Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City by Ranjani Mazumdar

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Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press , 2007 .

Fewer than 20 years ago, very little of scholarly substance had been published on the Bombay Hindi cinema, popularly known as Bollywood. Today, it seems as if entire sections of bookshops are devoted to analyses of its products. Ranjani Mazumdar makes an eloquently convincing claim to indispensability within this increasingly claustrophobic field with a book that takes the Bombay cinema as “perhaps the major reservoir of the urban experience in India” (197).

This is not simply a book about how Bombay movies have re-presented the ambivalent site of the city in post-Independence India. More profoundly, Mazumdar is giving us an alternative history of Indian modernity, a history in which “the urban experience” only comes fully into focus through the sensuous mediation of the popular cinema. From the collapse of the developmentalist consensus in the mid-1970s through to the full-tilt consumerist spectacle of the 1990s and beyond, Mazumdar palpates the cinematic image, prompting it with her finely tuned physiognomist's touch to yield the social truth of its symptoms.

What emerges is, in a sense, a remedial reading of post-Independence Indian politics. “The nationalist legacy posed a version of sovereign political space that became increasingly abstract in the postcolonial period, a space that was accessible only to political and cultural elites who operated as modernizers of the nation” (xxvii). As if to compensate for this affective deficit, the concrete archive of the Bombay cinema ran parallel to this formally sovereign space. As an archive, it has neither necessarily resisted nor conformed to overt political ideologies; rather it has displaced and complicated their perceptual authority by speaking a language that is not only of the street but also, in a deep sense, of the body.

Formally, Bombay Cinema is organized as a series of thematic essays: an introductory meditation on the marginality of the city to the mainstream discourses of Indian nationalism and social development despite its centrality to the cinematic imagination; an analysis of “the performative power of anger” (1) at the movies, moving from the “angry man” of the 1970s to the “psychotic” anti-hero of the 1990s; a chapter on the brittle, street-smart subaltern defiance of the tapori (vagabond); a meditation on the rise and fall of the “vamp,” the eroticized, Westernized femme fatale who, in the 1990s, was absorbed into the new globalized erotics of the postliberalization heroine; an analysis of the anxiously spectacular interiors of the consumerist family films of the 1990s, which attempted to deal with the city by bypassing the gritty, grounded struggles of the street altogether and setting up a kind of short circuit between the affective intensity of the familial interior and the aspirational gloss of global mobility; a reading of the cinematic exploration of gangland Bombay as a space of quotidian violence and impossible intimacy, and, in conclusion, tentative reflections on a handful of recent films that appear to open onto a future beyond the imaginative impasses registered by both the family melodramas and the gangster films of the postliberalization period. Mazumdar remarks in these final pages that each of these transitional films features nonconventional female heroines. This is a fitting coda for a book which, while foregrounding the topos of the city as its primary thematic orientation, is just as much an inquiry into gender as a key cinematic mediator of urban experience.

Superficially, Mazumdar writes in the tradition of cinema and cultural studies. But just beneath the surface, sometimes regrettably buried in the form of splendidly revealing footnotes, beats an ethnographic heart. This should not be altogether surprising, given how closely Mazumdar's own documentary practice informs her writing. Several of her informant quotations are taken from the television series The Power of the Image (1998), Mazumdar's collaboration with fellow documentarist Shikha Jhingan. But this ethnographic ethos is also of a piece with an interpretive orientation that insists, in a Benjaminian way, on the integrity of the concrete. This is of utmost importance to Mazumdar's project. That the concrete in this case also happens to be the popular is of course crucial to the political stakes of her analysis. But the productive open-endedness of her politics also depends on setting aside the kind of autopilot populism that one finds in so much cultural and media studies in favor of an unflinching commitment to the concrete ambiguity of the empirical detail.

Mazumdar is quite consciously attempting to push beyond the trinity of interpretive modes that she notes dominates the existing literature on Hindi film: nationalist exegesis, ideology critique, and biographical narrative. In her pursuit of a subtly sensuous critical engagement with urban modernity and its mass mediations, she draws most directly on turn-of-the-20th-century European theorists like Georg Simmel and, especially, Walter Benjamin, with occasional (and less compelling) detours into the more rhapsodic latter-day territories of Paul Virilio or Hal Foster. What I take to be Mazumdar's central animating concern is classically Benjaminian: the political ambiguity of the kind of “distracted” perception that the urban flaneur shares with the moviegoer. At the intersection of urban experience and the cinema image—that space that Mazumdar marks as the “urban delirium” (xxi)—we are as likely to find a revolutionary release of collective imaginative energies as a collapse into complicity with authoritarian spectacle. At the same time, of course, 1920s Berlin is obviously not 21st-century Mumbai, and Mazumdar's desire is as much to subject high European critical theory to a kind of Third World detournement as to breathe fresh air into Hindi film studies.

Mazumdar's take on urban experience is, as her influences would lead one to expect, rigorously dialectical. The city is at once monumental and kinetic, anonymous and intimate. And it is the cinema that allows this constant play to find narrative and spectacular articulation, lending collective coherence to what might otherwise appear to be a contingent and disorienting sequence of shocks and compulsions. If, as Mazumdar suggests, “the cinema thus constitutes a hidden archive of the Indian modern” (xxxiv), then its mode of hiding is deeply paradoxical—a kind of hiding in full view. The cinematic image consequently appears in these pages as both given and elusive. Positioning herself at once as archaeologist and physiognomist, Mazumdar seeks to excavate a layered image history of the present while coaxing each figure and image to reveal an embodied truth that the causal explanation of conventional sociological analysis (and, by implication, mainstream political discourse) at once presumes and disavows.

Mazumdar reads the gangster films of the 1990s as both examples and allegories of what one might call this visible invisibility, this juxtaposition of self-evidence and inscrutability: “The underworld is a space of fascination because it gives the outsider access to a world that is felt and seen at the street level, but whose inner workings are not understood” (151). A great deal is going on here; this mode of uncomprehending seeing both supports and disrupts the historically parallel unfolding of the Indian consumer revolution. The language of the cinema explores the “contradictions of urban life in ways that go beyond rational exposition” (152). It helps to transform the uncanny from a category of private experience to a public, collective challenge as “the homely, the domestic, and the nostalgic are constantly placed under threat” (162). By approaching films with an eye to their “embodied nature as texts” (xxxiv), Mazumdar thus enables a series of readings that are at once meditations “from inside” the sensorium of urban experience and critical analyses of its seductive complicities.

Bombay Cinema will be of significant interest to students and scholars in South Asian urban and visual studies, world cinema studies, anthropology, and media and cultural studies. When read in concert with the films it explores, it will serve as an excellent teaching text for advanced undergraduate courses, as well as providing ample conceptual grist for the graduate seminar mill.

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