Global Bollywood is an academic anthology, but it contains several essays that might be of interest to lay readers who are fans of Hindi films and filmi music. There are, admittedly, a couple of somewhat jargony essays in the collection, but they can be avoided for readers allergic to that sort of thing. Accessible essays that take on specific subjects, and present new and helpful information about them, dominate the anthology. As a result, I can recommend it alongside another book I reviewed some time ago, Tejaswini Gantiâ€™s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.
Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti’s thorough introduction to this volume is a pretty definitive survey of much important scholarship on Hindi cinema. Given my own background and interests, the sections from which I learned the most were probably the somewhat more ‘marginal’ sections, where Gopal and Moorti provided overviews of some slightly more obscure topics, such as the influence of 19th century Parsi street theater on the emergence of the Bollywood acting and musical style (they cite Kathryn Hansenâ€™s work on this subject; also see Hansen’s translation of Somnath Gupt’s book).
Still, here is the definition of “Bollywood” with which Gopal and Moorti begin:
Frequently remarked upon by insiders and always remarkable to outsiders, song-dance occupies the constitutive limit of Bollywood cinema. It determines â€“ perhaps unfairly but invariably â€“ the form itself even as it frequently escapes the filmic context to inhabit other milieus. (1)
One could object that it’s not just the song-dance that is distinctive about commercial Hindi cinema, but the particular stylization of the acting, which seems over-the-top and melodramatic to many viewers acculturated to the values of European art cinema. Certainly, it wasn’t just song-dance that Satyajit Ray rebelled against starting in the 1950s â€“ or, more recently, Aparna Sen, or Mira Nair. These art film directors were also interested in more naturalistic characterization, and in finding beauty in the everyday. Gopal and Moorti are by no means the only ones to attempt to work out a theoretical definition of “Bollywood.” I have been reading some of this rapidly proliferating scholarship for a project I have been doing on a non-Bollywood director, and this act of defining Bollywood “in theory” is quite widespread.
But I wonder whether Bollywood studies scholars might be over-thinking it. Does a particular national cinema need to be positively “defined” anymore? That is to say, canâ€™t we simply say that commercial Hindi cinema is defined by its context and cultural norms, just as commercial American cinema might be defined?
Variations of “Censorship”
Another aspect that falls under context is the choice of topics and themes, and the censorship regime. Censorship in Indian cinema is a two-way street. On the one hand, there is the familiar figure of the censor board (CBFC), which has a very particular culture and history. It might be worth pointing out that all film industries have some form of this, for good reason, and it is therefore wrong to say that Indian movies are “censored,” while American movies are not. American movies that get commercially released are also censored — but differently censored, through the ratings system as well as through the big distributors, who rarely carry “NC-17” rated films.
But there is also a kind of self-censorship intrinsic to Indian cinema itself, as enacted by the makers of films, and even by the actors, which relates to the choice of topics. This self-censorship is often a rough mirror for the tastes of the marketplace; filmmakers and actors try not to do anything that will turn off a large number of potential ticket-buyers. However, there are times when there is a gap between what the censor board thinks is unacceptable and what the masses think. (An example of such a gap, referenced by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta in their essay in the volume, is the great â€œKaanta Lagaâ€ Visible Thong controversy of 2003 [see the video on YouTube, if you dare].)
One place where self-censorship is a particular problem, in my view, is in acknowledging and representing poverty. I really donâ€™t care that Bollywood doesnâ€™t do female nudity, or that lip-to-lip kisses remain rare or are relegated to more adult-oriented films. What does bother me is when someone like Amitabh Bachchan objected, at least initially, to the non-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire purely on the basis of the fact that it represents the slums. Twenty years earlier, he objected to another film about slum children, Mira Nairâ€™s Salaam Bombay! (which is vastly superior to Slumdog, incidentally) using almost exactly the same language he used in 2008. It was irritating then, and it remains irritating today.
