Reframing Bollywood: Theories of Popular Hindi Cinema


Ajay Gehlawat

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    To the true Bollywood fans, Sylvie and Asha, and to Jaya, a possible future fan


    This book would not have been possible without the generous support, encouragement and feedback of numerous individuals, including Peter Hitchcock, Judy Milhous, Giancarlo Lombardi, Alison Griffiths, David Savran, Gayatri Spivak and Robert Stam. I would also like to thank the participants and panelists at the CHOTRO 2 Conference at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, for their helpful feedback regarding Chapter 3, as well as the participants and panelists at the Media Fields 2: Infrastructures Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for their questions and comments regarding the make-up of the Bollywood film. I would also like to thank the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York Graduate Center for their generous support in developing Chapter 4, and Sonoma State University for providing me with an RSCAP summer grant to further develop this manuscript. An earlier version of Chapter 2 first appeared as an article in Quarterly Review of Film and Video—I would like to thank the publishers for kind permission to reprint it here. An earlier version of Chapter 3 is forthcoming in the collection, Ethnographies (Devy et al. 2010). I would like to thank the editors for their kind permission to include it in its expanded version here. I would also like to thank the editorial staff at SAGE, as well as the anonymous reviewer, for their feedback and suggestions which were extremely helpful in finalizing this manuscript. Last but not the least, I would like to give a heartfelt thanks to my family for their consistent love and support throughout the years—in particular, to my parents, my brother and sister and, most of all, my wife.

    Introduction: Reframing Bollywood

    Typically, books on popular Hindi cinema, or ‘Bollywood’, begin by presenting all the figures associated with this industry—how many hundreds of films made per year, how many millions of daily viewers, etc. For the purposes of this study, however, it would be more effective to start by examining the figures associated with critical studies and theorists of this industry: in the 1970s, they numbered in the single digits; in the 1980s, the number rose to over a dozen; and by the end of the 1990s, with over two dozen theorists of Bollywood, this latter form could be considered a constituted field of production in the realm of Film and Cultural Studies. In the past decade alone, nearly a dozen new books have been issued on the subject, including Vijay Mishra's Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire (2002); Jyotika Virdi's The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History (2003); Raminder Kaur and Ajay Sinha's edited collection, Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (2005); as well as two separate anthologies both entitled Global Bollywood (Gopal and Moorti 2008; Kavoori and Punathambekar 2008). This upsurge in publications is itself symptomatic of the growing interest in Bollywood films as objects of critical inquiry.

    An initial question underlying much of the recent discussion surrounding this cinema is one of naming: What, precisely, is ‘Bollywood’ and what does such a name, or naming, imply? Rajinder Dudrah claims that Bollywood is ‘the moniker for popular Hindi cinema from Mumbai’ (formerly Bombay) and argues that the term has become ‘an important catchword in the vocabulary of global South Asian popular culture’ (Dudrah 2006: 13). At the same time, as Ranjani Mazumdar has noted, ‘India has four powerful film industries located in different parts of the country, each addressing cultural specificities and contexts’ (Mazumdar 2007: xxxiv). It is, thus, indeed ‘more fruitful to talk of popular cinemas,’ as Wimal Dissanayake has noted, ‘rather than one popular cinema’ (Dissanayake 2003: 215). Yet, while the Bombay-based Hindi film industry's designation as India's ‘national cinema’ remains a point of contention, it would seem that the Hindi film industry is ‘unquestionably nationally dominant’ (Gopal and Moorti 2008: 12). This comes despite the Tamil and Malayalam film industries’ numerical outpacing of the Hindi film industry (in terms of total number of films annually produced), as popular Hindi cinema maintains its dominance in terms of revenues and reception, with each Hindi film on average generating more revenues than all the other non-Hindi cinemas combined (Gopal and Moorti 2008). A primary reason for this continued dominance is that popular Hindi films are released in all five of the distribution territories including the overseas market which, in the 1990s, became the biggest territory (Mazumdar 2007).

    The question of what the ‘Bollywood’ moniker implies has also become a subject of increasing debate. While some theorists see it as a condescending or trivializing term, others see in this ‘epithet’ a mimicry that is ‘both a response and a dismissal’ (Virdi and Creekmur 2006; Jaikumar 2003). Even as some view it as ‘affectionate domestic shorthand’ for the popular Hindi film industry, others see in it a hybrid element, simultaneously ‘mock[ing] the thing it names and celebrat[ing] its difference’ (Prasad 2008; Waugh 2001). Suffice to say, the question of whether this term is ‘a pejorative or subversive description … remains unresolved’ (Gopal and Moorti 2008). My primary aim in invoking this term, however, is to signal my focus in this book on popular Hindi cinema, whose circulation and domination remain unmatched in part due to the status of Hindi as the most widely spoken language in the country (Trivedi 2008). Yet, as Harish Trivedi notes, the language employed in Hindi cinema has been ‘all kinds of Hindi’, inflected by numerous other dialects and languages including Urdu, Bhojpuri, Punjabi and ‘Hinglish’ (Trivedi 2008: 202–03). My underlying concern, then, is in identifying Bollywood as a nationally (and globally) dominant cinema without it necessarily functioning as the national, i.e., ‘Indian’, cinema. Mazumdar has aptly noted the tendency in film studies to frame Third World cinemas as national cinemas. It is precisely for this reason that I have chosen to employ the term ‘Bollywood’ and define it as popular Hindi rather than Indian cinema, so as to avoid a nationalizing discourse and to simultaneously emphasize what Gopal and Moorti call ‘the global orientation of this formation’ (Gopal and Moorti 2008: 4).

    It is also key to note at the outset that the Bollywood film is a particularly hybrid art form, blending theatrical and cinematic elements as well as First World and Third World cinema methodologies, plus an assortment of Western and indigenous genres such as the musical, dance drama and melodrama, to name but a few. Such a blending, also referred to as masala (a spicy mix), is precisely what has previously been belittled in the theorization of Bollywood. Even as Satyajit Ray, for instance, called the Bollywood film ‘a well-mixed potpourri of popular entertainment’, he directly linked this composition to an audience comprised of ‘tired untutored minds with undeveloped tastes’ (Ray 1976: 73). Indeed, this syncretic art form has been and continues to be primarily situated within a theatrical model, stemming from previous models applied to the study of Indian theatrical performances. Along with suggesting aesthetic distinctions, the application of this model is based upon, even as it subsequently reaffirms, a devotional paradigm, also associated with older, theatrical models, in which the implied native/Indian/‘Hindu’ viewer is assigned a primitive and primarily religious perspective.

