29 October 2011

Book Review: What isn’t Bollywood?

A review of two books about Hindi cinema - one academic and one not - written for a section on writing about films and film music that I guest-edited for the last issue of Biblio.

The Greatest Show on Earth: Writings on Bollywood
Edited by Jerry Pinto
Penguin Books India, 2011
ISBN : 9780143416128
472pp, Rs. 499

Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema
Edited by Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto
Oxford University Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780198069263
300pp, Rs. 695

“…I sometimes find academic books about Bollywood really funny. These people sit down and dissect everything and they make connections between Prakash Mehra’s movies and the Naxalite movement that was happening here, and I don’t think Prakashji ever thought about that kind of thing. He probably thought, ‘Amitabh ke dates mil gaye, chalo picture banaate hain’.”
– Elahe Hiptoola, long-time producer for the films of Nagesh Kukunoor, speaking to interviewer Jerry Pinto in Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood

There is admittedly something remarkable about a book that is able to contain this remark (unannotated except for Pinto’s uncharacteristically gentle response: “But don’t you see how the zeitgeist affects the movies you make?”) and contain several essays by exactly the sort of film scholars who “sit down and dissect everything”. There is also something slightly schizophrenic about it.

The most striking form in which this schizophrenia expresses itself is with regard to the use of the term Bollywood.

On the one hand, there is the book’s opening essay, in which film historian Ravi Vasudevan discusses the possible meanings of ‘Bollywood’. This is a characteristically thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, and I will try and provide a sense of his arguments here, because they lay out the terrain within which I believe not just the two books under review, but all books on ‘Bollywood’ today must operate. Vasudevan begins by reminding us that the term became widespread after 1995, in what might be referred to as the post-DDLJ moment. It was the time when the Bombay film industry first started to get high returns in the export-oriented sector, and during which the “territorial nation” (whose economy, boundaries and cultural protocols needed protection) came to be replaced by the “global nation”, in which the very imaginary of Indianness could be redefined by a select section of Non-Resident Indians. He then points out that while ‘Bollywood’ has been associated with the reinvention of the family film genre to reach diasporic audiences, it is equally about “provid[ing] a mise-en-scene for the new types of commoditization that have developed around cinema in India”.

Here Vasudevan cites Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s important argument that films are now only one of a whole complex of elements that make up the contemporary entertainment industry called ‘Bollywood’: television, music, fashion, advertising and websites. But while Rajadhyaksha suggests that ‘Bollywood’ gained traction by laying claim to an indigenous authenticity and addressing a ‘family audience’ on the basis of ‘family values’, Vasudevan points out – citing reports from the 1950s and 1960s – that family has been central to the institutional imagination of the Indian film audience much before ‘Bollywood’ emerged on the scene. More importantly, the new configuration of business that Rajadhyaksha puts his finger on is actually producing a cinema more varied in its genre structures than before: though Vasudevan, in his characteristically careful manner, is quick to acknowledge that this variety “is intimately related to corporatization and its bid to create differentiated product”.

Vasudevan points to the odd phenomenon of the term ‘Bollywood’ being publicly disavowed by people such as Shah Rukh Khan and Subhash Ghai (also Amitabh Bachchan, whom he doesn’t mention): “people who… are also robust icons of Bombay cinema’s global spread, its integration with other image/music enterprises, in a word, its Bollywoodization.” A specific kind of cultural nationalism is at play here, which insists on a national location and the production of cinema for “an audience of a billion people” ‘at home’ while also claiming to be the authentic voice of India in a global context. But what interests Vasudevan here is the increasingly widespread incidence of ‘Bollywood’ in academic usage. This, he argues, replicates the way publishers of trade and popular discourse now privilege a diasporic reference point with regard to Hindi film viewing, including reading back in time so that any reference to Bombay Hindi cinema is couched as ‘Bollywood’: even a 1926 viewing of Light of Asia at Windsor Castle in 1926. While acknowledging that academic usage of the term in Britain and North America may want to push an oppositional cultural agenda that emphasises multi-sitedness, contemporaneity, diasporic identity politics and a story of Bollywood diversity versus Hollywood hegemony, Vasudevan warns that jumping on the ‘Bollywood’ bandwagon might end up “accepting or involuntarily reproducing the parameters set by the business form”.

Rachel Dwyer’s Introduction to the volume opens by taking Vasudevan’s piece as an injunction to restrict the use of the term ‘Bollywood’, both historically (taking DDLJ as its beginning) and thematically (to the diasporic romance). This is the basis on which she then proceeds to lay out the contents of the volume as being about “Hindi cinema that lies beyond Bollywood”. By Dwyer’s reckoning, the stunt films/ action-adventures of early Bombay cinema (discussed here by Kaushik Bhaumik); the Islamicate fantasy films that were part of the transition to sound (examined here by Rosie Thomas); the whole range of B-movies, whether the religious genres or the horror films (whose supposedly unique popularity in the 1980s is analysed here by Valentina Vitali); and a massively popular classic like Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) (which Dwyer argues “is a film that contains many of the features of later Bollywood, yet remains somewhat apart from its history”) are all “outside most accepted definitions of what is Bollywood” (p. xiv).

If we return to Elahe Hiptoola, however, we find that she refers to “Bollywood masala movies” when talking of the 1980s, and then to the family values enshrined in “the Bollywood of the 1970s”. But it’s not only Hiptoola whose use of the term happily ignores all the categories and limits that Dwyer and Vasudevan have just so carefully laid out: Jerry Pinto, the book’s co-editor, introduces the fascinating interviews which close the volume with these words: “… where the essays represent an engaged and critical encounter with Bollywood, the interviews present the insider perspective… though we have not chosen to burrow too deep into Bollywood”.

