Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Sociology of the Indian Film

Dr. Amar Mukerji

By Dr. AMAR MUKERJI
(Saugar University)

“We tend to feel and think in terms of the art we like: and if the art we like is bad, then our thinking and feeling will be bad. And if the thinking and feeling of most of the individuals composing a society is bad, is not our society in danger?”            –Aldous Huxley.

Of late the Indian films have been accused of having failed to depict the Indian society. And yet many of these-films, with typically Hollywood situations and pin-up girls, have succeeded at the box-office and have been applauded by a large section of our audience including the students, both men and women. At this, while the public men complain that the films are degenerating the morals of the youth who conveniently forget their own cultural tradition, the film-makers strongly maintain that the country gets the films it deserves and if ‘better’ films were made they would not succeed.

The issues involved in the above dispute are of such fundamental importance that a probe into the nature of the films that have been made in this country would reveal interesting facts. It is undoubtedly an accepted fact that, in spite of its being an art, the main and the more direct purpose of the film is to entertain: at least that is what the common film-goer takes it to be. To talk of entertainment means to accept the idea of escape, escape for the common man from a world that is not quite so pleasant, at least during the period of a visit to the cinema. The relationship of the film produced in a country to its social order, even if negative is therefore close; and this social order again is the outcome of several forces. Of these in modern India–and I want to confine myself to the period of the talkies–education is certainly as important a fact as our culture and inheritance. And it also remains another established fact that the education that was given to the Indians yesterday and that is being given even now has been subjected to attack on all fronts, taking away from the average man a good deal of the self-confidence that he should have in himself along with his culture and environment.

Along with this there had always been certain problems peculiar to India: the problem of the caste system, of political dependence, of economic subjugation, and of a lot of other ideas that had been on the whole cramping. To this was added the depression of the thirties, followed by the recklessness of the forties, and now reacting in the shape of the disillusionment of the fifties. In the pre-war depression the people were unemployed, their purchasing power was low, and their visits tothe cinemas comparatively few and far between. In the years of war there was a sudden increase in our activities, with a temporary rise in our purchasing power accompanied by considerable reckless spending that also meant very frequent visits to the cinemas. The war years in India had been the years of boom in the film trade. Subsequent to it, in the post-war years, the purchasing power of the Indians shrank; there was an all round disappointment, and a corresponding ebb in the production of films in this country. There was a sharp fall in film attendance.

But these are only bare statements on the Indian social condition, for a proper understanding of which one has to go deeper. With the cinemas even now confined to the town dwellers, it was but natural that the films should increasingly seek to meet their expectations, and it is a known fact that most of those who live in the cities live a dumb and dreary life. The alternative means of their entertainment are few and expensive and therefore beyond the reach of the common man, who works in conditions that are not cheerful and lives in surroundings that are not very bright either. The values that govern the life of the common man are not those born of a proper social realisation, ever vacillating between the false glamour of the screen and the crude reality of the daily life. The average urban cinegoer has therefore no time to think before he goes to a cinema or after he returns from it. He wants relaxation from the drudgery of his daily life on the one hand, and, on the other, he unconsciously seeks some norms for his daily conduct. The conflict between the two attitudes is the conflict between the society as it is for them and the society as they would like it to be. And, of course, in this search for the new society ‘the gay life’ shown in the films, with their magnificent buildings and plentiful attire, has its legitimate share.

But meanwhile the common folk had already been shaken from their faith in the accepted order of society, and, if the freedom movement had made them conscious of anything, that was the awareness of the rights of the individual. And the first manifestation of this right may be witnessed in the now-growing realisation that the long accepted order of society is grossly inadequate. There was a corresponding apprehension in the mind of the average man about his cherished beliefs and ideals, and the new gospel of Socialism that swept the country led him to a more critical view of the rich and the well-to-do. The earlier change-over from scarcity to plenty, and then the somersault from plenty to scarcity had taken within their sweep a large multitude of people while the monetary catastrophe had more or less overtaken all classes of society except the very rich.

Faced with such unsettled conditions of social life, the individual finds himself crushed at one extreme, and highly critical and almost vindictive at the other, The ordinary man overcome by shortages, strikes, disasters and every form of economic collapse, is demanding to know his position vis-a-vis society. He is demanding to know if he cannot get more wages and more bread, and along with it of course cheap entertainment. The issues immediately gather momentum and take the form of various conflicts, the most spectacular of which is perhaps either the open rebellion against society or the capitalist-labour conflict. The accent on the frustrated individual in quest of a mooring is great, and the contemporary social life becomes one of extreme complexity that is not easy either to explain or to resolve. The prevalent mood is therefore one of uncertainty, of disbalance, of the failure to appreciate which ideal is to be preferred to which other. It is, generally speaking, not the value of definiteness which governs Indian life but one of vacillation and uncertainty.

The films of India therefore centred round either the escapist themes or the wayward, reckless and fickle-minded hero or heroine, only to reflect the mentality of the country in a more direct way than any other artistic medium. The first reason, as said Kracauer with regard to Germany, is “that the films are never the product of the individual, and the team itself consists of varying interests, represented at the two ends by the capitalist-producer and the proletariat, under-fed extra”. The second reason, again according to Kracauer, is that “films address themselves and appeal to the anonymous multitude. Popular films, or to be more precise, popular screen motives can therefore be supposed to satisfy existing man’s desires”, which in India are more or less uncertain desires characterised by their almost ambiguous nature. But the uncertainty takes a more positive shape when the ideas are concretised before them on the screen through visual images and aural sounds, and the psychological inhibitions or dispositions that lay deep within the subconscious suddenly seek dimensions that were perhaps originally not known to the persons themselves. The inner tendencies are now transformed into dominant attitudes and the “inner life manifests itself in various elements and conglomerations of external life, especially in those almost imperceptible surface data which form an essential part of screen treatment. In recording the visible world, whether current reality or an imaginary universe, films therefore provide clues to hidden mental processes”.

That the ‘clues’ in India might sometimes be completely upsetting is apparent from the fact that nobody can exactly foretell which type of film would be a box-office hit. There is a wide divergence between Kismatand Dr. Kotnis, or Devadasand Barsaat, or Anarkaliand Do Bigha Zamin, all produced within the last twenty years; and yet at different periods of time these were tremendous box-office successes. Almost at the same time Manziland Adhikar, Ameree and Dharti-ki-lalor even Minoo Masani’s Our India failed at the counter, though in many ways they echoed the problems of the common man more directly and with greater energy. The vagaries of the public taste have been very uncertain, so far as really good films were concerned, I mean good technically, though a certain type of romantic or sexy films almost uniformly succeeded. Miss Panna Shah has shown that 46.1% of our films had love themes and a perusal of the list of box-office films would yield the most unexpected conclusions.

This has induced some of our publicmen and educationists to believe that the Indian cinema is creating, in the minds of the adolescent and the young, certain desires and passions which the cinema alone can satisfy. But this seems to be a hasty and, perhaps, unwarranted conclusion and one might almost retort, in the words of J.A. Wilson that “the cinema, in many ways the dominant art of our time, has become–because of its nature–a mirror of the community in which it is produced.” The films that we see in India have a vital relation to the society from which they spring, and a close scrutiny of their themes and problems would surely be revelatory.

But before I proceed to relate our films to our society, it is necessary to draw attention to the nature of the film art and its commercial development. What Paul Rotha wrote of the film trade in England holds so true of India that I cannot resist the temptation of quoting him in extenso:

“It is a matter of common observation that the cinema has been developed as an industry on lines similar to those obtaining in any other branch of modern manufacture. That is to say its guiding factor has been production for private profit...The fact that it supplies entertainment on a wide basis, coupled with its mechanical ability for repeated performances at little extra cost beyond the original outlay on production, has naturally meant that all the paraphernalia of mass production...has been introduced in an attempt to make the cinema today conform with other large-scale manufacturing processes...Because it offers the opportunity for making profit on a big scale, film production proceeds on an economic policy of quick receipts in a short period of time...Such methods...have inevitably led to inflated wages, often far in excessof the exchange value of the actual work performed, and to the fabric of ballyhoo maintained to keep the public ‘film conscious’. As a cultural result, film stars have become the mythology of the twentieth century; film factories the modern Parnassus.” (Paul Rotha, The Documentary Film p. 53)