    At the same time, a Brechtian theatrical paradigm is denied Bollywood. Beginning with Satyajit Ray, theorists of Bollywood have consistently dismissed the possibility of a Brechtian interpretation of the Bollywood film due to various reasons, including the alleged lack of such an intention on the filmmakers’ part. Whenever Brecht and his aesthetic conventions are summoned in a discussion regarding Bollywood, they are invoked as a contrast to this latter form which, in comparison, is labelled a ‘conventional cinema’ (Kazmi 1999). Such a positioning—theatrical yet non-Brechtian—also works to sever Bollywood's potential relationship to what Teshome Gabriel labels a ‘Third Cinema’, in which the film exhibits its marks of production as ‘a polemic comment on the way things are in their “natural” reflection’ (Gabriel 1989a: 46–47). Because Bollywood is identified as a commercial, or conventional, cinema, critics tend to immediately associate it with ‘Western conventions’, such as concealing its marks of production. Simultaneously, the Bollywood film is labelled ‘doubly degraded’, as it is seen not only as mere entertainment but also as a form derived from and imitative of its Western counterpart.

    Given this state of affairs, my intention in this work is to reframe the Bollywood film and, in the process, its implied viewers and the previous and continuing scholarship on this cinema. Just as the Bollywood film, rather than neatly fitting into any one category, defines itself through its parody and transgression of each, such a critical intervention will be achieved through a combination of fields and approaches, including the filmic, theatrical, ethnographic and postcolonial. This fusion of approaches is itself emblematic of the larger scope of this work, namely, to destabilize the positioning of Bollywood within any one sphere of reference and, rather, to illuminate how several spheres of meaning are simultaneously at play in its construction. By doing so, I hope to demonstrate how applying a variety of critical tools can enable a more comprehensive reading of the films.

    Overview: Bollywood Studies

    Beginning with Satyajit Ray's collected essays, published in 1976, and Kobita Sarkar's Indian Cinema Today (1975), Bollywood has historically been relegated by Indian scholars to a B-rate status. The films themselves are seen as crude imitations of Hollywood productions, even as their implied viewers are subsequently seen as the infantile masses for whom such crude entertainments are devised. ‘If you think in terms of tired untutored minds with undeveloped tastes needing an occasional escape through relaxation’, Ray writes, then ‘the best prescription’ becomes the Bollywood film precisely as it has been formulated, namely, as simple, escapist fare for simple-minded audiences (Ray 1976: 73).

    Such a paradigm is further formulated during the 1980s by critics such as Chidananda Das Gupta, Ashis Nandy, Kishore Valicha and Sudhir Kakar. Numerous theories, for example, have been proposed by both Indian and non-Indian scholars on the issue of sexuality as mediated through the song and dance sequence in the Bollywood film. Although these views are varied, nearly all tend either to criticize what they consider to be the ‘vulgar’ erotics of these sequences or simultaneously to blame said vulgarities on Indian sexual mores, which are subsequently considered, in comparison with those of the West, puritanical. Kakar, for instance, likens the Bollywood film to ‘daydream’ and claims that the reason for its resounding success in India is due to the Indian psyche's ability to ‘regress temporarily to childhood modes’. This is because ‘in India the child's world of magic is not as far removed from adult consciousness as it may be in some other cultures’ (Kakar 1989: 28–29).1

    This ‘infantilizing’ trend continues into the 1990s, even as it is further solidified by the appearance of critical work which supplements this ‘fantasy’ reading via the theory of darsana, or devotional viewing. Even as the number of critical works increases and diversifies during this decade (incorporating, for example, television programming and viewing habits in India and the diaspora), they become even more firmly yoked to a religious paradigm. Thus, both Marie Gillepsie and Ananda Mitra not only focus solely on a religious television serial but furthermore view a pre-determined religious perspective as the ‘key with which to unlock the interpretive frameworks’ of such televisual programming (Gillespie 1995a; Mitra 1993). Simultaneously, crucial components of the televisual experience such as what Raymond Williams called ‘flow’ are either unmentioned or downplayed (Williams 1975). All interactions with the medium by Indian audiences are filtered through cultural suppositions which preclude a structural analysis, so that the televisual experience becomes, first and foremost, an articulation of the ‘religious world view’ that these people allegedly manifest, consciously or unconsciously (Gillespie 1995a: 358). Underlying principles of the apparatus, such as flow, are paradoxically used to reformulate the predominance of this ‘religious world view’ and to connect ‘the religious and social practices in a continuous and interrelated chain’ (Mitra 1993: 94).

    This conflation of infantilizing and devotional paradigms culminates with the appearance of Madhava Prasad's Ideology of the Hindi Film (1998), in which this US-educated, Indian-based critic employs the psychoanalytic film theory of Christian Metz to the study of Bollywood. Naturally, Prasad uses Metz's famous distinction between the theatrical and cinematic experiences as a way of positioning the Bollywood film within a theatrical model and, thus, its implied viewer as again lacking the requisite cognitive skills for film viewing. Prasad examines the Indian cinema-goer's relationship to the Bollywood film primarily through the devotional paradigm, even arguing that moments that might otherwise be labelled ‘Brechtian’, for example, instances of direct address, are the result of the implied (Indian) viewer's religious constitution. A key equivocation upon which such formulations reside is that of ‘being Indian’ and ‘being Hindu’. Whereas, to some extent, this equivocation is manifested by the culture at large (which may synonymize ‘Hindustan’ and ‘India’), a key distinction remains: being ‘Indian’ does not mean being ‘Hindu’, and vice versa. The equivocation, however, remains and through it, the onslaught of ad hoc theorization which uses this linguistic loophole to position the art form within a primarily religious rather than semiotic frame of analysis.

