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Reading India through Bollywood

No one can accurately pin down the moment when the term Bollywood was first used. It is generally thought to have come into existence sometime in the late 1980s and then became voguish in the next decade or so. Nor can anyone agree on its definition. Some say it applies to the entire Hindi film industry, others say it is limited to the garish, kitschy cinema full of song and dance and overwrought emotions that is all around us today. Still others claim that it applies to the entire entertainment industry of which cinema is only a part.

By the mid-1990s, at a time when India was upbeat about economic liberalisation, the word with all its different implications became quite popular. The industry began looking at foreign markets, chiefly the vast numbers of Indians settled in UK, US and Canada. And then an interesting thing happened — even those who did not understand Hindi took to these films, and it began piquing the interest of academics. Today, a wide array of scholars, ranging from structuralists to post-modernists to ethnographers are studying and teaching Hindi cinema. Cultural studies departments worldwide offer courses in understanding Bollywood and the seminar/conference calendar to deconstruct Hindi cinema is quite busy.

One such conference-cum-festival was held in Abu Dhabi in November 2008. It was organised by the Indian embassy and as the then ambassador Talmiz Ahmad writes in his foreword in Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood, the objective was to “present a glimpse of how India’s filmmakers have been exploring the nation’s contemporary challenge, particularly those pertaining to the evolution of our nationhood and our composite culture, the problems of poverty and oppression and the struggle of Indian women to assert their dignity...”

The papers presented at the conference, as collated in this volume, do not always fulfil that premise, but that should not matter. By itself, this is an interesting and intriguing collection of articles which covers a lot of ground. The same cannot be said about the quality; it ranges from the brilliant to the shoddy to the mystifying.

The book opens with academic Ravi Vasudevan’s analysis of the “Meanings” of Bollywood and it takes a 360 view in locating the transition of the Indian film industry — with its old style subjects, treatments and even economics — to the new “Bollywood”. Vasudevan accurately posits that the industry is very ambivalent about this instantly recognisable brand, which has troubling connotations since it implies that Indian cinema is nothing but a cheap and vulgar copy of Hollywood. Yet, there is no turning back now and the fact that even this book has the B-word in its title tells us something.

Rachel Dwyer, one of the two editors of the book and among the earliest scholars to seriously study Hindi cinema in all its dimensions, writes an excellent — arguably the best one in the book — essay on Mahal. Mahal is a remarkable film on many counts — it brought together hugely talented people like Ashok Kumar, Kamal Amrohi and Josef Wirsching, to say nothing of Khemchand Prakash, and it provided Lata Mangeshkar with arguably her signature song, Aayega ane wala. Dwyer correctly points out the sexual tension in the film and none of the “reincarnation” films made after that — Madhumati, Milan or even Mehbooba — came close to creating that mood. This is a template on how to “read” a film in a serious, academic way without confounding the lay movie lover.

Alas, the same cannot be said for another paper, titled, helpfully, “The Evil I: Realism and Scopophilia in the Horror Films of the Ramsay Brothers”. The cheesy and campy horror films that have emerged from that camp have been the source of many a joke for years; Valentina Vitali does not see it that way. “My argument is that the horror film emerged and became necessary in India during this decade (1990s) and this decade only because it mediated what was felt, perhaps obscurely and subconsciously, to be at issue in the new alignments that shaped India’s turbulent 1980s.” Then follows a lengthy exposition on India’s post-Independence history, ranging from early Nehruvian socialism, the Emergency and the rise of the Hindu Right. This is academic over-reading carried to the extreme; even allowing for the current trend of bestowing respectability to lowbrow culture, there is no gainsaying the fact that the products from the House of Ramsay, for the most part, were quite bad and tacky. They don’t stand for anything, with or without socio-political context. Barely one or two of their films (Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, for example) were half-way entertaining and Vitali does not even mention these.

The scholarly tone of this book is somewhat compensated, at least for the lay reader, by interviews conducted by Jerry Pinto with people from within the industry, though one does wonder how both these parts — academic papers and freewheeling interviews — fit under the same rubric. Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood is a valuable book to have in a collection if one is a movie maven, but it does not make for easy reading.


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