When I first arrived in India in 1979 to research the popular Hindi cinema, I was shocked to discover how little systematised recording existed of the world's largest film industry. All the serious books about it fitted into a large suitcase and, while the National Film Archive in Pune was a gold-mine, its organisation and documentation were, to say the least, haphazard - for example the entire stills collection of popular cinema lay uncatalogued in dusty cupboards.
Of course my expectations were absurd for, like many in the West, I had little understanding of the scale of the archival tasks involved. The Indian film industry produces films in dozens of different languages from production centres based throughout the length and breadth of India, located in almost every regional or state capital. While the work of Satyajit Ray and the "new cinema" had been comparatively well documented (generally critics and scholars had been approving of these forms), the popular cinema had been so critically disparaged both in India and the West that, so far as scholarship was concerned, it had been left to rot. On the other hand, the more innovative and "difficult" oppositional or avant-garde cinema of Ritwik Ghatak and the students he influenced at the Film and Television Institute of India had been so marginalised and under-financed that it too was barely visible.
The past 15 years have seen a perceptible and very welcome shift: Indian cinema has made it on to the academic map with courses springing up in media, cultural studies and social anthropology departments across Britain and the United States. A new generation of scholars in the Indian subcontinent and throughout the diaspora is now beginning serious study of their cinema.
The publication of Ashis Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen's Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema is symptomatic of this shift and a real milestone. That theoreticians with the particular intellectual histories of these two authors are now studying all kinds of cinema including the popular, is a sign of the times. That they have laid the ground work so impressively and thoroughly bodes well.
At last we have a comprehensive reference book that brings together a formidable amount of information about a disparate field within an intelligent theoretical and critical framework. Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted before - the project took six years and involved a team of consultants throughout the subcontinent, drawing together material that in many cases existed only orally.
The encyclopaedia is well thought out and clearly and logically organised by authors who understand the researcher's needs. Its cross-referencing works well and it is both easy to use and a pleasure to browse through. The first section lists the key events in Indian cinema history year by year in the context of a concise political and cultural history of the subcontinent. Although everyone will have their quibbles about what has and has not been included here (for example, where is Ray's 1992 Oscar for life-time achievement?), this thumbnail sketch is an invaluable background against which the rest of the book can be used. It is followed by some useful tables of national production figures.
The dictionary section is a 750-entry alphabetical listing of key figures in Indian cinema - actors, directors, music directors, singers, lyricists and studios, as well as relevant movements in Indian theatre, music and art. This includes an unusual range of subjects, for example, pat painting, which allows for stimulating interdisciplinary connections. The section also has entries on key genres, ie melodramas, socials, mythologicals, saint films and historicals. There is brief biodata on each of the personalities, together with extensive filmographies, while some entries have additional informative or critical comment.
The largest section lists, year by year (from 1912 to 1992), a selection of almost 1,500 films released across the whole of India, giving credits and a plot synopsis, supplemented in some cases with other comments - sometimes anecdotal, at other times critical or theoretical reflections. There is finally a very comprehensive bibliography - an invaluable research tool - and an alphabetical index of film titles.
It is hard to fault the overall conception, breadth and depth of the work. There are of course some minor mistakes, which should be corrected in future editions, but rigorous and painstaking research is evident throughout. Though inevitably some films and film-makers that many would consider key figures have been excluded from the main listings, on the whole the encyclopaedia is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of the different cinemas that comprise "Indian cinema". However, the occasional gratuitous sideswipe at the most commercial films is irritating, for example, Naseeb: "The film's shots gradually become shorter and by the second half of the story two seconds seems an average shot length" is a comment that is critically irrelevant and patently rubbish. In the context of a work that is certain to be a touchstone for all future work on Indian cinema this kind of careless dismissal is seriously misleading.
Perhaps the only significant problem is a consequence of the tension between the authors' intellectual and political ambition and the demands of an accessible encyclopaedia with limited space. Their two introductions locate the work firmly in theoretical and political terrain but Rajadhyaksha's in particular is such a dense condensation of complex arguments and obscure allusions that it will mean very little to most readers, here or in India. