Social Realism in Cinema

Realism is the accurate, detailed and unembellished depiction of nature or contemporary life. It rejected imaginative idealization to instead focuses on a close observation of nature and the closest possible replication of it. As such, realism in its broad sense has comprised many artistic currents in different civilizations. The term was used to talk about a good imitation, a production of simulacra of life. 

The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century as a reaction to Romanticism and History painting. In favour of depictions of ‘real’ life, the Realist painters used common labourers, and ordinary people in ordinary surroundings engaged in real activities as subjects for their works. It aims to remove subjectivity from the subject matter and to represent it truthfully avoiding adding any speculative or supernatural elements. Realists attempted to portray the lives, appearances, problems, customs etc., of the working- and lower-class ordinary people. They aimed to not show the glorified side of things but rather portray them as-is without embellishments and did not shy away from shining a light on the ignored aspects of society- their mentality, physical and material conditions. 

In literature, often this meant that stories were written in extreme detail. As it was a response to Romanticism that was marked by illusionary stories that departed from real life, realist literature talked more of the lives of common people. It led to the development of a new form of writing that was demonstrated through the use of relatable everyday characters and situations. As a result, the intent of realism developed as a means to tell a story as truthfully and realistically as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it. This movement greatly impacted how authors write and what readers expected from the literature. They focused on detailed descriptions of everyday occurrences, a plausible plot, realistic characters and settings, often use of dialects, a showcase of character development and laid importance in depicting the social class and struggles of the people.

When it comes to cinema, many of these are carried forward. Movies often begin with a focus on the lives of common people and not the protagonist. It is similar to how real life works and the depiction of daily life in motion rather than depicting an action related to the plot or central protagonist in particular. Unlike other films, in realism, the world is not centred around the main character and the passage of time remains unaffected despite his actions. In classical Hollywood cinema, the main protagonist – generally a man – has control over space and time but in realism, these are spheres out of his control, his actions are what is regulated by them. They often have an open-ended ending where we are left unsure of the future of the characters.

It utilizes mise en scene with on-location shooting and non-actors. The lighting is natural and shots tend to be objective, the camera does not manipulate our perception and is often static. The composition feels random or natural and is open framed with editing that emphasizes continuity. There is the use of long-duration shots to imitate the feeling of the pace of time in real life. The function of the camera is to record what is in front of it and to allow the content to speak for itself for the audience to draw their own conclusions. The use of deep focus allows the audience to clearly perceive several elements within a shot instead of being guided towards a particular element. The use of long takes reduces the need for intervention by the director in the construction of the film. Less editing means less fragmentation of time and space. The film is seen as having the potential to reveal the world to audiences.

A form of realism is social realism that specifically centres around the description of and drawing attention to socio-political issues faced by middle- and working-class people and criticizing the government. Common themes that it covers include social injustice, racial inequality, economic hardships and a portrayal of the working class as heroes. Despite this sort of goal, realism in itself is inherently different for each person as our realities are different. Realism becomes the conscious commitment to understanding and describing the psychological and sociological movement of things. 

In India, social realism came from Russian literature and was called “Nayi Kahani” or “new story”, and was often seen as anti-realistic. The new story was truly revolutionary in the sense that it changed the focus of cinema from religious depictions to that to the lives of the common people. It contains the representation of social ills but tends to have a hero who ensures a happy ending. 

For example, in the movie “Manthan” or “The Churning” the issues faced by the people reflect those faced by people in real life as well. However, the protagonist is shown as a central figure who comes to solve all their problems as some sort of saviour. Protagonists in such Indian movies tend to be a ‘positive hero’ who cannot be dissuaded from their goal which does not line up with how reality is for everyday people.  In a sense this hero was a liberal one that the public needed to see, he fought against social injustice and discrimination that the lower class and castes suffered. Surface realism can often forget the reality of the time and understanding of the real conditions and socio-political views become wrapped in certain sensationalism.  As a movie that covers the struggles and exploitation faced by Dalits as well as provides a narrative for the Milk Revolution that took place in India, Manthan does fail to create a true simulacrum to trying to push forward a particular version of history that is not necessarily true. But the creation of that imitation is what leads to an identification with the character, involvement of emotions and an attachment to the film. When the narrative ends, catharsis is achieved and in Indian cinema, it happens often due to the fact that the central protagonist holds a certain amount of control over the space. Specifically, in Manthan, he is a well-educated man with more expertise about the issue that the villagers are plagued with as well as is from a higher caste. An image of him being responsible for saving them is created but at the end of the movie, it does so happen that the villagers are the ones who carry forward the efforts to ensure their continued autonomy and for reasons beyond his control Dr Rao chooses to leave the village.

