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REPRESENTATION OF SOCIAL ISSUES IN CINEMA SPECIFIC REFERENCE TO INDIAN CINEMA: CASE STUDY OF ‘SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’

Shashwat Gupta, Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK Suraksha Gupta, Brunel Business School, Brunel Univeristy, UK ABSTRACT Cinema allows cinema industry to address various social issues using a written storyline and screenplay. As a media it plays an important role in the construction of perceptions and impressions about social conditions of a society. International launches and distribution of movies and idolisation of actors reveal the scale at which cinema influences society. This paper analyses how cinemas continue to act as a form of media for communicating to masses while they remain a source of entertainment. Referring to the history of representation of society through cinema author focuses on the Indian society through a case study of the motion picture, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Referring to the movie, findings reflect on the role of cinema as an informative medium of representing the issues being faced by people in a society.

INTRODUCTION The beginning of cinema production can be traced back to 1895 when the first motion picture was produced in a studio setup by Lumiere Brothers in a café in France which took on as a new revolution (Stam, 2000:19-20). Based on its ability to capture and present movement on a screen as a live image, cinema emerged as a medium of communication. Cinemas started acting as a

binding factor for societies as they were able to cut across the barriers of gender, caste, class, age and literacy levels facilitating its multipurpose role in a social structure (Raheja & Kothari, 2004:

13). Today when boundaries of geographical and culture barriers are being broken down, cinema as a media plays a significant role for communicating to masses. The existence of media and its need for freedom to proactively play a dominant role in construction of a society has been emphasised through various theories by social researchers. As proposed by authors such as Couldry (2000:40) core focus of media should be on imagination, creativity and identification apart from acting as a source of information, representation and a resource of identifying social and individual realities of a society. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ a cinema directed by an English director (Danny Boyle) has been reviewed to understand the role of cinema in the given context. The cinema is based around the average life of a boy from the poverty stricken areas of India and hence provides an interesting and insightful representation of the social issues surrounding the poor of the nation. A fictional story of a poor teenager who wins a game show, exhibits his life’s experiences of child exploitation in the form of begging, communal riots, the evils of gang war and most importantly the sufferings of the common people on a global stage. The cinema weaves fantasy and hardship

together in a way not just to entertain but also to educate.

Indian audience and western audience is a reflection of the power that cinema as a medium has in terms of representing a society.

Perception of the cinema by the

The content of a cinema is a powerful means of communication to the masses and Slumdog

Millionaire has managed to gain the popularity vote across the globe exhibiting the power that cinema possesses as a medium to break boundaries with 8 Oscar awards and many other awards like the Golden Globe. The cinema provided a fresh perspective of India’s version of an ‘American dream’. A story of rags to riches, dealing with issues of religion, child abuse and other hardships featured in the cinema used an interesting mix of reality and fantasy that managed to keep the audience entertained. The cinema satisfies the parameters of entertainment and influential but raises many questions for social and media researchers:

1. Do cinemas represent social reality?

2. Do cinemas play a role in driving awareness of people towards social issues being faced by

a society? This paper uses different theories and methods like semiotics and psycho analysis to break down

the movie into various methodological and definite symbols. It uses audience studies to provide a balanced explanation of the importance of cinema and its power in the social structure on a global scale. The paper has been divided into five sections each contributing to the analysis and attempting to answer the questions presented by cinema and its role in society. First section introduces the readers to the importance of cinema, its powerful role in representation and reasons behind the choice of Slumdog Millionaire as a case study in the relative context. Second section reviews the literature for theoretical underpinning of social

representation in cinema and its evolution.

section presents the analysis. The fifth section presents the findings, conclusion, limitations and avenues for future research.

Third section explains the methodology used. Fourth

Cinema: a tool for communication

Literature suggests that cinema is a tool for documenting reality and representing society in its various forms (Bush, 1933; Harmon, 2009). Technology has helped it to transit and expand at an exponential pace (Shintani, 2006). According to Bill Nicholas (2007) cinema is still in its early stages of evolution but has a history that can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. For Nicholas (2007) cinema bears expectations for improvement and development, as it is a product of scientific research that relates to the fancies of human inspiration. The transformation of cinema and its improvisation is reflected through the change over decades from a silent motion picture to the animation and graphical motion pictures with engineered speech and sound effects to support the image (Galloway et al., 2009). Richard Abel in 1985 described the beginnings of the American cinema as a combination of ‘aesthetics of attraction’ which focused on the capabilities of the moving cinema creating a spectacle of human figures or natural landscapes. Historical Preview Early 20th century witnessed an emergence of wartime cinema (Ashby and Higson, 2000) initiated by a Danish cinema ‘Ned Med Vaabenene’ in 1914 which was based on a book by Bertha Von Suttner, a Danish novelist (Erik, 1971). Saunders (1984) claims that around 1920s Europe recognised the supremacy of American cinema in style and theme but despised its dominating affectation. During the same years, then a small time studio Warner Bros. successfully launched the first cinema with synchronised sound [Weblink 1]. The period of

