Updated: June 21, 2011 12:08 IST

Imaging deities and deifying images

C. S. Venkiteswaran
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OEB: Book Review: Celluloid Deities (the Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India). _ by Preminda Jacob.
OEB: Book Review: Celluloid Deities (the Visual Culture of Cinema and Politics in South India). _ by Preminda Jacob.

This book is about banners and cut-outs that, for almost half-a-century, were “an integral part of the visual processes by which Chennai's residents made the cultural texts of Tamil cinema and politics their own.” Film-making was always an industry where inscrutable audience preferences and huge financial investments combined to render every product a risky proposition. At the same time, there is also the irresistible lure of fame and windfall. Those are the pulls and pushes that make the culture swing from “conservative reaffirmations of the status quo to wildly creative high-risk ventures.”

Interestingly, in politics too, matters are not very different, thanks to the structural weakening of political parties and erosion of ideological commitment especially since the advent of coalition era. In the second part of this book, there is a chapter on “political cut-outs.” The central questions around which the study and its methodology are organised are: How did the social and political context of these images produce particularities of their subject matter and artistic style? How did the local audience perceive them? And how are we, from an international and global perspective, to perceive and historicise them?

Banners and cut-outs

The first four chapters examine the status of banners and cut-outs as art objects, focussing on their production and semiotics of the medium, the people who create the images, the conditions in which they create the pieces, and the aesthetic criteria they apply. The social, political, and religious contexts of these images are discussed in the next two chapters, highlighting the multiple functions cinematic and political imagery perform in contemporary South Indian society. The last two deal with the relationship between the notion of darshan and spectatorship, and the future of cinematic spectatorship.

Basically, cut-outs and banners seek to amplify and magnify the impact of the subject, be it a film star or a politician or anyone, and the task of producing them has increasingly become tough and unenviable. If the work is at once a craft and an art form, it is a means of livelihood for those engaged in it. But the product itself has a short life. Put up with great aplomb, the cut-outs/banners lose their relevance after a few weeks — the material itself gets faded or defaced — and are soon removed and recycled. This, perhaps, is the reason no banner/cut-out artist preserves his creations, which in turn results in his being placed somewhere between an ‘artist' and an ‘artisan'. All this notwithstanding, there is little doubt that his work is an endless and seemingly chaotic play with colours and calls for multifarious skills related to composition, positioning of figures, use of fonts, designing, and placement. Above all, he must know to apply these skills in a manner appropriate to the target population and locality.

What makes the study interesting is the way it delves into the dynamics of this sector, drawing out both the grind and routine aspects of the job, as well as the creative and spontaneous. In the process, it provides a lot of fresh insights into the many facets of ‘banners' and the multiple purposes for which they are used — advertising, propaganda, and so on.

The second part looks at this evanescent medium in a wider context, as a “representative of cyclical shifts in media” — from melodramatic theatre to academic painting; from academic painting to cinema; from the moving image to film stills and, finally, from the photographic images of cinema to banner painting. Every mode of visual representation gains popularity by “entwining the emotive power of rasa with the unambiguous binaries of melodrama.”

On Tamil cinema

In the process, the study brings out some interesting facets of Tamil cinema and stardom, as well as the celebrity cult in Tamil Nadu and its political dimensions. It explores the complex relationships involving film, fame, charisma, and political fortunes. But one could see the sheer ‘weight' of such a wide scope sagging the narrative in some places. This is partly because what could have been provided as detailed footnotes is given in the main text. Sometimes, highly nuanced and complex concepts and historical events are treated lightly and in a compressed manner. As a pioneering attempt in this area, Celluloid Deities is laudable and it undoubtedly makes a significant contribution to film/cultural studies in India.

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