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From Inquiry to Pedagogy

M K Raghavendra ( is a Swarna Kamal award-winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016).

Twenty-First Century Bollywood by Ajay Gehlawat, London/New York: Routledge, 2015; pp 170, 659.

Popular cinema in India as an object of study has gained enormously since the 1970s when it was still looked upon as a pariah. Film criticism/scholarship at that time conducted itself on the premise that cinema was essentially high art (as exemplified by Satyajit Ray), and anything that deviated was not worthy of critical attention. By the 1990s, Indian students in the humanities had begun to find their way into American universities to do film studies. The new tendency was to look at popular cinema differently, not as failed art but texts to be decoded, after Roland Barthes announced “the death of the author,” meaning that it was no longer relevant to valorise the authorial voice.

Structuralism was the first movement to impact upon film study but while its impact was relatively brief, new ideas from Althusserian Marxism, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Metzian semiotics (after Christian Metz) found their way into film studies to form an amalgam called “theory.” Where before 1970 there were few histories of cinema that could hold their own against histories in literature, this began to change. The earliest histories of cinema were charged with being “empiricist” (that they were mindless assemblages of fact) but new histories of cinema began to “historicise” and “contextualise” filmic texts in the social process.

The first historical inquiry into Indian popular film to use “theory” extensively was the product of doctoral work from an American university (M Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, 1999) and it remains the most cited academic work on Indian popular film. The use of “theory” in scholarship on Indian cinema necessarily uses the top-down approach; it assumes a fit between procedures developed in the West for use on Hollywood and a local phenomenon in India without wondering whether such an assumption is valid. A question is, for instance, whether “melodrama” in Bollywood is identifiable with what it is in Hollywood to draw similar conclusions about it.

There has been a significant body of scholarship from this “top-down” category coming from Indian universities since there have been second- and third-generation students following the same path, and while the psychoanalytical side of this scholarship has been subdued, it is the ideological side that has been most productive. A large chunk of this writing has been preoccupied with the Hindi popular film and its role in the creation/sustaining of the Indian nation and the ideological role it has consciously or unconsciously played. My own line of inquiry (Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, 2008) departs from this model by examining other forms in India (the performing arts, literature, etc) to arrive at a basic “grammar” informing popular cinema in India to understand how it produces “meaning”—not the meaning an academic might derive, but one which a nationally dispersed audience could relate to.

But just as the first shift in the nature of scholarship on Indian film was initiated by what had happened in the West, so was the second one. The earlier students of film came largely from English/literature background but by the first decade of the new millennium other disciplines began to find uses for film. The increasing commercialisation of education led to new courses being offered which, rather than favour intellectual inquiry, began to look at eventual practical uses in the media and industry. Anthropology and communication studies became the new disciplines interested in Indian film and what engaged them was popular film not as cinema but as “visual communication.”

Cinema to Visual Communication

Ajay Gehlawat, along with others like Tejaswini Ganti and Aswin Punathabekar, is one of the more important voices among a new generation of academics of Indian origin in the United States, devoting their attention to the cultural artefact with the greatest attraction for undergraduate and graduate students, which is Bollywood. Before going to examine his book under review, I should perhaps say a little about the differences between treating Bollywood as cinema/film and treating it as visual communication, which is roughly Gehlawat’s approach.

The primary one, I would conjecture, is that examining it as “film” means looking at each object in the “totality of its meaning,” that is, deal with its “world view” comprising of elements like politics, ideology, milieu, narrative, characters, and motifs, while treating it as “visual communication” would dwell more on appearances—the way men and women are presented, its lifestyle/design elements, and so on. In effect, a “film” is presumed to constitute an entire world (reflecting on the actual one) while a “communication” treats it as a stimulus informing the present. If the scholarship deals with a male actor, treating it as “film” might involve examining characterisation and what it implies about a role model/exemplar while “visual communication” might look at how his body is pictured. Rather than treat the film object as conceived by a society it would examine the elements presented to the audience.

Instead of speculating on the world it implies, treating film as visual communication attempts to respond to its immediacy. Twenty-First Century Bollywood looks at Bollywood in the new millennium, but while Hindi cinema has transformed in a variety of ways implying societal changes, what it focuses on is Bollywood’s design preoccupations and the changing nature of its attractions.

The book is in six chapters that follow an introduction in which the author identifies digital reproduction as the technological innovation that transformed Bollywood. The first chapter is devoted to the meaning of the term “Bollywood” and its function in the global reception of the Hindi film today. The chapter examines how old Hindi films of the golden age were remade in the new millennium with a different emphasis and what it says about “Bollywood.”

The second chapter deals with another aspect which is how femininity was reconstituted when the vamp—as notably represented by Helen—who was once the “other” of the virtuous heroine became integrated with her to constitute the “liberated woman” through intermediate stages involving female stars like Zeenat Aman as in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). The book then goes on to examine the fetish of “whiteness” around some female characters beginning with Fearless Nadia in the 1930s.

The chapter dealing with the male body in Hindi cinema today is an especially engaging one and the author associates it with “metrosexual masculinity.” It now seems mandatory for Indian film heroes to develop their muscles as a path to stardom. Still, a factor that makes me curious is why male Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck among others) have not done likewise. Gehlawat does not ask the question since his approach is not to regard it as firmly in the cinematic domain but as visual communication linked to lifestyle, of which other symptoms are the burgeoning of fitness clubs and gymnasiums in the public space. He (along with others) associates this with neo-liberalism and the consumption practices it has engendered, and this is a reasonable inference. But, what this line of inquiry implies is that Bollywood no longer even suggests national culture to academics, a signification once assumed. Since Hollywood is still taken to be so by American film scholars, is not Bollywood being unwittingly assigned a much lower place?

An aspect of any academic work of great interest to its readers is its bibliography, its dependence on prior work in the field or outside. Academic criticism locates itself in tradition of knowledge construction by acknowledging that it is not stand-alone but built on foundations created by others; it contributes to a structure and is itself built upon. Even when an inquiry is original it would still need to cite earlier work to demarcate itself through disagreement/contention. Scholarship that dealt with Bollywood as cinema, therefore, tended to cite writers/theorists/philosophers like Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Partha Chatterjee, David Bordwell, Ashis Nandy, Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and so on. Propositions often need the support of intellectual authority and these writers have such authority. Gehlawat, like other academics who treat Bollywood as visual communication, tends, contrarily, to cite his peers.

Here are a few of the quotes found in Twenty-First Century Bollywood:

nowadays this term (‘Bollywood’) is used as if it had always existed. It is used profusely. ... and it is used retrospectively.

—Ravi Vasudevan (p 10)

those moments when characters burst into song (and often dance) within a film’s narrative have been drastically reduced or [have] nearly disappeared from prominent Hindi films.

— Tejaswini Ganti (p 22)

the beautiful and fit body have moved to the center stage in the feel good ideology promoted in neoliberal urban India.

— Christiane Brosius (p 91)

[Helen] performed this role [of the vamp] to perfection

—Jerry Pinto (p 69)

Why minor quotes are constantly inserted when the author could have made the observations independently is uncertain, but there is a likelihood of affiliates in the field having to be acknowledged. This is a widespread tendency and betrays smaller ambitions on the part of writers/academics, and scepticism over whether building stable knowledge about the subject is possible. Describing passing symptoms is necessary but stable knowledge includes rigorous theorising that leads not only to following a cultural trajectory but also predicting possibilities.

Compulsions of Pedagogy

The most revealing chapter in Twenty-First Century Bollywood is the penultimate one about teaching Bollywood in the West. This chapter is candid in its admissions and sheds light on where liberal arts education has gone with its commercialisation, making it necessary for students to be drawn into taking courses. Since education is now “consumed,” students enjoy the privileges of a clientele.

Gehlawat gives us an honest indication of how Bollywood is routinely sold to students through a telling illustration of how a leading film school put out “Bollywood” as a course through “10 Reasons to take Bollywood.” The reasons offered included beating the heat though an air conditioner on summer afternoons, learning new dance moves and enjoying “films that celebrate life.” What teachers of film apparently do to get students interested in Indian popular cinema is to use every means possible to associate it with frolic rather than work.

The popular cinemas of the world (Hong Kong, Korea) are still treated seriously as cultural texts by film scholarship. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Hollywood has been from the beginning, the biggest subject in some of the most sophisticated writing on film. Indian popular cinema took a long while to attain any kind of respectability as the object of intellectual inquiry but gaining such respectability was only fair. People like Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were deeply involved in cinema as the embodiment of national culture for the large public, alongside the numerous lyricists, composers, and musicians who also contributed to it.

With the rise of “Bollywood” in the place of Hindi popular cinema, the film industry has gained more prominence, but this is in an era where the successful business model is more celebrated than the cultural artefact. This, unfortunately, seems to be reflected in academic film study with pedagogical goals replacing intellectual ones. What one sees in new academic writing on cinema is, therefore, a lowering of intellectual ambition as a way to reach a larger student community, even an indifferent one. This does little credit to Indian popular cinema, which gained cultural respectability at a cost. But as Gehlawat’s book can be taken to imply, its subject has also lowered itself from the cultural position it once held, as national cinema in India.


Updated On : 10th Oct, 2017


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