotopian spaces that can be consumed for the pleasure of it. Those who inhabit those spaces are semi-real people reduced to bare life. This fantasy is constructed for consumption and the reason for it is quite simple: it no longer corresponds to the reality of those who consume it. It is no longer painful; it no longer is something one would want to forget, to erase from memory as an embarrassment. At the same time, it is not a reality one would desire to change. It is convenient to have it, necessary indeed, for the postcolonial imaginary to unfold. This Other India is no longer a problem as such for those who consume these images. One can be alarmed about the absence of empathy in those who could affect change, but this absence is not surprising. Any care or empathy would stand in the way of consumption and reproduction of goods and images.
However, if noir imagination is a new phenomenon deeply related to the transforming cities in the late 20th century, the preoccupation with the Other and juxtapositions of urban self and rural Other are not, and have roots in colonial relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, in bourgeoisie—lower class dichotomies in the Marxian sense, and the perceptions of the city/center and the country/periphery (Williams (p.36) 1973). An important example from pre-neoliberal India—which, in terms of trajectory “from city to rural wilderness” bears some similarities to NH10 and to other films I shall discuss later—is the Bengali film Aranyer Din Ratri (Satyajit Ray, 1970). It sharply juxtaposes what can be termed as urban sophistication and rural “backwardness”. In the film, four friends travel from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to rural West Bengal in what becomes an experience of otherness. They feel they are a part of a sophisticated middle class and can use the Other in every way they want, including sexual exploitation of local tribal women. “What a life!” exclaims Ashim (Soumitra Chatterjee), while drunk on local moonshine. In this scene, the four friends sit in a local bar, an outdoor shack, and the image of it is being juxtaposed with a memory image of a high-society party in Calcutta. What the urban characters in the film do can be understood as an experience of the other India, as well as a quasi-anthropological examination of otherness. John Frow (1997: 9) speaks of “non-synchronicity” and draws upon the anthropological work of Johannes Fabian, according to whom—from the perspective of an anthropologist—the people studied by this discipline occupy a different time, a time past. This is, of course, a much broader problem in representation that has been occupying postcolonial scholars for the past four decades. The one who studies or the one who has the power to represent and to speak for the Other occupies a different imaginary time than the one who is (mis)represented. This is similar to Foucault’s notion. The represented one (or a represented subaltern) in the films mentioned earlier occupies a different time and space in such a representation, which is very different from art cinema’s engagement with the same, though not without exceptions. I argue that such “non-synchronicity” is visible in imagining rural and unlawful India in recent films. This phenomenon signifies a widening gap between the urban rich and the poor, both urban and rural, and as Frow rightly states, the primary producer and consumer of this imagination is the urban middle class. The fact that this class does consume this, that it craves for it, feeds on it, thrives on the escape into the past India, displaced India, could mean spatial fragmentation between “Shining India” and “imagined India”—a break between different Indias with different purposes (p.37) in the neoliberal discourse. This break then signifies a departure and emplacement of Other India as heterotopia, no longer real, still having a concrete place, but infused with unreal qualities. Such is the Other India in Aranyer Din Ratri. This break thus makes the construction of bare life, or even a bare life of the image, to paraphrase Giorgio Agamben (1998), possible.
These are the basic functions of the films and the spaces they imagine. First, the films produce positive thinking by blending different genres—mainstream cinema and art cinema—where the negative potential of the latter dissolves, where the real issues and inequalities become fetishized and the spectator-consumer is indoctrinated or interpellated to love the system, which has the power to correct itself. On a deeper level, or on a level of the filmic unconscious, the films enact a space of difference, which, by being a semi-real space or a heterotopia, evoke the spirit of a theme park, a fascinating, backward, primitive space populated by freaks who are unproblematic entertainers, and which can be a playground of the urban rich on the imaginary level, and on the level of social reality, a playground of those who strive to represent the subaltern, to fight for them or to deny any representation and dignity of life whatsoever. These two functions combined produce a bare life, an imaginary one, a cinematic one, which removes the spectator-consumer from any feelings of empathy. Commodification of heterotopia and encoding of this heterotopia as a space of difference that only has a function vis-à-vis the real India as its Other contributes toward the imagining of duality that is necessary for consolidating the global India’s’ self. This, then, both signifies the distance between classes and produces a space in which the classes not belonging to rising India can be consumed as a product, a piece of exotica for in-house consumption. It also makes lack of empathy possible, because those places are semi-real. All this signifies a departure of the urban middle class into its own other India, an imaginary global India that still retains a relationship with that really real India of the rest of the people, but the relationship is problematic.
On the one hand, one also has to consider those in whose name the battles are fought, those who dwell in the unreality of imaginary (p.38) Other space, and, on the other hand, in the suffocating reality of real emplacements before they are lifted up, constructed and imagined for consumption: the subaltern masses in rural India. I will not go deep into the questions of subalternity, but would like to make a point with regards to representation. This is related to the previous arguments on commodification and production of heterotopologies. The relationship between the consumer and “the consumed” resembles a classic relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, between the center and the periphery or production of the Orient for the West and by the West, as Edward Said (1978) has demonstrated. At the same time, it is possible to speak of a production of “postcolonial exotic” for the consumption—not by the West, but by the already departed urban upper-middle class. This functions internally inside the postcolonial space, which is split between “rising India” and India as a heterotopian commodity. The difference, therefore, as opposed to the evocations of the same, say, in the works of Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, in addition to being desirable, is unproblematic in a sense that it does not try to re-complicate the matter of representation and does not try to combat the actual oppression on the political level.