The impact of this attitude on the movie-makers as well as the movie-goers of India has been specially great. While the stars, taking advantage of their rather easy popularity, go on increasing their remuneration, the film trade continues to appeal in an ever increasing degree to the minimum intellectual value that coincides with the common factor of public thought. The trade has so accurately measured the public taste “that even stories in turn have been reduced to a limited set, each with its appeal formula analysed and tabulated”. To what extent certain types of stories and themes are being constantly exploited would be apparent from Miss Panna Shah’s excellent analysis. On an examination of 603 Indian films exhibited in Bombay from 1935 to 1946, she found that love stories constituted the bulk of the total films, varying from the lowest figure of 36.8% in 1938 to 54.5 in 1943 and 57.4% in 1941. Histories and biographies and comedies come next with 8.4% and 8.1% respectively. Mythological stories only form 7.8% of the total output. Of the 278 love stories parental love was the theme only of thirteen films.

Miss Panna Shah’s other conclusions are also revelatory. “In the Indian films 60% of the heroines were between the ages of 15 and 20, 35% were between 21 and 30, and 5% between 31 and 40. Of the heroes 95% were between 20 and 30, and 5% between 31 and 40. Not a single hero or heroine was above the age of 40.” “Of the Indian heroes and heroines 20% and 70% respectively had no occupation, 35% heroes and 25% heroines were in some profession and 5% heroines were on the stage. The occupation of the remaining 45% heroes in the order of importance was either criminal, agricultural, business, student, personal service, military or government service. As regards their economic status, 62% heroes and 38.1% heroines were wealthy, 23.8% heroes and 33.3% heroines were moderately well off, 9.5% heroes and 33.3% heroines were poor while 4.8 heroes and 9.5 % heroines were ultra-wealthy”. “Of the...Indian films 95% of the locales were entirely in India and only 5% showed any foreign country. Of the settings 40% were entirely urban, 35% rural and 25% partly urban. About 20.6% of the residences shown were houses, while only 5.9% were huts; 53.3% of the residences belonged to the well-to-do classes, 26.6% to the poor and 20% to the middle classes.”

Miss Shah has not told us what percentage of stories in films have no locale, with just a certain type of external and internal shots creating the ground. In many a film one can find the same lake, the same garden, the same tree trunk and even the same shivering moon. In a similar manner it will be worthwhile knowing how many chota-versions of Kismator Khazanchior Achut Kanya or Bandhanor Barsaathave been made more or less modelled on the same story, the same incidents, even the same tunes used for the songs. On an examination of about 100 films made during the last two years I find that about 53.7% repeat themes and episodes used earlier, while about 49.4% use themes and episodes from foreign films without the necessary acknowledgement. The modern Auratis only a blazing instance. The boy-meets-girl story, the rich-man’s-son-falling-in-love-with-a-not-so-rich-man’s-daughter-who-has-no-mother-alive theme, they-lived-happily-thereafter formula: all these have been exploited almost to the point of exhaustion. An analysis of some of the dramatic devices used in Indian films will be yet more startling. Miss Shah writes: “Forty per cent of the heroes and heroines were previously acquainted, engaged or married, while 60% were not
acquainted. Of those who were not previously acquainted 83.3% had an accidental or unusual meeting without a formal introduction, while 16.6% had an ordinary or usual meeting with a formal introduction.” “It was found that while 50% showed either love at first sight or love after a few meetings, about 25%…showed love as a slow growth. Ten per cent of the leading characters were either in love or engaged before the picture opened, 15% were stories of married life. 70% of the characters were married only once while 25% were married more than once.”

The array of figures that have been quoted above do surely make a despairing situation to a casual critic. But once attention is paid to the exact nature ofthe world we are living in India and to the fact that foreign films yet continue to be our ideals to copy, the statistics will be self-explanatory. The real enquiry must therefore lie elsewhere, in finding out to what extent the modern adolescent and the modern youth look up to the life in the movies as the ‘ideal’ life. Herbert Blumer in his Movies and Conduct has written: “From such pictures they are likely to derive the ideas of freedom ofrelation to parents, and of conduct towards one’s associates. In this way motion pictures give sanction to codes of conduct and serve as an instrument for introducing the individual into a new kind and art of life.”