    Even as Bollywood critics have taken increasingly theoretical approaches, they tend to consistently use such approaches only to re-invoke infantilizing/devotional paradigms, themselves implicitly or explicitly based on a pre-constituted audience. Two recent examples of this paradoxical trend can be found in work of Ravi Vasudevan and Ashish Rajadhyaksha. Even as Vasudevan begins by stating, ‘Especially important here is an agenda of moving beyond the deployment in Indian cinema of a rhetoric of traditional morality and identity to a focus on how cinematic address, the way spectators are positioned in terms of vision, auditory address, and narrative intelligibility, may complicate and rework the overt terms of narrative coherence’, he still claims that ‘the task here’ is ‘identifying how the “darsanic” locates characters and is responded to by them’ (Vasudevan 2000b: 134, 139). Rajadhyaksha, meanwhile, begins by making the apologist argument, claiming that what he ‘wants to do here’ is develop ‘a theory of the cinema that can account for the Indian cinema’ (Rajadhyaksha 2000: 269). He then proceeds to delineate Laura Mulvey's famous argument regarding the voyeurism of classical Hollywood cinema only as a way of yet again describing ‘the difficulty Indian (and generally non-Western) filmmakers have with the concept of “story-telling” as in Hollywood cinema’ (Rajadhyaksha 2000: 276). ‘Wherever it happens, and however it happens’, Rajadhyaksha concludes, ‘it appears to be generally the case’ that the implied viewer of Bollywood resists the ‘Hollywood Mode of Production’, instead becoming ‘a citizen subject who fully incarnates his symbolic authority’ (Rajadhyaksha 2000: 293).

    It is precisely now, as Dissanayake notes, ‘with something … approaching critical maturity’ in the field, that the time has come to ‘examine the various pathways that have been cleared in order to gain a deeper understanding’ of Bollywood and, in the process, ‘to identity some significant gaps and potentially fruitful lines of inquiry that yet need to be pursued’ (Dissanayake 2003: 203). Similarly, it is only by ‘paying close attention to the structure of narrativity’ in this cinema that we can truly appreciate its cinematic discourse and, in the process, enable the idea of active spectatorship to permeate a field that all too frequently finds recourse in a facile model of the implied viewer as passive ‘victim’ of larger discourses beyond his/her control (Dissanayake 2003: 205, 212). However, to do so, it must first be acknowledged that, more often than not, it is Indian and Indo-diasporic scholars who employ ‘Western lexicon’ or immediately read Bollywood's filmic negotiations within ‘Eurocentric hermeneutics’ (Dissanayake 2003: 214; Desai and Dudrah 2008: 2). The solution, however, does not necessarily entail the invocation of ‘indigenous frames of reference’ (which, indeed, all too often lead to ‘the equally perilous trap of essentialism or cultural exceptionalism’) but, instead, lies in the careful re-examination of previous applications of the so-called ‘Western lexicon’ of film and media theory to the study of Bollywood cinema, as well as in how these theories may indeed reshape indigenous frames of reference (Dissanayake 2003).

    Repraming: Envisioning New Paradigms

    In order to liberate the study of Bollywood from these theoretical constraints, a crucial first step is to situate it within a filmic paradigm. This is not to deny the theatrical aspects of the Bollywood film but rather to locate them as functioning in an essentially cinematic frame. The key difference between these two registers, as pointed out by Walter Benjamin and Christian Metz, is an ontological one (Benjamin 1988; Metz 1982). As Metz notes, ‘In the theatre, actors and spectators are present at the same time and in the same location, hence present one to another … But in the cinema, the actor was present when the spectator was not (=shooting), and the spectator is present when the actor is no longer (=projection)’ (Metz 1982: 63). This ‘missed encounter’ between spectator and actor becomes the basis for the former's interaction with the on-screen spectacle and one, furthermore, that allows for this viewer to engage in a specifically cinematic form of voyeurism—what Metz labels ‘unauthorized scopophilia’ (Metz 1982).2

    Whereas Prasad employs Metz in order to define the Indian filmic interaction as ‘theatrical’, one in which the viewer's ‘gaze then at once becomes, or is reminded of its, shamefaced voyeurism’, I want to reconsider the implications of the basic tenets of the cinematic apparatus and, in the process, locate the implied viewer of Bollywood within a more cinematic frame. Foregrounding the technical aspects of the interaction between film viewer and film—the ‘missed encounter’, or what Benjamin describes as the loss of ‘aura’ in the filmic text—works to undermine theoretically the dominant religious perspective and simultaneously liberate filmic text and implied viewer from its limited/limiting interpretive framework. By delineating how the film viewer actively participates in making the film's meaning, how he or she is present in a ‘double capacity … as witness and assistant’ (Metz 1982: 93), my aim is to destabilize the construction of passive ‘Hindu’ with an essentially reverential gaze.

    By focusing on the unique filmic components of the Bollywood film, such as the frequent use of playback sound and lip-synching, or the multiple scenic backgrounds and settings employed in song and dance sequences, a simultaneous shift from a religious to a postmodern perspective becomes possible. In particular, Jean Baudrillard's conception of the ‘hyperreal’ and Sumita Chakravarty's concept of ‘impersonation’ become effective theoretical devices that work to allow both Bollywood and its theorists to transcend some of the pitfalls of cultural truisms and paradoxically assert ‘identity’ through the absence of any such structured focal point (Baudrillard 1983; Chakravarty 1993). Through the metaphor of ‘impersonation’, it becomes possible for theorists of Bollywood to repudiate and subvert any exclusive reading of its mediations.

    While Chakravarty deploys ‘impersonation’ as a way of constructing a narrative of Indian popular cinema and national identity, I would like to develop this concept further and, in fact, use it as a way of problematizing the concept of a national identity and, indeed, of Bollywood as a nationalizing discourse. In other words, my aim is to invoke the concept of impersonation as a disorienting principle, one that challenges rather than accommodates ‘nationally inflected readings of Bombay cinema’, highlighting in the process the very unstable and contaminated elements that constitute the crux of this cinema—the very same elements that Chakravarty attempts to downplay or disavow (Chakravarty 1993: 5, 310). It is precisely because popular Hindi cinema continues to be invoked as ‘India's sole model of national unity’, that the concept of impersonation (as a way of appreciating this cinema's aesthetic form) should not be divested of its negative connotations (Chakravarty 1993: 310). By focusing on the so-called ‘negative’ aspects of this ‘contaminated’ cinema, it becomes possible to upset ossified discourses of the nation. Hence, while Chakravarty's ‘modest aim’ was to recuperate the idea of India as nation, my more ambitious goal in this study is to redeploy her concept of impersonation to demonstrate how Bollywood frequently and playfully disrupts the so-called narrative of the nation—and of national identity (Chakravarty 1993: 10).