The subalterns on screen have always been freaks evoking difference, but being a freak or being marginal could serve and would serve in the present as oppositional deconstructive quality with regards to the dominant ideology (in this case, neoliberal exploits in the peripheries). The films I discuss have no shortage of freaks. In the process of creating a heterotopian space, in the construction of subalternity as commodity, and the peripheral location as an imaginary holiday destination into another space and another time, freaks are deprived of the subversive potential. In experiencing the epistemic violence and reduction to bare life in the cinematic image, the freaks continue living but live transformed as the objects of fascination for what they are, because “they are no longer images of another way of life, but rather freaks of types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order” (Marcuse 2002: 59). Affirmation in this case means freak as a form without content, functioning in a space that has been converted into the other reality. In this other reality or other space, (p.39) freaks/subalterns are entertainers for the urban, upper-middle-class spectators sitting in dimly lit cinema halls, engrossed in enjoyment of seductive otherness. At the same time, if we presuppose that the focus on subversive characters by filmmakers (for example, Dalits, urban poor, minorities, etc.) was for the urgency to represent them, presently such characters are precisely freaks living inside the narrative of “rising” India in terms of self/Other dichotomy, but fundamentally outside the social reality, in a different, heterotopian space. There is no longer any desire left to represent them or to construct narratives in which they would deconstruct dominant narratives or to call for social change or emancipation. The freaks are loved, admired and detested simply for what they are—fetishized objects of fascination the spectator has nothing to do with “in real life”. They become part of the narrative as long as they stay commodified, as poverty is commodified for the pleasures of exotica consumption.
One may say that on the contrary, such films and the fact that they are made and watched as part of the mainstream signifies an emancipated, more educated public, tired of escapist masala and concerned with the reality of everyday life. It is true, but only to an extent. Who are the intended receivers of these films? Not those who are portrayed in the films or in whose name the heroes fight their battles. These are the same people who make the films, that is, they belong to the same class—urban, educated, emancipated, nouveau riche, upper middle class. But the film-maker is no longer the one who produces a work of art in order to unmask reality. The very fact that such esthetically subversive films become part of the mainstream signifies the transformation of intent. Subversive potential, negativity or what appears to be subversive/negative come back without the antagonistic force, without the “reality”, as Marcuse (2002) states.
Preoccupation with the Other in recent Hindi films says quite a lot about the unconscious of becoming of global India’s self. Indeed, this can be called “Bollywood bourgeois” imaginary, as Dwyer (2006) calls it. It is also possible to call this Other as the Other of hyper-industrial state of being, paraphrasing Frow (1997: 72), who, referring to the object of anthropology as the Other of modernity, states that this Other (p.40) “corresponds to particular tourist objects and experiences—is defined by the absence of design—of calculation or of interested self-awareness. It must therefore exist outside the circuit of commodity relations and exchange values (although it is only accessible through this circuit: one form of the basic contradiction of the tourist experience).”
Thus, we may locate the Other India as a visual tourist object—exotic, alluring, violent and repulsive. Such ambiguous emotions were common features in experiencing the Other in colonial times. Interestingly, such cultural relationships can be observed in a space of postcolonial South among different social classes. As Srivastava (2014: 228) claims, “Indian culture might itself be best imagined as a ‘tourist culture’ and Indians as permanent tourists within it.” He states this with reference to shopping mall design as a negotiation between the global and the local in terms of injecting Indianness as a marketing strategy—ancient India, tribal India, rural India for the consumption of the upper middle class. The importance of the basic fact that the films often portray actual social and political problems should not be taken at face value. Portraying such problems, exposing and interrogating violence, representing the marginal, the subaltern—these are not among the aims of these films. Presenting it as the object of enjoyment is. Enjoying it as a commodity, performing a virtual flânerie or virtual tourist experience is what such films offer.
Walter Benjamin in his discussion on Charles Baudelaire coined the notion of an urban flâneur as a modern individual. In his words, “it is the gaze of the flâneur, whose way of life still conceals behind a mitigating nimbus the coming desolation of the big-city dweller” (Benjamin 2006: 40). The Parisian arcades for him were instrumental in producing the flâneur; without the modern space in the narrow and dirty pavement-less streets, flânerie would have been impossible to conceive. This was the emergence of newness in fin de siècle Paris. “The last journey of the flâneur: death. Its destination: the new”, Benjamin (2006: 41) exclaims. Modern space continued to produce different forms of the self throughout the 20th century. Openness, cleanliness and functionality were the destinations of architecture, and here I use architecture not in the strict disciplinary sense. Architecture and architectural space (p.41) for me is as material as it is mental and imaginary. Ernst Bloch (1988: 186) states, grimly:
The initial principle of the new architecture was openness: it broke the dark cave. It opened vistas through light glass walls, but this will for balance with the outside world came doubtlessly too early. The de-internalization (Entinnerlichung) turned into shallowness; the southern delight for the world outside, while looking at the capitalist external world today, did not turn into happiness. For there is nothing good that happens on the streets, under the sun.
Meanness of the street, mentally dark space, evokes a different kind of spatiality, one that can be called claustrophobic on the one hand and agoraphobic on the other. Spatial fear, as Vidler (1994) demonstrates in his work, became associated with the uncanny. Uncanny emerges as “distancing from reality forced by reality” (Vidler 1994: 6). Friedberg (1994) uses the term “mobilized virtual gaze” in her work. As she argues, it is a “gaze that travels in an imaginary flânerie through an imaginary elsewhere and an imaginary elsewhen” (Friedberg 1994: 2). More than that, such allure signifies transformations in the usage of the imaginary spaces in contemporary “multiplex India”. Such branding of India extends into other creative medias producing the carnivalesque—both in actual spaces as well as in imagined ones. This notion refers to the importance of the carnival in the process of becoming modern (also a kind of mediated process of singularization) and can be traced to the pre-modern period and the importance of carnivals, fairs that used to present the participant’s dream-like fantasies in the form of the image—the image of difference, of the grotesque, the vulgar. Featherstone has analyzed the function the freaks, the lower-class Others and the notion of carnivalesque played in consolidating/singularizing the identity of an emergent class very well (Featherstone 2007), as well as Foucault in his analysis of madness and gazing at the mad as an upper-class pastime in mental institutions of Paris and London in the 19th century (Foucault 2006). In his dromological analysis, Virilio (2009: 70) states something important for this argument: “speed treats vision like its basic element; with acceleration, to travel is like filming, not so much (p.42) producing images as new mnemonic traces, unlikely, supernatural”. The carnivalesque as a singularizing event, in the environment we may call becoming-postmodern, gives way to acceleration of the gaze, where images flash past, where images of the Other are phenomena the perception of which, on the imaginary, unconscious level, acts as an identity-consolidating matter. The carnival becomes part of visual and mediated perception: it is part of what Virilio (2012: 43) calls the “reality effect”. The unconscious is capable of registering such mnemonic traces, even if our movement accelerates. The appearance and instant disappearance of the Other as a reality effect does not negate the fact that the image of the other was reflected and registered.
The very juxtaposition of the newly emergent middle class against its Other and the desire of such imagery contributed to the formation of the middle-class identity, to the process of civilizing. This can, of course, be related to the need of the Other in order to consolidate the self, a notion so important also in postcolonial critique, where civilization consolidated, forged and began to comprehend itself by posing itself against its Other—the Oriental, the savage, the barbarian. This relates to the function of the oriental Other for consolidating the ‘Western’ self, analyzed by Edward Said (1978), among others. Other India becomes the oriental Other for emergent global India, and the relationship between the two, in the realm of the imaginary, is paradoxically colonial.
In short, there was the desire for the Other in order for the civilizing process to begin. What is important for the purpose of my argument is that the carnivalesque of fairs and carnivals, where the affluent ones could experience otherness directly, became transplanted into cinematic image. Therefore, the subaltern carnivalesque in recent Indian films like Ishqiya (Abhishek Chaubey, 2010), Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola or Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012) has precisely this function: it acts as a sort of civilizing process for the global, neoliberal India that needs its Other to consolidate its new and not yet fully formed self.
The consumption, usage and function of the new Hindi cinema brand and branded Otherness, with its carnivalesque elements, allow the subaltern masses or Other India to enter the spaces of the upper (p.43) middle class as imaginary beings and imaginary spaces. The spaces they dwell in and their lives are constructed on screen as imaginary spaces for India that is rapidly transforming. Or, more accurately, a section of India that is transforming, leaving behind its Other, but needing it nevertheless. The function and need of new imaginary spaces reflect the peculiar pattern of development India’s urban upper middle class has entered—a development toward postmodernity, toward consumerist culture and different type of esthetics. The ambiguity of “how one should be, how one should think” demands a “common” through which to singularize. New film form gives precisely that.
Newness in the form of new Hindi cinema that is seemingly concerned with social and political issues functions as an integral part of neoliberal consumption. The upper-class elites and their appreciation of this cinema signals its departure from the subaltern mofussil India, which functions as an imaginary space, violent, desired and consolidates urban, neoliberal India’s self. At the same time, given the proliferation of actual different spaces (gated communities, shopping malls, multiplexes, sanitized spaces with removed otherness), this new India should not be seen as a rising middle class and emergent civil society in the Euro-American sense. This particular civil society dwells in itself, for itself, and desires to dwell in a globalized space.
Thus, the transformed Hindi cinema consumed by certain groups and classes produces a new type of subjectivity, a new brand of singularity so the subjects would know exactly what to think, and how to be.
If we take recent Hindi films as branded products offered by the market, by using them, we become selves, and simultaneously we are offered the image of what kind of Other we should desire on this path. Such is the function of peripheries, small towns and violent spaces. This film form exploits the uncertainties related to class transformations and urban transformations in post-1990s India. The desire for the Other, the reality effect of subaltern carnivalesque and the craving for small-town India are integral parts of complex transformations toward new social imaginary. A social imaginary construction of this involves production of brands; of using these brands to become new selves; of using them in an intensely mediated environment, which is polluted by (p.44) images of difference and needs the critical gaze of a social ecologist. At the same time, the environment in which the story of global, new India unfolds is polluted, infested with lack—lack that must be satisfied by desiring, by desiring the Other India.
There is no shortage of manifestations of desire for the Other or desire for small town in new Hindi cinema. The vast majority of films play with this notion. Good examples of such imaginary may be the already mentioned Shanghai as well as Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola. Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014) is set in Kashmir, another periphery, a space violent and exotic. But again, Kashmir is only a setting—we have a Shakespearian drama of revenge and violence in a distant space. On the other hand, many film-makers try to negotiate transformations in mofussil India without fetishizing it and often adopting the comedy: Peepli (Live) (Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, 2010), Daayen ya Baayen (Bela Negi, 2010), Shyam Benegal’s works like Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba! (2009), and Subhash Kapoor’s films like Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010) and Guddu Rangeela (2015), among others.
Interrogating the current fixation on mofussil/rural India, one must ask a broader question: Why do we desire the Other, in a psychoanalytical sense? As Athique and Hill (2010) in their study on the multiplex in India state, the upper class no longer needs a slum-dweller in terms of labor force. This need for a periphery or a slum-dweller or, if we may use a general term, “subaltern” never vanished and has transformed into a different kind of need and moved into the unconscious of becoming postmodern or becoming global of this class. The desire for slum-dweller, subaltern or periphery, both in a geographical sense and philosophical–psychoanalytical sense, has moved into the unconscious of a social class that has not yet emerged fully, that is constantly becoming. The global Indian self is yet to be born, and in order to be born, it must singularize itself in the face of the Other. Here is the need for the Other imaginary, and here is the major difference between the classic New Wave, leftist, politically committed cinema of the 1970s and 1980s and newness emerging in the early 21st century. Srivastava (2014: 115) suggests that the neoliberal state in (p.45) India managed to recast “the historical—‘developmentalist’—relationship between (middle class) citizens and itself into a consumer-friendly one”. Such process, given the nature of neoliberal logic, runs through all practices, including cinematic representations. Mainstream cinema as a product must be consumer-friendly, but the content, the representation, more often than not tends to function within the bounds of being consumer-friendly, rarely crossing the line. And it does not really matter what topic is addressed. Srivastava (2014), in his work, emphasizes the importance of the shopping mall in forming the identity of citizen–consumer. What he leaves out in his analysis is a very important space within the shopping mall, which plays an integral and very important role in subject formation as well—a multiplex.
