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Review: Beyond The Boundaries Of Bollywood

Before delving into the different ways Bollywood has been perceived by viewers, commentators and industrywallas, the book looks at the coinage of the term itself. Amitava Sanyal writes.

books Updated: Jun 18, 2011 08:40 IST

This is another step in the ‘colonisation’ of Hindi cinema. No, I don’t mean any imperialist project of Holly over Bolly. Think of an armada of colons (father of the semi-colon) docking at Film City and upturning everything from props to popcorns. Take it as a reader’s dystopia of the growing ‘academic literature’ on Bollywood.

Why colons? Well, how can you tell whether a book is academic before reading it? Look for the colons in the titles.

Don’t get me wrong. The increasing volume of writing on Bollywood – of any kind — is welcome. And no doubt, Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema — the fifth in a series of scholarly books on Indian cinema from publisher OUP — is to be treasured for more reason than one.

But the grouse against such writing is perhaps best articulated by Elahe Hiptoola, producer of Nagesh Kukunoor’s films who was interviewed by the book’s co-editor, Jerry Pinto: “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… [Prakashji] probably thought, ‘Amitabh ke dates mil gaye, chalo picture banaate hain’. But there’s everything in these movies, according to the academics.”

Before delving into the different ways Bollywood has been perceived by viewers, commentators and industrywallas, the book looks at the coinage of the term itself. Ravi Vasudevan’s essay, the only one without a colon in the title, proposes that the term, which first gained currency in places such as Birmingham and Bradford in Britain, can’t be applied to films made much before Independence.

It’s further problematised by the fact that ‘Bollywood stalwarts’ such as Shah Rukh Khan and Subhash Ghai reject the term.

It begs a question: why do we use Tollywood, Kollywood and Lollywood for other film producing centres of the subcontinent? They maybe a lazy extensions of Hollywood, a term that has acquired much baggage, but the terms are in common usage.

Borrowing the name of the production house for Deepa Mehta’s Hollywood/Bollywood, isn’t it about different trees in the same woods? Not for the typologically minded, that is.

Some of the book’s dot-joining is immensely interesting. Kaushik Bhaumik uses the Hunterwali era to connect the use of horses in early Hindi cinema and the projection of the romantic individual. Rosie Thomas looks at Wadia Movietone’s ‘Arabian Nights fantasy’ Lal-e-Yaman (The Jewel of Yemen) and the coming of sound to Hindi cinema.

Valentina Vitali says how the voyeurism of B-grade horror movies confused the industry’s self-image decades ago.

Then there are some academic brownie points scored. The essay by Rachel Dwyer, co-editor of the book and editor of the OUP series, tries to join the dots between Kamal Amrohi’s psychodrama Mahal (1949) and the Gothic genre (exemplified in literature by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca).

Over 23 pages, Dwyer goes through Mahal to find proofs of the genre she calls the Bombay Gothic. Cogito? Ergo, it’s not true that Bollywood of the 1950s and 60s always leant on the crutch of the Indian family and the individual’s subjugation to it. The maximum reader excitement I can see at this formulation is swallowed dentures.

Apart from the papers presented at a 2008 seminar organised by the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi, which forms most of the book, there are interviews Pinto conducted with a diverse set of industrywallas. From Arun Khopkar we learn what filmmakers really learn at Film and Television Institute of India, Anurag Kashyap tells us of his introduction to Bollywood, and from Rucha Pathak we learn the different ways people come up with what Pinto calls hatke films (to separate them from mainstream Bollywood).

The last interview, with Abhay Deol, gets back to nomenclatures. “I don’t like these terms... To me art is about creativity,” says Deol. “Creativity that produces something. If you then produce a film it’s art. It can be good art or bad art but it’s still art.” I rest my case.