Global Bollywood by Anandam Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar, Editors
What is Bollywood all about? And why did the multiplex near my hometown, in a field on the outer suburban ring of Chicago, reserve one theater just for Bollywood movies?
Since the mid- to late '90s, popular Indian cinema, often referred to as 'Bollywood', has been exported and popularized outside its borders to a degree rare for an industry besides Hollywood. As Global Bollywood notes, star Aishwarya Rai appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and on the cover of Time (and is a L'Oréal spokesperson). "Bollywood films sold more tickets in the United Kingdom than English-language films, and The Simpsons ended their trip-to-India episode with a Hindi song dance number.” The music and dancing styles of Bollywood musicals have appeared on MTV videos and Fandango advertisements. It's popularly assumed that a viewer should be familiar with their broad conventions. My personal "whoa" moment came when the multiplex near my hometown, in a field on the outer suburban ring of Chicago, started reserving one theater just for Bollywood movies.
This admittedly comes from my Western/American perspective. Still, there are numerous questions about the scope and penetration of this film culture (a media package that also includes music and television). How much is this expansion due to Indian immigrant communities flourishing in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere? Does the popularity expand beyond that? How have expanded foreign markets affected the Indian film industry? How has modern technology, primarily the Internet, been involved? How to account for the roles of myriad subcultures and their unique identities, both inside and outside India, when addressing such issues?
Editors Anandam P Kavoori and Aswin Punathambekar attempt to address these topics in Global Bollywood, a collection of scholarly essays that aim to "focus on a range of questions dealing with the industry, film and star texts, social contexts, reception, and participatory culture."
It is split up into three sections: “Framing Bollywood”, “Texts and Audiences”, and “Beyond Films: Stars, Fans, and Participatory Culture” with sub-topics exploring violence, femininity, homosexuality, music, cultural interpretations, and the role of various media.
Reading these headings, one might anticipate a painfully erudite dissection in the style of late 20th century academic writing marked by identity politics and endless deconstruction. And while it’s true that too much time is spent trying to define what “Bollywood” means, let alone what it means to globalize it, most of the writing is spry and unexpected with the authors matching a unique writing style with thoughtful technical analysis of their subject.
The most successful essays root out unexplored territory of Indian film culture, illuminating history, and using their chosen analytical approach with a light touch so that it does not get overwhelmed by excruciating didactics.
In “The Indian Film Magazine, Stardust”, Rachel Dwyer examines the rise of the film magazine, focusing on Stardust, and how it reflected the role of film in the fan’s life, the rise of the middle class and attendant evolution of family and sexuality, while also celebrating the “obvious pleasure” of its witty self-aware gossip.
Parmesh Shahani melds the personal and political in “The Mirror Has Many Faces: The Politics of Male Same-Sex Desire in BOMgAY and Gulabi Aaina, appropriating an outlandish screenplay style that charts gay themes in Bollywood films with the emergence of a gay scene in Bombay and the author’s own experiences within it to ultimately make a case for realigning the “path to self-affirmation” for the nascent queer movement in India.
There are a few essays that wallow in stiff esotericism, reading like a student masking pointless rambling with a thesaurus and puffed-up prose. This occurs most prominently in “Our Violence, Their Violence: Exploring the Emotional and Relational Matrix of Terrorist Cinema” (the title says it all).
However, there is glaring fault in most of the essays. The authors frequently raise interesting issues and then refuse to come to any conclusion after examining them, saying one can never know how history will turn out. Or their conclusion is to make a rather obvious point, for example that information flows freely on the Internet, and encourages a global dialog between Bollywood fans.
There is also a weird standard of familiarity applied to the central subject of Indian films. A ream of names and titles can flash by and it is assumed that the reader has seen and knows all of them. And then the author will explain in detail an utterly quotidian point, defining an Internet chat room or feeling the need to overly explain that “The sudden, rising orchestral violin ‘flourish’ is the single most pervasive iconic musical sound pattern used across films to accompany the idea of height and frame the intimate love song.” That one comes from Natalie Sarrazin’s otherwise excellent essay “Songs from the Heart”.
Most disappointing, the analysis of the book’s central conceit, of the increasing global-ness of Bollywood is dull and inert, relying on a few vague statistics and broad ideas. The strongest essays discuss the films themselves or the phenomenon as existing within India. There is very little solid examination of how fans are interacting across borders.
To take an example of what is missing, here is part of a letter that appeared in the July 2007 British film magazine Sight & Sound. In it, reader Shakila Taranum Maan in the July 2007 issue says far more about Bollywood from the Anglo-Asian perspective than we find in this whole book:
Naman Ramachandran’s review of Namastey London (S&S June) at last has the courage to say what a lot of us British Asians have been harping on about for some time. ‘It is tempting to dismiss Namastey London as just another trite Bollywood film -- or even a satire -- and take no further notice of it…Instead, Namastey London deserves to be named and shamed as an offensive, regressive film that not only reinforces racial stereotypes but also creates new ones, with a shrewd eye on the ultimate goal – mammon.’
Brit Asians have welcomed and arguably created the monster of Bollywood cinema designed for the western market. Yet degrading depictions of Brit Asians are the norm in such films: we are often portrayed as ungodly with scant respect for Indian culture when as a group Brit Asians are complicated capitalists who have a high regard for family values and respect for human life and carry a huge dose of romanticism for Indian culture...
There’s enough subject matter here for a second book, raising complicated issues of viewer and identity. But Global Bollywood is largely devoid of these perspectives, focusing on the authors and their individual outlooks, when, if the discussion were to be truly global in scope, a myriad of citizen voices should be heard.