To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
To hold infinity in the palm of your hands
And eternity in an hour
– William Blake
These four lines describe, with great simplicity, one of the highlights of human ability- the power of imagination. The mind’s unlimited capacity to imagine, has given to itself the wonders of human society. Be it religion or art, the conception has been derived from the infinite effort to imagine- a god in flesh and blood or a lifetime in 3 hours.
This is primarily the reason why films, as a medium of expression, have become increasingly popular over the decades. The advantage of films over other mediums, is that it, not only engages more sensory points, but it requires a rush of intellectual and psychological activities that embraces the person in a blanket of momentary false consciousness, allowing him to experience a narrative spanning over years, sometimes centuries in a fixed span of time. All forms of art have a narrative, but the forced experiential aspect is the strongest in films, though some would say books. The very fact that the audience is compelled to think, imagine and experience along with the characters, is what contributes to the popularity of the medium.
The effect is enhanced by the delusional ambience created in a film theatre. An audience experiences the journey singularly, in a state of ignorance. The temporary flight from reality and conscious company, results in the loosening of inhibitions and the active part taking in the process. Once this happens, the audience becomes a part of the whole experience, leading to a conscious or unconscious projection of emotions. The popularity of a film is decided at this point. An uncomfortable or unsuccessful transference of thoughts may result in the rejection of the script. The relation may often be apparent, for instance in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge, where every rosy eyed romantic is swayed, or latent and not obvious, as in the world wide popularity of a region and situation specific film like No Man’s Land.
From Pather Panchali to Lawrence of Arabia, what the films have achieved is a connection with the audience that is based on a sub conscious acting out of the script by every member of the audience. Only when they act out the narrative, do they reach a need for a resolution of the conflict, and the achievement of a resolution creates the emotional impact. The audience is coerced sublimely to act out according to the narrative by playing on their hero complex. The complex is filled with repressed thoughts that are then projected on to the on screen hero. The audience may project other repressed feelings o to other characters like the villain or the mother and so on. Gradually the narrative on screen becomes intertwined with the audience’s own narrative with an immediate identification with the struggles and victories, difficulties and journeys of the characters. For example in Pather Panchali, one can identify simultaneously with Apu and his imaginary playmates, the father and his complexes, the mother and her helplessness, and Durga in her pubertal rebellion. This explosion of imaginary capability is directly derived from our own experiences. Apu defines childish innocence, everything that we wish to preserve in midst of chaotic wisdom, Durga is innocent rebellion with a very subtle streak of spirituality- an inherent but mostly reserved parts of our self. The manifestation of these repressed and almost forgotten parts of the self on screen, establishes ground for an expansion of the self and the acceptance of the idea.
A blockbuster is defined as something, such as a film or book that sustains widespread popularity and achieves enormous sales.
The projective process is facilitated even more because of certain elements that concur with reality and enhance the scope for projective identification. For instance patriarchy is a very deep rooted and embedded in our thinking. If the on screen reality strongly contradicts these ideological aspects, identification becomes difficult. This does not mean that an obviously woman oriented movie always fails, rather that, an empirical evaluation of a list of blockbusters clearly shows a preference for patriarchal edges. There has been a Mother India or more recently The Hours, but both these movies are intrinsically from a man’s point of view. The emphasis here is not on the gender bias, but the influence this has on the psyche of the audience.
THE HERO, THE SHADOW AND THE AUDIENCE
Jungian scholars would emphasize that man is constantly living in one archetypal manifestation or the other. One very prominent of these is the hero archetype. The conflict between the hero and the shadow archetypes represents majority of the storylines of the blockbusters. What is important to note here is that the shadow can often be within the hero (as when fighting ones own shadows) rather than it being an outside object or person. The identification with the hero derives from here. The shadow is e depository of all negative feelings, destructive desires and repressed wishes. When confronted with on screen, the “evilness” of the shadow comes into consciousness and becomes the thread of identification. The shadow can thus be the evil villain, or the hopelessness of poverty or simply the unfairness of the ruthless world. The hero comes alive, here, to protect the ego from destruction under the threat from the shadow. At this point, the audience is reminded of the past struggles fought successfully, or lost. In both extremities, there is an immediate identification with the hero because his struggles become real- even if it is against imaginary aliens. Aliens or elders, mother in law or the government- they all become representations of the shadow archetype. Identifying with the hero, might also work as a defense mechanism. Since the shadow remains in all of us, a conscious rejection of the shadow and identification with the hero only saves the ego from realization of the dismal truth and consequent disintegration. In the biggest Hollywood blockbuster- titanic, the shadow is not another person or object, it is the situation, often referred to as fate, the way of the world and so on. The existence of these dark forces is experienced by almost everyone. The overwhelming contradiction that the farness of the reality and the closeness of the situation creates, leads to an explosion of emotional projection.
