Friday, February 26, 2021 7:06 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Talk of Indian films of old, seen especially through the eyes of early childhood, only brings back nostalgia. You are reminded of such hugely popular flicks of the 1970s and 80s as Anand (1971), Satyakam (1969), Mere Apne (1971), Sholay (1975), Hush Hush (1974) and Angoor (1982). This glittering array of box-office hits was memorably enlivened by such filmic icons as Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, Shashi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire, remember it?) and Amrish Puri. But if, however, there was one single film which stole our callow star-struck hearts, it was Burning Train, a truly high-octane, adrenaline-pumping affair that iconizes the India genius of all time.
The enabling element running through virtually all of these flicks; indeed, the dominant and overriding imagery was the impingement of the phantasmagoric on the physical, the freewheeling influence of the numinous offworld on the here-and-now. Accordingly, you were treated to spooky scenarios whereby humans, notably females, would transmogrify into reptiles. Suddenly, amid soul-stirring song-and-dance, the sultry belle would simply change into a snake slithering minatorily on the bed, thus foregrounding the Kama Sutra archetype. To be certain, our young imaginations were set ablaze with the raunchy songs which accompanied the seemingly occultic invocation of preternatural entities such as marine-world denizens – mammywater and similar mistresses of the ocean-beds.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, India came to represent for our enquiring minds the exotic, the out-of-the-way, black magic. The land of voodoo. It was generally believed that in a game of soccer involving India and any country, the India team would resort to occultic means to swing the outcome in their favour. Thus the match ball would multiply into a thousand balls on the field of play, thereby befuddling you into taking shadow for substance. Welcome to Abracadabra. The more you look, the less you see. They would simply lead you by the nose, poor dupe! Matters were not helped by the flooding of our local stalls and markets with India statuary, miniaturized bronze statues of Ghandi and Nehru and those of their gods and goddesses such as Lord Shiva, the goddess Kali, the Buddha, and personages from the Ghagavid Gita, especially Lord Krishna.
In a word, India came to stand for the mysterious. Incredible India! But in the last few years, our TV screens, thanks to DSTV, have been inundated with series and matinee films, shown 365 days of the year, every second of the day! Such is the addictive nature of these series that, in most homes, husband and wife are on war path over who controls the remote. S/he who holds the remote control rules the roost. Whilst the man of the house is more likely to favour news stations, like CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, and Skynews as well as sport stations like Supersport, the wife is more liable to be enamoured of romantic diversion and as such might be disposed to killing time watching Africa Magic (what a name!), Telemundo, Eva Plus, Televista and, of course, Zee World. A brief context is in order, before we proceed. India is home to many ethnic groups including Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Nepali, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi and Urdu. Hinduism is the largest ethnic religion with the Vedas, a collection of holy writings, as their scripture. With the film division established by 1948, the Hindi-language film industry known as Bollywood became the largest in India. Between America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, there seems to be a bit of a toss-up which produces the highest number of films yearly. Google, however, claims that credit goes east.
Zee World is an English – Bollywood channel in South Africa which was launched on 3 February, 2015. The series are usually dubbed from Hindi and Marathi into English. It would seem Zee World’s underlying philosophy and animating vision is feminism, old-style feminism; women’s liberation from the strictures and stranglehold of tradition. The common enemy, therefore, is phallocracy or patriarchy. The countervailing warrant of Zee World is the comprehensive and total torpedoing and dismantling of andocentrism. So, from whichever angle you look at it, Zee World films are simply cinematic instantiations of gynotextualism. Thus the whole elaborate superstructure of this industry turns on gynocentrism, women-centred cultural advocacy. Small wonder, then, marriage is nearly always at the heart of every Zee World series. The institution of marriage in India is principally based on dowry system, in which the prospective groom is handsomely rewarded with both cash and worldly goods for deigning to agree to the “modest proposal” from his would-be bride’s family. In most cases, shortly after the wedding, members of the bride’s family go into virtual slavery in order to be able to defray the loans taken to foot the bill of the nuptial.
Under these circumstances, Shylocks and loan sharks are above the law. It should be noted that Indians are mad about bling-bling, about jewellery, saris and other frippery. During a wedding, the bride’s family provides everything from rickshaws to hotel accommodation, food and drink, among others. These are some of the issues that Zee World series dramatise to telling propagandistic effect. As a matter of fact, one of the major elements of the plot is the Cinderella complex: the woman, usually a wife, is mistreated, overburdened and abused by the groom’s family. They expect her to do everything – work and remit her monthly pay-check to mother-in-law for the general upkeep of the entire family, cook and serve food at the dining-table, dress modestly (always wrapped up in saris). A picture of purity. The lodestar of tradition. For her, Western culture and its values are haram – western music, dressing, education, child-training, religious practices, etc.