Is â€œBollywoodâ€ an Insult?
Many people inside the Bombay film industry have complained, and continue to complain, about the term “Bollywood,” just as some directors of Italian Westerns object to the term “spaghetti Westerns.” Gopal and Moorti cite Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgan as two examples of Hindi film stars who donâ€™t like the term.
But of course if you donâ€™t use the term, you also lose something; itâ€™s possible that the objectors are being over-sensitive to an insult that is not in fact really there. (When Indians use the term, for example, they are suggesting the culture, the magazines, the fashion, and the glamor — not necessarily a particular style of filmmaking.) Gopal and Moorti, always sensitive to nuances, work out a reasonable compromise:
We use the term Bollywood instead of Hindi commercial cinema to capture the global orientation of this formation. When we refer to Hindi commercial cinema in a primarily domestic or a historical context that does not include this global orientation, we use Hindi popular cinema or some variant thereof. Similarl, we use the term filmigit, film song, or film music to emphasize the aural dimension of the performance sequence. (4)
For some, non-Bollywoodized viewers, the song-dance in Hindi cinema is a turn-off. (I have many friends who, much to my irritation, like to fast-forward those sequences when watching Hindi films on DVD.) But for fans of the films, as well as closely observing critics, the song-dance sequences might well be the main reason to watch.
Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes Hindi film song as ‘the only truly original moments in a Hindi film… I mean you couldnâ€™t use the songs say from Border and put it in another film. Everyone goes on about the 00 or so films produced in India but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows fantastic new energy and originality.’ It is here that innovations in technology, allusions to sociopolitical realities, and aesthetic experimentation are most in evidence. Simultaneously, these picturizations code the inexpressible and the transgressive. (5)
At the end of the passage above, Gopal and Moorti are referring, I believe, to the way song-dance is often inserted as a cue for romance, allowing the hero and heroine to enact desire they could never directly announce in speech. Songs, in short, bring in encoded (and sometimes not-so-encoded) sexuality. (Someone once described to me a parlor game you can play when watching romantic songs from old films: if the song ends with a mountain, it signifies an erection, and if it ends with a stream, that’s an orgasm.) Our guest blogger, Nilanjana, also talked about this, in an essay not included in the present volume:
In the absence of dialogue, music and song sequences and the mechanism of coitus interruptus have often been used to portray sexual situations, such as in the song “Chup Chup Ke” from the recent hit Bunty Aur Babli (2005). The song sequence depicts the lead charactersâ€™ first night together (suhag raat) after their marriage, where the first shot of the couple embracing each other in bed quickly cuts to shots of the characters dancing and singing in an otherwise uninhabited desolate mountain landscape. The lyrics describe the skyâ€™s unfastening itself from the earth, which conveys the intensity of the coupleâ€™s physical passion while avoiding its literal depiction. (link)
71 Songs, in a single film. Really.
I suggested above that it may not be appropriate to define Hindi cinema by song-dance, but Iâ€™m not saying song-dance isnâ€™t relevant. The history of song-and-dance in Hindi films is important, including the central role of music in the silent film days (when films would often be shown with a live band performing songs), as well as in the earliest “talkies,” many of which were actually in operatic form â€“ that is to say, they featured virtual non-stop singing, with dialogues sung rather than spoken. (One film that is often cited along these lines is Indrasabha, which is sometimes described with awe because it contained 71 songs; in fact, the entire film was probably more like one, continuous, operatic song.)
The Absence of Government Support
One of the great mysteries of post-Independence India is why the government took so long to recognize the cinema as a formal industry (it only happened in 1998), and further, that it imposed “luxury” taxes on commercial films. The fact that it wasnâ€™t recognized as such for so long probably hurt the industry economically, as it led producers to raise money on the black market. But I think it also hurt the industry in some ways intellectually and aesthetically. Other newly independent nations would have died to have such a prolific source of national culture available. (Smaller countries, both in the past and today, generally screen imported films.)