If we go by the highest grossing Hollywood movies of all time lists, it is interesting to see that many of them are fictional, mythical or extraordinary tales of man’s struggle with the most destructive of forces. However, it is not far fetched to say that most of the audience would not have experienced a shark attack or an alien invasion, or fights with dead pirates, in reality. This is where imagination and creative forces mingle with the outpour of repressed thought. There is projection, not only onto the hero but also the shadow. The shark and the evil lord of magic, no matter how unreal and irrational, come to symbolize repressed unwanted desires. From a Jungian spiritual perspective, these could include the seven cardinal sins for instance.
This internal struggle awakens another aspect of the audience’s mind and personality- the hero complex. We all want to be comic book heroes, who can do no wrong and who can never be defeated. This is also Jung’s hero archetype. The complex arises from the non realization of heroic tendencies and the subsequent anxiety. However, in front of the movie screen, and in midst of an epic tale of love or war, the hero complex is brought to the forefront and the availability of the on screen hero, as an immediate object of projection allows for the process to succeed. The ultimate victory of the hero over the shadow or the villain or the situation becomes the resolution of these repressed conflicts. The resolution of the conflict is often not apparent or even absent in some cases. The death of jack and rose or the death of jai in the end may not complete an undefeated heroic victory. In fact it may be a flight back to reality for the audience and add to the emotional content of the narrative. In case of scripts like The Bicycle Thief – the conflict is not completely resolved. Hence the effect of the struggle, a momentary defeat and consequent rise from the pit , stays on with the audience.. a Devdas also has the same effect because the conflicts are never resolved, only terminated. However there is a glimpse of the hero rising over his shadow in both these and similar films. That slight indication of hope and reinforcement of the hero has a determining influence over the minds of the people, and the box office collection for the movie. When one thinks of blockbusters, it is very rare to come across films that have showed otherwise,. Whether the narrative ends on a high note or leaves the people teary eyed, the resolution of the conflict, in some form of the other, and the momentary or perpetual dominance of the hero, is omnipresent
The projective technique and process becomes coherent and almost automatic, because of the two positional imagery that is created by most of these films. Melanie Klein talks about the process of splitting where one segregates opposite affect states when there is a failure to integrate conflicting emotional conditions or cohesive images. Though exaggerated splitting would mean a schizophrenic existence, it might be involved in the psychology of popularity.
There has been research on how religion creates sharp contrasts between polar opposites and bases its rules and modes of conduct on this split. Similarly blockbusters create a similar imagery, at least most of them. The identification with the hero and rejection everything that represents the opposite, is thus facilitated. It is possible that due to our social realities, we introject the rigid bipolarity between good and evil and their corresponding symbols. While recognizing grays, our minds still remain split over these dimensions. This is captured to the skin when a film with such images, hits the right chord and becomes popular. Star wars, Ben Hur, the exorcist, Spiderman, Sholay, and Mr. India are all such instances, where there has been a successful arousal of the split sensibilities and their projections. This has manifested in the complete identification and comprehension of the narrative resulting in widespread popularity. These films not only have very striking and overpowering representations of archetypes, but they are opposed and shown in complete polarities. The hero and the villain do not have shades, in which respect they are almost super human. Good is all good, and even if there are glimpses of weakness it’s covered with a veil of humor (Veeru in Sholay). Its can be assumed that relating to such characters can be taxing because of their absolute nature. However, this is where psychology works over common sense. The popularity of these films support the idea that repressed desires of heroism and the wish to defeat the shadow, can engulf an otherwise practical mind, in a flight of phantasy. The unconscious acceptance of a bipolar reality helps one to separate between confusing and conflicting images, which then allows for the projection of the good, righteous, loving, hero on to the on screen peter parker and the dark, perverse and guilty shadow on to Mogambo. In this way identification with the narrative is coherently achieved.
