Why should we care about Bollywood and what does it really say about India? This week, I focus on the relationship between Indian cinema and the performance of national identity.
Many Indian scholars assert that Indian film reflects the socio-political climate, culture, and values of the nation. Sudhir Kakar writes in Indian Identity that stories are the way through which Indians pass-on the values of their ancestors, and that stories “contain the distillate of their experiences with the world.”1 Moreover, he suggests that Indian cinema transgresses “social and spatial categories” in its diversity and, in 1996, painted an image of national film consumption:
Watched by almost 15 million people every day, popular cinema’s values and language have long since crossed urban boundaries to enter the folk culture of the rural-based population, where they have begun to influence Indian ideas of the good life and ideology of social, family, and love relationships.2
Benedict Anderson asserts the significance of print media, particularly novels and newspapers, in the imagining of a national identity.3 Rashmi Doraiswamy extends Anderson’s definition of print media to include that of the film, citing them as popular and accessible forms through which to articulate national identity: “It is often thought that these films are formulaic and repetitive; but, embedded in the formulae are conceptions of the nation that change under the pressure of history.”4
Shiv Visvanathan in his article Popcorn Nationalism likens Hindi Film to Hollywood, in that the latter helped to articulate an “American Dream” within a diverse, migrant community. He asserts that Indian pop culture is “framed by four codes—cricket, science, politics, and film.”5 He cites politics and science as means for Indian empowerment, in terms of knowledge, development, and modernity, but it is cricket and film that allows one to “play the game,” or perform, modernity. He describes cricket as “cosmopolitanism as play,” while he sees cinema as the myth that directs this performance. He constructs the function of cinema as that which “reflect[s] civilization; converse[s] with nation and nation state; echoe[s] civil society; and resonate[s] folk and mass culture.6 He refers to the first “Bombay Talkies” as relief from the divisiveness of the Partition, allowing Hindus and Muslims to claim Indian identity: “Our film was not a modernist appeal to liberty, equality and fraternity but to its more collective variant of unity, diversity and integrity not within a closed universe, but with a cosmopolitan vision of the world.” 7
Yet while Bollywood may signify the nation to some, it does not fully represent the entirety of India’s diverse, heterogeneous culture. Bollywood refers to the Hindi film industry that is based in Bombay (more recently known as Mumbai) in Northern India. Citing Bollywood as an indicator of national identity does not take into account the South Indian film industries, such as Kollywood, or Tamil language cinema, and Tollywood, the Telugu cinema. Moreover, How has Hindi cinema since changed, from Kakar’s understanding of the film industry in 1996? Many argue that Bollywood currently reflects the desires of the growing Diaspora living in the West, as well as the globalized urban elite, or emerging consumer class of the 1990s.
Stay tuned for next week, when I discuss the effect of privatization on Indian cinema.
This week’s Bollywood suggestion: Lagaan (2001), directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. Lagaan contains all the essential Bollywood elements. What’s interesting about this film is that it reflects an urge to reify a notion of Indian authenticity after an era of more Western-influenced films of the 1990s. It also is the third Hindi film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Both Mother India and Lagaan are similar, in that it performs a concept of Indian identity through the charcters’ struggle for independence from their obdurate landlords. Lagaan even alludes to Mother India, in that in both films, there is a tax to be paid to the more powerful Raj or moneylender, both of which are symbolical or literal extensions of the British. Both films emphasize India’s strength, determination, and triumphant spirit in the face of colonial powers. Of course, the village’s issues are resolved through a long game of cricket, but not without some fabulous song and dance numbers. If you don’t feel like sitting through two three hour plus movies, I would choose Lagaan and/or Chak De! India over Mother India. Yet, if you are interested in a true historical perspective of significant Bollywood films, I would try to at least sit through the latter.
1 Kakar, Sudhir (1996). Intimate Relations. New Delhi, India. Penguin Books India. 2 Kakar, 1996 3 Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Relections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. 1983. 4 Doraiswamy, Rashmi (2003). “Image and Imagination: reconstructing the nation in cinema.” India: A National Culture? New Delhi, India. Sage Publications India. 5 Visvanathan, Shiv (August 20, 2007). “Popcorn Nationalism.” India Today. Independence Day Special: What United India: Cinema, pg 90. 6 Visvanathan, 2007 7 Visvanathan, 2007