Lash and Lury (2007) in their work on global culture industries state that in our present age, when media is everywhere, and at the same time, when everything is media, media becomes thingified. It is not only and no longer only about representation and consumption, but navigation; it is not only what media tries to represent to consumers or users, but what users do with media, how do they navigate media and how media gives a helping hand in navigating this complex and transforming brave new world. In the environment of mass media, cultural objects no longer have (or no longer exclusively have) cultural value, but use value (Lash and Lury 2007). We are no longer dealing with meaning in terms of representation, but with operationality: what media does and what we do with it. Talking of film, however, it is impossible to leave representation behind. Therefore, we can integrate the two views: film, and the whole genre does represent something, is a commodity, functions as identity-forming media, and at the same time, new Hindi cinema is thingified media and a brand. It produces film-as-navigation, film-as-brand and film-as-thing. This is one of my departure points in understanding the new film form. Lash and Lury look at the problem from the sociological point of view, and I will give their understanding of thing and brand a philosophical twist. In a postmodern or hyperindustrial condition, media gets thingified in the same way works of art have transitioned from modernity to postmodernity for Jameson, producing a “waning of affect in contemporary culture”, postmodernity’s (p.46) fixation on surfaces and form without content (Jameson 1991: 17). I think that content is always there, only that the speed at which it transforms and the vertigo effect of the transformational speed produces an inability to grasp, to fully comprehend the content. But if the content is overexposed, blurred due to our bodily and mental motion, it does not mean it is not there. So film becomes a mediated thing under the effect of the postmodern move, and in the postcolonial context of India, this is the result of neoliberal transformations, which made possible the emergence of new urban upper-middle classes, new social imaginaries and new types of mediated experiences.
The films in question, in addition to becoming a brand, manufacture another brand using representation—Other India, small-town India and more generally, otherness. Ravi Vasudevan (2010: 334–61) noted that in the 1990s, Indian popular cinema saw the rise of “nation as brand”, something to be consumed outside India. Picking upon the notion of branding of a nation, I would rework it into a different notion—the branding of unruly periphery or violently romantic mofussil India or “slum” India as an imaginary place for consumption by specific social classes in India. Once again: it is not a desire to expose India’s social and political problems, not a desire and urgency to interrogate them. It is more a peculiar desire for problems represented—problems that are far away from the space occupied by the upper class, and gazing at them creates an enjoyment or ‘jouissance’ to use a psychoanalytic term.
Branding in this case may refer to the consumption of difference, of otherness, and is an integral part of producing the emergent urban upper class’s self. Brands in general tend to produce a “common”, a different kind of humanity or a kind of imagined community (Arvidsson 2005: 34). Urban upper class is such an imagined community in the making, and cinema is instrumental in its production. So, desire for the Other and enjoyment in gazing at the Other has an important function in constructing the self of the one who gazes. The proliferation of such functional imaginary spaces in Hindi cinema may be called dromospheric pollution, following Virilio (2008). The imaginary space of cinema can be viewed as such a polluted mediated space, produced by speed and transforming the notion of a journey by giving it multiple (p.47) meanings. The workings of such pollution are different in the postcolonial South, and often confined to the imagining and the production of the upper class’ self. Heterotopian space, which is created for this purpose and which at the same time is the effect of the previously mentioned processes, is an intermediary space serving the function of initiating the emergent global citizens into globality through consumption. Bernard Stiegler talks of the problems of dis-individuation, and individuals losing their singularity in a time often labeled postmodern. He argues that “deprived of their singularity, they attempt to singularize themselves through products suggested by the market” (Stiegler 2014: 60). Thus, becoming self is possible only with the intervention of the market, which suggests what kind of self should be formed by offering various products. In this way, the self is constructed, and the consumption of the same products produces a “community”. One could very productively speak here of urban India’s gated communities; one could also speak of shopping malls and multiplexes aiming at attracting and thereby producing a decent crowd as opposed to subaltern masses that are filtered so as not to mix with the upper class (Athique and Hill 2010: 138). But one can also talk of virtual gated community and de-singularization staged by the cinematic gap. New Hindi cinema’s fixation with the space outside urban India or with India outside the upper-class milieu produces this gap. But in applying such theories to India, one should be careful not to generalize: such media-staged process and consolidation of newness occurs among a reasonably small group. Guattari (2000) distinguishes three types of ecologies as ethico-political positions: environmental, mental and social. The most relevant ones within the confines of this chapter are the last two—mental and social. He states that integrated world capitalism moves away from producing goods and services toward “structures producing signs, syntax and—in particular, through the control which it exercises over the media, advertising, opinion polls, etc.—subjectivity” (Guattari 2000: 47). Guattari is concerned by deterioration and deterritorialization of social relations under capitalism. This, among other things, produces Jameson’s waning of affect. Guattari calls for a social ecology to counter the effects of mass-media consumption, urban transformations that (p.48) in their own right transform and deterritorialize local communities. According to Guattari, mass media de-singularizes individuals, and being singular demands an ecological move (Guattari 2000).
The role and effect of mass media in producing a deterritorialized milieu, a new social class, new social relations and new social imaginary is something we must look at in order to understand the logic of new Hindi cinema. If we look at newness and difference of new Hindi cinema as emancipatory, as producing imaginary concerned with social and political issues in India, we may make a mistake in perceiving these films as kind of ecological in their own right. I think that many commentators in the media who write of these films as well as many film scholars fall into this trap. I argue that difference has another function and is anything but an ecological move. The new imaginary provides singularization through the brand of new Hindi cinema.
New Hindi cinema is an imaginary journey, into a space as different as it can get from the lived space of urban upper class, offered by cinema. It is a virtual journey into the wild. It is a kind of navigation in a mediatized world, but cinema and movement with cinema does produce signposts for identity formation. In post-liberalization India’s case, urban upper-class identity formation and singularization. So, we must employ quite a few and quite different theoretical positions in order to explain the emergence of new Hindi cinema, its appeal, the timing of its emergence and what this genre says about the transformations of popular culture in the urban upper-class milieu.
A Neurotic Realism?