Phantasy is also an important theme here. Emanating from unconscious wishes, phantasy represents an early childhood stage where the child is unable to separate reality and imagination. The experience of a film is like a flight of phantasy where identification with the characters results in the audience not being able to consciously separate the narrative from their own experience. Usually phantasies are manifested in symbolic forms in dreams etc. however, because they stem from instinctual bases, they have the ability to satisfy unconscious desires through images and ideas. This amalgamation of imagination and reality with the power to expose instinctual drives is captured by the imagery patterns of blockbusters. The prevalence of grandiosity, sexuality and power in most the scripts of these films may support this idea. The hero is thus seen to perform such acts which strongly symbolize fantastical representations of instinctual needs. The overwhelming popularity of romantic films can be understood from here. The audience most likely experiences a state of phantasy where primordial sexual drives are projected on to the screen hero who gratifies these wants by successfully romancing the heroine. This then becomes the image that is formed on the basis of our phantasy of sex. The phantasy of power, if thought to be inherent and instinctual is also imagined through the role of the hero or even the villain.
The audience’s experience of a state of phantasy might explain why most fantastic narratives with mythical representations and supernatural elements happen to become blockbusters. Animated films centered on the animal kingdom or mythical characters, do very well, not only among the children but with all age groups. The romanticism in Little Mermaid and Ice Age become convincing because such stories allow the smooth, uninterrupted regression to a stage where phantasy is the only state of mind. There is no clear distinction between the real and the fantastic resulting in the identification with non- human characters.
Bollywood films have a tradition of having songs shot in scenic and picturesque backgrounds. Shahrukh khan draped in the most expensive of suits, rolling in the ice of the majestic Alps or in the deserts of Sahara, is a common sight. This long practiced trick exploits a very socio- psychological realm. The average audience in India is economically deprived and sexually repressed coming from a society where a large section condemns sex and extravagance. The presentation of an image like that combines the effect of improbable luxury with forbidden pleasure. The ease with which the hero romances his partner, in the midst of eye catching beauty, creates a yearning for gratification of senses previously deprived. Thus the mountains and the seas, symbolize pleasure and luxury, and the ability to own both.
Hence we see that, phantasy play surrounds the nature of response that an audience has towards a film. Even though the audience is ready to fantasize, however the impulse to do so is introduced subconsciously. These impulses are elements from the script and image of the narrative. Simultaneously, however, some of the basic sentiments held at the societal-communal level, is by and large always reinforced by most blockbusters. . Thus a hugely popular film like Rang De Basanti, explores areas of phantasy, and heroism, carrying with it throughout, an underlying essence of elite ideology. This happens because films introject attributes from the audience this idea will be dealt with more in details later on.
A lot of emphasis has been put on the emotional experience and impact of a popular film. It is true that films, like most other media products, sell emotions. A narrative, as expected carries with itself a range of experiences and interactions that invoke an emotional response. It is also true that some of the popular films, directly or indirectly stress on such aspects to draw audiences. In fact, such antics are often guised as family oriented film or woman oriented film, or a film with a social message etc. however it is often disappointing to see that such ambitious promises turn out to be grand sob stories.
Symbolism works greatly to influence the audience to read symbols and images on screen in particular ways. Disguised symbolic forms are used extensively to form a coherent meaning out of an object, by perceiving it in a particular way. This meaning making in turn affects how the audience views the different characters and their stories, and how well they relate to it. For instance in The Lord of the Rings, the dark lord Sauron is never really shown to the audience. However the engulfing fire and the dark hoodlums, construct an immediate image of the character, which is then easily perceived as unwanted or evil.
THE IMAGE AND THE AUDIENCE
Throughout, the paper suggests a unidirectional relationship between the image and the audience. However this is not limited to a one sided action. In fact the process of projection and introjection happens both ways. The audience projects onto the “dots on the screen” and in turn introjects the attributes and symbolic conditions that are exposed to them. Once identification happens, the admired or important external object (in this case the characters and their narrative) is introjected. Introjection is responsible for the residual effects of popular cinema. Under this, even after the cinematic experience is over, the introjected essence is left with the audience and that culminates into external behavior that is imitative of the reality of the film. The introjected attributes are not necessarily incorporated into the personality system, but at least inserted within oneself. Trends in dating behavior, the attitude towards violence, etc are often a direct introjection from images in popular cinema.
The introjected aspects may not be consciously integrated, rather may become a part of the unconscious. Thus it may add onto the thoughts that further get projected in a similar experience. Consequently, a perpetual aftereffect of a popular film remains with the audience.
While the mind of the audience is so active in this orgy of emotions, the image is not passive. Image refers to the essence and spirit of popular cinema, or blockbuster films. Since cinema is popular medium, it holds within the pulse of the popular. Thus a collective conscious and unconscious is active at the level of the image. These constructions are a result of societal dynamics. Thus the collective unconscious, when exposed to the viewer, gets projected onto them. The projection happens in symbolic forms of romance, feminity and masculinity, violence and so on. However what is more important is the introjection, from the audience, into cinema. The forces that drive the dynamic nature of cinema as a medium of art, is probably derived through this process. The temporal shifts in the thought processes of the audiences are introjected into the reality of films. What is accepted, what is rejected, over time gets incorporated into the narrative styles of cinema. For instance, the image of the Bollywood “hero”. Hindi blockbusters have been dominated by the role of the hero. Superstars have been produced, drawing maximum attendance in cinema halls. The golden age of Indian cinema saw such heroes like Raj Kapoor – effeminate, calm and tragic, on the background of a post- partitioned India with remains of tragedy and a hope for peace. This hero was replaced by the westernized, suave, mysterious, gambling jewel thief or guide, with the beginnings of global contact, and the formation of an industrialized upper class. Then came Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana and Anand, in his ultra romantic avatar, exactly coinciding with the idealism and romanticism of the 60s and 70s. The economic and political distress of the following period brought with it the angry young man. As human expeditions and exploitations of the 90s carried on rapidly, there was general air of absolute power. There was nothing that “man” could not do. Thus arrived the unbeatable heroes, who always won the women, defeated evil and saved the world. With the inclusion of intellectually different sections, into the fold of regular movie goers, greyer shades of heroes came to be accepted. Thus we have a Khalnayak, or a Baazigar. However, the prominent hero of the blockbusters has become more and more flamboyant and grand. Even though a lot of claim is made on realism, a closer look at the recent blockbusters shows otherwise.
Therefore, social currents and collective dynamics are continuously introjected within cinema.
During the course of a very insightful conversation, one of my friends, very thoughtfully commented upon the arrival and growing importance of “multiplex blockbusters”. The term represents, a genre, if one can so categorize art, of films that are realistic, educated and have a target audience that includes the literate, intellectual urban population. She harped on how a film like Rang De Basanti drew such overwhelming response from the audience, because of its close association with a real and emotionally volatile youth. Dil Chahta Hain is another example, where only a curtain section was asked to be a part of the film, and that section happily agreed. These observations convince me as to how perceptive the audience is, about the influence that films have on us. The audience always claims to know the source, the extent and the outcome of the popularity of a blockbuster. Our intelligence promptly dismisses a film that seems to be irrelevant or unreal and impractical. Not discrediting the ability of the average audience, it does become evident that popularity is considered to be a much more superficial thing than it may actually be.
It would be quite disconcerting to know that the popularity of films affects the audience at deeper levels than we think. In fact the very phenomenon of popularity is derived from an unconscious source, and is hence so impactful. The involuntary processes that are at work are decisive in this respect. Hence, to some extent, the success of a film really does not depend on our conscious examination of a narrative. Such logical explanation, on the terms of rational scrutiny that we engage in all the time becomes less credible as a result. This however does not erode the importance of the role that the audience plays. The purpose of this paper is to give the audience the rightful place in this whole context. The focus on unconscious elements clearly highlights the relationship between the image and the audience. The psychological aspect of popularity is losing ground to competing hypotheses of economic viability, cultural functionality and so on. Whether a film will be a blockbuster or not, is now being predicted on the basis of the budget of the film, on how culturally and communally sensitive the film is, on the target audience, the numerological accuracy of the title the release date and whether it conflicts with a cricket match. In the chaos of all these measurements, we are leaving out a significant consideration- which is the theme of this paper.
It is taken for granted that, the anxieties and ecstasies of a reality that we are unaware of cannot be expected to have a prominent shape and definitive role in our thoughts. The aim of the paper rather is just to create a case for their existence- the thoughts, their interactions, their arousal by external forces (the film) and the consequent birth of popularity.
Coming back to the starting point, it all comes down to the mind, and its conscious and unconscious, boundless ability to think, imagine, create, associate and live. Whether these constructions are restricted to dreams, or out of body experiences, or can be thought to exist in daily experiences, and being responsible for making something popular, is a question open to further investigation.
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”
— Langston Hughes