But the cultural arbiters in the Indian government, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, saw it as a debased art form, which would be of no use in promoting the national goals of progress and development. Nilanjana and Monika Mehta talk about this in their essay in the collection, as follows:
Having already denied industry status to the commercial film industry, the state proceeded to define the film industryâ€™s products as luxuries and imposed heavy taxes on them. In addition, the state emphasized commercial films’ dangerous potential to corrupt so-called Indian culture. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, one member stated, ‘I think that the greatest injury is being done to the nation by the cinematograph.’ Another member lamented, ‘these cinemas are doing a great injury to our old treasure of music, poetry, and art.’ (107)
There was a similar disdain for the music, as Biswarup Sen points out in his essay, where he talks about All India Radioâ€™s snobbish rejection of popular music in favor of Indian classical after 1947. Here is Indiaâ€™s first minister of information and broadcasting, Dr. Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar:
The object is to encourage the revival of our traditional music, classical and folk. The Radio is fulfilling that task for the nation and I can say with satisfaction, that it has become the greatest patron of Indian music and musicians, greater than all the princely and munificent patronage of former days. (B.V. Keskar, Cited in Gopal and Moorti, 90)
And here is Senâ€™s account of what happened to Indian radio under Keskarâ€™s direction:
Under his tutelage, the All India Radio (AIR) developed a list of seven thousand â€˜approvedâ€™ classical artists, and he saw to it that classical music comprised fully half of all the music broadcast on national radio. Keskar, however, was not destined to win the culture wars. Unable to digest the AIRâ€™s stern diet, the listening public defected to Radio Ceylon, a commercial radio station who broadcasting policy was far more in tune with consumer demand. In the end, the government bowed down to popular taste and set up a new channel designed to disseminate â€˜popular music and light entertainment.â€™ Stated in 1957, Vivid Bharati would soon become the nationâ€™s most popular radio channel, bringing to an end Radio Ceylonâ€™s brief but significant period of broadcasting glory. (90)
(Bhattacharjya and Mehta also have an account of this episode in their essay.)
In Biswarup Sen’s account, the rejection of classical was also instrumental in the rise of Kishore Kumar to superstardom in 1969, with “Roop tera mastana” and “Mere sapno ki rani.” Before that, Kishore Kumar had already long established himself as a playback singer for Hindi films, but had remained in the shadows of classically trained singers:
It is somewhat of a mystery as to why Kishore would become a superstar so late I his career. The answer may lie, paradoxically, in what most would see as a serious lacuna in his musical educationâ€”of the male playback singers of his generation, Kishore was the only one who had received no instruction in classical music. Among his ‘competitors,’ Rafi had trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Manna Dey was trained by his uncle, the renowned K.C. Dey, and both Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor were well versed in light classical music. Kishore, on the other hand ,was entirely untutored, cuasing him to be often neglected by musical directorsâ€”songwriter Kalyanji’s comment that his skills lay more in ‘mimicry than in technique’ was typical of the musical establishment’s reaction to his singing style. Yet it was precisely this lack of skill that proved to be Kishore’s strongest selling point. Singers too well grounded in traditional music could, by the middle of the 1960s, no longer market their style of vocal delivery. To take the most obvious example, the great Mohammed Rafi, whose more classically inflected songs from the period are masterpieces of execution, proved insipid and inadequate when singing playback fro Shammi Kapoor, who more than any other actor in the 1960s symbolized what it meant to be ‘modern.’ (96)
Though he did have some training in Indian classical music, R.D. Burman never wholly gave himself over to the classical music mentality, and that freedom from the binds of traditional Indian music liberated him, making him the most effective maker of contemporary sounding Hindi film music starting in the 1960s.
In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti cite at length a Greek scholar named Helen Abadzi who has studied the appearance of Bollywood film (referred to in Greece as â€œindoprepisâ€), as well as the advent of Greek music imitating Bollywood film songs, starting in the late 1950s. Luckily, the article they cite is on the web; readers might want to take a look at it: â€œHindi Films of the 50s in Greece: The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogueâ€.
Another site visited by the Global Bollywood anthology is Indonesia, where there is a hybrid pop music genre associated with Hindi film influence called Dangdut. Dangdut music is considered low-class entertainment by Indonesian elites, but since the 1980s and 90s in particular, Bollywood music has been immensely popular. (See Boneka Dari India by Jakarta born Ellya Khadam. It’s a cover of the Hindi film song â€˜Samay Hai Bahar Kaâ€™)
A third site is Egypt, which might seem unlikely, since Egyptians tend to look down on Indians, as Amitav Ghosh documented in In an Antique Land. Walter Armbrust, in his essay for this volume, also talks about this as follows:
Egyptian filmmakers and most elites disparage Indian cinema, and this is consistent with the more generalized attitude about things Indian. ‘Hindi’ in everyday language labels things that are strange, silly, or just plain dumb. When someone acts as if you do not know what you are doing, you can say fakirni Hindi? (You think I am from India or something?). Film(i) Hindi means ‘an Indian film,’ but it is also synonymous with ‘a silly thing.’ Conceivably, the current linguistic usage of Hindi in the sense of ‘strange’ or ‘stupid’ came about at least to some extent through the introduction of Indian films and the eventually antagonist stance against it taken by the elites. (201)
Armbrust’s essay does not really get into the particular careers of the Hindi films that have screened in Egypt over the years. Rather, looking at Egyptian film and arts magazines, he focuses more on how Indian themes and atmosphere have been invoked periodically (starting in the 1930s), often by Egyptian filmmakers with all-Egyptian acting crews.
It might have been nice to have essays on the use and adaptation of Hindi film in Africa or Latin America, though other scholars have certainly published articles on that subject here and there. (That India-themed Brazilian soap opera comes to mind…) Another topic that seems particularly salient is the way radical Islamists have gone after Bollywood films and music in places like Afghanistan (but not only there), as corrupting influences. Conversely, I’m interested in how places like Afghanistan have been represented within Hindi films like Kabul Express.
But there is quite a good amount here as it is, and I would happily recommend Global Bollywood to both serious film scholars and fans who want to gain a broader knowledge of the industry, both as it developed within India, and as it has traveled.
This book sounds excellent – it will definitely go on my Amazon wishlist. Thanks so much for writing about this, Amardeep!
I am surprised that Nehru considered films of no use, considering Hindi movies of his era (Raj Kapoor movies e.g.), were so pro-socialism. They were shown a lot in China and USSR because of this reason. Hindi movies were great influence in the former Soviet bloc.
A student of Bollywood would also notice movies going from “the rich person is always the villain”, to the worship of wealth in the current movies. It reflects the change in ideology in India from pro-socialism to pro-capitalism. This would be an interesting topic to look at.
very well written Amardeep.
My music list on youtube is 51 songs long and growing. EZ or not, bollywood is indispensable on some evenings. That said, I would be keen to hear people’s recommendations on fight songs. Most songs seem to be geared towards romance or tragedy. Any thoughts on why there isnt anything like a fight song in desi filmi music. Think the Rocky theme as something i’d consider a ‘fight’ song. in my observation a song around an ‘action’ sequence in desi movies involves cabaret or comedy. ?!! Vy?
A student of Bollywood would also notice movies going from “the rich person is always the villain”, to the worship of wealth in the current movies. It reflects the change in ideology in India from pro-socialism to pro-capitalism. This would be an interesting topic to look at.
I am not sure, but I suspect that change started in the early 1990s, with liberalization, Shah Rukh Khan, and the advent of the “lifestyle” family film.
I think there’s also a bit of a backlash against capitalist individualism in some films, especially if individualism means going abroad. There has been a small wave of “do gooder” type films in the 2000s, including “Swades,” “Yuva,” “Rang de Basanti,” and the two “Munna Bhai” films.
