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Bombay, the Cinematic City

Bombay, the Cinematic City M S S Pandian The makeover of Indian cities since the 1990s is a story of a few being favoured and most being marginalised. No doubt, malls, condominiums, gated townships, information technology- parks, multi-lane expressways, and global brands infuse Indian cities with global urban aesthetics. Yet, the incongruity of such aesthetics is constantly disclosed by its need to coexist with the inherited city

Bombay, the Cinematic City

M S S Pandian

he makeover of Indian cities since the 1990s is a story of a few being favoured and most being marginalised. No doubt, malls, condominiums, gated townships, information technologyparks, multi-lane expressways, and global brands infuse Indian cities with global urban aesthetics. Yet, the incongruity of such aesthetics is constantly disclosed by its need to coexist with the inherited city – a city of dirty alleyways, unremarkable slums, smelly fishing hamlets, and foraging cattle. If the dogged persistence of the inherited city is a cause for anguish for the urban elite, new urban aesthetics are a moment of exclusion for the rest. Thus, the urban crisis in India today seems to encompass one and all.

Ranjani Mazumdar takes an unconventional and uncharted route to understand the contours of this urban crisis. Using Hindi cinema as an archive of the past and present of Bombay city, she adeptly unravels how urban subjectivities are being reconstituted and how new urban desires are being engendered in the era of globalisation. The book begins with a comparison of the urban crisis of the 1970s and 1990s.

Representing People

During the 1970s, Indian nationalism lost a good deal of its sheen as the developmental state failed to deliver its promises. The urban crisis that followed fostered the figure of the “angry man” on the screen a representative of the margins of urban India. As Mazumdar argues, “The moral division between the legal and the nonlegal, the legitimate and the criminal, grew increasingly fuzzy, opening up a reflection on dystopian forms in urban life.” While the trope of homelessness gave the antihero a moral integrity, the centrality assigned to marginal spaces such as the footpath brought to life the unintended Bombay that had little to do with the city’s master plan. Mazumdar illustrates this

Economic & Political Weekly

february 23, 2008

book review

Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City by Ranjani Mazumdar; Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2007; pp xvii + 257, Rs 595.

cinematic city of the 1970s by a detailed reading of Deewar (1975).

The anti-hero of the Hindi cinema of the 1990s is, however, not a figure of moral integrity. He is neither rooted in community nor seeks justice in general. He is instead a psychotic figure. Driven by the desire for self-destruction and death, his pursuit of revenge is individualistic and, in a way, “irrational”. “The psychotic’s adventurous stance takes us on a new journey of excess, destroying the representational limits of the popular film ‘formula’, to articulate the depth of the urban nightmare”. He thus represents the incomprehensibility of the urban present, which is irredeemably recasting the everyday and the routine. Mazumdar instantiates this shift in the representation and meaning of rage on the screen by comparing Baazigar (1993) with Deewar.

Yet, as Mazumdar shows, what looks incomprehensible is indeed not so; and the contours of the current urban crisis can be analytically captured and understood. She achieves this by foregrounding the cinematic representations of ‘tapori’ (vagabond), the new desiring women who has displaced the figure of the vamp, and urban gangsters, and the celebration of consumption culture.

It is common knowledge that the postindependence Hindi cinema had set in opposition the demure ‘sari’-clad heroine and the figure of the vamp, the former representing “Indianness” and the latter the intrusion of the west “signifying an unrestrained sexuality and licence, given to vices ‘unknown’ to ‘Indian’ women”. During the 1990s, Mazumdar argues, this mode of representing women’s sexuality underwent a significant change. As evident from the song sequences in films like Tezaab and Khalnayak, “[t]he heroine now occupied the space of the vamp, through a process marked by a public display of desire and an entirely new discourse of sexuality that threatened the old boundaries.”

Bringing together elements of designer aesthetics, fashion and travel photography, product placements, and spectacles of European and American cities, these song sequences transport the spectator “to another world for a novel form of windowshopping”. Thus, the “liberated” sexuality of the middle class women in Hindi films of the 1990s is problematically premised on a culture of consumption, which is global in its practice and desire.

Transforming Spaces

A similar transformation is witnessed in the way interior spaces are represented in Hindi films during the 1990s. Signalling a “privatised and depoliticised subjectivity” and fusing together elements from “comic books, international design manuals, television advertising, and Hollywood teen films”, these new interiors in films such as Hum Apke Hain Kaun, Dil To Pagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil Chahta Hai reflect the middle class desire for global consumption. For instance, the interiors of a college in Mumbai can be now marked with bright yellow pay phones, Pepsi machines, and colourful lockers (as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai does). These re-imagined interiors stand not only for the new desire for global consumption but also its elusive unavailability. On a different count, the desire to partake in the global is at once a source of anxiety about the possible loss of tradition and “Indianness”. Hence, these spaces are also redeemed as familial, and thus, offering a sense of stability and continuity. Mazumdar rightly argues, “The panoramic interior expresses a crisis of belonging, fear of the street, and the desire for the good life – all at once.”

Urban Exploration

Exploring the underside of the new urban practices and aesthetics favoured by the elite, Mazumdar turns to cinematic representations of the figures of the tapori and the gangster. The tapori, a marginal figure in the urban landscape, desires the


pleasures of the elite world, yet rejects its authority, power, and hierarchy. Employing the popular ‘bambayya’ language, which is the product of the polyglot culture of the Mumbai streets, he playfully mocks and irreverently laughs at elite lifestyles. Significantly, his marginality does not impede his ability to critique the urban inequality but it instead abets it. As Mazumdar argues, “To wander in the streets of this diverse city as a ‘have-not’, and yet retain a sense of identity and belonging is to create an imagined landscape of resistance. The space of this resistance belongs to the cinematic tapori.”

If the representation of the tapori in Hindi films brings to life a form of critique of the urban crisis, which is playful and irreverent, the representation of criminal gangs in films like Parinda and Satya discloses urban violence in its grim starkness.

In contrast to the interiors of global consumption, which are the hallmark of the “family films” of the 1990s, the gangster films foreground other kinds of urban spaces – alleys, claustrophobic hutments, docks, abandoned factory sites, and halfconstructed buildings. Not opulent but bare, these spaces and the violence that unfold in them point to the fact that the gangs are driven by the logic of survival rather than one of accumulation. If the journey of urban exploration in these films is one of chaos, violence, death, and despair they do have an important message, “…the glitter of consumption comes at a price.”

Mazumdar’s book is at once about Hindi films, spatial practices, urban modernity and globalisation. While each of these themes is important on its own terms, the strength of the book lies in bringing all of them together in a productive conversation. In making these themes interweave with each other, the book unhinges them from their privileged disciplinary domains (such as film studies, urban studies, and political economy) and makes them perform analytical tasks that they are usually not summoned to do. In being “disloyal” to disciplinary boundaries, the book brings new perspectives on the themes it chooses to explore. Empirically, the book is about Bombay and Hindi cinema; and what is true of Bombay and Hindi cinema need not be true of other regional cinemas and other cities. Nevertheless, here is a book, which will not disappoint but instead inform those who are engaged with cities other than Bombay, and cinemas other than Hindi.


February 23, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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