Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema: A Visual Jouney through the Heart of Bollywood by Johan Manschot and Marijke de Vos
What I like most about Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema is that I think it would have worked as well for me when I first browsed it at my university library a few years ago, a total newbie, as it does for me now. It covers components of movies - songs, mythology, marriage scenes, villains - and aspects of the worlds of producing and watching movies - publicity, censorship, branding. (Click here for the book's official website or here to see some pages.) Because the book is a series of essays, none longer than twenty pages or so, the reader easily gets to see how these ideas interrelate. The essays can stand alone equally successfully, so you could hop into the book and read just the chapters that interest you, and a novice wouldn't get lost. If it were up to me, I would change the order of the chapters a little, so that the typical components of a movie (types of characters, film-making jobs, an overview of religious references, the role of escapism) came before the discussions of how a movie is marketed, the introduction to the Tamil movie industry, and the overview of the popularity of Hindi films in other parts of the world. But that's a fairly minor quibble, especially since it would be very easy for someone to read the chapters in whatever order they want. The book really is an excellent introduction to the world of movies and movie culture. As Amitabh Bachchan says in his forward, "the authors analyze the emotional ingredients that form the essence of India and Indian cinema." I wouldn't say that job is finished - it's only 150-odd pages long, after all - but a hearty serving of the ingredients is here. And there's still plenty for people who already know a bit (or more) about Hindi cinema, and I found myself thinking about interconnections between topics and films that I hadn't noticed before. Some of the information was new to me, but even when it wasn't, there were examples I hadn't thought of, films being discussed in light of ideas I hadn't considered, etc.
The subtitle of the book is telling - there is extensive, clever, and gorgeous use of film-related images. Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema really is a visual treat, with layers of textures, details of posters, photos of ephemera, sequences of stills from films, and snapshots of people engaging in movies (whether as viewers and fans or working in the industry - hoarding painters, projectionists, stars, etc.). I felt like I was looking at a scrapbook that had been lovingly assembled and notated over the decades. The only down side: dark pages with white text made marking up text or taking notes with my regular ol' black ink pen downright impossible. I also liked the variety of authors (who are all included in an "about" section at the end of the book, complete with brief biographies), and there are several whose other works I will soon be tracking down.
Here are some ideas that struck me in particular:
- In "Publicity," P. K. Nair discusses the relationship between the integrity of a film and the style of promotion used to market it (page 34). To be honest, this is not something I've thought much about, but it makes sense. A recent example that stands out to me is the SMS-sounding lingo on the Tashan website, as well as the barrage of promotions for it in its Facebook group, indicating the target audience is 1) tech users and 2) young. The author says that television's reliance on snippets of song picturizaitons has gotten so commonplace that it's hard to tell one film's promotional material from another, but since I never see films advertised on tv, I haven't experienced this struggle to establish an identity for a new film.
- In her essay called "Credits" about the main characters in a typical film, Deepa Gahlot touches on the limitations in female roles, and even just these few sentences (pages 55 and 57) made me want to read more of her work. Maybe I haven't looked in the right places yet, but I just haven't read enough about this.
- Brahmanand Singh proposes that Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man films "introduced an unrefined realism into mainstream Indian cinema, a genre that gave rise to a series of ill-planned, plotless movies with largely gratuitous action" (page 115). If I had been drinking coffee when I read that, it would have come out my nose. So maybe that's what's wrong with 80s films! It's a good question: what are the effects on movies (particularly stories and their execution) after the Big B got big? If his movies tapped into a taste for violence, what were filmmakers to do to satisfy that taste after he was gone (or at least no longer angry)?
- Sudha Rajagopalan has an article on the affection for Indian popular cinema in Soviet Russia (pages 138-9). In the 50s, Soviet audiences responded to the personal- and family-level emotions and stories in Hindi films that so contrasted with the state and community concerns portrayed in Russian films. Viewers found Bollywood melodrama cathartic. Movies also felt ethnogrpahic, transporting viewers to a different place. And you have got to see the Soviet posters for Indian films illustrating this article. These posters make Commando look...well, good, full of danger and secrets. Bollywood behind the iron curtain is a phenomenon I've been wanting to know more about, and her article makes me feel like I have a good starting point for reading more. (And yes, I can't wait to track down her thesis on the same topic!)
- Any of you who have read this book: what do you think of Nasreen Munni Kabir's discussion of the rise of popularity of Bollywood in the west? Monsoon Wedding and Bend It like Beckham "made Indian entertainment appealing and acceptable. It seemed that the west had suddenly fallen in love with all things Indian" (143). This is yet another aspect of Indian cinema I haven't read much about. Those two films were certainly pivotal in my own awareness of Indian movies - they were the first I ever saw (I'd heard of the Apu triology but hadn't seen them [and still haven't - yes, I know]) - but I don't know how typical that is. To me this quote seems overstated. Forget "all things Indian"; "a new awareness of Indian cinema" might be more accurate. Anyway. I wouldn't argue against the phenomenon of those films serving as "gateway" pieces, but in the landscape before Netflix and prevalent downloading, I wonder how many people who were curious for more had easy access to Indian films? Kabir raises more interesting points: in India, the fixation on popular cinema has distracted interest away from other art forms; the power and ubiquity of Bollywood imagery and figures to advertise; the reliance of cable channels on movies for programming. In closing, the author proposes that "unless audiences in the west develop a sustained love for the films themselves, and not just the world of Bollywood, with its glamorous stars and spellbinding songs and dances, it is difficult to believe that their interest in Indian cinema is more than a passing fad." (All of these ideas are from page 145.) For starters, how are stars, songs, and dances not a part of "the films themselves"? They do not alone make a film, obviously (though producers have tried), but in this very book other authors have discussed how central to films music is, how choreographers become directors for the dance sequences, how viewers in many parts of the world react strongly to different actors. And wouldn't you have to have experienced and respond to "the films themselves" - have some kind of personal reaction to or history with them - in order to be interested enough to explore "the world of Bollywood"? I don't think it can be argued that the films Kabir points out as opening the western mind to Indian films, Monsoon Wedding and Bend It like Beckham, have a boatload of glamorous stars or songs and dances, so implying that western viewers were hooked only by those traits doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe I'm just taking this too personally, feeling vaguely like my love has been insulted - based on her biography in the back of the book, she has clearly spent more time thinking about this than I have (and has an extensive resumé in Indian film-related projects in the UK).