Outsourcing the modern:
The split worlds of Bollywood design

A marvelous imaginary city in the film Saawariya (2007) lavishly designed to portray a “poem in motion”

Kaushik Bhaumik on how the visual design of Bollywood films contradicts the contemporary-ness of Indian lives in the real world by outsourcing its modern aspects, making us contemplate how cinematic design influences culture.

Needless to say, cinema and design have always gone together. Design is inherently part of what is known as mise-en-scène in film theory, which literally translates to “placing on stage” and includes the arrangement of everything within the cinematic frame – scene-landscapes, interiors, objects and costumes. Ideating mise or placement in a scene means that what is put in a scene has to be carefully thought through to convey a very specific feel to the scene and therefore has to be carefully planned out, that is, designed towards an effect. Designing scenes for visual impact has always been a central concern in Bollywood films. However, most writing about design has happened very late, after the inception of globalization, when in films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, top Indian fashion designers stepped in and gave Bombay cinema a facelift into the global currency of branded clothing. Which is to say, it was only when Bombay cinema ‘caught up’ with design in the modernist sense that the history of design up until that moment was retroactively initiated.

Hip gear, boots, fashion label handbag, cap and banjo – obvious western cues in Dilwale Duniya Le Jayenge speak to a brand conscious Indian society

It was in this period that set and publicity design as well as costume design came to be written about through research and with academic rigour. In Bombay Cinema, Ranjani Mazumdar explores cinema as a reflection of the city and society. Taking on the designed interiors of Bollywood, she points out how cavernous panoramic interiors of the plush A-list films from the latter half of the 1990s are taken straight out of the pages of interior design glossies to denote conspicuous wealthy lifestyles of the Indian rich and the advent of globalization. Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian studies at the University of London, points out from an earlier period how critical Yash Chopra’s Waqt of 1965 was to changing the idioms of class and wealth now synonymous with Bombay cinema, conveying through a new regime of visual markers of the high life. Mazumdar has gone on to argue for the central role colour in Bombay cinema played with its arrival in the 1960s: it started a glamorous design regime to live up to the optical magic of color film technology.

While all of the above appear to indicate that a design history for Bombay cinema is progressing, a strange contradiction emerges in the actual practice of design itself in contemporary Bollywood. Precisely around the time the idea of ‘design’ is set as a marker of global professionalism in Bombay cinema, at that very moment we see this cinema playing out, grosso modo in designer fantasies of the cosmopolitan kind in exotic overseas locales. Modern design as we understand, denotes a certain minimal ecological consciousness and also a flamboyance of individual choice in lifestyle matters. Neither is possible within the chaotic realities and the conservative cultural ethos of India. Bollywood caters to the needs of the latter, a populous conservative India, with visions of an ornamental traditional India flowing between song and dance item numbers. Take for example, Anurag Kashyap’s five-hour long Gangs of Wasseypur, a story of crime and revenge spanning three generations. Although inspired by Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, it is set in north India’s dusty desi cow-belt and all its meticulous design is dedicated to the ornamental folk sensibilities of that region. This raises certain key questions about the history of modern design in Bombay cinema. Was the modernist design in a film such as Waqt in its ability to reel in the feudal capable of mixing the modern and the Indian better than the cinema of today? More pertinently: what of the exotic internationalism of design of 1970s Bombay cinema that also denoted a more hedonistic and permissive public sexual regime? What was this ‘Design India’, that, until the 1970s was able to accommodate the modern minimal and the sensorially free within its territorial limits? And what is this India today, no longer able to sustain the modern within itself, at least as far as the public domain of cinema is concerned? Contemporary design in Bombay cinema, it seems, is centrally located within a very difficult politico-cultural logic of our times marked by an inability to connect the lives of the cutting-edge modern with the everyday local realities of India.

Waqt (1965) Elaborate scenic design and classy fashion statements in Waqt (1965) by B.R.Chopra presented a high class lifestyle

The problems might be posed as one of ‘technique’-an intractable misfit of ethos, of class/demographic snobbery, of guilt or of outright prohibition by a conservative cultural order. If Bollywood films are a measure of the subconscious aesthetic/design drives of the public then its production regime reveals a clear split. On the one hand we see a world of cosmopolitan design ambitions that can only be worked out to their maximum efficacy outside India, and on the other, a world, inside India, which is served up as some kind of internal ostentatious Orientalism. Does this reflect a split between two Design Indias-one that lives between India and the First World simultaneously and another that is grounded within the territory of the nation?

We might imagine a sort of untouchability between the global modern and India ‘in general’ within the ‘public’ gaze of cinema which has increasingly come to be monitored anxiously for all signs of the ‘un-Indian’. Giving an A certificate to films where couples kiss frequently is also certifying a certain design idea framing the lifestyles of people who are willing to indulge in intimate physical exchanges open to a public gaze, an idea deeply offensive to ‘traditional’ India. And a casual look at such films in recent times will show that more often than not they are set in locales outside India. In some ways, the certificate is not so much about morality but about keeping the two contradictory regimes of design operational in Bollywood today, apart. It is as if the A certificate would indicate to the public that the film is ‘Un-Indian’ in its designs and therefore to be avoided by Indians. It would be interesting for the more ‘private’ and customized domain of design practices in India to engage with the implications of this outsourcing of the ‘modern’ out of the Indian public sphere effected by Bollywood.

Dr. Kaushik Bhaumik is Associate Professor in Cinema Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Written by Kaushik Bhaumik
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