Mukherjee studies the cotton trade, mill workers and other early influences that boosted cinema in Bombay.
Mukherjee studies the cotton trade, mill workers and other early influences that boosted cinema in Bombay.

How Bombay became the home of Hindi cinema: New book does some digging

In Bombay Hustle, published by Columbia University Press in September, Debashree Mukherjee tracks down the earliest elements of the city’s cine-ecology.
By Vanessa Viegas
UPDATED ON FEB 21, 2021 12:39 PM IST

Bombay has starred on the silver screen for decades. In her new book, Bombay Hustle, Debashree Mukherjee looks at why it was this city that became inextricably linked to Hindi cinema. The book, published by Columbia University Press in September, does this through an examination of the “practices and practitioners” of the early to mid 20th century.

Mukherjee has a PhD in cinema studies from New York University and is an assistant professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University, but before that she worked in Mumbai’s TV and film industries, from 2004 to 2007, on films such as Omkara (2006), where she was assistant director to Vishal Bharadwaj. She was also an archivist at the Osian’s Archive.

Her book, she says, explores the many factors that contributed to Bombay’s emergence as the leading film production centre in South Asia, “from cotton finance to the many writers who flocked to the city because of its status as a cultural and political hub; from the huge numbers of unskilled workers who migrated to the city and became the most important paying audiences of talkie cinema, to Bombay’s cosmopolitan milieu which attracted men and women from every part of the subcontinent with hopes of doing something creative with their lives”. Excerpts from an interview:

Why pick this period — the early to mid 20th century?

The period I look at, roughly between 1929 and 1942, is when the Indian film industries made the transition from silent films to talkies. This is the period when Bombay starts to become the centre of film production on the subcontinent. This is also the final phase of the freedom movement, emerging anxieties about a rumoured partition, intense labour struggles and strikes in Bombay’s textile industry, and a time when women start to become much more visible in the public sphere. So this is a very significant period of transition which also allows me to locate the story of film within the political, social and economic flux of the time.

What was one thing that surprised you about the city’s links with its cinema?

One of the key early moments in my research was when I set out to locate the premises of the long-forgotten film studio Bombay Talkies in [the suburb of] Malad. Even though the studio has been transformed into a series of metal workshops and a garbage dump, people in that area still call the whole block Bombay Talkies. In that instant I realised that there are many ways in which the past of cinema lingers in the present of the city. You just need a slightly different angle of view to see it.

And its film audiences?

While Bombay’s mill workers were amongst the first paying audiences of Bombay cinema, the growing phenomenon of film fandom ensured that this new cultural industry would always have a surplus of people who wanted to sign up as cine-workers. So, even as factory workers pumped money into producers’ pockets by buying tickets and financially supporting an undercapitalised indigenous industry, starry-eyed strugglers provided a steady workforce for an industry that was considered socially taboo at the time. Of course, the intense desires and dreams of these strugglers also made them vulnerable to different forms of exploitation.

How, and why, did you develop the idea of the cine-ecology?

I wasn’t interested in framing this as a story about a handful of male pioneers, or of legendary studios. Rather, I was fascinated by the ways in which a place and a film form became totally enmeshed. How did the film industry grow in a city that is lashed by the monsoon for three months every year? Where did this volatile and capital-intensive enterprise find finances at a time when neither banks nor the colonial government would touch films?

Compared to “systems” and “industries”, “ecology” gave me a way to understand the terrain of film production as a flexible, organic space that continually breathed and shape-shifted, and that exceeded any notion of boundedness.

In this production of the city as a factory floor, cine-workers are joined by other entities such as the weather and topography and equipment and other nonhuman forces. This entire assemblage is what I term a cine-ecology. A cine-ecology is bigger than a studio building or a neighbourhood like Andheri; it is the entire field within which cine-workers move, breathe, live, wait, and dream.

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