    Rather than positioning Bollywood within any one frame of reference, I believe it is more effective to see it as engaging in what Baudrillard calls ‘ecstasy’, namely, the simultaneous transcendence and dissolution of a form (Baudrillard 1987: 68). This concept shares a particular resonance with the previously mentioned trope of masala, the spicy mixing in which the typical Bollywood film engages. While the transition from darsana, or devotional viewing, to ‘ecstasy’, or to masala, may seem like quibbling over words, it is important to keep in mind, as Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out, that the constitution of language is reflective of social relations and social ranks, as well as crucial in reinforcing and/or recreating these relations and ranks (Bourdieu 1991). To see Bollywood as ‘ecstasy’ is not just a semantic shift; rather, it is one that reflects a reformulation of the antediluvian binarisms still informing the overwhelming majority of Bollywood criticism. Reframing Bollywood within such a postmodern frame produces a conception of ‘Indianness’ rooted in a dialectics of play that works to undermine, even as it extravagantly celebrates, those polar(izing) oppositions that critics continue to associate with its internal and external structures.

    In other words, monolithic terms such as ‘Indianness’ and ‘Indian cinema’, as employed in these past and continuing instances, are themselves no longer effective, not because they reflect a juxtaposition and contamination but because they do not. Conversely, seeing Bollywood as deliberately engaging in ‘impersonation’ allows theorists to embrace precisely such contamination, thus allowing for a reformulation of both this cinema and its hybrid elements. As Chakravarty has noted, ‘Impersonation implies a form of subversion, of the illegitimate (even the monstrous) masquerading as the real thing or person, generally with the intention of displacing the legitimate’ (Chakravarty 1993: 5). The Bollywood film may thus be described as ‘revamping schemas’ to ‘suit new purposes’, a process of revision Noel Carroll calls ‘amplification’, in which cinematic innovations are devised by ‘synthesizing familiar schemas in fresh ways’ (Bordwell 1997: 152–53). When applied to the dissemination of Bollywood films via television, such a reframing would similarly allow for elements such as the films’ episodic structuring and this structure's relationship to the ‘flow’ of television programming, to put into question the essentially ethnographic assumptions regarding such interactions.3

    Furthermore, in the process of reframing Bollywood in such a manner, I hope to develop a new relationship between popular Hindi cinema and theories of postcoloniality. Whereas postcolonial studies, particularly in relation to Asia and even more particularly in relation to India, have developed during the same period as Bollywood studies (1970s to present), the latter field has remained largely marginalized within the former. Simultaneously, Bollywood studies has largely omitted these very theorists in its formulations of what may arguably be, given the high rates of Bollywood production, distribution and exhibition, a key arena for the negotiation of postcolonial identity, particularly in the increasingly globalized world of the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries. Compounding this mutual failure of recognition, Bollywood more often than not draws only the dismissal of predominant postcolonial theorists.4

    What one gets, therefore, is a setting reminiscent of that in Philip Dick's sci-fi classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969), namely, one in which there are two police agencies simultaneously operating in the same milieu, yet neither is aware of the other's presence. Along with a gaping ‘blind spot’, this analogy illuminates how two sets of operators, situated within their own realms of investigation, map out their own borders (even if these overlap) and then proceed to police them with their respective disciplinary tools. Needless to say, these ‘tools’ increasingly become ‘weapons’ in such usage, eliminating any and all threats to theorists’ self-contained, self-generating fields of knowledge production. This inevitably works to enact the compartmentalization and containment of both fields in the larger realm of Western systems of classification.

    It is my further ambition in this work, then, to de-isolate these two trajectories of critical inquiry via the application of a postmodern praxis, particularly building on Baudrillard's conception of the hyperreal as that which is always already reproduced (Baudrillard 1983: 146). This can hopefully result in a productive fusion for both Bollywood as a focus of study and for the larger realm of academic discourse in which it is situated and which, furthermore, works to situate. Indeed, just as Deckard, Dick's detective in the Blade Runner story, ultimately questions his own identity and wonders if he, too, might not be a ‘replicant’, the cross-pollination of Bollywood Studies with postcolonial and postmodern theories may work to implode arcane notions of authenticity and fixity both within the realms of academic discourse and in the Bollywood film. It is in this sense that this work will be building on previous scholarship such as Chakravarty's, even as it attempts to develop it further.

    Reframing Bollywood is divided into five chapters, each addressing a specific area of controversial theorization. These paradigms include the religious frame, the musical frame, the subaltern frame, the (hetero)sexual frame and the ‘crossover’ frame. By examining this field's hegemonic paradigms, frame by frame, this book works to reshape the understanding of the Bollywood film and restructure its relationships with multiple disciplines, including film and theatre studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, as well as the emerging terrain of transnational studies.

    The first chapter explores how theatrical and religious paradigms are utilized by theorists of Bollywood as a way of overriding the implications of cinematic and televisual media, as well as what consequences this framing has for the aesthetic and cultural perceptions of Bollywood and its implied viewer. I am concerned here with how Bollywood films create private spaces in which erotic encounters frequently occur, thus contradicting the logic of the devotional paradigm which argues that such private spaces and representations are taboo in Hindi cinema.

    The second chapter challenges the dominant perception of the Hollywood musical as forefather of the Bollywood film and, instead, presents the Bollywood song and dance sequence as a more radical, Brechtian form of narrative interruption than its Hollywood counterpart. In this manner, this chapter continues the examination of how older frames of analysis are invoked to position Bollywood, as well as how the Bollywood film form violates these paradigms in numerous ways. Using Jane Feuer's study of the Hollywood musical, this chapter performs a close comparative analysis of Hollywood musicals and Bollywood films, including Dil Se … (1998) and Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), examining how Bollywood song and dance sequences differ in crucial ways in their structuring from those of Hollywood musicals.