This is all rather confusing. It appears that the various sorts of films that the essays engage – the Wadia stunt films, Islamicate fantasy, B-movies, the Gothic romance of Mahal – all qualify as Bollywood for Pinto. (More on this when we get to the other book under review, where Pinto is the sole editor.)

What doesn’t qualify, apparently, are the films associated with the people Pinto chooses to interview. These include filmmakers who make feature films out of Bombay but choose “not to be co-opted” by “the industry”; alumni of the Film and Television Institute, Pune, those of them who have not been “absorbed into the great maw of Bollywood”; film festival directors; directors, actors and even producers who see themselves as part of what Pinto calls (in all seriousness) hatke cinema. “This is the new cinema of the multiplex, which may well have some small claim to being ‘beyond Bollywood’ too. Its indices seem to be an absence of stars, a foregrounding of alternative narratives, a smattering of English dialogue, a self-consciousness about cinema, and an ironic appreciation of some of the elements of classic Bollywood such as songs.”

Some of Pinto’s interviewees – documentary filmmaker Arun Khopkar, film editor and Kerala film festival director Bina Paul, Jabbar Patel – are quite clearly outsiders to ‘Bollywood’, whichever way one chooses to define it. But for others – Anurag Kashyap, Abhay Deol, UTV Spotboy’s Rucha Pathak, Moser Baier’s Harish Dayani, Hiptoola – it seems much more a matter of their defining themselves as being outside it in some way. So we hear Anurag Kashyap complaining that “Bollywood is dialogue-heavy… the more lines [actors] have, the happier they are. But that isn’t the way it is on my set. And my set isn’t Bollywood, it’s cut away, so that’s all right, I don’t have to go out and change the way it is in Bollywood”. We hear Rucha Pathak describing the films that she did as Executive Producer with Pritish Nandy Communications in 2004–2006 “as not quite Bollywood” although they had “elements of classic Bollywood with songs etc”.

It is remarkable that this list of films includes Shabd (Sanjay Dutt, Aishwarya Rai) (Leena Yadav 2005), Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena (Fardeen Khan, Kay Kay Menon) (Suparn Verma 2005), Ankahee (Esha Deol, Ameesha Patel and Aftab Shivdasani) (Vikram Bhatt 2006). None of these, I think, would fit Jerry Pinto’s definition of hatke above, whether in terms of alternative narratives, the absence of stars, certainly. But for Pathak, having bound scripts (“which surprised a lot of Bollywood people”), letting in new directors, having “an emphasis on content” and just the absence of “those Bollywood horror stories…: no dons turning up on the set, no eerie telephone calls from somewhere in Dubai, no bags of five hundred rupee notes to be ferried about” is enough to define her work as ‘not Bollywood’. While ‘Bollywood’, on the other hand, is what “comes buzzing around” when a new director has a hit, without having either a script or a sense of his/her work: “They just want the guy to direct another film, any film. That’s what’s so wrong with going Bollywood” (Italics in the Pathak/Pinto original.)

Let me at this point move swiftly to the other book under review. This book is arguably the most satisfying and various anthology of writings about popular Hindi cinema currently in existence. It contains essays by academics who provide a certain kind of thoughtful distance: the wonderful Connie Haham on the more wonderful Manmohan Desai, Susmita Dasgupta’s analysis of Amitabh Bachchan as tragic hero for a disillusioned polity, Mukul Kesavan’s seminal but characteristically lucid, surefooted exploration of the Islamicate roots of Hindi cinema. It contains pieces which are interesting precisely because of the intimate relationship that the writer has with the object of his attentions: Vinod Mehta on ‘his heroine’ Meena Kumari, Vir Sanghvi on his childhood love for Dara Singh, even – dare I say – Jerry Pinto on Helen. It contains autobiography: RK Narayan’s wry and hilarious description of dealing with filmwallahs during the making of Guide, Dada Kondke’s somewhat odd account of his Asha Bhonsle affair (translated from the Marathi), and rarely seen (if slightly disappointing) pieces by Manna Dey (on himself) and Bhisham Sahni (on his brother Balraj) – and extracts from some very engaging biographies: Anupama Chopra on Shah Rukh Khan, Madhu Jain on Raj Kapoor and his women. It includes a wonderful piece by Dorothee Wenner about how Nadia became the Hunterwali of Wadia Movietone’s stunt films. It includes Suketu Mehta’s superb account of “struggler” Eishaan (nee Mahesh) and his tragicomic journey through the religious B-movie circuit. And it is subtitled ‘Writings on Bollywood’.

I imagine that it is clear by now that ‘Bollywood’ is (a) a term that is here to stay, whether we like it or not; and (b) a term that different people use to mean quite different things, and sometimes the same person may use to mean different things, too. This is true not just of people within the Hindi film industry, but also academics, journalists and writers. So that Pinto can lump everything he doesn’t like about today’s commercial Hindi cinema into ‘Bollywood’ while also using the same term when celebrating “all that Hindi cinema has done for us”. And Rachel Dwyer can simultaneously have on the market books called Bollywood's India: Hindi cinema as a guide to modern India (2010), One hundred Bollywood films (2005) (whose blurb says that Bollywood is India’s national cinema) and Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood (2011), and Mahal (1949), for instance, can feature in all of them. Perhaps, as Vasudevan says at one point, it is simply the case that ‘Bollywood’ has provided a brand name that helps publishers position their product, and therefore pressurizes authors to adopt this category (even if sometimes with the prefix “Beyond”). What is important is not to let the associations of the term flatten and limit our understanding either of the multifarious Hindi cinema that has gone before, or of the many transformations that are still to come. That would be a real pity.

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