But those films are still in the minority.
Oh, fail! I don’t know how to quote. I’m sure you already know those songs, but for those who haven’t:
Show Me You Jalwa
Dance Pe Chance
When the movie came out, I was looking forward to seeing it. Turned out that Kabul Express was a horrible movie, that had dialogues and scenes calling the Hazara minority as thieves. There was absolutely no need for those dialogues and scenes in the movie, but it was like the idiot moviemakers went to go out of their way to stereotype and offend people. (Hazaras are the distinctly different looking (look asian) minority in Afghanistan) Movie was banned by Afghan government and I agree with that.
Rafiâ€™s playback for Shammi Kapoor insipid and inadequate? Random YouTube browsing for a few minutes should disprove this specious claim. In his eagerness to prove his point, Sen is cheerfully ignoring a large catalogue of lively pop produced by Rafi / Shammi / O P Nayyar (and Shankar Jaikishan) combo. Rejection of classical music is just one of the many factors behinds Kishore Kumarâ€™s superstardom. Rajesh Khanna, Burman father and son to name a few. Classical music sourpusses have always been there, before and after Kishore Kumar. They sniffed at Naushadâ€™s use of vilayatee instruments. They called S D Burmanâ€™s music bazaroo. Now you have Jagjit Singh bitching about Rahman.
Bollywood is a trash monopoly propagated by hereditary louts. All you need to be a bollywood star is to have at least one parent who was famous in there, and/or have light colored skin.
The best Indian-themed movies do NOT come from bollywood. “Monsoon Wedding” was made by a Canadian-Indian (Mira Nair-ji); “Slumdog” was made by a Scotsman. OTOH, Indian films can only copy, never innovate, and succeeds at promoting a self-loathing amongst us Browns.
I’ll take this to heart when I go to watch “Transformers 2,” the sequel to the movie based on the 1980s cartoon series based on the comic book based on the toy-line.
The innovative ways in which Michael bay manages to blow stuff up and put Megan Fox into ridiculously impractical but mighty hot outfits will surely boggle the mind. Won’t encourage any self-loathing among girls who don’t look like swimsuit models either.
Monsoon wedding and Slum dog among the best indian themed movies???!! Yeesh! Below par songs, stilted westernized acting, and stereotyped to the wazoo.
Slumdog, in particular had way too many WTF moments to be considered a good movie. For example, remember the part where the hero is deeply traumatized by a rioter dressed as Rama, and in the scene this actually turns out to be a kid in a costume similar to a fancy dress competition. How ludicrous was that!
And it was’nt even original – it had the same concept as the Spinal tap scene in where the lowered Stonehenge replicas that turned out to be 18 Ft and turned out to be 18 inches, only the farce was intentional in Spinal Tap’s case 🙂
Sure most Bollywood movies are crap. But most western movies with Indian themes are crap. It is simply Sturgeon’s law in practice. And there are a few good bollywood movies. And even more good Tamil ones.
Some really good recent Indian-themed movies I could remember
Taare Zameen Par (abt dyslexia and the kind of pressures parents, esp indian, put on their children…..easily one of the best movies i have watched in a long time. directed by aamir khan…..watch the linked song) Gulal (abt the rajputana movement..director is anurag kashyap, very original writer & director – see DevD, No Smoking…….the lyrics of the linked song are really funny) Welcome to Sajjanpur (Shyam Benegal) A Wednesday (terrorism in india…….naseerudin shah, anupam kher) Rang De Basanti (youth in india, patriotism, politics…….one of my favorite movies of recent time) Lage Raho Munnabhai (gandhi…..a very funny and thought-provoking film) Matrubhoomi (female infanticide and its impact) Khosla ka Ghosla (funny look at land grabbing) and of course Lagaan & Swades
and these are all just the hindi films……..
