Book Review: Max Pinckers' Masala Mix

The Fourth Wall reviewed by Colin Pantall
First published on the photo-eye blog, July 2013

In his prize-winning book, The Fourth Wall, Max Pinckers shows Mumbai as a fantasy city. There are no hard documentary facts here, no Falkland Road prostitutes, Narcopolis junkies, or Salaam Bombay street kids. Instead, Pinckers takes us to a Bollywood Mumbai that is half-imagined, half-nostalgic and half-real, a masala mix that conforms to the rich history of representation that the city has experienced over the years.

Take a stroll through the history of film, photography and literature and you will find many different Mumbais represented. In popular Western movies such as Slumdog Millionaire, it is a city where redemption comes against a backdrop of crime, corruption and downright cruelty.

In Katherine Boo's wonderful account of life in a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, there is no redemption. Rather, life is a relentless struggle against the venal, vested interests of the city's legal, political and economic elites. All human life is part of a chain that is brutal and cynical and will break anyone who does not engage with it in some way; the big fish eats the little fish and the little fish eats the prawn.

So if you are struggling in Mumbai, how can you survive, knowing that to avoid the hardship of the lower economic reaches of Mumbai society means to share in the values that created such hardship in the first place?

One solution is to escape it. And there is no better country than India for catering to your every escapist need. For one hundred years, Indian cinema, especially Hindi cinema (aka Bollywood) has provided a daily diet of song, dance, tragedy, action and miraculous coincidence all with a generous dollop of love thrown in to keep alive the hope of teeming masses.

But Bollywood hasn't been constant. Over the decades it has evolved. The great films of the 1950s were social realist inspired masterpieces that featured the triumph of the poor over venal moneylenders and landlords. The 1970s were a highpoint of Hindi cinema, where Amitabh Bachchan articulated the anger of a nation that was economically stagnant and institutionally corrupt. Move forward to the 80s and 90s and suddenly, roles have been reversed. Audiences have changed and so have cinemas and ticket prices. Now the cinema goers are the landlords and the moneylenders, so it's the rich expat Indians (who need to get back to their roots) that are celebrated and it's luxury apartments, conspicuous consumption and holidays in Switzerland that rule the day (with a heady dose of love thrown in for continuity’s sake).

The problem with this kind of cinema is it doesn't look like India (just as Hollywood America doesn't look like America). For all its economic miracles, there is a shoddy, weather worn feel to India, a feeling that is suggestive of a badly built set, one with shaky walls and bad paint jobs, the kind of set that is indicative of the very best of 1970s Hindi cinema.

For The Fourth Wall, Max Pinckers honed in on this weather worn feeling and turned to Hindi cinema for inspiration. However, not being versed in the finer points of the films of Manmohan Desai (the ultimate masala movie maker), Amitabh Bachchan or Salim-Javed, Pinckers turned to the idea of 1970s Hindi cinema as presented to him by the citizens of Mumbai to make his book.

And that's what The Fourth Wall is; a book of staged pictures of the people of Mumbai acting out their favourite generic scenes from Bollywood movies. These are not random pictures. They are heavily lit and made in locations where you won't find adverts for Tag Heuer watches or BMW cars. They are shot in anonymous places with rubble, weeds and cracked paintwork. 

The Fourth Wall opens with a pair of pictures. The first shows a man jumping through a hole in a concrete wall. There are cables, piping and the remnants of some old posters. On the facing page is a floor with a hole cut into it that leads to the floor below. Flick forward and a security guard stands in some undergrowth, two men climb over a fence to a waiting auto-rickshaw. Everything is over-lit and overacted with the poses of Pinckers' subject being awkward and stiff. This is an imagined India that somehow conforms to the way things really are; imagined love, imagined crime, imagined valor.

The book is interspersed with found images and snippets from news stories; a still from Coolie (a Manmohan Desai classic that, like Ken Loach's Kes, has a bird of prey as a central character) shows the punch that almost killed Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood's greatest ever star. The only break from the 1970s theme is a Dabangg-era Salman Khan lookalike standing on top of a Mumbai apartment block.

For the most part though, we're in the world of long lost brothers and separated lovers. Smoke bombs explode, lovers weep and wannabe bad guys put on their best Gabbar Singh (the bad guy from the ultimate masala western, Sholay) faces for Pinckers' camera. Get to the end of the book and there are film reviews, absurd crime stories and snippets from the Slumdog Millionaire script and Suketu Mehta's Maximum City.

None of these snippets are accidental. They tie in with the themes and images in The Fourth Wall, making it a supremely smart book made in a very smart manner. It's printed on newspaper, which was chosen for its cheap 1970s look, and it has a colour palette that is faded and worn. The Fourth Wall ends with a quote from Vijay Mishra's Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, a quote relevant both to the Fourth Wall and Pinckers' experience of Mumbai; 'I had come to India in search of the pot of gold, only to find that that pot had been buried deep in my unconscious.'