12 June 2016

Book Review: Modern love, ’50s style

Published in BL Ink:
What was Hindi cinema’s ‘Golden Age’ all about? A new book wants us to take off our nation-focused spectacles and open our eyes to how the ’50s Bombay film world shaped the modern Indian idea of romance.
Film scholar Aarti Wani shows how the public conversation around star pairs shaped our response to their onscreen romances. Seen here are Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman, with colleagues Dev Anand and Raj Khosla
(The Hindu archives)
The Hindi cinema of the 1950s has received so much attention, both scholarly and popular, that it seems an over-ploughed field. But film scholar Aarti Wani has written a book that casts fresh light on this familiar terrain. Rather than looking again at the ways in which 1950s cinema spoke to — and of — India’s new nationhood, Wani examines the models it constructed of romance. In fact, she argues, “the category of the national”, while explicating several aspects of post-Independence Hindi cinema, such as the creation of a national geography through travel and landscape, or of a moral economy based on a certain portrait of tradition, has failed to “account for the 1950s films’ overarching investment in romantic love.”
Wani’s principal argument is that love and romance were Hindi cinema’s fantasy of the modern in the ’50s. She starts with an obvious but important point — while romance was the ubiquitous narrative content of ’50s cinema, there was very little space for romantic love in the lived experiences of most Indians who watched these films. Of course, such an imbalance has existed with regard to literary depictions of love long before cinema. Sudipta Kaviraj has suggested that novelistic depictions of love “create an impression of commonplaceness of such action and behaviour”, whereas in fact, love relationships continued to be extremely rare in the society that was being described in these novels.
This modernity was signalled, among other things, by the fact that in contrast to films from later decades, ’50s Hindi films were marked by the relative absence of family. Most ’50s heroes had no father or mother, that is, no parental family. And most ’50s heroines, Wani argues, either had non-oppositional, even supportive, families, or they were shown with villainous fathers/father-figures from whom they needed to be rescued. Films like AwaaraDevdas and Mughal-e-Azam are exceptions. Very few ’50s film protagonists lived in joint families — thus freed from the “crippling family ties that would thwart romantic aspirations in real life”.
This cinematic vision of romantic love, Wani’s argument continues, was entwined with the experience of urban modernity; the city functioning as a site of “unexpected meetings and romantic encounters between strangers”. In contrast to love affairs in rural settings, which often had tragic ends — Arzoo(1950), Deedar (1951) or Devdas (1955) — the urban fabric seemed to allow for young men and women to choose and court potential partners. The primary locale for these filmi encounters, of course, was Mumbai (though Calcutta did feature in films like Pyaasa and Howrah Bridge).
The urban modern was closely tied to spatial exploration. Pointing to the many romantic connections made aboard trains, in taxis and buses, and in garages, Wani makes a rather lovely point: that romance in the ’50s film did not need transportation to an exotic or foreign location — “the dream remained eminently quotidian”. Of course, women and men — even those on the silver screen — did not have equal access to these city spaces, especially in a host of films that played up a noirish iconography, in which gambling, bank heists, thefts, kidnapping and even murders were deployed as sources of excitement. Still, Wani analyses some very interesting films — like 1958’s Solva Saal, starring Waheeda Rehman, and 1957’s Gateway of India, featuring Madhubala — in which the frisson is produced by the female protagonist’s adventurous, even dangerous, brush with diverse spaces in the city.
The other female figure identified with the cosmopolitan spaces of the city is, of course, the club singer/dancer. Wani notes that the role of the vamp/gangster’s moll in ’50s films was not reserved for particular actresses as it later became. The actress singing in a club might be the leading lady of that film — think Madhubala in Howrah Bridge — Geeta Bali, Sheila Ramani and Shakila all had roles that spilled across these boundaries.
Madhubala as a nightclub singer in Howrah Bridge (1958) was the film's heroine
Perhaps the most remarkable reworking of the split between the ‘heroine’ and the ‘other woman’ is in Pyaasa. Guru Dutt crafts a melancholic critique of the city as a calculating, inhospitable place based on the opposition between two female figures. But here the prostitute Gulabo (Rehman) is the true romantic, an appreciator of poetry, while the college-educated bourgeois woman (Mala Sinha’s Meena) is the faithless, money-minded one. (In a related aside, Wani points to the rising anxiety about women marrying for status rather than love, a fear expressed in mid-’50s films like Mr and Mrs 55 and Paying Guest.)
