Sociology has not gone to Indian movies very often, and that needs to be corrected. Consider that in India today we breathe movies as a key element of the national atmosphere, second only to oxygen, ozone, bottled mineral water, satellite TV and the internet. Bollywood, the world of Hindi moviedom, is also a big, sprawling social fact—in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and among the South Asian Diaspora in the West. Popular Hindi cinema needs therefore to be understood much better as a social/cultural force because…well, because it is there. Several interesting questions arise when you pause and look at our movies as a cultural phenomenon: Why are these films so popular? How is it that this popularity does not dim even after most films are rejected by the mass of ticket-buyers as ‘just trash’? Eight out of ten films flop at the box office every week, and this has been the score,
more or less, for the last 50 years! Yet every Friday, the day when new films are released, the public’s hopes re-awaken, and people queue up at the box office once again—undaunted by last week’s disappointment! But occasionally, once in a blue moon, their gamble is rewarded by a gem of a movie, gems with names like Rang De Basanti, Guru, Omkara, Black, Veer Zaara, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Maachis, DDLJ, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Sholay, Mr. India, Amar Akbar Anthony, Umrao Jaan, Chashme Baddoor, Aandhi, Deewaar, Guide, Mughal-e-Azam, Naya Daur, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Pyaasa, Mr. & Mrs. 55, Mr. 420, Awara, Devdas, and so on.
What makes some movies so successful that fans watch them 20, 30 times? Nearly 14 million Indians buy tickets to watch films every day, and on a good blockbuster House-Full day this number touches 20 million. And this is not counting the numbers of those who line up to watch Indian movies outside India…
No other art form has this kind of intimate, active relationship with such a large audience, certainly not in India. This is especially significant considering that our new-born Moral Police does not take kindly to Art and its ‘incorrect’ expressions at all, as the exiled painter, M.F. Husain will tell you, as will dozens of documentary and feature filmmakers. Among recent victims are Rahul Dholakia & Anurag Kashyap, the two young men who dared to make Parzania, and Black Friday, both released last year. Before them, Deepa Mehta’s film unit had to pack up and cancel the shooting of her film Water in Benares thanks to the Sangh Parivar’s goons, some three years or so ago.
Bollywood in short, is a subject crying out for study, research, debate. The songs in these films moreover, constitute India’s and the South Asian diaspora’s popular music archive. And so it is that a growing number of Ph.D. theses and books on Bollywood are already upon us, especially from our NRI brethren in the UK, and the US.
Rajinder Dudrah’s Bollywood—Sociology Goes to the Movies is a sampler of this trend, he being a Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Manchester. The kindest thing I can say about this book is: don’t turn to it as a first book on the subject; it’s over-reliance on theoretical jargon will put you off film sociology for good. Here is a taste of Dr Dudrah’s writing; these are the opening lines of his book’s fourth chapter titled ‘Bollywood Cinema Going in New York City’: This chapter draws on theoretical and interdisciplinary developments in film studies (metaphors of the body and skin, haptic codes in the cinematic experience, and Indian rasa theory), urban and cultural geography (the location of places and the theorizing of spaces as informing subjectivity formation), and in sociology and cultural studies (diaspora and globalization) to situate and offer an exploration of diasporic South Asian identity formation vis-à-vis Bollywood cinema going at two sites in New York City, USA’.
This is only the first sentence, comprising 77 words! The next sentence is a little kinder, at just 47 words.
What is suggested is a complexifying of the sensations of the Bollywood cinematic assemblages that are consumed and incorporated in the cultural geographies and urban bodies of Bollywood’s disaporic audiences in Jackson Heights in the borough of Queens, and in Times Square in the district of Manhattan… (p. 96)
Need I say more? Apart from the author, the book’s publisher, Sage, also needs to be hauled up for this daylight murder of the English language—by a professor in an English university. Don’t even ask what the two sentences mean; your guess is as good as mine.
To be fair to the author however, not all the book’s chapters are as bad as this one. In his introduction, Dudrah tells us: The sociological imagination that is taken up and developed in this book is one that is concerned with the private and public issues of the day, writ large through the silver screen and popular cultures of Bollywood cinema.
(Translation: his focus here is on the social issues handled by these films, not on the films themselves.)
A little later he writes: Using the example of Bollywood cinema as a social, cultural and media phenomenon, [my book] intends to offer aesthetic, cultural and social analyses of the cinematic form through the interdisciplinary subject inquiries of related fields in the arts, humanities and social sciences; namely across the aforementioned academic subject areas. [p. 29]
If you somehow control your dismay at Dudrah’s unwieldy jargon-filled sentences, there are a few interesting observations to be found. One of them concerns the way Queer groups among British Asians have appropriated a few Hindi film songs and characters. Another throws light on how Subhash Ghai’s film Pardes (1997) was received by NRI viewers in the U.S. The film was released worldwide in August 1997 in the run-up to the celebrations marking 50 years of India’s Independence. It started off to a slow but steadily positive reception in India and then had a successful run at the box office for several weeks stretching into December 1997. In Britain, Dudrah notes, it was an instant hit and remained on the big screen for months. For instance, the film was still showing at the Piccadilly cinema in Birmingham, UK, in March 1998. In the US too it was reported as doing well with Bollywood audiences.
Dudrah’s interpretation of the reasons for Pardes’s success at the ‘global’ box office begins by crediting it to the film’s theme as much as its marketing.
The film’s main publicity image on hoardings, posters and music album sleeves distributed throughout the world is interesting. The film poster reads American Dreams, Indian Soul. Its hero and heroine embrace each other in the middle of a still which captures a pre-9/11 New York skyline on one side and the Taj Mahal on the other, set beneath atmospheric clouds of change. The American dreams are those of the heroine Ganga (Mahima Chaudhary) who contemplates new horizons, and the Indian soul is that of the hero Arjun (Shahrukh Khan) who, although an American citizen, is still attached to the motherland (India)…
Pardes captures well many of the sensibilities which constitute the diasporic subject: displacement, new beginnings, issues of belonging and alienation… Dudrah conducted some interviews with a cross section of British Asians who had been touched by Pardes (which depicts Ganga the female protagonist’s experience of migrating from a village in Dehradun and living in New York after her marriage)…
Here are some answers from young people in response to his question, what did you think of Pardes?
Nahid: I think it was talking about British Asians more, the main actress, she’s come from abroad, she’s experiencing how we are supposed to live here, it’s totally different (from India), she finds it hard to adapt to life here, and the film addresses the reasons why in its own way.
Reshmo: I really liked Pardes because it was basically trying to tell you about your roots and everything…
Kully: Like when I watched Pardes I asked my mum—is this how it is in India? Sometimes she agrees with the film, sometimes she doesn’t. If she doesn’t then I’ll just take it in for myself, and it’s interesting to see how they portray India and Indian things.
Taran: Like Ganga’s parents’ house, did you see how big and fantastic that was? They obviously weren’t the poor family from the normal village, but also it was nice to see them in that setting because India isn’t just all about poverty.’
In sum, the book has its moments, but you have to plough through a lot of academic jargon and name-dropping of theoretical heavy weights in order to get them. In this sense, Dudrah’s book is similar to an average Hindi film, which too has its moments…
Narendra Panjwani is Associate Professor, Media & Marketing, at The Rizvi Institute of Management, Mumbai.