1920s in Britain saw the emergence of documentary cinemas under the name of John Grierson [Weblink 2]. As per Murthy (1980) Grierson treated documentaries as recording facilities useful for interpreting reality. Jo Fox (2007) discussed Grierson’s efforts in using cinema as the crucial medium to present the government’s strategy during Second World War. Rest of Europe including Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe recognized cinema as a tool for developing social mindset and reflecting reality which could be used as a powerful source of stimulating audience (Stephan, 2006). Hill et al. (1998) and Ginette Vincendeau (2006) have discussed the development of European cinema as an aesthetic and innovative field of art that is socially committed to a humanistic outlook. Theories of socialism constructed after the First World War by Soviet cinema (Beumers, 1999) highlighted difficulties of structuring a system and projected use of cinema as a happy marriage between artistic freedom and a social purpose (Murthy 1980:6). Hollywood around 1960s produced cinemas based on British espionage novels by Ian Fleming, regarding the Cold War tensions prevailing after the Second World War (Fox, 2007). It’s involvement and interest in Britain and British culture was emphasised on by movies on British Pop like ‘A Hard Days Night’ that focussed on promoting the Beatles and their music [Weblink 3]. The extension did not just limit itself to Europe and Hollywood extended their arena by extending towards the east in the 1990’s (Zhu, 2008). A new Genre of cinema came into existence and was referred to as the ‘Third World Cinema’ which was not influenced not produced by Hollywood producers or corporations Chanan, 1997). Third world countries produced a number of revolutionary movies based on decolonisation and other debates on the freedom of the Third World Countries. This genre continued to exploit cinema as a tool of mass-communication for very sensitive and debatable issues that played a prominent revolutionary role and as a medium of communication (Guneratne, 2003). The first evidences of the Third World Cinema also referred to as the Third Cinema, are from Brazil, where cinema took birth between 1908 and 1911 (Lopez, 2000). As claimed by Robert Stam in 2000, the Third Cinema now produces over half the world’s cinemas, excluding cinemas made for television. The Indian cinema industry forms a part of the ‘Third Cinema’. It has grown immensely since its beginnings in 1913 [Weblink 4]. Cinema in India came to life with, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, the first Indian feature cinema. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke also known as Dadasaheb Phalke, the director of the cinema has been proclaimed as the father of Indian cinema [Weblink 4]. The first phase of Indian cinema or the silent era was dominated by the industrialisation of culture and progressed predominantly in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Dissanayake and Gokulsingh, 2004). This period saw production of cinemas with intent to ‘imagine a unified spatio-temporal India.’(Cook, 2007; 217). During transition, narrative in Indian cinema drifted towards melodrama, which explored the issues relating to the transformation of a society towards a more modern and a secular social structure. (Cook 2007) ‘The most strident voice in the 70’s belonged to the counter culture as India was not immune to these global changes and to compound matters, the Emergency (1975) caused a tectonic shift in the very foundation of Indian social and political life (Raheja & Kothari, 2004: 87). This was a period that saw changes in the attitude of depiction in Indian

movies and the growth of art cinemas which ‘repudiated the conventional pattern of cinemamaking (Dissanayake and Gokulsingh, 2004). The era of 1970’s witnessed a mutiny against then existing cinematic norms (Raheja & Kothari, 2004: 87-88). There was an almost gleeful abandonment of straightforward narrative as art cinemamakers slipped off the syntax of songs and stock shots that governed Indian cinemas so far. It was a period which saw the breaking of stereotypes in terms of the content of the cinemas (Dissanayake and Gokulsingh, 2004). However, art cinemas despite breaking the conventions are still dominated by commercial cinemas that cater to the audience’s idea of a cinema- for most of whom it is a medium of escape from reality (Dissanayake and Gokulsingh, 2004). The national cinema of India is the largest in the world in terms of the number of cinemas produced annually as 877 feature cinemas and 1177 short cinemas were released in the year 2003 alone. ‘Bollywood’ a part of Indian Cinema, is one of the largest cinema industries in the world today (Propris and Hypponen 2008). Since the release of its first silent cinema in 1913, the Indian cinema industry is creatively and successfully employing and entertaining billions of people around the globe (Raheja & Kothari, 2004: 13).