    Building on the previous two chapters, Chapter 3 is concerned with theories of reception, filmic literacy and subaltern agency as they relate to the screening of Bollywood films in Indian villages and among the socially and economically disadvantaged. This chapter critiques the notion of Bollywood as an ‘oral cinema’ and argues that the widespread viewing of Bollywood in Indian villages functions instead as a form of visual literacy. In doing so, this chapter applies key concepts from postcolonial theory to the study of Bollywood in a paradigm-shifting manner, challenging several key premises underlying the discourse of subaltern studies, as formulated by Gayatri Spivak, via a close reading of sequences from the classic Bollywood film, Guide (1965).

    The fourth chapter considers the emergence of a homosexual subtext in contemporary Bollywood cinema, specifically focusing on the recent global blockbusters, Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Dostana (2008). In the process, this chapter reconsiders the most recent scholarship on queer Bollywood spectatorship, including Gayatri Gopinath's book, Impossible Desires (2005), by questioning the implied repudiation of homosexuality in popular Indian culture, arguing instead that recent Bollywood films engage in such homosexual subtexts both knowingly and playfully. Drawing upon Judith Butler's concept of ‘gender parody’, this chapter also reveals and simultaneously destabilizes the larger ambivalence existing within Bollywood cinema—on the one hand, its infusion with and recognition of ‘homosexual’ elements and, on the other hand, its ostensible heteronormativity.

    The final chapter considers the recent phenomenon of ‘Crossover Bollywood’ films and reformulates notions of ‘Indianness’ and Bollywood in an era of the non-resident Indian (NRI). Examining recent films such as The Guru (2002), Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Gham (2001) and Bride and Prejudice (2004), this chapter avoids reinvoking nationalist paradigms when considering such contemporary trends, instead arguing that Bollywood creates more fluid and transnational forms of cultural identity in the twenty-first century.

    An underlying thread running through all of these chapters is a focus on the song and dance sequence in the Bollywood film, whether as a ‘private realm’ (Chapter 1), as a form of narrative interruption (Chapter 2), as a way of reorienting both film and viewer (Chapter 3), as a ‘queer’ moment in an otherwise ‘straight’ narrative (Chapter 4), or, indeed, as a hyperspace through which characters traverse the globe (Chapter 5). This continued focus is an acknowledgment of Gopal and Moorti's claim that ‘to talk of Bollywood is inevitably to talk of the song and dance sequence’ (Gopal and Moorti 2008: 1). More than any other element in Bollywood films, the song and dance functions as a reframing device, allowing films and their characters to rearticulate their visions, desires and, indeed, viewers’ understanding of both. Thus, such sequences are of paramount importance to my present study and serve as a recurring theme throughout the book. To make a definitional claim, I would argue that Hindi films without song and dance sequences would not be considered ‘Bollywood’ films. This does not necessarily entail the inverse proposition, however, that all films featuring ‘Bollywood song and dance sequences’ belong to this corpus—hence the phenomenon of ‘Crossover Bollywood’, films made in the West and in English that incorporate, or parody, elements of the typical Bollywood film, while maintaining their own distinct style(s) (to be discussed further in the final chapter).

    A key question this book continually poses is: what are the effects of framing Bollywood in the ways that it has been up till now? One immediate result of these tendencies, I suggest, is to literally ‘frame’ Bollywood, that is, to prearrange it so as to ensure a desired (fraudulent) outcome, and/or to incriminate it falsely; to enclose it within certain limitations, to disenable it, to ‘fix’ it. Reframing Bollywood conversely opens up Bollywood to a multiplicity of meanings that challenge hegemonic claims regarding its composition and implied modes of spectatorship, thus repudiating any one fixed, essentialized meaning. In response to the dominant discourses surrounding and informing the study of Bollywood, this book offers a series of oppositional views—of Bollywood films, of their implied audiences and, indeed, of the latter's interactions with the former. To ‘reframe’, in cinematic parlance, implies a mobile, as opposed to static, frame. This is an apt paradigm for both a hyperkinetic cinema such as Bollywood as well as for the approach this book takes. In moving beyond the narrow frames of individual disciplines, this study, like the Bollywood film it addresses, attempts to create a conception of this cinema that not only draws awareness to all those elements overlooked by previous and continuing theorizations but also provides an underlying methodology that works to transcend and dissolve the very notion of essential otherness. Each chapter's particular intervention underscores the larger argument of this book—the usefulness of viewing Bollywood from multiple perspectives—even as readers are provided with an introduction to some of the key concepts and debates surrounding the study of popular Hindi cinema today.


    1. Here we see the classic ‘Orientalizing’ frame, critiqued by Edward Said, in which the ‘Oriental’ subject is relegated to an infantilized, ‘natural’ state (Said 1994). It is precisely this ‘regressive haven’ that Kakar claims ‘Hindi films seem to provide … for a vast number of our people’ (Kakar 1989: 29).

    2. Furthermore, it is important to note, as Metz himself does, that this discussion of cinematic voyeurism is not limited to Hollywood—‘It doesn't even have to be Hollywood: the images of any film based on narration and representation—of any “film”’ (Metz 1982: 91).

    3. Rather than seeing the gods of religious television serials such as The Mahabharata as necessarily conveying a religious aura because the viewing audience has been pre-identified as ‘Hindu’, one might see these characters as ‘impersonations’ and these serials as being re-inscribed within an external flow of the televisual apparatus.

    4. For example, even as Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge consider the cinema of Mira Nair to be ‘a new sort of aesthetic presence’, they dismiss Bollywood as ‘B-grade’ (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1991: 96, 98); similarly, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, even as she speaks of suturing ‘the re-activated cultural axiomatics’ of ‘the subaltern cultures’ into ‘the principles of the Enlightenment’, dismisses Bollywood films as ‘embarrassing imitations’ and ‘“adaptations” of moments from US MTV’ (Spivak 2002: 195). Homi Bhabha, meanwhile, in a piece originally written in relation to a conference on Third Cinema, fails not only to mention Bollywood but cinema in general (Bhabha 1989).

