Directory of World Cinema
Edited by Adam Bingham
Bristol: Intellect Books, 2015
Paperback. 320 pages, 50 halftones. ISBN 978-1841506227. £25/$57
Reviewed by Gautam Basu Thakur
Boise State University (Idaho)
Every discussion of “Indian” cinema that begins under the signature of Bollywood makes me recoil in anticipation of what I over the years have come to expect from such discussions: a puerile and wholesale reduction of the many different national and vernacular cinemas of the subcontinent under the singular designation of “Indian cinema,” to wit, Bollywood cinema. At work is a disavowal – we know very well about the heteroglossiac geopolitical contexts of India, yet there is no dearth in the publication of scholarly tomes reproducing the fallacy of Bollywood cinema as Indian cinema.
Figurations in Indian Film, a collection of essays published in 2014, and to which I also contributed, is a recent example of this symptom. Adorning its front cover is the most sellable face from the Indian screens, Shahrukh Khan, now a cover cliché for Indian cinema books, and of the twelve essays inside there is only one dealing with non-Bollywood, non-Hindi language Indian cinema. The tragic irony is inescapable: the eleven essays on Bollywood and one essay on Satyajit Ray stake claim on “Indian” cinema.
Years of being exposed to the trepidation of expecting Bollywood as the place-holder for Indian cinema, an anxiety that compounds every time Shahrukh Khan’s face meets my eyes as the ambassador of “Indian” cinema, it was only expected that I would recoil at first sight of Adam Bingham’s Directory of World Cinema : India. Looking awry from the right hand side of the front cover of Bingham’s book, flush parallel with “India” in bold script on the left, a paralleling evocative of Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in terms of the fundamental misrecognition (méconnaissance) that is always central to these poised identities, Shahrukh Khan once again announces Indian cinema to the world.
Had I judged the book only by its cover, the joke would have been on me. For as it turns out, Bingham takes this issue head on in his introduction, openly observing that it “is an exercise in futility to talk of Indian cinema” as singular, and sets out the agenda of the book for tracing a historical narrative, celebrating the diversity of, and asking what, if anything, “Indian cinema can be said to mean” . Bingham’s introduction should be applauded for underlining “the different regions and industries contained within ‘Indian cinema’ ” and for explaining the directory’s undertaking of the attempt at “a historical overview of the multi-faceted face(s) of ‘Indian cinema’ ” at the very outset . I say this not simply because the gesture is representationally correct – the country has thriving regional film industries making films in almost all the twenty-two official languages, including bi-lingual and trilingual ones, plus a community of independent film and documentary makers, and diasporic film makers who too can be identified as part of Indian cinema –, but because the plurality of Indian cinema throws up a practical pedagogic problem: how to teach and what to teach in an Indian cinema course? As an academic, I find these questions critical and the absence of a handy book on Indian cinema for use at entry-level classes (sophomore surveys in the USA) extremely frustrating. Bingham’s Directory does an excellent job in this context. It is structured to make teaching of Indian cinema as an independent course or as part of a world cinema survey easier.
Divided into three broad sections – “Directors,” “Pre-Independence Cinema,” and “Post-Independence Cinema” – and a smaller one titled “Images of India from Abroad,” the Directory attempts to offer a historical / genealogical overview of Indian cinema from its beginnings to the present striving all along not to compromise the regional, generic, and geopolitical specificities of different kinds of cinema in India. Rounded up by a list of further readings and another on online resources, “Indian Cinema Online,” plus a pop-quiz segment at the very end, the overall structure of the book makes is useful to instructors of Indian cinema as well as those seeking to learn about it for the first time. In what follows, I briefly discuss the three main sections followed by a discussion of Bingham’s essay on the film of the year. Strategically positioned between the introduction and the rest of the book, this essay on the 320-minute long Bollywood film Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) is the symbolic signature under which the book’s discussion of Indian cinema appears to be set.
