Social change through interactive storytelling: A South Asian imagining

By Salim Arif

Art is expected to move us and thus wield the power to influence our views. Cultural sensitivity has been intrinsic to our social lives and the role of artists goes beyond that of mere entertainment. Yet, socially relevant art has yet to secure essential space in our everyday life. At a time when cultural sensitivity and social responsibility are central to our society, the contribution of socially motivated artists is pivotal. The role of art, artists and art institutions in shaping the beliefs of our society cannot be overly emphasised. Still, it would be impractical to say that art can bring in social change. It can only be used to create an atmosphere where expression and discussion of conflicting ideas can be facilitated. Because any art form will first have to fulfil the fundamental artistic need of that form to have any valuable meaning before we can call it socially relevant art.

Coming to our country and region, in the absence of pop art or culture, cinema and television have occupied that space. The narrative traditions in contemporary Indian cinema trace their roots to the prevalent Parsi theatre of the late 19th century regarding aesthetics. This structure in turn imbibed all the elements of our popular folk traditions and also of ancient Sanskrit classics in its narrative as stated earlier. Songs, dances, two or three sub-plots, the role of comic relief and so on were used to embellish the story and its main plot. Any Indian major mainstream film will have these elements, including blockbusters like Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam, Sholay, Lagaan or Three Idiots. It is difficult to categorise any Indian film in 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” and so on as descriptions of the kind of film one would be watching. 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, and dances of celebration within the narrative, even if they seemed external additions to the main plot. From mythological films based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the Western-inspired dacoit films, all predictable entertainment elements were expected to be present to make those films complete. Irrespective of the nature of the content, songs, dances and comedy are virtually mandatory for 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 potpourri to be savoured by the senses. Sadly, we are losing the unique Indian narrative style incorporating song and dance as essentials of expression to a more realistic presentation of stories where they seem more like escapist interventions.

Cinema and popular forms of entertainment were until recently seen by critics as caterers of escapist fare to transport us all away from our stressful everyday lives. The economically empowered urban Indian scenario with an emphasis on making us all citizens of a global village has already made us into a two- or three-language society, resulting in creating a complex cultural mosaic for artists to negotiate. The Covid period, though, brought in a major change. Each of us was forced to consume entertainment streamed to our homes. It brought in a major viewership change. We are still finding ways to deal with this altered new world that is expected to change storytelling. With increasing corporate control over content and platforms today, we have only to look at multiplexes, the Special Economic Zones of our entertainment, to understand where our most affordable form of storytelling has been taken by market forces that target about 15 percent of our total population with their high spending power to rake in as much as they can, excluding the 85 percent that is economically irrelevant, given free entertainment in their homes through TV shows. So, today the market forces have reduced television to a medium for domestic helps to watch stories of family intrigue in slums. Recent Indian OTT platforms with a generous dollop of data by mobile companies and no major censorship of soft porn and crime stories, patronised by channels that air content on the lines of Manohar Khanaiyaan magazine of the 1970s, are popular with watchmen, hawkers, auto drivers, and young boys and girls in rural and semi-rural areas who watch on their mobiles. The urban viewer has shifted to Netflix and similar platforms and it is interesting to see the popularity of dubbed Korean serials among urban youth. Panchayat, Gullak and Aam Aadmi Family are shows that are few and too far between to really have any major sensitisation impact on viewers.

Old style movie projector, still-life, close-up.

In a large section of rural India where native culture is abandoned with economic prosperity, it becomes even more critical to have interventions that can help preserve our cultural roots. The interactive role of storytelling is taken on mostly by the performing arts and we have had a very successful model of this in the phenomenon of Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre work with the Chhattisgarhi Nacha Artists.
With his first Nacha Workshop in 1973, Tanvir worked out community presentations to address issues of social identity, power and structures of marginalisation. He inspired rural folk artistes to take up issues of importance in their lives such as untouchability and casteism through stories that became forms of performative activism. In the workshop, he used intergroup dialogue as a tool for creative action for social change. Taking stories from the repertoire of traditional Nacha skits like Jamadarin and Bahadur Kalarin, Tanvir gave the rural performer confidence to perform on mainstream stages throughout the world in their native language and style, empowering them to express themselves with gay abandon. If we have a Teejan Bai or Panthhi Dancers as iconic folk artistes of our country, they are all discoveries of Tanvir.
There has been a flurry of private media and film schools in our country where the role of mentors and teachers has become very important. Most of these students come from affluent families with very little knowledge of our cultural heritage. A teacher today has to change from keeper of knowledge to facilitator of learning, introducing ways for students to learn from Sanskrit dramas, Premchand, Ismat Chughtai, Manto and others as much as they have to know about world literature and different cultures. Cultural studies are important for future storytellers as much as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and The Godfather as main plot sources for our mainstream stories. The current scenario regarding the New Education Policy presents a challenge and also an opportunity for mentors to dramatically change the way their students learn in the film and media schools. Essentially a manual meant for stage craft, the Natya Shastra is very often regarded as the foundation for the fine arts in India including the popular Indian films. Not only in theatre but any assessment in painting, music, dance, literature or cinema would also refer to this rasanubhav (experience of the emotional impact) as the epitome of desired impact and aesthetic evaluation of all art forms in India.

Students can develop increased awareness of themselves individually and as members of social groups, learning more about their own and other cultures, histories, and experiences, and exploring commonalities and differences across boundaries of nation and culture.


About the author: Salim Arif is an illustrious alumnus of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, with several prestigious plays, television shows and films to his credit. He has been head of the departments of Production Design, Acting and Cultural Studies at Whistling Woods International, Mumbai, a leading film institute of Asia since 2014 and is currently an Executive Member of the Governing Council, Media & Entertainment Skills Council of India (MESC), under the National Skill Development Council, New Delhi since 2018.


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