Traditional Indian Narrative Structure – the basis of our mainstream cinema by Salim Arif (Last Part)


Indian films right from its inception have been influenced by the Rasa transmission theory in its execution. The entire effort is to evoke the desired Rasa or mood in crucial moments within various situations in a film for the audience to absorb. Very often it’s the emotional impact that decides the fate of a film. All audio-visual components of cinema are used towards this in a film.

Scripts, scenes, dialogue, songs and music all work towards a heightened emotional experience. The background music assumes great significance as does the writing. The acting style also gets influenced in the process. In the Stanslavskian method of acting, the actor has to “Be” the character, becoming a living embodiment of that character as compared to a medium conveying emotions of a character. He is expected to treat the audience as the “Fourth Wall”, being oblivious of its presence in the theatre while immersed in the role. The same logic is extended to the camera while performing a scene for a film. This “naturalistic” portrayal is a small part of the Sattvik style of internalised, felt Abhinaya in the classical Indian format. Acting in Natya Shastra, which like any post modernist theatre acting style, keeps a constant notion of the presence of an audience while performing. The actor is expected to be a medium on stage, aware of the fact that he is acting or presenting a character rather than becoming immersed in the role in an indulgent way. It in no way gives you a “slice of life” on stage as if you are peeping into homes of these characters. It is the Natya Dharmi (theatrical or stylised) style, quite similar to the style espoused by Brecht with his theory of “alienation” that demands a certain objectivity for the action on stage.

This Brecht style of alienation in acting comes useful when you realise that acting for cinema requires a non-linear method of performance as compared to the linear acting on stage. With various locations and different time zones during the making of any film, the demands on an actor to maintain continuity of emotional and physical state of their characters in cinema is the essence of his or her craft. Most of Brecht’s plays are constructed from various elements such as action, songs, music, slides, captions, and stylized acting which create their impact through juxtaposition and contrast.

All these elements incidentally are common in our folk and Sanskrit as well as some Shakespearean plays. The scenes are often in various chunks juxtaposed with one another rapidly, essentially presenting a journey of experience episode by episode. In Brecht’s dramaturgy, this structure forces the spectator to draw comparisons and consider the inconsistencies between the images presented on stage and not become immersed in the fictional narrative without thinking about it. As Meyerhold wrote, both he and his former student “were looking for a new type of stage, free from anything which might get in the actor’s way.” Theatre audiences start out as a mass of individuals and the traditional Aristotelian theatre lulls the individuals into a sense of privacy and isolation–they’re alone in the dark, separate not only from the actors on the stage but from everyone else around them, not to mention everyone outside the theatre.

In Brecht’s view, an audience cannot be passive when confronted with a non-linear theatrical structure, but must actively participate to connect the dots, to become critical observers. Let’s also look at what the film maker Sergei Eisenstein says:

“In fact, every spectator, in correspondence with his individuality, and in his own way and out of his own experience–out of the womb of his fantasy, out of the warp and weft of his associations, all conditioned by the premises if his character, habits and social appurtenances, creates an image in accordance with the representational guidance suggested by the author leading him to understanding and experience of the author’s theme.”

He further states:

“And now we can say that it is precisely the montage principle, as distinguished from that of representation, which obliges spectators themselves to create and the montage principle, by this means, achieve that great power of inner creative excitement in the spectator which distinguishes an emotionally exciting work from one that stops without going further than giving information or recording events.”


The narrative traditions in our contemporary Indian Cinema traces its roots to prevalent Parsi theatre of the late nineteenth century for its aesthetics as we have seen. This structure in turn imbibed all the elements of our popular folk traditions and also of ancient Sanskrit classics in its narrative as discussed earlier. Songs, dances, two or three sub plots, role of the comic relief etc. were there to embellish the story and its main plot. Any Indian major mainstream film would have these elements, including blockbusters like ‘Mother India’, ‘Mughal-e- Azam’, ‘Sholay’, ‘Lagaan’ or ‘3 Idiots’. It is difficult to categorize any Indian film within one simple genre. Rather an Indian mainstream film in itself is a genre, combining several genres in one. The traditional classification would have terms like “Mythological”, “Social”, “Fantasy”, “Stunt”, “Comedy” etc. as description of the kind of film one would get to see. These terms were able to determine the nature of the subject of any film for the audience. But it did not mean that these films would not have comic relief, songs of communion and separation, dances of celebrations within the narrative, even if they seemed external additions to the main plot.

From mythologicals based on Ramayana and Mahabharat to the western-inspired dacoit films, all necessary entertainment elements were expected to be there to make those films complete. Irrespective of the nature of content, songs, dances and comedy is almost mandatory to any Indian popular mainstream film. A combination of all Rasas as enumerated earlier, our films can be termed as having a unity of Rasa as opposed to the Western notion of three classical unities of time, place and action. Much like the eclectic contemporary popular art, Indian cinema remains a spicy pot pourri to be savored by the senses.


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