Review: "Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance"

Global Bollywood is an academic anthology, but it contains several essays that might be of interest to lay readers who are fans of Hindi films and filmi music. There are, admittedly, a couple of somewhat jargony essays in the collection, but they can be avoided for readers allergic to that sort of thing. Accessible essays that take on specific subjects, and present new and helpful information about them, dominate the anthology. As a result, I can recommend it alongside another book I reviewed some time ago, Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.

Defining "Bollywood"

Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti's thorough introduction to this volume is a pretty definitive survey of much important scholarship on Hindi cinema. Given my own background and interests, the sections from which I learned the most were probably the somewhat more 'marginal' sections, where Gopal and Moorti provided overviews of some slightly more obscure topics, such as the influence of 19th century Parsi street theater on the emergence of the Bollywood acting and musical style (they cite Kathryn Hansen’s work on this subject; also see Hansen's translation of Somnath Gupt's book).

Still, here is the definition of "Bollywood" with which Gopal and Moorti begin:

Frequently remarked upon by insiders and always remarkable to outsiders, song-dance occupies the constitutive limit of Bollywood cinema. It determines – perhaps unfairly but invariably – the form itself even as it frequently escapes the filmic context to inhabit other milieus. (1)

One could object that it's not just the song-dance that is distinctive about commercial Hindi cinema, but the particular stylization of the acting, which seems over-the-top and melodramatic to many viewers acculturated to the values of European art cinema. Certainly, it wasn't just song-dance that Satyajit Ray rebelled against starting in the 1950s – or, more recently, Aparna Sen, or Mira Nair. These art film directors were also interested in more naturalistic characterization, and in finding beauty in the everyday.

Gopal and Moorti are by no means the only ones to attempt to work out a theoretical definition of "Bollywood." I have been reading some of this rapidly proliferating scholarship for a project I have been doing on a non-Bollywood director, and this act of defining Bollywood "in theory" is quite widespread.

But I wonder whether Bollywood studies scholars might be over-thinking it. Does a particular national cinema need to be positively "defined" anymore? That is to say, can’t we simply say that commercial Hindi cinema is defined by its context and cultural norms, just as commercial American cinema might be defined?

Variations of "Censorship"

Another aspect that falls under context is the choice of topics and themes, and the censorship regime. Censorship in Indian cinema is a two-way street. On the one hand, there is the familiar figure of the censor board (CBFC), which has a very particular culture and history. It might be worth pointing out that all film industries have some form of this, for good reason, and it is therefore wrong to say that Indian movies are "censored," while American movies are not. American movies that get commercially released are also censored -- but differently censored, through the ratings system as well as through the big distributors, who rarely carry "NC-17" rated films.

But there is also a kind of self-censorship intrinsic to Indian cinema itself, as enacted by the makers of films, and even by the actors, which relates to the choice of topics. This self-censorship is often a rough mirror for the tastes of the marketplace; filmmakers and actors try not to do anything that will turn off a large number of potential ticket-buyers. However, there are times when there is a gap between what the censor board thinks is unacceptable and what the masses think. (An example of such a gap, referenced by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta in their essay in the volume, is the great “Kaanta Laga” Visible Thong controversy of 2003 [see the video on YouTube, if you dare].)

One place where self-censorship is a particular problem, in my view, is in acknowledging and representing poverty. I really don’t care that Bollywood doesn’t do female nudity, or that lip-to-lip kisses remain rare or are relegated to more adult-oriented films. What does bother me is when someone like Amitabh Bachchan objected, at least initially, to the non-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire purely on the basis of the fact that it represents the slums. Twenty years earlier, he objected to another film about slum children, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (which is vastly superior to Slumdog, incidentally) using almost exactly the same language he used in 2008. It was irritating then, and it remains irritating today.

Is “Bollywood” an Insult?

Many people inside the Bombay film industry have complained, and continue to complain, about the term "Bollywood," just as some directors of Italian Westerns object to the term "spaghetti Westerns." Gopal and Moorti cite Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgan as two examples of Hindi film stars who don’t like the term.