Cinema: a cognitive linkage In order to address such a huge audience, cinemas play a very important role in conditioning the thoughts and beliefs of the people because they are able to interact cognitively with audience and allow them to absorb, interpret, critique and reject the narrative and theme portrayed to them (Banaji, 2006: 174). Cinemas in India have dealt with various social issues in the past. A continuity of movies on issues of war and conflict has been a prominent feature of the Indian cinema. The relation to social subjects in cinema has also presented many cinemas on social subjects like widow remarriage, inter-caste marriage, dowry, political corruption, dyslexia and various other subjects (Virdi, 1994). As mentioned by Shakuntala Banaji in 2006 Indian cinemas are a powerful source of discourse for eliminating the issues such as gender bias, sexuality, family, class, religion and violence as these issues are deployed or excluded in a limited number of ways by the cinema (Banaji, 2006: 168). Fictional works in these narratives drift away from reality through fantasy songs and depicted exaggeration of love stories and melodrama. But the cinema helps in educating the audience about various facts regarding the issue (Elsaesser, 1991). Hence according for theorists it is a common belief that the portrayal of fantasy takes priority in the Indian cinema but the limitations of cinema representation bound by the society are also easily evident in cinema (Chaudhuri, 2005). Shakuntala Banaji (2006) argued how cinema tries to imply a factor of good or bad based on the values of society. Movies that lay stress on the values and the relationship of good and bad in Indian cinema has been explained by Banaji (2006) as the representation, based on the argument that cinema does not affect the spectator once he walks out of the cinema. Considering Derne’s theory of the influence of a cinema on its spectator, and the direct reactions caused by it, combined with ideology of Annette Kuhn which emphasises on the importance of social representation in cinema as it is an exchange of money in return for representations (Kuhn, 1994:21-22) making it crucial that the realities of life and social issues are reproduced in some way to ensure awareness amongst the audience. This would also allow Cinema to educate and break social barriers and

evils prevalent in the society. In order to analyse and gain an understanding of representation, this paper links the literature on representation and the addressed social issues such as communal conflicts and poverty in the Indian slums by ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Research Method Qualitative research is usually associated to the explanation of certain phenomenon and it is usually done in small case studies (Denscombe 2000). The answers to research questions raised by this research cannot be quantified or measured in numbers. Thus, a qualitative approach was helpful to consider and analyze several variables and gain a deeper understanding of the area of the research. A cinema can be considered to be a set of images with sound This research applied semiology to analyse the cinema. Semiology helped researchers to explore various concepts signified in the cinema selected for the case study. Semiotics is a phenomenon that draws from linguistic and cultural aspects of a society and is applicable to social sciences and humanities. The word ‘Semiology’ originated from a Greek word ‘Semion’ and means ‘signs’. Semiotics as proposed by Saussure (1961 and 1983) is a study of role of signs in the social life of people living in a society and as per the doctrine of signs by Peirce (1931) it is used to govern the laws prevalent in a society. Semiotics method can be applied to various types of media such as image, cinema and sound as it helps explore the concept behind the visual signifier in these forms of media. Interpretivism can help to observe and analyse various ways through which a cinema represents social concerns. Exploring the use of semiology in the case study, justifies the claims and arguments made by the researcher about cinema’s role as an informative mass media. Based on the research method selected for analysis this research can be divided into different categories namely exploratory, descriptive and explanatory studies (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2000). Exploratory phase of the study focuses on explainining what really is happening and seeks new insights (Saunders, 2000). Descriptive analysis provides distinctive information as it is based on sensory characteristics of a situation and this phase helps the researcher to be sensitive to analyse the situation considering its different attributes. Explanatory phase helped the researcher to understand messages behind situations in the cinema and stimulate the minds of the viewers towards the issues raised by the cinema.

