Is Cinema same as Natya?

Understanding Cinema as Natya, there is a hope that we would rediscover the intellectual heritage and be benefitted with cross cultural debates, writes Prachand Praveer as delves into the underlying principles of Natyashatra and how these principles reflect in the modern cinema


Can Cinema be called as ‘Natya’? Let us take a step back and understand what ‘Natya’ signifies? Natya is not the same as drama or play, rather it is the subject-matter or the essence of a play (Nataka). The ancient Indian dramaturgy, as illustrated in the Natyashastra (composed between 200 BC to 200 AD, by generations of scholars and the authorship is attributed to sage Bharata Muni), explains many concepts which claims to cover all kinds of arts subservient to Natya.

Natyashastra meant to serve as a practical guide for poets and artists for the successful creation and performance of ‘Natya’. It begins with the mythological anecdote about how Natya was created. In one of the key dialogues, Indra, the king of Gods, requests Lord Brahma to create a playful medium which is both aural and visual. He asked that the new playful medium should be the summum bonum of all knowledge i.e. liberation or freedom, available for everyone.


Theatre, Natya, and Rasa

Let us have a relook on some key words such as Nritt, Nritya and Natya. A normal category of dance devoid of any conveyable meaning is classically called Nritt. When the meaning is conveyed through dance movements it is called Nritya. In Natya, there is the element of Rasa, which is the object of relishment as well as the relishment itself. The idea of Rasa is remarkably interesting for thinkers, art-theorist as well as common people as per our cultural heritage.

We commonly associate and equate ‘Natya’ with the theatrical performance. When we think of theatre, we tend to attribute certain histrionics or some exaggeration in speech or movements. Based on this limited outlook, we tend to overlook certain basic principles. The commonly understood exaggeration is covered in one of the ten parts of Natya — dharmi, which does not prescribe exaggeration always.


Natyashastra and Abhinavagupta

Our understanding of Natyashastra would have been very superficial had we not discovered the lost commentary on it by the great Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher of the tenth century, Abhinavagupta. The Abhinavabharati, was found in the 1910s in Kerala. With this discovery, Indian philosophical discourse found a fresh grandeur in Kashmir Shaivism, which claims to be the fruit of great classical Indian philosophical debates on Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ontology, Grammar and Bhakti traditions after the debates of Buddhism vs Sanatana, Dualistic vs Non-Dualistic traditions, assimilating the impacts of Grammarian on various schools of thoughts. Abhinavagupta’s impact can be seen in the Sangita-Ratnakara of Sharangdeva in the 13th century.


Philosophical Systems and Rasa Theory

To understand the implication of philosophical discourse in aesthetics, we end up discussing attributes of consciousness and its functions. That is why, an idea of enjoyment of the arts is linked with the metaphysical and epistemological thoughts to be discussed within a coherent framework of ideas. For example, we can say our consciousness has three major functions: to know, to act and to feel. These functions are not mutually exclusive but are dominant facets to comprehend consciousness. Now the rule of knowing (involving knowledge, knower and known) and the rule of acting (involving action, agent, and object) are different from the rule of feeling (involving relishment, aesthete and an aesthetic performance).

The famous rasa formula illustrates that while watching a dramatic performance, the fusion of determinant, consequent and transitory emotion express rasa (commonly translated as ‘sentiment’). The rasa expressed is of eight types: Love (Shringara), Comic (Hasya), Heroic (Veera), Marvelous (Adbhuta), Fury (Raudra), Tragic (Karuna), Odious (Vibhatsa), and Terrible (Bhayanaka). The key characteristic of the Rasa theory is the identification of a chief rasa in the entire performance while the other rasas expressed in the same drama becomes subservient to it.

Cinema Through Rasa

Over a period of time, many scholars have tried to add a few more rasas to the above list. Great debates have filled up literary discourses over centuries, while Cinema, the new art form having a history of only 125 years, unfolds to modern audiences and has reinvented itself through various stages. The early era of silent and black & white movies was more universal. As technology progressed, sound was added to moving images and the talkies of the 30s replaced the idea of silent movies. When colour movies become affordable to all directors, the 60s witnessed the B&W movies moving out. The current change is adoption of the 3D and the business aspect is also undergoing a transformation through OTT media services.

It is interesting to note that almost all the masterpieces of world cinema can be explained within the Indian classical framework of the Rasa Theory. Bharata Muni notes three kinds of fear while discussing the Terrible sentiment and we find that Alfred Hitchcock obsessed with making films related to pseudo-fear or fear of wrong doing. It is our ignorance if we equate and limit the ‘Terrible Sentiment’ to monsters and the horror-genre, which is another kind of Bhayanaka Rasa. Similarly, our vocabulary limits our notion of heroism to fighting the bad. In a way the westerns of John Ford or the great samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa are indeed heroic and subscribe to the Veera Rasa, but there are other aspects of heroism such as the sacrificing and the righteous hero. Thus, the onus is on us to perceive Charlie Chaplin as a hero in his celebrated film, City Lights (1931) than to think of him as a mere comedian. Substantial works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scoresese are limited to the Fury Sentiment (Raudra Rasa). It can be noticed that the protagonist in the movies such as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Good Fellas (1990) and The Irishman (2019) are not noble individuals but criminals or what can be classically called as having a demonic nature.


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