On the complexities of LILO AND STITCH and the genius of OM SHANTI OM

I’ve always thought that the subject of ‘genre’ should be more vexed than it generally seems to be for many academics.  This stems, at least in part, from my abiding hatred for the kind of pigeonholing which people routinely use to sort their way through life, and which corporate thinking has turned into a high art.  But the flipside of the coin is the fact that genres often serve a purpose.  Advertising departments and people looking for something to watch on a Saturday night find them useful, as do (to a lesser extent) budgeting executives at movie studios.  It really can help to know that you’re in the mood for a “Western” and not for a “Romance”.  The problem is that while broad generic categories might helpfully steer you towards Silverado and away from While You Were Sleeping for a night spent cocooned in front of the television, the usefulness of those categories for sound critical analysis is quickly confounded by reality.  In class, I usually refer to this as the “Lilo and Stitch problem” pointing out that that particular film encompasses at least a half-dozen genres including science-fiction, family drama, comedy, animation, musical and “Disney.”  An equivalent problem is an approach where the definition of a genre can be so specific, and feature so many sub-categories, that it becomes meaningless.  Jeanine Basinger demonstrates this in her book on the “World War Two combat genre,” endlessly spinning off films into their own categories until each is essentially a genre of its own.

At any rate, it’s always baffled me that people accept this quite so readily, given the infinite variety of story possibilities and combination of story elements which can make an interesting film.  If I think about it, though, I suppose it’s less baffling than it might be.  The various media corporations and their outlets encourage audiences to view the world this way, since it’s easier to package and sell product when people believe that what they’re purchasing will adhere to a pre-ordained pattern.  Netflix, Hulu, Warner Brothers and Amazon (to name a few) all rely on this kind of arrangement when they use their frequently absurd “you might like” functions to gauge peoples likes and dislikes, and suggest further purchases.  It’s much easier to call something a “Western” than to try to explain that it’s a Roy Rogers, twentieth century, singing cowboy film in which the cowboys drive jeeps and fight Nazis.

What’s even more interesting than our ready acceptance of these oversimplifications, however, is the extent to which this approach is culturally conditioned.  One of my favorite films of the last five years is Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om.  Like many Indian films it’s long by American standards (162 min.). It’s also exceptionally reflexive and jam-packed with references to the history of Indian film.  The basic plot is lifted from Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958), but that’s in no way a denigration of Om Shanti Om – a film for which plot is frequently secondary.  What matters more is the sheer number of historical references packed into every scene in every way as Khan free-wheelingly pays homage to every Indian film she ever loved, and every living actor she could convince to do a cameo.  This approach is announced out of the gate as the film begins with a clip from Karz (1980):

Into which a daydreaming Shah Rukh Khan inserts himself:

Even more amusing are moments such as this one, where the photography, acting, set decoration, costuming and music are ALL making some sort of humorous comment on an aspect of Indian filmmaking (even in a single frame):

Of course, those not steeped in Bollywood might not get these references, but the film is entertaining regardless, while suggesting three particular points.  First, in the service of all this affectionate humor, Farah Khan is entirely willing to include any plot element which suits her purpose.  Consequently, Om Shanti Om is a comedy, a drama, a supernatural film and a revenge play, with a little action thrown into the mix.  In other words, it utterly defies any attempt to affix the straitjacket of genre.  Though this hasn’t always been true of Indian films, it is the case that Indian filmmakers have generally been comfortable with genre-mixing of a kind which would cause American corporate marketers to lose their lunches.  The standard inclusion of songs in any Indian film (a natural outgrowth of certain traditional dramatic forms) is enough by itself to make non-habitues scratch their heads in confusion.  That very comfort, however, leads to the second curiosity regarding Om Shanti Om, and Indian film generally, which is that film scholars have fairly resolutely ignored both.  Though this has begun to change a bit in recent years, the Indian film industry remains largely terra incognita in academia in part, I presume, because it’s more difficult to classify most of its productions into a traditional genre other than “Bollywood” (which is even less helpful for serious criticism than calling something a “Western”).  The supposition that scholars are just as culturally constrained in their interests as audiences are in theirs is hardly revolutionary, but remains telling in a supposedly “globalizing” world.

The last point is anecdotal, but I put it forward as food for further thought.  In the last five years I’ve been to China, the Middle East and Europe.  In those travels I’ve noted the dominance of American films and American cultural product, almost to the exclusion of indigenous work.  Theaters and video outlets in Beijing and Qatar were overwhelmingly filled with American films, and friendly Copenhagen salesclerks happily denigrated Danish films in favor of those from the States (in the very shadow of the Danish Film Institute, no less).  This American dominance being the case, if our thinking about standard categories is culturally conditioned, and if part of that conditioning is a result of helpful corporate suggestions to facilitate our buying habits, then what does that say regarding the fate of cultural products which don’t fit into those neat little boxes of “what we might like”?  It makes one wonder not only for Om Shanti Om, but a bit for Lilo and Stitch

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