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Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City

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Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City

Ranjani Mazumdar
University of Minnesota Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0816649426

Given the importance of the Bombay film industry as both an immense economic and cultural force, serious scholarly engagement remains somewhat diffuse. There are of course numerous popular non-fiction titles which provide readers variously with the history, stories and performers of so-called ‘Bollywood’. The finely illustrated Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema (Dakini Books, 2002); Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change(Trentham Books, 1998); and the comprehensive Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (BFI Publishing, 1999) are noteworthy publications. There are generally two dominant readings of the Bombay film industry. The economics of the industry the frequently frames analysis, which is not without reason since it is the largest film industry in the world in terms of sheer output of films per year and in terms of audience figures. Equally, the melodramatic nature of mainstream Bollywood film is foregrounded, being that which makes the films so distinctive and ‘exotic’ (to a foreign audience). Yet, whilst undoubtedly a defining aspect of Bombay cinema, it is not the whole picture (as Talat Ahmed shows in his essay on ‘Realism in South Asian Cinema’, Film International, Issue 24, 2006); or at least what is often missing is consideration of the deeper social and cultural resonance of this specific form of cinema.

Ranjani Mazumdar’s Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City is a refreshing contribution of a more sustained, critical study.  It sits well alongside various edited volumes, such as Raminder Kaur and Ajay J. Sinha’s Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema Through A Transnational Lens (Sage Publications, 2005), which considers the globalization of Indian cinema; Ravi S. Vasudevan’s Making Meaning in Indian Cinema(OUP India, 2002), which examines the political and ideological implications of Bombay cinema, and to which Mazumdar herself contributes an essay on violence and masculinity; Ashis Nandy’s The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema(Zed Books, 1999), which considers issues of national idenity, class and gender (and is a key source for Mazumdar). A useful companion to Mazumdar’s book is Preben Kaarsholm’s edited volume City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience(Seagull Books, 2006), which similarly considers the relationship between cinema and modernity in the Indian context in order to trace an evolving concept and significance of the city.

Whilst film production in India dates all the way back to 1896, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City focuses upon a more contemporary frame, looking at the politically charged and culturally vibrant years of the 1970s through to the present. The book examines how the crisis in postcolonial nationalism of the early 1970s gives way to greater cinematic interest and imagination of urban life. As Mazumdar explains, the ‘city as a concept remained a crucial absence in much of Indian nationalism’s history’ (xviii). Up until the social protests in the 1970s, rural life and the village as ‘secure sites of citizenship’ had been at the heart of nationalist ideology. A dramatic shift, then, takes place with greater emphasis upon urban life and its ensuing subjectivities, which is then further compounded by the onset of globalisation in the 1990s, which in turn gives rises to an ‘urban delirium’ (xxii) of increased migration, inequality and destitution mixed with the postmodern spectacle of conspicuous consumption and media and celebrity-driven entertainments.

Mazumdar is concerned with a discontinuous sense of history. Resisting the ‘desire to trace an overwhelming national history through the cinematic form’ (xxviii) she seeks to give life to the more fragile and complex ‘tissue and texture’ of cinema and urban life. Whilst the concept of modernity has shaped much of the writings on cinema and city, Mazumdar stresses the need for ‘a deeper understanding of the uneven and complex articulation of modernity across different cities across the world’ (xxxi). What she takes to be distinctive about the city in South Asia as opposed to the West ‘is the continuing presence of a large countryside where the majority of the population lives’ (xix). The ‘footpath’ – a connecting line between city and village – becomes a recurring motif throughout the book, which is shown not simply to be a spatial, architectural concern, but a temporal, historical one too.