To measure the nature and extent ofthis influence it is therefore necessary that we now consider the Indian films according to their themes. The first full length Indian film was a mythological Harischandra(1913) in which no attempt was made to reinterpret the legend in terms of modern thought. But the first talkie Alamara(1931) and the subsequent Shirin Ferhaud, The King of Ayodhya,  Jalti Nihan and others verged onsocio-romantic themes even if they did not discuss a social problem seriously. Bharat-ki-beti(1935) placed the accent onnational feelings interwoven in a society dominated by a foreign power: Puran Bhakt and Chandidaswere highly imaginative in their treatment ofreligious themes, with a clear emphasis onsecular ideas. Barua’s epoch-making Devadaswas a film version ofSaratchandra’s novel ofthe same name and had as its motif the degenerating morals ofthe zamindar; the once famous Dhupchaonwove a highly romantic gossamer against modernised society. Subsequently getting the clue from some ofthese some mediocre directors tried to extend the range oftheir choice by dealing with various kinds ofsubjects. A fewfilms were frankly propagandist while the majority ofthe others were almost directly romantic, thriving on ridiculously amorous episodes. But in all cases the various phases ofIndian society came in as the ground, and these aspects could in most cases be clearly distinguished from the main motifs. One can find forinstance the acute social problem ofdowry and caste system, of social boycott, and of the westernised girl, reflected in the various films that were made in the late thirties or the early forties. The caste system with its attendant evils had been the main, issue considered in films like Prabhat’s Dharmatma, Ranjit’s Achut, Bombay Talkies’ Achut Kanya (the only films that Gandhiji is reported to have ever seen), Manik’s Pudache Paul, and indirectly of New Theatres’ Chandidas. Shantaram’s Dharmatmamade in 1935 also gave a reinterpretation to the crusade against untouchability that Mahatma Eknath led four hundred years ago. An equally large variety of films were evoked by the dowry system, showing its impact on the girl-wife, on her parents, and on society as a whole. The most artistically successful film dealing with this theme was Dahezwhich gave a searching analysis of the entire problem.

The cause of the fallen woman had also received a fillip from Barua’s Devadasand other producers seized it as a suitable subject for the most imaginary, wayward and sentimental treatment. The conflict in the mind of a fallen woman, who fell not because of any of her own shortcomings but because of certain socio-economic conditions admitted of considerable pornographic excursions and of the best of the films that were made on this theme the most remarkable were perhaps Parekh, Purnima, Udelhar, Vilashi, Eswar, Chaya, Admi and the latest Patita. The plain emphasis was on the recovery of the lost woman which was, more often than not, effected in a rather crude manner, by the solitary efforts of an idealistic individual with sufficient bank-balance to outwit or perhaps purchase society.

For the propagation of child marriages also, the directors blamed the social conditions. They showed in several films the disastrous effect of unequal mating caused by marriage between parties that never knew each other, often pointing to the physical and economic consequences of early marriage. But the treatment was ‘romanticised’ by depicting the horrible state of child widows who either ‘fell’ or went into the clutches of evil persons or became just emotional non-entities. A few of the more successful films like New Theatres’ Barididimodelled again on a Saratchandra novel took a more human view, though the appeal was to the human sense of pity. Shantaram showed another aspect of the unequal marriage in Duniya-na-manewhile Filmstan’s Sindoorcame out with a positive plea for widow remarriage. There were however only a few daring films that could openly extol the living together of a widow and a man out of wedlock and the child destroyed by indigenous or other means. Ansoojust touched another aspect of the problem but made the treatment more tearful than necessary.

The other major problem which received–and is receiving even now–rather too extensive consideration at the hands of the Indian film-makers is that of the impact of Western ideas and manners on Indian life. In fact the nature of this impact has been considerably determined by the Hollywood films, many of whose episodes and incidents developed in lavish sets and gorgeous displays are reproduced in out films almost wholesale, unmindful of the fact that their social conventions are different from ours. The appearance of the westernised hero, attired in the western style and smoking incessantly, has become a common feature of many Indian films. It also remains a curious fact, to adapt the words of Lynton Hudson, “that the term ‘sex-appeal’ one of the many vulgar neologisms of Hollywood creation, has come into universal currency and been adopted….into almost every tongue, at the moment when Woman and her guide and mentor Fashion had for the first time in (Indian) history discarded the principal element that had served her most faithfully throughout the centuries: Mystery.” The fanciful costuming of some of the modern Indian films, coupled with the greater exposure of the feminine body and the now strong demand for a kiss being shown on the Indian screen, are all manifestations of Hollywood culture.

