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How Representative of India is Bollywood?

Axiomatically, Bollywood’s India is a survey of the collective dreamscape created by a billion desires and dreads.

Bollywood's India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Contemporary India

Publisher: Reaktion
Length: 295 pages
Author: Rachel Dwyer
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-09

In 2014, a What Each Country Leads the World In map went viral, capturing the imagination of people around the world looking to find out what their country produced more of, than any other, ostensibly based on research. India’s was, unsurprisingly, movies.

Home to the world’s most prolific film industry, India produces up to a thousand films a year, with the most recent statistics from a trade paper released last year, stating that India released 1,602 productions in 2012 from all its various language industries – with Tamil, Hindi, and Telugu language cinema industries producing the highest number of films. However, it is Hindi cinema, known by its brand name Bollywood, which has an unparalleled global reach, hegemony in South Asia, and is widely synonymous with ‘Indian cinema’.

Cognizant of these perceptions and expectations, Professor Rachel Dwyer from the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of London, has compiled a perfect primer meant for the newly enamored neophyte: Bollywood’s India. She convinces us to remain hooked on Bollywood cinema’s fictions as a “modern mythology” that conjoins the various epics, fables, and legends that together constitute the rich cultural foundations of the subcontinent.

If there's a need for an introduction and initiation into an industry in the business of myth making, seen by some as a religion of sorts too, Bollywood’s India is certainly it. The subtitle “Hindi Cinema as a guide to Contemporary India” is misleading because it offers a great deal more. Dwyer has distilled and synthesized most of her research from anthropology, sociology, and film studies into a lighter, more palatable, journalistic style for a non-academic audience. To achieve this, she alternates between formalistic considerations of the film and film magazine-type descriptions of the industry (in the last chapter, she compares Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Agneepath emerging out of the sea and walking on the beach to screen siren Ursula Andress’ famous introduction in Dr.No), at times even injecting non-sequitur humor into her analysis.

Unpacking the localized nuances for the uninitiated reader and scaffolding him through the nodes of Bollywood’s cultural landscape, Dwyer uses eponymous dichotomies like ‘unity’ / ‘diversity’, ‘religion / emotion’, and ‘home / the world’ to name her chapters, ultimately cascading towards nurturing a sensitivity for the film culture of the region. While the industry has developed its own conventions, the book is quick to remind us that powerful socio-political and economic forces can destabilize and reorganize existing modes of representation in both subtle and obvious ways. Bollywood’s India takes liberalization in 1991 as the great watershed that affected the trajectory of the culture industry, projecting in living color the new and irrepressible dreams that were unleashed with the loosening of economic controls.

Axiomatically, Bollywood’s India is a survey of the collective dreamscape created by a billion desires and dreads. The conceptualization that Hindi films “create dreams but… are also dreams or fantasies themselves” undergirds the exploration of what constitutes the “Indian dream”. While any national dream remains tenuous and susceptible to change, just as the American dream has evolved over time, a discussion of what constitutes the Indian dream, at any point in history, has been elusive, and Bollywood’s India goes someway to materially identify its motivations. In the process, Dwyer evades accusations of lacking direct causality or avoiding empirical basis, by looking less at the associations between reality and fiction, and more about those endearing aspirations that captivate the billions who pay to enjoy Bollywood’s hallucinatory and intoxicating spectacles. As she suggests, the medium “allows the viewer to fantasize, to imagine new possibilities, new lives… as they enable narcissistic pleasure by eliding boundaries between the viewer’s body and the rest of the world.”

Dwyer succeeds in detailing the function of cinema, as the great enabler of how-tos, pandering fantasies and generating ever-newer desires once the old gets stale. Epithets like ‘dream factory’ and ‘dream merchants’ in the context of Bollywood are interrogated for their authenticity with effectiveness. For example, in a discussion on the changing nature of “Indianness” in Bollywood, she successfully tracks how there has been “an undeniable shift in the concept of Indianness, in the ways in which India sees itself and how Indians see India in the world today.” The shifts in self-perception towards a more assertive and self-confident nation that wants to announce its arrival on the international stage, have registered on celluloid very prominently over the past two decades. The increasingly global adventures of the Bollywood action hero, whose heart remains Indian, in distant locales battling a variety of foreign villains and gyrating with exotic supermodels is just one kitsch manifestation of the trend Dwyer has identified.

The most compelling chapter in Bollywood’s India has to be the representation of religiosity in Bollywood. Drawing from her expertise in this topic, Dwyer opens up the discourse away from the devotional-mythological films that cinematized religious texts, folklore, and legends about deities and saints. Having written in-depth about the genre in Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, she instead shifts the focus towards interpretations of the idealized role of religion in contemporary society as imagined on film. She expounds instead on how religious beliefs are mediated through cinema by depicting everyday rituals and superstitions as pop religion (one section is even called “Pop Hinduism”) and a means of reinforcing traditional value systems and code of ethnical behavior. She draws from a variety of films to show how strands of India’s major religions are incorporated into the moral compass of the narrative and its characters to ensure religious tolerance and cultural harmony. By valorizing “an all-Indian morality” in the face of growing religious fundamentalism and zealotry, destabilizing national and global politics, Bollywood films ultimately use religious philosophies to reinforce the secular founding principles of the Indian nation-state.

The coda of Bollywood’s India serves less as a conclusion (it's not even referred to as one) and functions more as an encapsulating synthesis to the primer. Using two films based on the same story and screenplay, made over more than two decades, Dwyer beckons towards the political vicissitudes and shifts in cultural attitudes ever since India embarked on economic reforms. A compare and contrast of Agneepath (1990) with Agneepath (2012) is pregnant with discursive possibilities, however, the reworked mise-en-scène, narrative structure, and characterizations, as well as the structural explanations for these modifications were the only elements unpacked in the chapter. The changing configurations of the gangster genre in India as it moves away from the valorization of social banditry, the way global cultural flows have forced Indian cinema to reexamine cinematography towards projecting darker moods, or even the enduring appeal of demassification despite greater exposure to transnational film cultures, would have segued into new vistas that may have enriched the chapter further. However, one is cognizant that Bollywood’s India was intended to be an introduction into India’s film culture rather than an exhaustive tome, and so the curtailments are understandable, nevertheless further extrapolations are conceivable.

Of course, the final inevitable question arises: just how sufficiently representative of India is Bollywood, and by extension, Bollywood’s India? While the latter does delineate its investigative ambit very clearly by suggesting that regional cinemas such as Tamil cinema, Telugu cinema, or Bengali cinema have a “different sphere of reference” with more predominant associations with local and regional politics rather than Bollywood’s national aspirations, it appears to be a conspicuous – if even erroneous -- exclusion. Given that the central conceit of the entire discursive enterprise is to underpin the nexus between cinematic fantasy and India’s collective dreamscapes with mutually reinforcing directionality, the decision to leave out regional cinemas, which constitute big markets and fiercely loyal fan bases to rival Bollywood’s, appears antithetical and contradictory. It appears as if the project to identify the configurations of the Indian dream is severely circumscribed by merely looking at Hindi-cinema’s version when there are expanses of territory with people who have resisted Hindi dominance, let alone allow Hindi cinema to thrive there.

However, this is not just a tension within the book’s objectives and outcomes, but also an enduring problem of India’s nation building, the fraught ties that bind the center and the regions. The inherent heterogeneity of the term Indian cinema, how much more the nebulous Indian dream, demands a kind of all-encompassing sprawl of extrapolation that would allow plurality and diversity that a single book alone may not be able to provide, as thoroughly as it tries.


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