Aesthetics of emotional acting: an argument for a Rasa-based criticism of Indian cinema and television
The thesis explores elements of Sanskrit drama studies, its philosophy of aesthetics, Hindu theology and Indian cinema studies. It seeks to identify and appreciate the continual influence of a pioneering and influential idea from the Indian subcontinent’s cultural memory and history – the ‘theory of aesthetics’, also known as the ‘Rasa Theory’. The rasa theory is a seminal contribution of the ancient Indian Sanskrit drama textbook, the Natyashastra, whose postulates have provided a definitive template for appreciating and analysing all major fine arts in the Indian sub-continent for over two millennia. No criticism of an art form in India is more devastating than the allegation that it is devoid of rasa. Though ‘rasa’ has many literal meanings like taste, essence and ultimately bliss, in Natyashastra it is used to signify the “essence of emotion” or the final emotional state of ‘relish/reaction/aesthetic experience’ achieved by a spectator while watching a performing art. The thesis uses this fundamental aesthetic influence from India’s cultural memory and heritage to understand its working in the shaping of emotive performances, and the structuring of multiple genre mixing narrative styles in Indian cinema. It identifies and explains how the story telling attributes in Indian cinema, still preserve, transmit and represent, drama and performance aesthetics established 2000 years ago. The chapters are divided into two sections – evidence-led correlation confirming the direct influence of Natyashastra guidelines on Indian filmmaking practices, and arguments-driven proposals on how to use the rasa theory for appreciating cinematic aesthetics. Section One, comprising of the first three chapters, engages with direct evidence of the influence and use of Natyashastra prescriptions and rasa theory expectations in the early years of Indian cinema, when the movie industry was intimately tied to theatre for creative guidance. Section Two, comprising of chapters four to six, goes beyond these conscious engagements to explore the continuing relevance of the concepts of bhava and rasa for studies and methods in film appreciation, and their potential usage in discussing alternate modes of cinematic expression, like melodrama. In this section, recommendations are made on how to re-read and review influential and representative cinematic achievements from different eras, regions and genres of Indian on-screen entertainment, using the rasa theory for better understanding of foundational cinematic attributes like plot construction, performances and directorial achievement in non-realism prioritising on-screen narrations. The thesis shows how to appreciate expressive acting, song and dance performances and melodramatic narratives/ movies using the rasa theory’s prescriptions on good acting in a navarasa exploring drama. It calls for a greater engagement with the theory’s aesthetic appreciation ideas, beyond its current peripheral acknowledgement in academic scholarship as an exotic and ancient review model with doubtful contemporary relevance. My conclusions offer a valuable guide for a fair and better appreciation of dramatic, stylistic and stereotypical acting in cinema that Western models of film criticism privileging the realistic form have been inadequate in comprehending. These findings propose a mode of inclusive aesthetic criticism that enjoys broad application across a wide range of cinematic art genres and national cinema styles using non-Euro/American modes of storytelling, towards the establishment of a humanist film education.