But it was not easy to pass the Anglicised Indian in Indian society, as we know from the many films which had shown how the conservative Indian society refused to accept such men into their fold. All the same the story of a father sacrificing his all for an I.C.S. son-in-law, the use of drinking and ballroom dancing in Indian homes, the dialogues replete with English words and phrases, the new ideas relating to free love and companionate marriage, the educated girl’s search for complete freedom, the decreasing emphasis on marriage as a sacrament, the popularity of courtship or prenuptial acquaintance, the young man’s desire for an ultra-modern wife who is not expected to pay any attention to household work, the frequent escapades and parties and dinners in the western style, and the dash and speed with which Indian heroines leave their guardians and go through all kinds of adventures–all these are so commonplace in Indian films that I need not cite examples to illustrate them. A close perusal of the file of the Times of India or the Screen or the Filmfarewould be convincing enough. The indirect effect of this approach is evident in those films where a rich man’s son falls in love with another man’s daughter, who can easily go out with the hero in a manner not customary in India. In fact one would always find that the girl either should have no mother or she should walk at it and get away at the right moment. Even a street girl may be lifted by a hero and reformed into a society lady a la (Shavian) Pygmalion. The stress on the liberty of the modern educated girl who goes in search of various jobs under the most unfavourable situations is also of the western pattern.

Such films did certainly take us away from our native themes, all the more so hen in their display of the feminine form or in their stress on sensuality, they forgot to lend artistic treatment to the theme and ended with melodramatic sob stuff. Their basic attitude to life seemed to be sheer emotional indulgence born of rational bankruptcy caused by an over- emphasis on certain destructive values. While providing entertainment they propagated an easy-going life summed up in the two phrases ‘Live, Love and Laugh’ and ‘Wine, Woman and Song’. The gaiety was driven to the point of neurasthenia as wine and prostitution came to be almost the unavoidable co-existents in any film.

Just a few other films had of course a more robust attitude to life and dealt with themes that were of vital moment. The problem of an unsuccessful marriage was seriously handled in Adhirat; the difficulties of a disbanded soldier, in Lal Haveli; the incidence of famine was reflected in Rotiand Dhariti-ki-lal; the evils of drink, gambling, racing and even the system of paying guests were portrayed in Gumasta, Madmast, Daag and Shikar; blackmarketing became the burden of Foot-path. The communal problem came in for close scrutiny, and even if one or two films were frankly communal in their views, others like Shantaram’s Padosi, Maheboob’s Humayun, Ranjit’s Rajputaniand Sohrab Modi’s Pukarstood for communal amity. Shantaram in his Dr. Kotnis dwelt on the friendly feelings that India has for Asiatic countries; Vidyasagar, Parivartan and Nayasafarplaced before us the feasibility of a new system of education; Chittagong Ashtragar Lunthan, 42, Jalianwalabagh, Bhagat Singh and others were almost documentaries on the terrorist activities; Zalzalabased on a Tagore novel gave a searching analysis of the terrorist ideal; the agrarian problem became the burden of several films like Anjangarh, Zamin, Savkari Pash, Kuverache Dhan, and the best of them like Do Bigha Zamin took within their sweep the allied problems of rural indebtedness, the zamindar’s tyranny and the dependence on rainfall; the impact of the machine on India’s rural economy was shown, among others, in Sangramvery skilfully; the plight of the labourers in the mines was graphically reproduced in patalpuriand Yatrik, of the indigo-planters in Nildarpan, of the tea planters in Rahi, of the stone quarry workers in Surangand of the railway workers indirectly in Jawab. The vogue of showing the labour-capitalist conflict commenced effectively with Hamrahiwhich was imitated in many other films, while the blackmarket became the chief motif in Naya Tarana and Apna Desh. The revalution and reassertion of the contribution of land to the maintenance of India’s rural civilisation was recognised, perhaps subsequent to the success of Good Earth, in Deshar Mati and Dharti devata; the philosophy of non-violence was dramatically propagated in Saheedwhere it enters into conflict with the other extreme standpoint of violence as a political weapon.