Findings and Discussion Case studies are the preferred strategy when “how” or “why” questions are being posed and the explanatory case study approach is justified when the investigator has little control over events and focus on a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context (Yin, 2003:1). Case study approach works on the basis of the judgment of the researcher, but, it helps to triangulate sources of information such as personal interviews, newspaper reports, documents, and independent reports (Feagin et al, 1991). Use of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as a case study helped the researcher to interpret and analyse cinema as a tool for representing social realities and its impact on creating an awareness about the issues being faced by a society. The movie chosen is relatively recent which made the availability of supporting literature or text on the cinema

difficult to find. Hence, researcher used different sources and works available on similar subject and used them to provide a fresh perspective. To ensure a balanced approach various reviews and interviews related to the cinema available as secondary data were used. The available data were helpful to explore the aftereffects of the movie if any, through various features on events that occurred after the release of the movie, in India across the globe. The data in the form of text was interpreted using theories of semiology from the context of the cinema and the society. These theories were interconnected to some fictional narratives in the cinema that dealt with similar issues and their success in educating the masses. The analysis revealed that the cinema satisfied its target audience by reflecting the current society in India. For Indian audience it has managed to represent reality that exists in their society while for the western audience it has created a sense of empathy for the poor in India. It has also very cleverly managed to play on the minds of the audience by creating awareness of social issues that otherwise the audience thought was non- existent. Issues like living in a slum which incorporates poverty, begging etc. portrayed in the cinema have been woven very creatively within the storyline. By using a good combination of images, words and sounds in the cinema, it has been able to communicate a wide variety of information, which includes precise facts and vague impressions (Rosenstone, 1995: 80).

The cinema carries a similar narrative as other cinemas produced and based in the Indian diaspora, and reflects on such issues. The setting of the cinema in an Indian slum and it’s characters built up in the Indian society, apply the limitations of Indian culture and traditions to the narrative. Hence, the resemblance of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ to another bollywood cinema based in a similar setting cannot be undermined. As claimed by the BBC, the movie may be referred to as an ‘Indian cinema by with a western director, in which the central character is played by a British born actor’ [Weblink 10]. The reflections of the Indian society and the city of Mumbai in the movie, have been claimed by the Director Danny Boyle as ‘captures of a tiny bit’ [Weblink 10]. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ received a warm global reception. Discussing the ideology of a popular cinema which tries to satisfy the hidden desires of its audiences by offering them what they lack and cannot seek easily such as sex, glamour, riches and ends by communicating unalterable materiality of the society in which characters exist (Valicha, 1988: 31). Highlighting the ways in which a story or a truth can be told and twisted to communicate different types of messages Arundhati Roy proposed “It isn't about the story. It isn't about the Truth. It isn't about what really happened. It's none of that high falutin' stuff. It is about us. We make the decisions about how much we would like to see. And when the mixture's right, it thrills us, and we purr with approbation’ (Roy 1994). The first portrayal of the Indian social structure may be noticed in the cinema when the game show host, addresses the crowd and welcomes them in four different languages. The signifier of a secular society sets stage for the portrayal of communal disharmony prevalent in the country, revealed later in the cinema. The fictional narrative relates to the consequences of this disharmony wherein because of religious riots many children get orphaned and homeless. The

same has been revealed about Jamal who as a kid escaped the riots with his brother, Salim and a girl from the vicinity, Latika. The three characters form the main characters for the movie. The representation of issues in cinemas is dependent on the level of acceptance of the audience. As per Judith Mayne (1993: 172) spectatorship is one of the ordinary activities when theorized has the ability to create spaces around a concept in opposite directions and drives audience to recognize contradictory nature of their pleasures and beliefs. Valicha (1988) and Roy (1994) both have argued about the process of making a cinema which is socially relevant as well as commercially successful is all dependent on understanding the audience. Valicha (1988) stated that cinemas are an outlet for the audience’s fantasy, whereas, Roy (1994) suggests that it is ‘the audience’ who decides what it wants. Steven Spilberg during Oscar Academy Awards 2009 while discussing about the power of cinema to influence the audience stated:

“Cinemas inspire everyone who ever sat in a theatre, or worked in front of or behind a camera” [Weblink 8] ‘Times’ magazine in an article about the perception of children living in poor areas of Mumbai, quoted their narratives about incidents in the cinema as “true to life”. The article also featured case of a boy who escaped a broken home and spent years of his life travelling on a train and looking for refuge. Such resemblances help audience to relate to the life of the characters in the movie who consider the cinema as ‘an accurate picture of the real world’. As cinema directly implicates the production and reproduction of meanings, values, and ideology in both sociality and subjectivity, it should be better understood as a signifying practice or a work that produces effects of meaning and perception, self images and subject positions for all those involved, makers and viewers, and thus a semiotic process in which the subject is continually engaged, represented and inscribed in ideology’ (De Lauretis, 1984: 37). ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has received criticism from Indian audience as they suggest that the movie depicts India as a poor nation. News features reveal the comments of a famous Bollywood actor and celebrity, Amitabh Bachhan who claims the cinema portrays India as a “third world dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots”, he suggests that this portrayal of India is categorization or discrimination towards the country. He adds, “let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations” [Weblink

9].