But we must go deeper into a psychoanalytic reading of new Hindi cinema to understand the relevance of otherness. Slavoj Žižek (2007: 9) says: “It is easy to love one’s neighbor as long as he stays far enough from us…. When he comes too near us … we start to feel his suffocating proximity—at this moment when the neighbor exposes himself to us too much, love can suddenly turn into hatred.” This rather simple formula outlining the relationship between the subject and the Other, addressed in a similar fashion by many different scholars, from Lacan to (p.49) Derrida, to Bauman and Bhabha, can be understood in several ways. The Other can be seen as the cultural Other or a “subaltern” Other, while the subject is the hegemonic subject wielding the power to represent, power to speak for. Such approach toward otherness, the production of the Other or othering dominates postcolonial theory (Spivak 2010). A subject in this case (which is also produced) is a new Indian middle class, on one hand having the economic power and influence, and on the other, acting as an object of desire for its Others in terms of aspiration to become part of this emergent class.
Understanding the preoccupation of the new Hindi cinema with in-between spaces signals not a desire, but an obstacle in obtaining the object of desire. These obstacles are the spaces existing between the urban middle class’s actual location (gated communities, shopping malls, multiplexes, chauffeur-driven cars, etc.) and its mental map; spaces that are uncanny in the sense that they are familiar yet frightening, evoking paranoiac phantasies; spaces of slum-dwellers and pavement-sleepers, of serene village pastness phantasms and rural savagery. It demands understanding the shadow of the big Other and its ambivalence, and its importance in constructing a peculiar space of a new self—spaces both actual and mental. Says Slavoj Žižek (2007: 45): “the distance between what we wanted to achieve and the effective result of our activity, the surplus of the result over the subject’s intention, is again embodied in another agent, in a kind of meta subject”. The meta subject is the big Other, and its ambivalence lies in the fact that the Other is both frightening and reassuring; its existence consolidates the subject. Lacan (1998: 205) states that “the subject depends on the signifier and … the signifier is first of all in the field of the Other”. The nature of the Other is highly ambivalent and contradictory: the Other can be the symbolic order, ideology, God or a perceived enemy in the form of an ethnic or religious minority. A list can go on ad infinitum. Reworking these concepts into “applied” psychoanalysis for cultural critique and understanding the big Other as a cultural Other dwelling in in-between uncanny spaces would help to understand the subject formation of the “world class” in urban India, and its constant distinction vis-à-vis what is outside the imaginary and the actuality of this class. What is outside (p.50) in this case is in the field of the Other. In our case, the Other can be the imaginary past or “golden age”, an ideological concept so often utilized by nationalism as a space-time of origin (romantic villages and North Indian small towns). Or it can be an imaginary present, which is frightening. A present existing in darkness, outside the home space. But the Other can also be understood as ideology, and in our case, neoliberal ideology, a desire to climb up the social and economic ladder, a desire to succeed, a desire to be a global citizen, whatever the meaning of this term might be. A projection of such an ambivalent relationship with the Other is a mental map cinema offers. The narratives of NH10 and Highway oscillate between fear and desire. NH10 is more interesting psychoanalytically, as an invocation of the Lacanian Other, and Highway cleanses the uncanny space by forging a narrative of dependency, a peculiar Stockholm syndrome type of attachment a kidnapped girl Veera develops to her kidnapper, and is more interesting ideologically, as a kind of invocation of the ideological Other.
New Hindi cinema imaginary represents the construction of a neurotic, neoliberal (neuroliberal), urban upper-class subject. This is another point I would like to make in this essay. Engin F. Isin (2004: 223) calls this new self a neurotic citizen, “who governs itself through responses to anxieties and uncertainties”, and further claims that “what the neurotic subject wants is the impossible. It wants absolute security. It wants absolute safety. It wants the perfect body. It wants tranquility. It wants serenity. It wants the impossible” (Isin 2004: 232). In his analysis of the neurotic citizen, he argues that neoliberalism transforms bionic citizens into neurotic citizens and, in doing so, transforms itself into neuroliberalism. The neurotic citizen desires what Isin (2004: 232) calls the “impossible”, that is, s/he desires an object that is not there, an object created by desire—an object-cause of desire. And it is desiring itself that the subject desires, not the fulfillment of desire. The imaginary object of desire is what Lacan (2017: 168) calls objet petit a. The desire circles around the objet petit a without ever attaining it, as this would annul the desire itself—an ultimate tragedy of desiring. Therefore, it is accurate to assume that it is the desire itself that is desired, not the real object, as the object is not real. Absolute safety (or (p.51) in this case we may even call neoliberal capitalism the big Other of this class) is an impossible goal, and a movement toward the realization of it, a drive. Anxiety in this case may arise when we get too close to the object of desire, or when the circular movement around the objet petit a prevents our desire from being realized.
For my argument, the two dimensions, Isin (2004: 230–1) outlines in which neurosis is played out are important: the home and the border. Both dimensions are related to the duality of self and Other—it is against the Other the home must be protected. It is against the Other the border has to be patrolled. These problems—of the self, of the Other, of home and border—are articulated throughout the new Hindi cinema, the new entertainment or what I would be inclined to call a neurotic realism—reality viewed from the perspective of a pathological subject, in the words of M. Madhava Prasad (2007: 89–96).