Some of the professions too had been treated in our films, though in most cases the treatment was either unfair and incomplete or given an unusual glamour, either by making the professions fearful or a bit too attractive. The female steno-typist and nurse are too common devices for helping displaced women; the office clerk has appeared rather unhappily in Keranir Jivan; the doctor has appeared in too many films either to work a so-called miracle or as an incidental appendage as in Shagufa; the fisherman has been the subject matter of Boatman; the big officers are too common in Indian films and they hardly seem to do any work; the honest nurse has been highlighted in Nurse Sisi; the smuggler has been portrayed in Jaal; the struggling artist finds his champion in Aagand also partly in Raja; and even the career of a film star is being filmed in Teen Tasveeren and Taraka.

Derivative of such themes and often superadded to them were the films which showed the clash of environment with heredity (Dui Purush), the impact of the new psychology particularly with reference either to the criminal or to the abnormal; the use of split personality; and the employment of so many ideas either naive or queer sometimes, taken from the western films. Not that such films have not contributed to the formation, development and propagation of certain ideas in the country, but whatever healthy influences they created were perhaps more than set off by the spate of love themes or of the musicals or of some ofthe hackneyed mythologicals, or of the chain of films that were modelled on a particular type that had succeeded at the box-office. Basically it remained a fact that most of the themes of the films mentioned above were lost in the too romantic depiction of the heroes or the heroines.

“In the Indian films “, wrote Miss Panna Shah “72 per cent of the leading character; were guided by individual motives, 16.3 per cent by personal and 11.6per cent by social aims. Of the individual goals 38.7 per cent characters were concerned with winning someone’s love, 29 per cent with marriage for love, 19.4 per cent with personal happiness and security while the rest were concerned with such aims as professional success, obtaining money to lead a gay life, desire for an heir or search for an ideal character. More heroines than heroes sought for personal goals...” Not only this; the leading character is often restless and breaks away from the social conventions to grasp life as he imagines it, but the conventions prove so strong that the erstwhile rebel is ultimately forced either into submission or to suicide. It is during this period of revolt that he launches on some of the most extravagant plans including those that tend to crime. This gives considerable opportunities to the capitalist producer who can work them up efficiently, and the total effect of the film remains that of the culture of the ego on a scale that does not agree with the new demand on society. The jumbled up inner vision is given an extension not known to the average Indian and the dilemma which the hero faces is more personal than social. It is true that once a while society creeps into the play, but nevertheless the tragedy of the Indian film hero is the tragedy of the street made glamorous by the costly star-system as is evident from the number of films which refer to the figurative ‘travel’ or ‘traveller’ going away ‘remote..very far remote’ perhaps from reality. And during this ‘travel’ it is of course necessary that the hero should go against authoritarian discipline, either by refusing to accept the positive values of life or by a failure to form new ones.

For this, of course, as J. A. Wilson wrote in The Cinema,’ 52, the capitalist-producer is partly responsible. “Capitalism, someone has said, does not challenge art in principle–it merely treats it with ignorance, indifference and unconscious cruelty. The supremacy of the destructive over the constructive, the failure to make peace exciting, a prurient curiosity about the details of violence, a denial of tragedy: these are a few symptoms of capitalist patronage as evinced in the cinema.” This is remarkably true of India, as our films predominate with stories of the more favoured social groups and emphasise the problem of the single and the young, the anti-social and the dreamy. In fact the revolt of the individual referred to earlier is of a dreamy nature, born out of a desire to escape from the grave dissatisfaction with the present day society and seeking relief in what is called pictorial wish- fulfillment. The new realism that has appeared in the Indian film, even if it is partially the outcome of foreign influence, is but a hopeful emergence from a state of emotional chaos caused by the willingness to work for an ideal more substantial than mere lovemaking. The sense of honesty and responsibility that the out-witted peasant displays in Do Bigha Zamin is indicative of the new urge, though that itself remains to be fulfilled.

It was but natural therefore that the Film Enquiry Committee laid so much stress on the “important cultural and social significance and, as such, a very formative role” of the film in India. The Indian film of tomorrow should not only provide us with a knowledge of the world in which we live but should also create the values by which we live; its sociological content and artistic excellence should be worthy of the cultural tradition of India.

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