By the same token, Zee World promotes Hindi values and mores, particularly their religion, Hinduism. As one watches these Zee World films and series, one is gradually acculturated and “converted”. Almost at every turn, one is shown or made to “participate” in their rituals, taboos, forms and patterns of worship. What is at work here, unbeknownst to most viewers, is the subtle globalisation of culture, Hindi, nay, Indian culture and civilisation. Thus, consistent with the feminisation of culture, the main female character, the heroine, is cast in the image of a quasi-Christ-figure: she is infinitely self-abnegating, tolerant, altruistic, solicitous and self-giving to the point of martyrdom. In this regard, one is reminded of such screen protagonists as Achana, Aabha, Pooja, Preeta and Gangaa. Again, lacrymosity is standard practice as the heroine’s depth of commitment is measured by how much and often she sobs. Sobbing, of course, is a form of blackmail to arouse pity and emboss to persecution complex of the Cinderella (Achana as prototype!).
In this emotional namby-pamby, Indian phallocracy is garrotted and guillotined. Zee World is, thus, an arena where the politics of gender is played out between men and women, boys and girls, with the family matriarch, the Granny or mother-in-law, tyrannical but always the bastion of patriarchal tradition. Thus every series is a station of the cross, a trial of sorts for the girl –wife, bride-to-be, house-help (or simply help), female orphan, widow, trader, or civil servant, etc. But the good news is that, she always overcomes and triumphs over societal obstacles at long last. We must give credit to whom credit is due. In terms of Technicolour, Zee World is non pareil, what with their superb décor, costuming and scenery and props. The most deluxe and exquisite mansions, cars and hotels are used in their series and films. These are equally accompanied with great music and ingenious storytelling. Seemingly jejune and commonplace stories gradually grow more complex, going all the way down into the very essence of things, the core concerns of the human condition. You are held spellbound by the unfolding layers of human psychology, the mainsprings of motivation and action.
The lesson is always shatteringly affecting and inspirational, leaving you wiping the tears from your face. We must, indeed, salute their dramaturgic nous. Inbuilt within the filmic tableaux are plays-within-play, impersonation, role-playing, flashbacks and, more crucially, the changing of actors/actresses playing certain key roles. The metacritical alienation effect of these techniques cannot be overemphasised. You are shaken free of the illusionistic effect of the series to pay closer attention to the underlying message. This is what in Latin is known as utile et dulce. Regardless of all of this, we must, however, keep in mind a few things about Zee World’s insidious insurrections. The fact is, slowly but surely, Zee World is stealing our hearts away. Men are mentally “married” to these screen goddesses while our womenfolk have transferred their loyalty and devotion to these Indian Adonises. We are all now Hindis – we are familiar with their customs and traditions, notably their marriage ceremonies – walking round the Holy Fire, the putting on of the vermillion on the bride’s forehead and wearing of the wedding chain and bangles, the henna ceremony, kicking over of the pot of rice, stepping onto a bowl of oil and thereafter into the house and chanting of the associated mantras, among others.
We all now greet one another namaste (Namaste Nigeria!) and take part in Holi and Dewali celebrations. All of this can cause subliminal conflict in our Christian souls. The West brought Christianity, the East Islam while Traditional African Religion fought for dear life. This Triple Heritage a la Ali Mazrui is at present being upended by China which is aggressively making inroads into Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Now, entering into the fray is India, a nuclear-power nation, with a population of over 1.5 billion people, an emerging superpower in geopolitical terms. She is globalising and outsourcing her culture through film such as Beguserai, Married Again, Sacred Ties, My Golden Home, Deception, Age is Just A Number, Amma, Twist of Fate, Ring of Fire and Gangaa.
In watching these series, the rest of us are turned into a grimier mirror image of India. We dress Indian (sari); eat Indian (dosa, daal, chapattis, curry, and paan) sing and dance Indian; pray Indian (burn incense and chant mantras to “the Unknown gods”); when sick, we travel to India for medicare; rely on Indian pharmaceuticals (mostly adulterated in these parts), commute in Indian automobiles (rickshaws, keke Maruwa). Whilst this piece is not intended to instigate culture wars, it is, however, intended as a clarion call to us all, Africans, to begin to look inwards, take pride in our own culture. For us, Nigerians, we must showcase our heritage more aggressively; encourage our musicians, showbiz stars, Nollywood, sport enthusiasts, etc with patronage. We must as a matter of national urgency salvage and safeguard our indigenous, autochthonous culture which is being eroded from all directions at present. Failure which generations yet unborn might not know or experience first-hand anything authentically African, and the whole essence of the Black experience will have gone forever with the wind. A stitch in time
…Chris Anyokwu, PhD, Associate Professor of English University of Lagos.