The home is an ambiguous space for a neurotic subject. Isin (2004: 230) claims that on the one hand, the concept of home as a safe space and homeliness needs to be created in order to constitute such safety and serenity, but on the other, the maintenance of home as a safe bastion under constant threat from the outside space and its horrors produces anxiety and stress. Therefore, home and its protection also become a source of anxiety. In neoliberal/neuroliberal India, such homely spaces are embodied by gated communities, as well as various ‘sanitized’ non-places of consumption like shopping malls and multiplexes that exclude otherness in the form of lower classes (Bauman 2000; Fernandes 2006; Augé 2008; Athique and Hill 2010; Brosius 2013). While the outside space is the source of fear, home under such a neurotic regime transforms into unhomely or uncanny space. Mazumdar (2002: 71) in her analysis of the uncanny space in Bombay cinema also draws upon “yearning for home and a fear of homelessness”, but psychoanalytically, the problem is more complex. As I will discuss later, NH10 is quite possibly the best cinematic example available of this problem in Hindi cinema. Films like the latter are far from the postmodern celebrations of homelessness and nomadism as body without organs (Deleuze and Guattari 2004). Lewis and Cho (2006: 86), commenting on Deleuze and Guattari and taking Clint Eastwood’s (p.52) “lone gunman” as an example, say that the state of homelessness in this scenario means “lacking a home, but more importantly lacking the desire for a home”. Eastwood wanders around a barren landscape, but nomadic wandering is his natural state; he does not desire a home. Lack of desire is crucial in this case, as it is the desire, not the lack of it that is present in NH10 and similar films. Lack, or the prospect of losing home, being separated from home, having the home invaded by the Other—these are the sources of anxiety reproduced by the neoliberal post-biopolitical regime. Isin (2004: 225) claims that the bionic citizen as a self-sufficient subject that dominated the 20th century and “was governed in and through its freedom” is in tension with another type of citizen who is governed through neurosis. A neurotic citizen desiring safety and serenity might be homeless, but homelessness in this case comes from fear, and is more similar to often-quoted Adornoesque melancholic homelessness—being homeless in one’s home (Adorno 2005). Therefore, for a neurotic subject, home is a source of anxiety, while a formless periphery is a source of psychosis, where “the conflict forces the ego to create a new external world that becomes internalized, a delusion” (Isin 2004: 224).
Home as a source of anxiety, albeit in a different sense, is evoked in Highway as well. But the frightening outside space, the rural/lower-class periphery in this film, is transformed into precisely the source of serenity. The duality of safety/un-safety, homely/uncanny produces a (post)modern subjectivity based on neurosis, and despite the demand for absolute safety and serenity, no space is fully safe from the gaze of the big Other. The drama of this haunting, a desire without fulfillment, is a source of neurosis, and an unsuccessful movement toward it must be understood as a drive. The unattainable object, the object of desire, the cause of anxiety in our case, is the impossible absolute safety, which creates what Lacan calls jouissance, enjoyment, a pleasure in pain (Žižek 2007: 56–7). Objet petit a, something appearing to be real, is a support to reality, a “curvature in space itself which causes us to make a bend precisely when we want to get directly at the object” (Žižek 2007: 56). Žižek (2007: 56), further explaining Lacan’s term and its function related to reality, states that “access to what we call ‘reality’ (p.53) is open to the subject via the rift in the closed circuit of the ‘pleasure principle,’ via the embarrasing intruder in the midst”. Object petit a impedes from within the smooth running of the psyche, but always appears as an external reality. Lacan calls this reality the Real. In the cultivation of the neurotic subject, the existence of uncanny space is an impediment to reach the (unreachable) object of desire—safety and serenity. Anxiety therefore appears as external reality; this so-called “reality” is constructed by the subject in the form of violent space, and fearful others, strangers inhabiting that space. Other space is forged as a heterotopian emplacement, infused with meanings by the subject (other space is everything home space is not), but in the end, it is not external reality. It only has an appearance of one. It is a curious space in-between, a hybrid heterotopia. Foucault (2000) calls heterotopia a semi-real space. In our case, the (unreal) external reality are the fearful features the space is infused with, and the (unreal) features make the desire unattainable. The ultimate tragedy and the source of necessary jouissance is the very fact of desire’s unattainability. The Other, in short, has a very clear function in constituting the subject—the neurotic upper-class subject of “shining” India striving for impossible perfection of existence. The Other in this case is an obstacle to enjoyment, as well as it provides meaning and reassurance (it becomes clear what are the sources of fear and suffering). For a neurotic subject, such duality is an absolute necessity. The films in question provide a justification as well as shed light on how things are in neuroliberal India.
The film is a story of a Gurgaon-based couple Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam), and their holiday gone terribly wrong when they leave their safe new middle-class space (which is under a constant threat from the in-between space, of course), and come face to face with the Other in “next-door” rural Haryana, to a destructive end.
The film starts with a car driving through Gurgaon late at night, and an off-screen dialogue between the protagonists. The first five minutes introduce the viewer to a space marking the identity of “shining” India (p.54) and the new middle class: a bustling metropolis at night, billboards, tall illuminated office buildings and the abundance of markers of globality—shopping malls, a Pepsi stand, a petrol pump with Café Coffee Day in the background, cranes and construction sites, huts with high-rise apartment buildings in the background where the new middle class dwells. The camera here is moving fast and the viewers get the sense of a bustling metropolis on the move. The dialogue happens off-screen and the camera shows who is talking only five minutes into the film. And there is jazz. The speed, the lights and the jazz of a metropolis—this indeed can be any “global city” as there are only few markers of an Indian city during the first scene.
It is the first-half of the film that is most interesting. Initially, the film firmly establishes what Fernandes (2006: 34) calls the “symbolic frames of identity”: shopping malls, high-rises, dinner parties, handsomely decorated apartments, cushy corporate jobs. But beneath the surface, throughout the first half-hour of the film, there is inexplicable fear and danger. It first manifests itself after Meera leaves the dinner party alone, late at night, as she has some urgent work to do. She is driving through Gurgaon in her SUV, listening to the radio and stops at the red light. A motorcycle with two men stops next to the car, and the men quietly gaze at her for a moment and then drive off. Few minutes later, the motorcycle blocks the road from the front, and a jeep with more attackers, from behind. The men break the side window of the car, but Meera manages to escape. This is her first encounter with the Other. Later, a police officer explains to Meera and Arjun that the city they live in is like a growing child, and a child does misbehave sometimes.
The film neatly reflects what Isin called the construction of a neurotic citizen and a forging of a culture of fear. He states, drawing upon the often-apocalyptic Mike Davis, that “the risk society undergirded by a culture of fear becomes vulnerable to the emergence of panics, gated communities, security industries and an overall trend toward isolation and insularity” (Isin 2004: 219). Such construction of neoliberal India’s neurotic subject is evoked in NH10. But the film is ambiguous in evoking clear-cut boundaries separating homeliness and safe space (a high-rise in Gurgaon, an inside space of an SUV) from the uncanny (p.55) periphery. The boundaries are blurred; they are unstable, constantly shifting. Safe homely space can transform into an uncanny space instantly. The desire for serenity and safety is always there, but this object is never real, unattainable. Whenever neuroliberal subjects think they got closer to that, in the gated communities, inside the secure space of an SUV, the uncanny manifests itself in one way or the other.