  • Conclusion: Travelling Bollywood

    Bollywood and the corpus dedicated to its study have continued to make great strides in the twenty-first century. Even as Bollywood continues to be one of the most prolific cinemas in the world, critical texts examining this cinema are on the rise (Pendakur 2003; Kavoori and Punathambekar 2008). While Bollywood's influence increases globally, however, a persistent streak remains in its study, namely, an adherence to the concept of the nation-state, whose underpinnings are used to frame the subsequent discussion of Bollywood. This tendency ensues despite an acknowledgment of Bollywood's increasingly global span as well as its increasingly transnational composition.

    To paraphrase Peter Hitchcock, one could say the idea of the nation continues to serve as the predominant means of identifying Bollywood as a cinema (Hitchcock 2003: 4). Likewise, an approach highlighting the transnational features of the Bollywood film/industry presents not only a ‘formidable challenge to this orthodoxy’ but, indeed, works to reconfigure transnationalism as ‘a condition of possibility in the analysis of global difference’ (Hitchcock 2003: 5). As a way of concluding, then, I would like to examine some of the recent works of Bollywood theorists in specific regard to the concept of the nation and the attendant formatting of the Bollywood film.

    In one of the recent studies of Bollywood, Jyotika Virdi begins by acknowledging that ‘to say that Hindi cinema is a national cinema at once begs several questions’, including, ‘What is a nation?’ and ‘What are the criteria by which we designate a cinema “national”?’ (Virdi 2003: 26). Yet, framing the study of Bollywood in this way is itself begging the question, making ‘the Nation’ the concept around which all discussions regarding Bollywood take place, what Virdi labels ‘the national imaginary’ (Virdi 2003 : 27–28).1 Thus, even as she acknowledges that ‘the Indian nation is a political entity’ and that ‘Nations, therefore, are nothing more than the fictional fancies of their creators’, Virdi finds Bollywood to be ‘one of the constitutive forces in popularizing the national’ (Virdi 2003: 28, 29, 31). Defining the scope of a ‘national cinema’ includes ‘where the films are made, by whom, and under whose ownership’ (Virdi 2003: 31). It is paradoxically, then, by addressing these components of Virdi's criteria for a national cinema that I intend to delineate the Bollywood film/industry's transnational structure and dissemination.

    Though Virdi herself acknowledges that ‘global reconfiguration … demands a new understanding of cultural politics’, she describes ‘Indian identity’ as being ‘under siege in the era of globalization’ and claims ‘the [Indian] nation’ has now been ‘penetrated by transnational forces’ (Virdi 2003: xi, 197, 202). Her choice ofwords in delineating (the relationship between) the transnational and the national is suggestive of her generally antagonistic structuring of these concepts, though Virdi defers credit for this to the Bollywood film itself. Thus, it is (in Virdi's view) Bollywood cinema that engages in ‘binary oppositions’, that ‘pits the national against the transnational’, so that ‘the nation’ in Bollywood is constantly reimagined and resecured (Virdi 2003: 202–03, 205).

    Indeed, this predilection for the nation-state can, in many ways, be mapped onto Virdi's study itself, as a reflection of her own ‘cinematic imagination’: the still gracing her book's original cover from the 1955 film song sequence, ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, whose sentiment continues, in the twenty-first century, to capture the thrust of Bollywood Studies (and whose lyrics, more often than not, serve as an epigraph to these contemporary studies).2 Indeed, Tejaswini Ganti's essay derives its title from this song's lyrics, even as its author asserts that ‘Indianization [in Bollywood] is a practice of constituting difference—between India and the West’ (Ganti 2002: 283).3 Like Virdi, then, Ganti employs this trope to center her discussion of Bollywood cinema around the [Indian] nation. Furthermore, though she acknowledges the ‘cosmopolitan nature of the Bombay film industry’, Ganti ultimately finds ‘Indianization’ to be ‘a conservative process that precludes innovation in narrative and generic practices’.4

    It is particularly in relation to this latter concept that we might consider Virdi's earlier classification of a ‘national cinema’ in regards to ownership (Virdi 2003: 31). The question we might pose—or, to follow the contemporary trend, see Bollywood cinema as itself posing—is, in what sense? That is to say, who ‘owns’ the circulating film? By examining the actual distribution of the Bollywood film (to begin with a latter point, so as to work our way backwards to Virdi's question concerning production and simultaneously to anticipate the question of exhibition), one could say that this tendency towards a conservative process might itself be precluded by seeing the process in a transnational, rather than national, frame.5 ‘What is noteworthy’, as Majunath Pendakur, among others, has pointed out, ‘is that Hindi language films [i.e., Bollywood] have captured the all-India market and have reached out to Indians settled in Africa, [the] Middle East, South East Asia, North America, and Australia’ (Pendakur 2003 : 27, emphasis added). One could also add to this the observation Raminder Kaur and Ajay Sinha make in the introduction to their edited anthology on Bollywood, namely, that ‘it is well known that non-Indian populations in numerous other parts of the world, extending from Latin America to Africa and the Middle East, the former USSR and even China, also cheered and applauded popular Indian cinema throughout the twentieth century’ (Kaur and Sinha 2005: 20). Indeed, one can add to this latter point, ‘and into the twenty-first’.6

    Yet, for all of Kaur and Sinha's titular claims to transnationality, their introduction, too, begins by citing the Shri 420 lyrics regarding Japanese shoes and an essentially Indian heart (Kaur and Sinha 2005: 11). Though noting the ‘globalized cultural economy of Indian film’, and Bollywood's introduction of a ‘fragmentary process’ (where Hollywood, in their view, ‘pushes world cultures towards homogenization’) and, indeed, ‘in its very (sometimes) contentious name … the crossing of borders’, Kaur concludes by claiming that ‘in Hindi cinema, India is reinscribed as a hegemonic centre’, even as one is literally ‘led back to India as the fount of all identities’ (Kaur and Sinha 2005: 15, 16, 21; Kaur 2005: 326). This fixation with ‘Indianness’, however, comes at the same time as Kaur and Sinha and, indeed, most contemporary theorists of Bollywood acknowledge the increasing role of the NRI (non-resident Indian) in the formation of an ‘Indian identity’ in Bollywood films.7 Yet rather than seeing this latter figure as potentially reformulating the very notion of an essentialized ‘Indianness’, Kaur depicts the diasporic subject as ‘central not just to economic targets but also to the making of a national, Bollywood cinema’ (Kaur 2005: 311).