But of course if you don’t use the term, you also lose something; it’s possible that the objectors are being over-sensitive to an insult that is not in fact really there. (When Indians use the term, for example, they are suggesting the culture, the magazines, the fashion, and the glamor -- not necessarily a particular style of filmmaking.) Gopal and Moorti, always sensitive to nuances, work out a reasonable compromise:

We use the term Bollywood instead of Hindi commercial cinema to capture the global orientation of this formation. When we refer to Hindi commercial cinema in a primarily domestic or a historical context that does not include this global orientation, we use Hindi popular cinema or some variant thereof. Similarl, we use the term filmigit, film song, or film music to emphasize the aural dimension of the performance sequence. (4)

For some, non-Bollywoodized viewers, the song-dance in Hindi cinema is a turn-off. (I have many friends who, much to my irritation, like to fast-forward those sequences when watching Hindi films on DVD.) But for fans of the films, as well as closely observing critics, the song-dance sequences might well be the main reason to watch.

Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes Hindi film song as 'the only truly original moments in a Hindi film... I mean you couldn’t use the songs say from Border and put it in another film. Everyone goes on about the 00 or so films produced in India but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows fantastic new energy and originality.' It is here that innovations in technology, allusions to sociopolitical realities, and aesthetic experimentation are most in evidence. Simultaneously, these picturizations code the inexpressible and the transgressive. (5)

At the end of the passage above, Gopal and Moorti are referring, I believe, to the way song-dance is often inserted as a cue for romance, allowing the hero and heroine to enact desire they could never directly announce in speech. Songs, in short, bring in encoded (and sometimes not-so-encoded) sexuality. (Someone once described to me a parlor game you can play when watching romantic songs from old films: if the song ends with a mountain, it signifies an erection, and if it ends with a stream, that's an orgasm.) Our guest blogger, Nilanjana, also talked about this, in an essay not included in the present volume:

In the absence of dialogue, music and song sequences and the mechanism of coitus interruptus have often been used to portray sexual situations, such as in the song "Chup Chup Ke" from the recent hit Bunty Aur Babli (2005). The song sequence depicts the lead characters’ first night together (suhag raat) after their marriage, where the first shot of the couple embracing each other in bed quickly cuts to shots of the characters dancing and singing in an otherwise uninhabited desolate mountain landscape. The lyrics describe the sky’s unfastening itself from the earth, which conveys the intensity of the couple’s physical passion while avoiding its literal depiction. (link)

71 Songs, in a single film. Really.

I suggested above that it may not be appropriate to define Hindi cinema by song-dance, but I’m not saying song-dance isn’t relevant. The history of song-and-dance in Hindi films is important, including the central role of music in the silent film days (when films would often be shown with a live band performing songs), as well as in the earliest "talkies," many of which were actually in operatic form – that is to say, they featured virtual non-stop singing, with dialogues sung rather than spoken. (One film that is often cited along these lines is Indrasabha, which is sometimes described with awe because it contained 71 songs; in fact, the entire film was probably more like one, continuous, operatic song.)

The Absence of Government Support

One of the great mysteries of post-Independence India is why the government took so long to recognize the cinema as a formal industry (it only happened in 1998), and further, that it imposed "luxury" taxes on commercial films. The fact that it wasn’t recognized as such for so long probably hurt the industry economically, as it led producers to raise money on the black market. But I think it also hurt the industry in some ways intellectually and aesthetically. Other newly independent nations would have died to have such a prolific source of national culture available. (Smaller countries, both in the past and today, generally screen imported films.)

But the cultural arbiters in the Indian government, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, saw it as a debased art form, which would be of no use in promoting the national goals of progress and development. Nilanjana and Monika Mehta talk about this in their essay in the collection, as follows:

Having already denied industry status to the commercial film industry, the state proceeded to define the film industry’s products as luxuries and imposed heavy taxes on them. In addition, the state emphasized commercial films' dangerous potential to corrupt so-called Indian culture. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, one member stated, 'I think that the greatest injury is being done to the nation by the cinematograph.' Another member lamented, 'these cinemas are doing a great injury to our old treasure of music, poetry, and art.' (107)

There was a similar disdain for the music, as Biswarup Sen points out in his essay, where he talks about All India Radio’s snobbish rejection of popular music in favor of Indian classical after 1947. Here is India’s first minister of information and broadcasting, Dr. Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar:

The object is to encourage the revival of our traditional music, classical and folk. The Radio is fulfilling that task for the nation and I can say with satisfaction, that it has become the greatest patron of Indian music and musicians, greater than all the princely and munificent patronage of former days. (B.V. Keskar, Cited in Gopal and Moorti, 90)

And here is Sen’s account of what happened to Indian radio under Keskar’s direction:

Under his tutelage, the All India Radio (AIR) developed a list of seven thousand ‘approved’ classical artists, and he saw to it that classical music comprised fully half of all the music broadcast on national radio. Keskar, however, was not destined to win the culture wars. Unable to digest the AIR’s stern diet, the listening public defected to Radio Ceylon, a commercial radio station who broadcasting policy was far more in tune with consumer demand. In the end, the government bowed down to popular taste and set up a new channel designed to disseminate ‘popular music and light entertainment.’ Stated in 1957, Vivid Bharati would soon become the nation’s most popular radio channel, bringing to an end Radio Ceylon’s brief but significant period of broadcasting glory. (90)

(Bhattacharjya and Mehta also have an account of this episode in their essay.)