In a scene where Meera is attacked by the motorcycle-riding men, fear and anxiety are expressed very well. She hides in the safe space of her SUV, and one of the men smashes her side window. The very fact of motorbike attackers implies that they do not need protection from the outside space, as the dark, uncanny space is their domain. Meera, on the other hand, feels comfort in the insularity of her SUV.
NH10 creates an atmosphere of safe inside space and menacing outside space very well. It is the safety of an apartment building in Gurgaon as opposed to the street, where men on a motorbike attack Meera. There is also the safety of an SUV inside-space as opposed to the uncanny environment of rural Haryana. But more generally, there is the safety of a city, a space of familiarity and comfort [not to mention that Arjun personally knows the deputy inspector general (DIG) of Delhi police], and the unknowable periphery outside Gurgaon. But more than a blunt statement of home space safety and serenity, Meera and Arjun want to believe in it. Safety is an object of desire with a constant interruption by the Other, which makes the enjoyment of “world-class” living impossible. Therefore, the real uncanny and dark space in this film is the home space, which, can be understood as the Real, externalized by the subject—by Meera and Arjun as their class’s representatives.
The first-half of the film is very subtle in evoking the unconscious tensions and the neurotic construction of the new middle class as opposed to the second-half, which unleashes violence and mutual destruction of the subject and the Other.
When Meera and Arjun are leaving the city, they pass a highway tollbooth. This is the boundary separating the metropolis from the periphery. Once they pass this boundary, we can see dark skies and we can hear thunder somewhere in the background. There is also a (p.56) billboard saying “Have a safe journey”, having a measure of irony and acting as a warning and a small preview of what’s about to unfold. The film creates a powerful and menacing heterotopian space and populates it with the violent and incomprehensible Other, who, in the film, prove that violent periphery and cunning Other is no mere stereotype.
Let’s take as an example a scene I described in detail at the beginning of this chapter. The mirror Meera is looking at, like all rear-view mirrors of the motor vehicles in India, states: Objects in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear. Psychoanalytically, this scene is perfect to the point of becoming a blunt statement (the director must have read Lacan). The scene is very brief, and despite the drama, which unfolds later in the film, the reflection of the Other leaves an imprint on the unconscious. Meera looks at the Other’s reflection with fear and disgust. There is a small “pre-history” to this scene. When Meera and Arjun get lost while trying to find the road to their destination, Arjun stops the car at a roadside dhaba to ask for directions. As he walks over to the men sitting there, Meera stays alone in the car. She sits in the passenger’s seat. All of a sudden, a man, a local villager appears next to the side window, and asks if Meera and Arjun were looking for the road to Basantpura, which they were. Meera does not say anything and rolls up the side window. We can see and, to a large extent, understand her fear—she was recently attacked, her illusion of serene life was shattered. The mirror scene happens immediately after, when Arjun comes back to the car. They drive off slowly, and Meera looks at the rear-view mirror and sees a man looking at her. According to Lacan (1998: 257), the mirror stage is crucial for the development of ego, and is a key notion in the Lacanian theory of subjectivity. The mirror stage involves a peculiar “looking-at-the-self” and recognizing the self in the mirror, and is strongly related to narcissism. Lacan calls the “reflection” in the mirror the small other, which is not really other, that is to say, not the radical big Other. For this reason, the scene is interesting in its ambivalence. Taking a cue from postcolonial theory in reworking the Other as symbolic order into cultural Other, we may conclude as Bhabha (2004: 122) does in saying that “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite”. Herein lies the ambivalence of the object in the mirror, which is “closer than it appears”; on the one hand, Meera sees a specular image, that is, a projection of her ego or the little other, but on the other hand, she sees the Other, which “is almost the same, (p.57) but not quite”. The latter problem, according to Bhabha (2004: 127), is “a form of difference that is mimicry”. If we replace Bhabha’s “colonial” with neuroliberal, we can conclude that mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, and in our case, in the form of the peripheral object belonging to an altogether different India, Other India, which is part of the object of desire, that is, safety and serenity. Otherness in this case is desired on several levels: it is desire for a reformed Other, and a reform, the undoing of otherness, would mean the elimination of threat, and this would correspond to the object of desire. At the same time, the Other is desired per se, because it justifies the drive toward the object of desire. Žižek (2007: 45), in his analysis of this problem qua Nazism and the figure of a Jew, states that the Other’s radical ambivalence “can function as a quieting and strengthening reassurance … or as a terrifying paranoiac agency”. As I mentioned before, the “embarrassing intruder” prevents one from enjoying, but creates jouissance, a pleasure in pain.
Therefore, Meera is enjoying the impossibility of attaining the object of desire; she desires the desire itself. Something similar, but far less radical, happens in Highway, as we shall see, but otherness in that film is of a more ideological nature than in NH10.
There is one more very important scene in the film, when Meera tries to get help from the local police. Not only is she termed as “English-type madam” by a rural police officer—as she belongs to what can be called a “Delhi upper class”, therefore she is not simply a city dweller, but English, or more broadly, a foreign type—but another officer explains to her that “your democracy ends with the last shopping mall”. This is a very interesting thing to say. It evokes the shopping mall as a marker of neoliberal lifestyle. Even more, a shopping mall stands as a symbol not only of prosperity, being a “world class” or English type, but also it is a code word for democracy. The shopping mall as a symbolic frame of identity is indeed, in this case, projected as a last bastion of civilization (p.58) at the edge of an unruly and violent periphery. At the same time, the fact that Meera is using quite a lot of English words and is described as an English type emphasizes the English language as shaping the “symbolic frames of identity” of the new Indian middle class. It is part of the knowledge needed in gaining access to the membership to this class (Fernandes 2006: 34). Something similar also happens in Highway, but there the contact with otherness has an emancipatory effect.