Shyam Benegal tells the story of the formation of the Amul co-operative in India albeit through a fictional lens where the ups and downs of the lives of the villagers become a central focus. For a long time, Indian cinema did not depict the lives of the middle or lower and working classes, so when this movie talks of the struggles faced by the Dalit community, it comes much closer to the reality of Indian life. It is also present that the story is told in a linear chronological manner and many details visible as a part of the mise en scene are not to advance the plot but rather to build up the world in the movie. 

Manthan is a multi-layered film, with multiple facets of caste, gender, privilege, ethics and morals that come with doing ‘good’. Dr Rao played by Girish Karnad is the educated, high-society man of science, who comes to enlighten the villagers. His intentions are completely good and pure, but he carries the baggage that comes with being a privileged man. He befriends Bindu, a headstrong single mother, who develops feelings for him. However, she is conflicted as she is of a ‘lower’ caste, not to mention the fact that the doctor is married. The insertion of a romance can be seen as unrealistic in the movie, but at the same time, it serves as a tool to represent the real struggles of people from different castes who wish to be together. Dr Rao and his team face false accusations and village politics while trying to grapple with their own idealistic ways of thinking. As for the village itself, the lack of proper walls or boundaries differentiated it from the more commonly seen cityscapes of Indian cinema. The sense of community among the villagers is also meant to depict the blurred lines between public and private in the rural space.

The movie was also an example of parallel cinema which originated in West Bengal around the 1950s as an alternate form of cinema that did not focus on the song-dance routines of mainstream Indian cinema of the time. Parallel Cinema is characterized by its serious content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the socio-political climate of the times, and its serious treatment of narrative, style, and structure. The directors associated with this movement have emphasized social realism, with their films characteristically employing minimalistic sets, little or no musical score, and often shooting on location. Parallel cinema focused more on portraying reality, highlighting major problems faced by communities, families and individuals and often tried to come up with solutions through their stories as well as a message at the end of movies. As such, it heavily aligned with social realism but the idea of having a moral purpose in the movie moved away from the actual intent of realism slightly.

In American cinema, the films create a stricter convention of realism, it is continuous and follows a structure. “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Ford is a movie adapted from the book of the same name by John Steinbeck and an excellent example of American social realism at play. It begins with the five-part story structure and there is a gradual linear unfolding of the plot through the events happening that are shown both on-screen and the implications of what is happening off-screen. It employs pathetic fallacy and even a narrator but portrays the harsh life of the Joad family through the migration of workers due to the Dust Bowl and capitalism taking over. At the start of the movie, it uses artificial lighting when Tom Joad reaches home and is told the story of what has happened to his family as well as the rest of the neighbours. However, as we progress through the rest of the film, we can see that it follows a linear slow narrative with minimal editing and time skips. While it is a deep critique of society it also illustrates and reproduces the everyday complications and larger concerns of the people. The family’s struggle with money, death and trying to stay together represents that of the workers during that era accurately, as well as the disheartening treatment they receive at the hands of the state. At points, it almost veers into the territory of melodrama but is brought back into the idea of a realistic depiction of life by events taking place in the film and preventing the characters from falling into constant contemplation about life. They cannot afford to come to a standstill as they need to continue working to support themselves. 

We can understand that in different societies social realism takes different forms. While it primarily talks of issues that plague society and doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, social realism depicts the side of reality often hidden under the glamour of high society. It exposes the underbelly of it for all to see and understand, it is not about happily ever after but rather that life has its ups and downs that everyone will have to face and overcome. Things do not always work out in the favour of the protagonist just like in real life, what is needed is to persevere through it and keep on going.

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Hello! It’s Alex, I am a student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing English, Sociology and Film Studies. I currently head the college’s poetry club as well as a volunteer at the NGO Yasham which provides educational and vocational services to underprivileged children and mothers. For me, it is interesting to explore the formation of gender identities in different cultures through out history and the queer culture that has survived. In general I like to discover differences and communalities in cultures as well as how they come to be. I enjoy a variety of films and film analysis as well as fictional books, especially queer ones with diverse representation, and run a bookstagram, @booksandmorewithraj, come and say hi!