Based on a book ‘Q and A’ by Vikas Swaroop an Indian diplomat and author the movie tells the story with all the emotions and reflections of a bollywood movie. The presence of a song, dance composition in the cinema helps it relate more to the Indian style of narration. The selection of hero of the cinema who is also an Indian by origin and ethnicity and other Indians as actors helps audience to relate better. The hero who never went to a proper school seems to possess knowledge about the name of the man on a 100 dollar bill but not Indian Rupee note which he gains from an American tourist who he faked as a tour guide and helped his friends conduct robbery. The appropriateness of incidents such as pick pocketing and theft has been explained by the reviews of tourists on their visit to tourist spots in India. One such reviewer posted a warning, “Avoid being duped by the fake guides and car parking people in Fatehpur Sikri.” [Weblink 5].

The narrative of the cinema emphasises on tortures like child labour, forced beggary, physical torture and prostitution and the cinema proclaims that it re-iterates a deserving story of rags to

riches[Weblink 6].

The events in the cinema induce suspense and entertainment factors making

it a source of entertainment that reveals something new to the western audience and makes them

aware of the poverty struck regions of India and educates them about life in those areas. But the debate sparked by its influence explains the divisions within the society and the difference of the rich and the poor. While some Indians rank among an elite group of the richest people in the world and a cinema industry that believes in representing reality condemn the representation of a harsh reality. The ones living a life mirrored in the cinema perceive it as a happy cinema and an inspiration. Based on the cinema, one of India’s leading English dailies opened a factfile of poverty and malnutrition and revealed statistics that support the representations made by the movie. The times of India declares that India sustains the highest number of malnutritioned population in the world and the same accounts for nearly 50% of child deaths in India [Weblink 7]. Authors such as Harbord (2007:1) stated that the cinema is a fictional and experimental work which can be considered as ametuer’s 8mm production presented in the form of an ethnographic documentary and works as a teaching tool for the audience and gives the author a test run. For a fictional piece of work, Slumdog Millionaire portrays many concerns of the Indian society. In an

attempt to help the audience to be able to relate to a fictional story, the portrayal of the society as claimed and mentioned earlier has been captured ‘true to life’

.

Conclusion This paper analyses the work of a cinema as a form of informative mass media through social representation. While Indian society has been considered to be a very literate society since

ancient years, the reflection made by the film portrays a negative image of Indian society through

a story that revolves around people living in slums. The story has been projected in a manner

that is found very unique and interesting but very sad by international audience. This paper reviews cinema from the historical context to the current situation, uses semiotic method to answer the research questions based on the analysis of much appreciated cinema ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. The film portraits a transparent picture of social concerns of a society made of a set of poor people in India. The movie also provides a good example of how a cinema set in a society should abide by the limitations, culture and traditions of the particular society. The aftereffects of the cinema demonstrate that representation of social reality by cinema can cause various organisations to step up and work for the society in which they operate. The reviews, reactions and media coverage received by the cinema emphasises that cinema represents and helps create awareness about social problems. Such representations always help the audience to see a silver lining in the dark skies.

Cinema has the capability to create a fusion of fantasy and reality for developing a provision of hope and inspiration on a belief that society can stand through social plagues. While cinema can represent the social epidemics for a good reason and can initiate a supportive action in real-life, in contradiction it can also use symbols and images to communicate messages or values related to a society that become dominant in the minds of spectators. Over a period of time these become beliefs and are considered as truth by the spectators. Therefore, while cinema has the ability to create a homogeneous image of a society when viewed from the perspective of its spectators who are from another culture based on its capability to project a society as good or

bad that may eventually lead people to either trust or distrust the society. Simultaneously, it can be used as a media to communicate about the strengths and opportunities that a society offers to

international audience and create a market for the society.

businesses are seeking to explore new territories, cinema can become a media that can cut through the language barriers and use images and symbols to communicate the value a society can offer as a brand would offer. Findings recommend that governing bodies and businesss managers work with cinema producers to communicate their messages to their target audience. Future work on this topic should be carried out in order to understand if cinema can be used to communicate generally or to specific segments of spectators.

Today, during globalisation when

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