Semiotics in Indian Cinema: Bollywood Trends post 70’s

W.A. Fahad*

Noted historian Ramchandra Guha said, “Feature films are great popular passion of India, cutting across the social divide; the divide of caste, class, region, religion, gender and language”. Cinema is a cultural institution of the country. Cinema represents certain metaphors which are used continuously for specific constructions. The films and cinema do not ‘replicate’ the reality, but they ‘represent’ it in the fashion which is clichéd, acceptable and economically viable.

De Saussure is the pioneer of the word Semiotics which is also called the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, and symbols etc. When he found that word, he must not have any idea how much his creation will be manipulated by the people of cinema. The symbolic language often used to describe any gesture in the movie has been a supportive tool for the varied situations. For example, in the 70’s it was not allowed to show a kiss or any intimacy on screen, because it was against the public morality. So symbolism has been used very positively as shown in the picture 1.

Semiotics largely deals with signifiers and what do they epitomize. Some symbolic elements are :- Colors, Costumes, Objects, Characters, Sound, Music, Dialogue, Locations, Mise – en- scene ( It refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement-composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting.

Different colors have different connotations. For example, White is a synonym used for peace, prosperity and friendship, whereas in contrast the Black color typifies hatred, evil and bad.

The relationship between a media text/visual and its audience depends upon the cultural position of the receiver as well. If the text is Polysemy (it is open to a large number of interpretations) and has no clarity then content goes for a toss. To illustrate the above points I will use another picture (no 2), which will give us an insight about the symbolic elements. Pic 2.( A still from the movie Black and White)

This is a poster photograph of the movie Black & White, which clearly sends the message in which the protagonist of the story played by Anil Kapoor seen in white attire, does all good deeds throughout the movie, whereas the person with the shady character has always been seen in black clothes.

There are some technical signifiers as well which delineate the plot of the movie. These are :- Colors, Camera angles, Camera shots, Lenses, Depth of field, Editing, Camera movements, Special effects, Lighting, Framing.

I would give an example to show how certain images/ visuals are being created to accommodate a character. For instance Kaka, Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar, the niche hero of 70’s, always made an entry (in his movies), that was a larger than life image and for establishing his character in the movie, everything from the camera angles to different camera movement were used to supported him.

Semiotic has its own language. It is not easily understood by the masses for whom the cinema is being made, but the social stigma has always been associated with the very existence of it. Take a movie called Slum Dog Millionaire, which made India “proud” at the Oscars (Pic 3).

It shows Orientalism through entertainment, maybe because it is a soft form of hegemony and cultural imperialism, which institutionalizes India’s negative development parse and portrays Indians as lumpen proletariats, gangsters and smugglers once more. That was the reason why I put proud in double quotes. It is now time to understand the cinema and films. A fiction is not anymore based on fictitious characters, try to read the derivation and narration of any movie, it says a lot.

Author of this article Mr. W.A.Fahad is teaching Media at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University of Delhi, India.

He is doing Ph.D in Cinema Studies from Department of English and Communication Studies, University school of humanities and social sciences.

He has procured Bachelors and Double Masters in Journalism and Media Governance from Jamia Millia Islamia and posses an M.Phil Degree in Mass Communication too, He has been teaching Development Communication, Media Economics and Press Laws and has varied industry experience too. Apart from being a media scholar, he has been involved in a lot of activism for social change in India.

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