WHAT BETTER way to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema than with a book that traces its evolution, from the mythological films of the early 20th century to today's hardcore reality offerings depicting a world of gangsters, terrorists and romantic melodramas? Though the volume is slim, Vamsee Juluri's Bollywood Nation manages to give us a glimpse of just why we are mad about films. It also explores how the stories our cinema tells shape our understanding of the world and vice-versa.
A professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, Juluri's interest in cinema is academic on one level, and he does delve into the common theories surrounding the hows and whys of Hindi movies, the notion that the "films of India have served not merely as entertainment or an escape, but also as a source of idealism for audiences in their encounter with post-colonial modernity. In some ways, our films have welcomed the modern... in other ways they have resisted it". A viewing of Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Mission Kashmir post 9/11 in an American classroom, for instance, led to key questions: Is violence really crucial to religion, or is it politics that makes it that way? How do we distinguish justice from revenge? Are we really witnessing a "clash of civilisations"? And, as Juluri writes, "on a somewhat less serious note, why on earth would a genocidal militant stop to dance to a bumblebee (bhumro, bhumro) song?"
Why indeed? In the introduction, Juluri lets slip that he was overwhelmed at a screening of Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra, India's first film. The first scene about a mother is particularly moving because Juluri is reminded of his own mother-the Telugu star, Jamuna, who acted in over 200 films in four languages. If there is a quibble about the book, it's that Juluri doesn't spend enough time on stories from his film-struck childhood. He mentions his earliest memories revolving around his mother's stardom, the people, the activity, the studios, the press, the posters, and the wild adulation of the fans.
The book has been divided into four chapters and one additional chapter, interestingly named God, Country, Home, World and Life. Each chapter explores the films of the era and the overwhelming message they send. He writes simply and devoid of jargon.
For instance, he begins the chapter God, where he talks about Raja Harishchandra, Sant Tukaram, Tyagayya and Maya Bazaar, by declaring "God may well be the single biggest concern of Indian cinema, directly or indirectly", and discusses what they tell us about popular Indian views of God in general, considering that we have 330 million gods to contend with. If the first films made in India were mythologicals, after independence, the trend was "social" films or cinema about the country, from Jagte Raho to Deewar. So, while the films of Raj Kapoor are placed in the context of Nehru's India, Amitabh Bachchan's Deewar reflects the political disenchantment that had set in by the 70s.
In Home, he looks at the rise of Indian television, which is now the most popular form of entertainment, as much in the cities as in villages. World explores the impact of globalisation on Indian entertainment and, among other things, looks at the rise of the yuppie hero and the diasporic desi. In the epilogue, titled Life, Juluri talks about how the ideals in Indian cinema have represented emotional and ethical negotiations with modernity and its demands. Films give "us a sort of emotional shelter that the modern world scarcely can", he argues. We can't have a problem with that.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer
Copyright 2013 The Indian Express Online Media Pvt. Ltd., distributed by Contify.com
Credit: Sudipta Datta
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