Schools of Thoughts

Schools of Thoughts

A look at books from academia.

South Indian film industries have complex,variegated histories: from Kerala’s gritty realism and Tamil Nadu’s demigods-turned-demagogues to the stars of Telugu and Kannada films who shaped regional language identities. Yet you hear far too many smugly contemptuous remarks about south Indian stars’ flamboyant yet touching lack of style,which inspire correspondingly OTT responses. Cinemas of South India: Culture,Resistance,Ideology edited by Sowmya Dechamma C.C. and Elavarthi Sathya Prakash (OUP,Rs 695),is recommended reading for those who are blithely ignorant.

For starters,this will teach them to ask questions a shade more pertinent than “Why are the heroines so fat?” or “Why are the fans so crazy?” Like,has anyone other than Mohanlal and Mammootty attained runaway popularity in Kerala? (Yes,starting with Shakeela,the soft-porn actor,to the “short but significant” success of Dalit mimicry artist and actor Kalabhavan Mani.) Are there other ways of deconstructing Mani Ratnam’s Roja,than as an ode to middle-class nationalism? (Plenty.) And what’s behind the capers of Tamil comedians? The slapstick spectacle of Senthil and Goundamani,the Tamil Laurel and Hardy pair,Jananie Kalyanaraman informs us,is charged with caste implications,while Vadivelu’s simpleton act shows “the rustic in conflict with the urban”,like when he’s strip-searched for his “suspiciously bulky lower half” in front of a governor’s house in Kaadalan (1994) and found to be sporting a loin cloth beneath his jeans.

Urbanites around the world will be familiar with that other spectre of half-baked pretensions,the poseur,reeking of expensive cologne and a desperate hankering for social validation. That,about 2,000 years ago,was known as the pseudo-nagaraka,a “gaudy,gross”,affected creature who overdid “the unguents”,and whose poetry was “mechanical and irrelevant”,as Shonaleeka Kaul tells us in Imagining the Urban (Permanent Black,Rs 595),a fascinating account of urban life in ancient cities which arose in the Gangetic valley and northern peninsula in the 1st millennium BCE. This time-travel is facilitated by “literary renderings of early urbanism”,chiefly 24 kavyas,including epic poems by Kalidasa and plays by Bhasa,and prescriptive texts on statecraft,architecture and sex — yes,that’d be Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra.

Any time traveller ought to be equipped with a map,and Kaul’s is supported with descriptions of poetic immediacy. Cities had boundary walls “as vast as mountains”,and were centred around markets,noisy with the sound of drums,conches,butchers chopping meat,and palace gongs. Out of them led an arterial royal road on which you’d find “a human jungle”; a veritable traffic jam of bipeds. There were pleasure gardens,drinking booths,gambling halls and forbidding outer limits,often adjoining forests,“smoky,with the cries of spirits,goblins” and black-magic practitioners,where cremations and executions took place. Kaul also populates this map with a cast that will be familiar to any city-slicker: from sophisticated,sybaritic men-about-town to the gracious courtesans they expertly charmed out of their clothes.