In Biswarup Sen's account, the rejection of classical was also instrumental in the rise of Kishore Kumar to superstardom in 1969, with "Roop tera mastana" and "Mere sapno ki rani." Before that, Kishore Kumar had already long established himself as a playback singer for Hindi films, but had remained in the shadows of classically trained singers:

It is somewhat of a mystery as to why Kishore would become a superstar so late I his career. The answer may lie, paradoxically, in what most would see as a serious lacuna in his musical education—of the male playback singers of his generation, Kishore was the only one who had received no instruction in classical music. Among his 'competitors,' Rafi had trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Manna Dey was trained by his uncle, the renowned K.C. Dey, and both Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor were well versed in light classical music. Kishore, on the other hand ,was entirely untutored, cuasing him to be often neglected by musical directors—songwriter Kalyanji's comment that his skills lay more in 'mimicry than in technique' was typical of the musical establishment's reaction to his singing style. Yet it was precisely this lack of skill that proved to be Kishore's strongest selling point. Singers too well grounded in traditional music could, by the middle of the 1960s, no longer market their style of vocal delivery. To take the most obvious example, the great Mohammed Rafi, whose more classically inflected songs from the period are masterpieces of execution, proved insipid and inadequate when singing playback fro Shammi Kapoor, who more than any other actor in the 1960s symbolized what it meant to be 'modern.' (96)

Though he did have some training in Indian classical music, R.D. Burman never wholly gave himself over to the classical music mentality, and that freedom from the binds of traditional Indian music liberated him, making him the most effective maker of contemporary sounding Hindi film music starting in the 1960s.

Globalizing It

In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti cite at length a Greek scholar named Helen Abadzi who has studied the appearance of Bollywood film (referred to in Greece as “indoprepis”), as well as the advent of Greek music imitating Bollywood film songs, starting in the late 1950s. Luckily, the article they cite is on the web; readers might want to take a look at it: “Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece: The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogue”.

Another site visited by the Global Bollywood anthology is Indonesia, where there is a hybrid pop music genre associated with Hindi film influence called Dangdut. Dangdut music is considered low-class entertainment by Indonesian elites, but since the 1980s and 90s in particular, Bollywood music has been immensely popular. (See Boneka Dari India by Jakarta born Ellya Khadam. It's a cover of the Hindi film song ‘Samay Hai Bahar Ka’)

A third site is Egypt, which might seem unlikely, since Egyptians tend to look down on Indians, as Amitav Ghosh documented in In an Antique Land. Walter Armbrust, in his essay for this volume, also talks about this as follows:

Egyptian filmmakers and most elites disparage Indian cinema, and this is consistent with the more generalized attitude about things Indian. 'Hindi' in everyday language labels things that are strange, silly, or just plain dumb. When someone acts as if you do not know what you are doing, you can say fakirni Hindi? (You think I am from India or something?). Film(i) Hindi means 'an Indian film,' but it is also synonymous with 'a silly thing.' Conceivably, the current linguistic usage of Hindi in the sense of 'strange' or 'stupid' came about at least to some extent through the introduction of Indian films and the eventually antagonist stance against it taken by the elites. (201)

Armbrust's essay does not really get into the particular careers of the Hindi films that have screened in Egypt over the years. Rather, looking at Egyptian film and arts magazines, he focuses more on how Indian themes and atmosphere have been invoked periodically (starting in the 1930s), often by Egyptian filmmakers with all-Egyptian acting crews.

It might have been nice to have essays on the use and adaptation of Hindi film in Africa or Latin America, though other scholars have certainly published articles on that subject here and there. (That India-themed Brazilian soap opera comes to mind...) Another topic that seems particularly salient is the way radical Islamists have gone after Bollywood films and music in places like Afghanistan (but not only there), as corrupting influences. Conversely, I'm interested in how places like Afghanistan have been represented within Hindi films like Kabul Express.

But there is quite a good amount here as it is, and I would happily recommend Global Bollywood to both serious film scholars and fans who want to gain a broader knowledge of the industry, both as it developed within India, and as it has traveled.