The “Directors” section introduces readers to seven directors – Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, Shyam Benegal, and Raj Kapoor. The structure is simple: each director is individually overviewed followed by short critical reviews or “critiques” of their select films. (This also is the general format followed in the book.) Written by different contributors though, there is some overlap, the essays on the directors start with short biographical blurbs followed by discussion of their major films. Themes, innovations, and historical and cultural contexts of each filmmaker as well as their seminal films are discussed. The short essays on the films complement very well by further highlighting through specific examples the directors’ characteristic styles and habitual leitmotifs. For the uninitiated or newly initiate, these descriptive essays are perfect entryways into the rich texture of Indian auteur cinema of the last sixty-five years. It seems however that the section might have been better suited to the title “Auteurs” than “Directors” for the simple fact that six of the seven directors overviewed fit the bill of auteur more than the term director.
The section on “Pre-Independence Cinema” follows a similar structure. Its strength however lies in its avoidance of the god's eye historical overview format and its choice for introducing readers to the formative elements in the development of Indian cinema with essays on “music,” the big “studio systems” and their influence on filmmaking, filmmakers, as well as critical reception of films, followed by explorations of some of the stellar successes of this studio system including films like Chandidas (1932), Devdas (1935), Bidyapati (1938), and Roti (1942). Marked by deft organization, perhaps leading from the fact that all but one essay is the work of a single scholar, Madhuja Mukherjee, who brings her expertise in the field of early Indian cinema to excellently bear in this section, this mid-section of the book is most solid in terms of its explanations of the early moments of Indian film-making without making these simple show-and-tells. Instead, Mukherjee engages with issues critical to the development of cinema in India, from its coexistence with indigenous performance arts (Parsi theatre, Nautanki, Tamsasha, Jyatra, etc.) to its openness to Hollywood and other global influences [71-73]. Particularly impressive is her essay on Pramathesh Chandra Barua (1903-1951), the director of the most celebrated pre-Independence era film Devdas (1935). Recognized for transforming “the mise-en-scène of popular” cinema , Mukherjee identifies Barua as a cuspian figure straddling colonialism and the nationalist push toward Independence and whose art bore the imprint of European technologies and local subcontinental influences (Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal School of Art, etc.) Barua’s figure and art sum up the general character of pre-Independence cinema: dependent on technologies of film-making and the traditions of Hollywood and European cinema, pre-Independence Indian cinema was never chary about adapting native cultural texts, oral and dramatic traditions, and music.
The “Post-Independence” segment begins with a brilliant essay by Monica Accairi titled “What India? The Many Indias of Indian Cinema” [107-110]. Accairi’s essay questions the ethnographic dispensations of the label “Indian cinema,” poignantly asking and then showing Indian cinema is plural and so is the India(s) represented in them. In this process, the essay inaugurates another vital question (without directly stating it): why study Indian cinema? What are we hoping to get out of teaching it (in the West) and writing or reading about it? If Indian cinema is an avenue for knowing “India,” I find that deplorable and offensive. Yet there is hardly denying the fact that a positivist historicist model of study and teaching of Indian cinema enjoys certain traction in today’s Western academy. These reduce Indian cinema into transparencies of sub-continental social history whereby cinema holds the mirror up to India’s coming-of-age story. Characteristically, these identify Bollywood as the essential marker of Indian social psychology and the industry’s distance from 19th-century notions of realism as the veritable signature of the Indian multitude. It is against this Bollywood that “other” Indian cinemas are often judged and it is in Bollywood’s evolving character that vectors of social change happening across the nation as it globalizes at a furious pace are identified. Between Bingham’s introduction and Accairi’s essay this was the last thing I was expecting to read in this book.
The first disappointment however comes immediately after as I find the “post-independence cinema” to be almost entirely devoted to Bollywood (“Bollywood: An Introduction” : 111-115), its directors, actors, and films, the last focusing exclusively on films produced in the last two decades. While the nods to Malayalam [116-119] and Tamil [120-123] cinemas are welcome, the association of Bollywood with post-independence Indian cinema is symptomatic of the concern I voiced at the start of this essay: the habitual conflation of Indian cinema with Bollywood, especially the urbane, chic spectacular Bollywood that best represents India’s post-1993 “open market” years and this is Bollywood that has found most renown in the West in recent years. There is no doubting that this section too gives readers healthy introduction to some of the biggest films of Bollywood – from Mother India (1957), Sholay (1975) and Mr. India (1987) to the grand films of Shahrukh Khan (My Name is Khan  and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayanege ) and Aamir Khan (Lagaan  and Taare Zameen Par ), two of the three reigning superstars of Bollywood, though the absence of Salman Khan is a point of curiosity. Conspicuously absent also are any essays on actresses both recent and past; of genres that are not domestic dramas or romances (the horror films of Ramsay Brothers for example); and, even though Amitabh Bachchan, “the most famous movie star in the world”  and one of his box-office successes, Sholay/Embers (1975), a “curry western” that revolutionized Indian cinema leaving a telling impact on the minds of Indian audiences and culture, are recognized with separate essays, Bachchan’s other films such as Zanjeer, Dewaar, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Silsila, just to name a few, are absent. Though the scope of the book does not allow every influential film, actor, and director to be reviewed, and the individual essays do a great job referencing and contextualizing the seminal contributions of Indian actors and directors, the absence of Indian actresses is a glaring lacuna.