I still find myself hesitating to call the Hindi movies as bollywood movies….just doesn’t seem right. It feels like ‘Bollywood’ is similar to ‘Hollywood wannabes’, when the movies are of different flavor (and I am not fan of most), but Sameer’s list rocks!
I’ve seen good movies as well, that are quite original, for the most part. I LOVED Munna Bhai MBBS. It was quite original, but a little long. Still, it was a very original and hilarious film. I wish that the compressed the action into a 120 minutes (not 180 minutes).
But the bulk of Indian movies have a lot of bad attributes: 1. The ‘fantasy’ scenes are filmed in exotic locations like Switzerland, UK, or USA.
2. These movies deify light-skin color in India. Many of the actors are bi-racial (mixed with whites, but not blacks or East Asians). Also, and this is a common theme amongst us all over here, why are they all light-skinned? I demand black-skinned/brown-skinned Indians. The Kansan farmers can have their wheat-complexion. Give a chocoholic like me the swarthy and sweet. 3. These movis do NOT push the societal envelope, from my perspective, on hard/gritty topics. Topics such as: Linguistic differences, female subjugation, religious difference, over-population, or even Islamic alienation within India.
On the other hand, I’d love to see the following: 1. Use Indian films as a vehicle to develop our good culture. 2. Push the societal envelope and challenge society. 3. Inspire the local Indian population to do something GREAT – like aspire for a good education and change the world. 4. Inspire good values/ethics.
In the early 90s I was a first year student at Presidency college in Kolkata, and there was a masters student at CU called Sangita Gopal. She directed a Shakespearean play, for a contest sponsored by the British Council, I took part in – Merry Wives of Windsor, Bengali jatra style, it was the winner. She was a dynamo of energy, played a brilliant Falstaff (yes) and struck my teenage self as a bit of a genius. If this is the same person, her classes must be great fun and inspiring! I occasionally wondered where she went.
At some stage, can you also comment on Brian Larkin’s articles on the influence of Indian films in Nigeria and his book “Signal and Noise”. Thanks
Most of your points are silly.
Why is filming a fantasy scene in Switzerland or wherever “bad”?
One can argue that Bollywood and other commercial Indian movies only reflect an attitude towards color that is already there in Indian society. The Indian attitude towards “fair color” predates the movies. Perhaps the movies reinforce that attitude but if I were a movie maker sinking millions (of rupees) into making a movie, then you can be sure I’d also try to make sure that my hero/heroine was “acceptable” and there whether you like it or not, color matters. If you are going to blame anyone, blame Indian society.
By the way, such attitudes are not unique to Bollywood. Let’s take a look at the set of Hollywood actor/actresses. Very representative of the “average” American, are they?
From the conclusion of the article:
“Bollywood is much more complex and a far greater agent for positive social change than is commonly acknowledged by those who claim to represent the high culture of India. Reviews of Hindi cinema in avant-guard (sic) intellectual journals like the Economic and Political Weekly accuse our filmmakers of spreading religious obscurantism, Hindu fundamentalism, anti-women attitudes, animosity towards minorities. They are attacked as conservative defenders of an anachronistic status quo. I myself belonged to this category in some measure, as several of my early film reviews testify.
The new Brahmins of India are embarrassed by the worldview of Bollywood as well as aggressive in their disapproval of its value system. Is it not a case of a repeat of the hostility of the Brahminical orthodoxy towards the popular upsurge of bhakti in the medieval period – with just this one difference: the new Brahmins of today are not rooted in Sanskrit learning. They are the products of elite English medium schools and colleges. Consequently, their manners and tastes resemble those of their intellectual tutors in the West.”
There is far more plaigarism in Bollywood than is decent. The industry is a plaigarists paradise, and this cannot be denied.
However, there are some very good movies that have been made in the mainstream Bollywood cinema recently. Movies that are original artistically, that have coherence, that are believable, well acted, and are not plaigarised.
I Agree with Boston Mahesh..best indian films are all non bollywood..no matter which of the real indian languages they are in..