Review: Reel India by Namrata Joshi

A sea of people and their stories of admiration, love, dejection, despair, failure and aspiration, all linked with cinema are at the core of Namrata Joshi’s book
Shafique Shaikh, who played the lead in Malegaon ka Superman (2008).
Shafique Shaikh, who played the lead in Malegaon ka Superman (2008).
Updated on Sep 27, 2019 10:03 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKunal Ray
252pp, Rs 599; Hachette
252pp, Rs 599; Hachette

I started reading Namrata Joshi’s Reel India – Cinema off the Beaten Track on a bus ride to Wai, a temple town near Pune. Wai is often dwarfed by its more popular neighbours, Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar but lately it has been in the news for attracting a lot of Hindi film crews. Marathi films and serials are shot there on a regular basis. In fact, Wai features in Joshi’s book too. During my visit, word had got around town that Dabangg3 was being filmed at the picturesque Dhom Dam. My host pointed out Facebook posts of his friends posing with Salman Khan. I also saw a motley lot of youth enquiring for possible whereabouts of their favourite star. While neither the male lead nor the film interests me, I found myself trying to understand how fandom transpires in non-city spaces. Maybe these were questions also triggered by Joshi’s book which I was reading at that time. Would people in the city act any differently if their favourite star was in the vicinity? Wouldn’t they share a photo with their favourite actor? How then is a small town different? Are these differences imagined by us, city folks, in our half-baked ideas of small town behaviour? And can people really be so dissimilar in their expressions of adulation?

I was soon comforted by Joshi’s introduction which refuses to stereotype the idea of the small town. While confessing that small towns perplexed her, she successfully dispels the myth that they are averse to ‘serious’ cinema. She mentions lyricist and writer, Varun Grover’s question: “What are big cities, if not a collection of small towns?” People make a city; people make small towns. People lend identity to a space. A sea of people from far and wide and their stories of admiration, love, dejection, despair, failure and aspiration, all linked with cinema are at the core of Joshi’s book.

Medicine dealer Vishal Singh in Lucknow has rechristened himself Vishahrukh after his favourite actor, Shah Rukh Khan. Moin Khan in Bhopal acknowledges how his resemblance to John Abraham has given him a distinct identity in his town. There are stories of actors such as Dr Anil Rastogi, who never went to Mumbai to act in films but Bollywood found a way of reaching him. Radio devotees like Bachkamal of Bhatapara and Prakash Ingole of Nagpur still send hundreds of letters to All India Radio requesting film songs. Ardent fans like Suman Chaurasiya and Zafar Ansari have built private museums commemorating their love for Hindi cinema. One of the strengths of Joshi’s book is its network of stories revolving around ordinary people and their passion for films in small town India without turning them into anthropological specimen.

Namrata Joshi (Courtesy the publisher)
Namrata Joshi (Courtesy the publisher)

Another significant aspect is Joshi’s interest in representing non-Bollywood and non-Hindi film cultures. From the violent Madurai films to Nasir Shaikh’s spoof films in Malegaon to Sindhi films in Ahmedabad to Uttarakhandi and Jharkhandi cinema – this book is encyclopaedic in character. Reel India also documents various grass root cinema movements like the Bhopal-based Ektara Collective, Surya Shankar Dash’s Video Republic, which teaches tribals to make films and document people’s movements, and Gorakhpur-based Cinema of Resistance creating an avenue for expressing a different point of view in a right-wing town.

Read more: Review: The Hungryalists by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury

Most of the book’s chapters are built upon Joshi’s writings and experiences as a film journalist when sent on assignments to a Gorakhpur or a Saharanpur, places that don’t usually emerge in film conversations. Her travels and interactions across a wide demography make this a robust book. However, several chapters could do with added analysis and the reader craves more material on the issues and characters she so admiringly identifies. For instance, the chapter on film watching in Srinagar deserves a more detailed rendition as opposed to the four pages accorded to it. Nevertheless, this book is a rich mine of information for film scholars, historians, students or anyone else interested in cinema cultures in India. Joshi has archived a huge body of information and each chapter is worthy of an independent book. Towards the end, the author recounts a conversation with filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey. “Only if I am going to go completely local, am I going to be able to say anything that has a global meaning,” he says. I couldn’t agree more. While we must resist all attempts to stereotype the small town or the rural, every endeavour to better understand these spaces is a welcome change.

Kunal Ray is a film buff. He teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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Saturday, November 27, 2021