Within the shards and fragments of the cinematic city space Mazumdar brings to light an underlying pattern. The book opens, for example, with an examination of violence and anger found in revenge narratives. Contrasting two cult films, Deewar (made in 1975) and Baazigar (made in 1993), the urban landscapes reveal a clear shift from a socially-oriented vision of the former to ‘a world of seemingly unrelated individual obsessions’ (2) of the latter. Similarly in a chapter on female representation, she demonstrates how the westernised ‘vamp’ was originally setup as a divisive, illicit figure to challenge nationalist ideals, but later in the 1990s was to merge with that of the mainstream film heroine. This conflation is attributed to growing levels of conspicuous consumption brought about by globalisation, though interestingly examined with reference to the fragmentary and fleeting ‘window-shopping’ experience that Benjamin and others associate with the figure of the flâneur. The forces of global consumer culture are also shown in a subsequent chapter to give rise to a new and virtual interior space. In analysing the ‘family film’ of the 1990s, Mazumdar identifies a dislocation of the real, whereby the ‘space of the Bombay street, the chawl, the train, and the crowds’ (110), which were so central to popular cinema, become marginalised.  Instead, the hallmark of the family film becomes a ‘play with lavish interior spaces’, which demarcates a new ‘surface culture’ (110). Mazumdar also interrogates a cinematic underworld of Bombay which shows the city ‘marked by violence, terror, claustrophobia, and the uncanny’. Bombay, she suggests, ‘becomes a gangland, a disenchanted city haunted by death, darkness, and ruin’ (151). Yet, in keeping with a discontinuous history, an earlier chapter in the book shows, through the marginalised figure of the tapori (vagabond), how Bombay is paradoxically both the safe-keeper of Hindustani as much as it is a cosmopolitan, hybridised city (41-78).

Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City looks through what Mazumdar terms an ‘allegorical gaze’, here making explicit reference to the writings of the cultural critic Walter Benjamin. As an ‘act of reading fragments’, she explains allegory as the ‘recurring desire to compensate for an awareness of loss through saturated and fragementary experiences’ (xxix). And importantly, the ‘allegorical gaze reorders its objects to offer a new reading embedded within the surface reality of what is available at “first sight”’ (xxix). Her closest, contemporary influence is Ashis Nandy, whose ‘allegorical invocation of the slum as a metaphor for cinema’ (xxx) is similar to Mazumdar’s willingness to ‘construct’ her arguments through both metaphor and analysis. In a sense, then, she creates a cinematic city of Bombay, as much as she unveils it through her analysis.

What comes through is the critical imperative to shore up the archive of Bombay cinema’s recent history, to keep to mind the transformations of both the physical and mental landscape of India’s recent past. All of which is threatened with extinction from the banal forces of economic globalisation. Mazumdar is suggestive of holding out for an emerging ‘fringe cinema’, but set against her own acute analysis of an implosion of ‘real’ urban space and experiences, it is hard to be optimistic. Strangely, perhaps, Mazumdar chooses to explore postmodern city experiences through the lens of modernist writers such as Walter Benjamin, Sigfried Kracauer, Georg Simmel and Charles Baudelaire. This does cause a certain disjuncture in the analysis. At times more contemporary concepts such as ‘hyperreality’ are invoked, but these lack sufficient underpinning. In his Skeptical Introduction to Visual Studies, James Elkins questions the value of Benjamin’s own project in respect to contemporary late capitalism. Similarly, and perhaps more significantly, Elkins questions the application of Western ‘methodologies’ (as developed for example from the work of Benjamin et al.) to non-Western material, so raising the fraught spectre of the postcolonial condition.

There is undoubtedly a tension between the theoretical passages of Mazumdar’s book and the analyses of the many films examined. What is apparent, however, is an overwhelming sense of the films’ inherent vibrancy and otherness (to academic discourse). Mazumdar is evidently right in wanting to lead us through a deconstruction of the cinematic city of Bombay, but at times her theoretical sources appear inadequate. Bombay Cinema is ambitious in its purview. It is not a book solely for those interested in Indian film, since it is equally a book open to the theory and study of cinema in much broader terms. Mazumdar has a great capacity to discuss Indian cinema, with a brilliant grasp of its political, historical and aesthetic developments, but equally she is well attuned to the interests and ruptures in the academic discourse of film and cinema studies. One feels she has really only just begun something of great magnitude. Perhaps then, in the vein of Giuliana Bruno, we might expect Mazumdar to go on to produce further important studies, to engage the ‘allegorical gaze’ without needing to look back over the shoulder at those who could never have even imagined the wonders and complexities of other kinds of cinema.

Sunil Manghani

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