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Rachel rides again

The badi mem of Bollywood pop culture is back in town and she's in Kamaal Amrohi's Mahal.. metaphorically. Jerry Pinto asks a few questions.

entertainment Updated: Feb 16, 2009 16:20 IST
Jerry Pinto

When Rachel Dwyer was writing a book on Yash Chopra, the impertinent would ask, "Why Yash Chopra?" When she wrote her first book on the emergent Indian middle class and its quest for pleasure, an impertinent reviewer suggested that she'd got it wrong; there was no middle class.

But when she wrote her 100 Bollywood Films (British Film Institute/Roli), she left out Mahal, so a good impertinent place to start when you're talking to Professor Dr (Mrs) Rachel Madeleine Dwyer nee Jackson, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia, SOAS would be:

You're reading a paper on Mahal at Jnanapravaha. Why Mahal?
Well, because I finally got a decent DVD and saw it properly for the first time.

But it wasn't one of those films that you tick off in your head, the classic that you had to see and now you've seen. It's a film that started me thinking about all kinds of issues and the film itself. It's an extraordinary film.

But it didn't make the cut in your 100 Bollywood Films.
It was a huge hit in its time but it was one of those films that went off on its own track and didn't come back. You don't see anyone else exploring the idea of Bombay Gothic although you do see traces of it in films like Amar and in the early Raj Kapoor. So it didn't fulfil some of the criteria I had set for the films I was going to include.

You said Mahal made you think about some issues. What issues?
One of the important ideas that came out of it was the link between literature and cinema, which has never been properly explored in the Indian context.

Many people were reading Gothic literature including the works of GWM Reynolds and Wilkie Collins. Rabindranath Tagore also wrote some Gothic fictions. And there were ties to both German cinema through Fritz Lang and Josef Wirsching who was the cinematographer.

Hollywood was also a strong influence; Ashok Kumar says he watched a Hollywood film every week to improve his acting. But there's very little Gothic in Hindi cinema. So Mahal was a dead-end, even if it was a very successful dead end; it was a huge hit in its time.

Why do you think Mahal has been ignored?
I think it's because of the way we have constructed our notion of what Bombay cinema was like in the 1940s and 1950s. We see it as a nationalist enterprise, seeking to define a new India. The films that fit into this, say the Raj Kapoor films, are celebrated. And the Golden Age is constructed around that notion of a cinema decolonising itself and society. Darker films get ignored. Mahal is one of them.

Will all this feed into the book you're working on, Bollywood's India?
Only as background because that will focus on India after 1990. 1991 was a watershed year for India. The pace of change in the 1990s is faster than anything India has ever experienced. Everything changes.. and so does Bollywood.