Traditional Indian Narrative Structure – The basis of our mainstream cinema by Salim Arif (Part 3)


Towards the end of Gupta Period (4th Century AD to 8th Century AD) in Central India, the official patronage to the Sanskrit and classical plays suffered, resulting in the ruling class supported theatre activity dying a natural death in several urban centres of that era. The practice of this kind of theatre managed to survive in the countryside in several regional forms, which had a similar structure and idiom of song – dance and performance together in narrating stories from our ancient mythology and rural folklore. Most of our folk theatre practices would have in any case served as the basis of the codification and classification as suggested in Natya Shastra and thus several of those elements survived in our living traditions. Till about 1850’s due to Muslim rulers in North India, there was no officially patronized theatre activity, creating a long break in performing art traditions and marginalizing of the Sanskrit language in which these plays happened. But the folk theatre and traditional forms could survive, being part of rituals and social activity. South Indian dynasties like Chola provided patronage to classical performing arts mostly around temples and religious rituals and they could survive.

In the West, during and after the Renaissance, theatre got a fillip and with Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Chekov, and others it developed a social acceptance that has since continued. It also changed the form from the days of Aristotle and became more flexible without any classical bondage.

The French Revolution of 1789 and then the revolution of 1848, led to the emergence of a middle class as the decisive force in society. The core of this class came from the semi educated products of the national school university systems initiated by Napoleon in France and followed by other countries in Europe. Combined with this is the emergence of small towns with a semblance of urbanization and resultant Bourgeois lives.

This evolution of a new civilization was also happening in India, with the establishment of Presidency College and other British academic institutions, around 1850s. Cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Karachi, Lahore and Madras came up as important trade and commerce centres during the process of industrialization, attracting immigrants from several parts of the country. This new mixed population in expanding cities needed entertainment. By this time auditoriums as places for public performances, town halls, opera house kind of theatres spread all over cities and proscenium stage theatres became a norm. Unlike the Shakespearian stage which could provide flexibility of space to denote several locales and one could perform a whole play with props on a bare stage much like our Sanskrit Theatre staging, this architecture of Proscenium theatre with its box set stage facilities facilitated the creation of plausible interiors or rooms on stage with real life details and dimensions. In an allied progression of Naturalism, this one end, three wall setting on stage led to the audience becoming a fourth wall in this make believe “illusion of reality” drama world. The fixed seating of each audience member gave them a fixed perspective of this framed, live changing picture on stage, an element which laid the basis of cinema little later.

The Parsi (a rich community of entrepreneurs in India) merchants of Bombay saw a commercial possibility in creating theatre companies that would become performing troupes travelling around in the country in several cities with multiple shows. They began to be called Parsi Theatre Companies. A company of this kind will have two or three writers, backstage technicians, managers, costume and setting teams, actors and couple of directors (very often called dialogue coaches). Taking a cue from painted backdrops and landscapes of European paintings, these plays used several backdrops depicting various locations. After each scene, the backdrop would change from a forest to a palace courtroom or the bedroom of the princess. While the backdrop change would take a few seconds, the setting up of appropriate properties like furniture pieces and other related accessories took more time. In spite of several stagehands, it still needed about 5 to 15 minutes to put everything in place. It was also not feasible to have so many intervals as the narrative flow would get hampered. The Parsi playwrights thought of an indigenous way of keeping the audience engaged during this set change time gap. Inspired by our traditional folk theatre forms, they incorporated song and dance to fill in this time. A half curtain would become the backdrop and a comic skit called comic interlude would happen while the changes took place behind this half curtain. These comic interludes created laughter and provided welcome relief to the audience involved in the main dramatic flow of a play like ‘Yahoodi Ki Ladki’. To break this monotony, a few item songs would also be performed during these changes of scenes. Thus comic scenes and dance numbers became mandatory of any narrative as allied tracks to the main storyline.

They were the subplots to the main storyline. This requirement created a specialist set of actors who were called comedians, dancers, villains, vamps and action heroes. They were actors who would be limited to doing comic scenes, a dance number, play the bad man or woman as part of archetypes or stereotyped roles. Typecasted in several plays, these accomplished actors who became stars in their own right, did the same kind of roles in different garbs for almost their entire careers. The same tradition got picked in our films and several actors in these roles at times were bigger stars than our main heroes.

These Parsi companies shifted lock, stock and barrel to mainstream cinema, sensing more commercial potential in the new medium. This laid foundation for the early studio system of film making and these companies became film producing studios. The same sensibilities of Parsi theatre shaped the initial language of Indian cinema from the silent era. The content initially borrowed stories from our two epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana along with fantasies from Persian legends as well as Arabian Nights. The costumes and decor were influenced by the Roman, Elizabethan and Persian elements. These companies now were showing films of their own plays, and one can call most of these early films as filmed theatre. With the advent of sound, the play texts were shot in entirety to provide popular content from mythological as well as social themes and this filmed material was shown in the same converted playhouses now called cinemas. The sound gave Indian films an opportunity to have a continued emphasis on dialogue and more so, on songs in popular films as essential means of conveying content, most of the times at the cost of visual language. It is interesting to note here that Oscars don’t carry a Dialogue Award for writers as dialogue in a script are considered part of the screenplay. In India, all popular film awards have this category, placing the story-writer, screenplay writer, dialogue writer and song writer as individual specialists worthy of recognition in any film.

It is pertinent to note that Indian films under the scrutiny of several Western observers have suffered in assessment. Instead of understanding the tradition they come from, our films are judged on the same yardstick to that of Western films. Against a 90-100 minutes of single plot narrative in a Western film, without the ritualistic song and dance, an Indian mainstream popular film will have about 140-150 minutes of screen time with songs, dance and comic scenes providing routine entertainment. These songs and dances very often entice the audiences into theatres. The only significant change post the influential Michael Jackson era has been that Indian film songs have gradually shifted from the ones which could be sung by people to those where they can dance. This shift from melody to beat has been a Western influence in our film music and has resulted in reducing the importance of good lyrics which had a strong tradition of poetry, with several important literary poets writing songs in our films. This tradition of poets as writer of scripts and songs with emphasis on spoken words also comes to us from Natya Shastra days.

(To be continued….)


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