Wani’s next section, about the role of the song in the creation of a modern Indian romantic sensibility, is the book’s weakest. Several classic songs — ‘Yeh raat yeh chandni’ from Jaal, ‘Dum bhar jo udhar moonh phere’ from Awaara, ‘Do ghadi woh jo paas aa baithe’ from Gateway of India — are analysed in detail, and these analyses are usually interesting, if long-winded in a predictable academic way. Wani spends several pages, for example, on the framing of the Christian Maria in the Jaal song, and while I found fascinating the antecedents she claims for this character (in Ramamoorthy’s analysis of the interracial ’30s ‘Modern Girl’), I was often stopped in my tracks by sentences like “The spectacle of nature that frames the drama of this seduction marks Maria’s sexuality as natural” or “Maria’s performance, her expression, gestures and movement, along with the black and white mise-en-scene of the night saturated by the insistent sounds of the song give spatiality to desire that is cinematically spectacular and provides parallel moments of pleasure and identification”.
The rest of this section makes a shifting set of arguments about how space is used in the ’50s film song. Among Wani’s most specific claims is that duets were very rarely sung in a closed room (“which in fact offers a spatial setting for its possible consummation”). More broadly, she argues that romantic songs made for a fantasy in which the ‘public’ sphere could be occupied “for non-public, personal ends”. Moving onto songs of sorrow, she seeks to map songs sung by the heroine onto closed spaces and those by the hero onto open spaces — “a river bank, a sea shore, on a bench in a park, or on a rooftop”. I was less persuaded by Wani’s claims about how sound spills out of “the edges of the frame”, making songs in general a way of destabilising our perception and experience. Her conclusion seems particularly strange, using as it does a quotation on Hollywood “producing a new common sense about how love looked and what was required to overcome the manifold dangers that threatened it” to make her point about the film song. None of this is wrong, but it feels terribly unspecific. Perhaps the problem is songs are too slippery to stay put in neat analytic boxes — Wani herself goes from categorising the song as “a conduit of narrative meaning” to something that stakes claims “in excess of what the narrative allows”.
The final third of the book is where Wani abandons her laboured shot-by-shot analytic technique for a lively weaving together of film texts with journalistic and anecdotal texts about stars who had attained cinematic and public status as romantic pairs. Drawing on Neepa Majumdar’s pathbreaking work Wanted Cultured Ladies Only (2009), which locates the phenomenon of stardom in ’40s India within the context of a deep social ambivalence about cinema, Wani scrutinises how Bombay film stars in the ’50s were anointed as experts on love and romance — being asked to write articles and answer readers’ questions.
Returning to her framing argument about the rarity of love relationships in Indian society at the time, she suggests that stars began to be seen as authorities on the subject both because they performed love on screen and because they were among the very few people with any real-life experience of love affairs. Wani’s study of 1950s film journalism in English, Hindi and Marathi is attentive to detail, distinguishing between the different registers — sympathetic, gossipy, or judgemental — in which the stars’ love lives were produced as artefacts for public consumption.
Finally, Wani zooms in on the four legendary star-pairs of the decade — Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman, Nargis-Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand-Suraiya and Dilip Kumar-Madhubala. Her mapping of the contours of their real-life affairs onto some of their famous cinematic romances produces some of the most fascinating readings of these films. In moving beyond the official narrative on screen to the unofficial knowledge of stars’ lives which, without a doubt, informs the way we watch films, Wani offers an immensely productive lens with which to look at Hindi cinema. Work on Chiranjeevi and his fans, by SV Srinivas, offered a complex and thoughtful reading of film texts in the light of stardom and fan-expectations. Wani’s work is an allied but original project.
Despite its sometimes meandering and repetitive prose, Fantasy of Modernity is a thoughtful and enjoyable book, which contains several careful readings of films and offers a persuasive way of looking at both ’50s cinema and 20th century Indian ideas of romance. The many typographical errors — misspelled proper names, like ‘Ashish Nandi’ instead of ‘Ashis Nandy’, or ‘Chidanand Dasgupta’ instead of ‘Chidananda’, recurring errors like “libratory”, and completely erratic Romanising of Hindi lyrics (what should be spelt ‘anbujh’ is instead spelt, on the same page, alternately as ‘anbooz’ and ‘anbhujh’) — are extremely unfortunate distractions from an otherwise rich and immersive read.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 11 June 2016.

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