    The theorization of the NRI by Indian and Indo-diasporic scholars, then, in many ways echoes that of ‘the Bantu’ or ‘the Madagascan’, by European colonial ethnographers (for example, Mannoni), in which Bollywood becomes ‘the umbilical cord that anchors them [NRIs] to their past’, even as the NRI paradoxically revivifies the Nation-State or, in this parlance, ‘the mother country’ (Rao 2001: 159).8 The NRI, in other words, ‘even though born abroad’, remains ‘essentially an Indian’ (Kaur 2005: 323). This is precisely the sentiment behind the oft-quoted lyrics from ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, as well as their consistent quotation by studies of Bollywood. Yet, as these very same critics note, much has changed since 1955. It is not merely that Bollywood films travel around the globe (a phenomenon that, in many ways, was already noticed in the mid-1950s) but how their formatting increasingly displays, like a well-marked passport, imprints of these journeys, that marks this cinema as increasingly transnational, particularly in the so-called digital era.

    Pendakur has noted the rise of digital video disc (DVD) technology in the mid-1990s, as well as how this affected the distribution of Bollywood films, claiming that between 1998 and 2001, ‘the demand for DVDs of Indian movies grew rapidly and Indian distributors expanded their inventory from 15–20 titles to 15,000 titles’ (Pendakur 2003: 45). Though he rightly observes that this new format allowed for ‘inclusion of additional information’, nowhere is what is perhaps the most crucial feature of this format—by way of underscoring Bollywood's transnationality—mentioned (Pendakur 2003: 46). The feature I have in mind is alternate language tracks. The typical contemporary Bollywood DVD comes formatted with multiple subtitling and audio options. Furthermore, based on a random sampling of recent Bollywood films released on DVD, this opportunity to ‘take advantage of the capacity of the medium and to use it in as inventive a way as possible’ continues to grow, particularly when compared to other globally disseminated cinemas (Becker, quoted in Crowdus 1999).9

    In 2003, Kal Ho Naa Ho (discussed in Chapter 4) was released on DVD by Yash Raj Productions (itself now a transnational entity with distribution centers around the globe, including in the US), featuring optional subtitles in English, Dutch and Arabic. The following year, Veer-Zaara (dir. Yash Chopra, 2004) was released, both theatrically and on DVD (also by Yash Raj Productions), with the latter format featuring optional subtitles in Gujrati, Bengali, English, Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hebrew. The following year, the DVD release of the blockbuster, Bunty aur Babli (dir. Shaad Ali Sahgal, 2005), also by Yash Raj Productions, featured optional subtitles in all the languages featured on the Veer-Zaara disc, save Hebrew but with the addition of French. In two years, in other words, the number of subtitling options saw nearly a fourfold increase. This, combined with Bollywood DVDs’ multizone formatting, allows for a greater dissemination and accessing than any other global cinema in circulation today and, furthermore, reveals how the DVD format, as utilized by Bollywood distribution outlets, works to transcend the ‘shield-like’ regionalism of language,10 taking full advantage of ‘the capacity of the [digital] medium’ (Becker, quoted in Crowdus 1999).

    In this way, DVD (as utilized by Bollywood) serves as an effective metonym for globalization. This is not simply due to its intrinsically transnational infrastructure but, more precisely, because of how Bollywood has taken advantage of this infrastructure, making Bollywood films literally accessible to multiple audiences around the world. This contemporary element of the Bollywood film underscores its previously noted transnational appeal and also, to return to another earlier point, how ‘ownership’ of the Bollywood film is made flexible, literally allowing multiple channels of access to its hybrid form.

    As for where the films are made, one can see an even earlier indication of Bollywood's inherent transnationality. For whereas Virdi notes that ‘transnational locations were not uncommon’ in Bollywood films of the 1960s, one can also consistently point to such locations in Bollywood throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and, indeed, up to the present day (Virdi 2003).11 It is in relation to the song and dance sequence, too, that another salient point arises, namely, that there are at least two ways of looking at these films: as complete narratives, with a beginning, middle and end (in that order), or as a series of episodes, an ordering further enhanced by the DVD format (which normally ‘chapters’ a film so as to allow for one to immediately ‘jump’ to a particular scene in the film).12 This latter way of receiving the film, even as it offers up a postmodern reworking of the first scenario's rather Aristotelian set-up, is additionally reinforced by the ‘onset of cable and satellite television in 1991’, through which ‘song sequences start airing on the numerous film-based programs on television or appear as commercials between other programs’ (Ganti 2002: 295–96). Furthermore, as Anustup Basu has recently noted, due to their independent travel along ‘video, cable, and [DVD] circuits’, these song sequences ‘often seem to detach themselves from relations of fidelity to the filmic whole’, following what he describes as the ‘“indifferent” logic of “geotelevisual” production and dissemination’ (Basu 2008: 156).13 Such an ‘altered media landscape’, with its frequent—one might even say, typical—fragmentation of the Bollywood film, works to rupture the normative paradigm through which Bollywood cinema continues to be read, even as it simultaneously works to throw into question who ‘owns’ the Bollywood film and how it is literally viewed, particularly since 1991.

    A final example of Bollywood's increasingly global reach can be found in its influence on the aesthetic composition of other contemporary cinemas. Along with the recent instances of a ‘Crossover Bollywood’ phenomenon stemming from North America and the UK (discussed in Chapter 5), one can see traces of Bollywood in cinemas coming from China, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Egypt, and even in less ostensibly ‘crossover’ features from the US.14 Bollywood, in other words, rather than encompassing a nation, might more effectively be seen as possessing a particular aesthetic, one which is essentially hybrid and transnational, mixing and re-appropriating elements from multiple sources and redeploying them in a global context, via global media.