On finishing the book I could not but return to thinking about my initial impression on seeing the cover. I could not help ponder how the selection and arrangement of the book reflects entrenched class and ideological interests – films reflective of either the narrative of postcolonial modernity or the spectacular emergence of globalized India are favored over populist, technically unsophisticated productions such as Jai Santoshi Ma, a devotional that was released in the same year as Sholay/Embers and left an equal if not greater imprint on India’s urban culture than the Bachchan starrer.(1)
Therefore, if there is a critique of this book it is this: notwithstanding the conscious efforts of the editor and the excellent essays by Mukherjee, Omar Ahmed, and Accairi, Bollywood prevails. It looms large on the work and it is characteristically through the story of Bollywood’s coming-of-age that a narrative of India’s social trajectory through an unequal decolonial development and the contemporary global economy is ascertained. This is most apparent from Bingham’s salutatory essay on “the film of the year”: “an epic tale of gang warfare and personal greed and corruption, Gangs of Wasseypur signals a bold new direction for Bollywood film-making” [9; emphasis mine]. From here the essay progresses rapidly with a gloss on the film’s reworking of clichéd tenets of Bollywood including the “song-and-dance routines as a central part of its generic identity” to earmark its most significative advances – it is self-consciously assertive about “the fantasy of Bollywood” and incredulously attentive to techne insofar “self-consciously summative devices” employed in the film narrative function to draw audience attention away from the film as spectacle to the methods underwriting it. The essay also praises Wasseypur for replacing stars with actors, for no longer being hesitant about representing “sex, violence and vengeance more than romance” on screen, and for its conscious nods to world cinema, and, above all, its sincerity to realism [9-10]. It ends with the patronizing yet customary gesture: “It will be of great interest to see where Bollywood cinema goes from here” .
In spite of its many promises, Adam Bingham’s Directory of World Cinema: India fails to impress me. Just to be sure: Will I use it in classrooms, yes! But my appreciation for the book is not unconditional. Overall, the project would have benefitted much from the triteness of purpose and organization displayed by Mukherjee’s section on pre-independence cinema and the critical perspicacity on display in the short essays penned by Ahmed and Accairi. To give credit where due and to explain my point, Ahmed’s essays nimbly navigate the genre and stylistic limitations of the short summary essays that make up this book by accomplishing what many cannot: within the limited space of the essays, Ahmed discusses overlooked or ignored films, explains their significance in relation to the director’s career (as in his essay on Raj Kapoor’s Aag), drawing out liminal themes (for e.g., Ray and power) and underscoring roles played by script writers and cinematographers and the industry in crafting the art (see his discussion of KA Abbas in the essay on Shree 420, for example). By contrast, some of the other pieces seem unable to escape a rigid idea of what Indian cinema is , therefore leading to the necessity of defining all off-beat cinema as either “parallel” or devoted to (European) realism / neorealism and/or the Socialist revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. The future for understanding Indian cinema cannot be through defining terms of otherness that distinguish it in a linear progressive scale against European art films or Hollywood, nor from distinguishing Indian cinemas on basis of their commercial or auteur dispensations, but, rather in understanding the irreducible plurality of purpose, form and content of Indian cinemas.
(1) For the impact of Jai Santoshi Ma’s commercial success on Indian society, especially urban societies, see Veena Das, "The Mythological Film and its Framework of Meaning : An Analysis of ‘Jai Santoshi Ma’ “. India International Centre Quarterly 8-1 (1981) : 43-56.
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