Why And How Seeing Is Not Just An Act Of Believing: Notes On Culture Studies In The Context Of Films As Cultural Artifacts
The Eyes Have It
The look is not as innocent as it seems. There is a stigma attached to it, there is a fear. There are reasons and there are beneficiaries who do not want everyone to have the abilities to look and perceive its meaning. That’s why there are censor boards. That’s why there are arbiters of morality. That’s why the laws. That’s why the taboos. That’s why the plain dos and don’ts.
Indian culture does not approve the direct look. You cannot stare at someone or something directly, especially if that someone is some way or other different from us. It’s rude. It’s violation of moral propriety. Legend has it that when the Goddess Saraswati appeared before Kalidasa to offer him a boon for his great penance, the great poet started praising the beautiful Goddess from her face and downwards; the Goddess was so angry at this crude behaviour that she cursed him to be killed by a woman. That’s because a God must be praised from the feet.
That’s why we fall at the feet of the Gods in temples. That’s why we bow before our elders. That’s why the subjects would kneel at the arrival of the king or the queen.
The prevailing culture decides what to look at and how, and how much, and who are the privileged ones. In medieval Kerala, the ministers had the rights to see or demand to see any woman’s breasts. In the 1980s, a magazine like Debonair published centerfolds of women in the nude. They don’t anymore. In the 1990s, the national television channel Doordarshan telecast adult films on Friday midnight. Pooja Bedi was criticised for appearing in a contraceptive advertisement. The last page of Pune Times printed a story about Jenifer Lopez’s million dollar buttock, with a provocative accompanying picture. Television journalist Barkha Dutt earned both fame and notoriety by covering the crucial events live, first the Kargil war, then the Mumbai terror attack.
That’s why a bride wears a veil. That’s why a Muslim woman wears Burkha, so that her face does not tempt the manfolk. That’s why celebrities wear those huge Garbo sunglasses. That’s why cars have tinted glasses. That’s why a book or a film is banned. That’s why a news story implicating an influential person is edited out. That why Bipasha Basu’s decision to wear a Bikini in a new film makes the headline. That’s why news of farmers suicides in the interior villages turn into a series of numbers; 315 deaths in two years. That’s why there are two Indias. That’s why Youtube and mobile phone that plays videos are so popular.
That’s why there is the superstition of the evil eye. That’s why looks can kill.
Thus, a look is not just seeing an object (or a subject), but a method of assessment. This assessment takes place at the individual level, at the point of view of the looker. And, this assessment is informed by this particular looker’s personal ideologies. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Each looker gives a new meaning to the object/subject looked at. That’s why meanings are constantly at war. That’s why critics hate a Salman Khan film and the audiences love it.
Yet, it’s the prevailing cultural mores that influence this assessment. These influences work stealthily, and it is very difficult to pin them down. Who decided that thin women are sexier? Who decided that fair skin is more desirable than black or brown skin? Who decided that six pocket jeans are no longer in fashion? Who decided that George Clooney is the sexiest man alive? Who decided that Kerala is God’s own country? Who decided that whiskey is rich man’s drink and rum poor man’s?
What does each of these decisions mean in the context of the prevailing culture? Whom it benefits?
There is a tendency to trivialise the look, or at best, romanticise it… “Ankhohi, ankhohi mein ishara ho gaya…” sung Dev Anand in Md Rafi voice, and Geeta Dutt crooned, “Kahi pe nigahein, kahi pe Nishana…” Sri Devi’s eyes are the stuff dreams are made of.
In this post-post-modern world we live in this innocence is lost. Love at the first sight is a myth. Beauty is skin deep and the skin has been polished in the neighbourhood beauty parlour.
Now, we know there is a reason why we look at a certain things in a particular way. No object/subject has its inherent meaning. The meanings are always thrust upon, and there are always reasons for it, and there is always a beneficiary. Everything that takes place in society within the sphere of the so called culture must benefit someone or other, and it does.
In the context of the culture studies, we can term this beneficiary ‘mainstream,’ and the system ‘patriarchy.’ It is the most identifiable villain. But patriarchy moves in mysterious ways.
In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was nothing. The discipline of anthropology would tell us that nothing is natural. Everything is constructed. If we consider human beings as just another species on Earth, then, we must concede that everything we have achieved in the glorious span of human civilisation, are all unnatural, starting from wearing clothes to eating cooked food, everything. Perhaps, this ability to read and write is at the very centre of this unnaturalness.
That is why we must question why we are allowed to see certain things and banned from seeing certain things? Why we are forced to see things in a particular way? Why we are expected to arrive at given meanings? Why the culture forces us to accept beliefs, norms without question? Why the very idea of question is questioned?