Highway is a very good example of urban center/rural periphery spatial configuration, and is one of the best recent examples in Hindi cinema of becoming self and the need of a lower social class to do so. Like NH10, Highway is also a peculiar road movie offering a movement through space, a movement which has a transformative effect. As opposed to NH10’s horror in the face of the Other, in Highway, the Other is violent and threatening, but is instrumental for the urban self in order to discover what we could call the meaning of life. I would call this film pseudo-Marxist in terms of the love and affection shown by the new middle class toward the lower class. Pseudo, because there is no love, affection and care, only selfish motives informing the desire for the Other.
The plot of this film is rather simple. Veera (Alia Bhatt), a girl in her early 20s, lives in Delhi with her parents. Her father is rich and influential. She is getting ready to marry a young man from her social class. But later on, in the film, we learn that her upper-class home space is far from ideal. Beyond the shiny façade, there is trauma and repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. And the upper class, the parents and Veera’s fiancé, are portrayed as greedy, insensitive, ignorant and demonstrate the lack of understanding of “what life is all about”. One night, when driving with her fiancé through Delhi, Veera gets kidnapped for ransom and is taken to a village outside Delhi. To cut the long story short, Veera slowly begins to develop an attachment to her kidnapper, a rough in-between space dweller Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). Slowly, she stops being afraid and herself asks, “What is happening to me?” She begins to (p.59) appreciate life on the highway, life on the run, a peculiar nomadic wandering. From Rajasthan, Mahabir takes her to Punjab and, after that, to Himachal Pradesh. At the very end of the film, she states that her life in Delhi was prison, which basically means that the encounter with the fearsome Other, a man from the peripheries and also beyond the law, had a liberating effect. We can analyze this film from an ideological perspective. The Other in this film has a clear function: to liberate Veera from the prison of new middle-class existence. When he accomplishes his goal, the police track them down and Mahabir is shot to death.
Žižek in his analysis of Hollywood films gives an example of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Just like Titanic, Highway focuses on the transgression of the class divisions. Paraphrasing Žižek (2008: 58), Veera is “a spoiled high-society girl in an identity crisis: she is confused, does not know what to do with herself, and, much more than her lover, Di Caprio is a kind of ‘vanishing mediator’ whose function is to restore her sense of identity and purpose in life, her self-image … once his job is done, he can disappear”. Mahabir, of course, is a very different type of vanishing mediator. As opposed to Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio), who is an excessively lovable working-class man, Mahabir is a self-described “dog-who-would-die-a-dog’s-death”. He is similar to the violent and bloodthirsty Haryana savages as depicted in NH10, but he gradually transforms into a savage we, just as Veera, are bound to like far more than the selfish, cold high-society Delhiites. In turn, he transforms Veera and injects into her a desire for a different life, even though this is a pure fantasy. At the end of the film, Mahabir vanishes when his job is done—the police shoot him.
Žižek, in his analysis of Titanic, claims that such need of a contact with the lower class to refresh the upper class’s blood is a necessity in bourgeois imaginary. Lower classes, the proletariats, are perceived as knowing what the joys of life are. They are more alive than the bourgeoisie, closer to the soil. But this is the exploitation of the lower class. Veera exploits Mahabir, and the road trip into the peripheries is a fantasy serving her own purposes: she wants to refresh herself, to inject liveliness into her stale life among the Delhi upper class. When she gets what she wants, the Other must die; the vanishing mediator (p.60) vanishes. Indeed, if Veera and Mahabir were to live happily ever after in the film, the reality of life in the mountains and “the misery of everyday life would soon have destroyed their love” (Žižek 2008: 58). Of course, there is no love as such in Highway; at least, there is no ordinary love story. There is, however, a different type of desire—a desire of/for the Other. Having said that, one scene at the end of the film is very interesting. Veera and Mahabir reach Himachal Pradesh and are allowed to stay at a small house, alone. This is Veera’s dream come true—to live in a house in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, to live in freedom. When they move into the house, Veera pushes Mahabir out, so she could clean the house and cook food. She assumes the role of a partner or a wife. Mahabir secretly watches her doing that and starts crying, because he is reminded of his mother whom he has not seen in a very long time. Veera comes out, sees Mahabir crying and begins to comfort him. In that moment, she assumes the role of Mahabir’s mother. After that, they go back to the house and spend the night together. We do not know what happens in the house at night. We do know that they sleep together, but the question if they have a sexual relationship similar to the relationship in Titanic, that is left for us to figure out. In the next scene, we are shown the morning in the mountains. Mahabir is killed and Veera is saved.
There are many other films that evoke a sense of a predatory city, like No One Killed Jessica (Raj Kumar Gupta, 2011), both in terms of the narrative and Rani Mukerji’s voice-over at the beginning of the film, where she states that Delhi is about power. But this is a very different city from the one constructed in NH10. Highway follows a romantic periphery tone. Yes, the Other is menacing but, in the end, is instrumental in constructing a new self. In this sense, NH10 (and the title itself refers to a highway—National Highway No. 10) is far stricter in creating a binary of self and Other. It is more evocative in portraying neoliberal India as an uncanny space of a particular social class, one that Meera and Arjun of NH10 belong to.
What all such different films do is offer an imaginary journey to exotic far-flung spaces. It allows us to cast the mobilized virtual gaze onto the Other (Friedberg 1994). It is the violent virtual gaze (p.61) of misrepresentation and consumption of the Other. This Other has a very important function to perform. The space in which this fable unfolds is far from realistic; it is possible to call it a heterotopian space, a space both real and unreal, to invoke once again Foucault’s (2000) notion. The films constructing such space, the other space, constantly project themselves as being transgressive and dissenting. Despite a possibility to distinguish between more mainstream films by someone like Bhardwaj and more offbeat ones by Banerjee and others, the effect produced by all these films is the same. In a theoretical analysis of this film form and form flow, it may be useful to look at a film as a thing, and the emergent genre as a constantly transforming cluster of brands: something integral to hyper-industrial consumption.