    While contemporary theorization of this film style continues to cling to the rather archaic notion of the nation-state as a guide to meaning, the Bollywood film continues to chart new trajectories and, in the process, continually re-questions the very concept of ‘a national cinema proper’, or of adapting ‘appropriately’ (and the attendant ‘hegemonic authorization of what it means to be a “proper Indian”’), via a thoroughly improper aesthetic that Sumita Chakravarty has called ‘impersonation’ (Chakravarty 1993: 4; Ganti 2002: 290; Kaur 2005: 315; Virdi 2003: 7). Yet, as an ‘imaginary state’—in a double sense, i.e., as a film (and thus ‘imaginary’ in Metz's sense of the term) and as a national construct—Bollywood, rather than fuelling (let alone fulfilling) a ‘desire for origins’, functions as a challenge to this latter construct's very cognitive rationale (Chakravarty 1993: 3; Hitchcock 2003: 11). It is precisely in this sense that the emergence of the NRI as a constitutive figure in the theorization of Bollywood ‘begs the question’ of the nation-state hegemony, giving, rather than a sating of ‘deep roots’ that paradoxically surface through distance, the lie to the very construct being used to identify Bollywood as a ‘national cinema’, what Patricia Uberoi calls ‘the caricature of the nostalgic NRI’ (Uberoi 1998: 328).

    It is indeed ‘too glib’ to assume that Bollywood enacts a ‘religiouslike nostalgia for people of the Indian diaspora’, just as it is equally dubious to assume that the films making up this corpus provide ‘“a shared culture” that links everyone who is ethnically Indian’ (Kaur 2005: 313–14). Yet, it is equally problematic to continually insert ‘the Nation’ into the space of the discussion concerning Bollywood, as if the former were an inescapable point of entry for the latter. Just as there are ‘qualitatively different levels of engagement’ with film (as a discourse), one can argue that the Bollywood film's formatting contaminates the narrative proper with its own hybridity (Kaur 2005: 321). Or, paradoxically, the perpetual referencing by Bollywood films, particularly in song and dance sequences, of reference-less (because over-referenced) moments and spaces—what one could call the ‘music video-ization’ of the film form—works to reformulate attendant conceptions of national identity rooted in a telos that, in practical terms, may very well be severed from its allegedly internal components when circulated transnationally.

    Rather than clinging to the half-century-old notion of Raj Kapoor in Japanese shoes with an Indian soul, one can reassess the ‘dil’ of Bollywood by closely examining not only its structure but how it is transmitted—in other words, ‘how cultural expression and commodity circulation can share the rubric of cultural transnationalism within the same cognitive space’ (Hitchcock 2003: 25). Reframing Bollywood in this manner allows precisely for the possibility that the very shifting terrain of identity formation as a form of cultural expression can no longer be projected onto the cinema (as national formation) but rather implies a reversal: from making Bollywood the convenient scapegoat for reactionary nationalist strains, to seeing it as the vanguard of a transnational approach to popular cinema.


    1. This national imaginary, Virdi contends, ‘is sustained in no small part by … Hindi cinema’ (Virdi 2003: 28).

    2. The film is Raj Kapoor's Shri 420 (Mr. 420) and the lyrics from the song, ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, are, ‘Mera joota hai japani, ye patloon englishstani, Sar pe lal topi russi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’ (My shoes are Japanese, these pants are English, On my head, a red Russian hat, and yet my heart is still Indian).

    3. Just a few lines further, Ganti claims her goal is ‘to bypass the dichotomies that have characterized the study of Hindi cinema’ (Ganti 2002).

    4. See Ganti (2002, 298, n. 1).

    5. As Ganti notes, ‘Audiences are portrayed as monolithic only in the case of Indianization’ (Ganti 2002: 299, n. 17).

    6. As Yves Thoraval notes: ‘Commercial Indian cinema has had a marked influence on Egyptian cinema’, as well as in places ‘as diverse as Iran, the Maghreb, Indonesia, Salalah in Oman, or Mukalla in South Yemen … or Kassala in Sudan, Asmara in Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, or Syria’ (Thoraval 2000: ix). Brian Larkin (1997) has also noted Bollywood's popularity in Nigeria, while Narmala Halstead (2005) has noted its popularity in Guyana; Thomas Blom Hansen (2005), its popularity in South Africa; and Christiane Brosius (2005), its reception in Germany. Furthermore, Pendakur has noted the number of Bollywood films distributed outside of India, including in the Arabian Gulf, Sri Lanka, Burma, the UK and Ireland, the Fiji Islands, Singapore, Mauritius, Tanzania, the Maldives, Kenya, Malaysia, Djibouti, Sanna, the West Indies, Gambia and Liberia (Pendakur 2003: 23).

    7. Kaur notes, ‘Venturing into the third millennium, the overseas market [for Bollywood] is less of an afterthought for it has the potential to bring in substantial earnings to filmmakers and distributors’ (Kaur 2005: 310).

    8. One crucial difference between the likes of Mannoni and the current theorists of Bollywood is that, in the latter instance, we have a rather stark case of self-orientalizing by critics whose very critical distance from their so-called subjects belies the uniform notion of ‘Indianness’.

    9. It should also be noted that Bollywood DVDs are multizone, i.e., come formatted to play in all regions. They, thus, have a Code ‘0’, for universal play, as opposed to Hollywood (American) DVDs and, for that matter, European DVDs, which normally come specifically formatted for operation in only one zone, namely, their own. Thus, at the literal (or digital) level of formatting, Bollywood DVDs are transnational. Bollywood DVDs also tend to be released, or become available, almost immediately after the film's theatrical release.

    10. See Pendakur 2003: 25.

    11. The most typical instances of such a transnational aesthetic are in the song and dance numbers, which may typically ‘jump’ from one location to another with no diegetic logic or even a semblance of explanation. For more on this, see Chapter 2. Ganti also notes that ‘many Hindi films have song sequences shot in Europe, North America, or Australia’ (Ganti 2002: 298, n. 9).

    12. Bollywood DVDs also typically come formatted with song menus, further enhancing this form of episodic viewing.

    13. Basu describes ‘geotelevisuality’ as ‘the projection and reception of images, sounds, and words through worldwide distances, across territorial, cultural, linguistic, and religious frontiers’ (Basu 2008: 157).

    14. Some recent examples of films displaying such traces include The World (2004), The Wayward Cloud (2005), Inside Man (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).


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    About the Author

    Ajay Gehlawat is Assistant Professor of Theatre and Film in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University, the US. Previously, he also taught at the City University of New York and at Pratt Institute, New York, the US. He is the author of numerous articles on contemporary issues in film studies, postcolonial theory and popular culture.

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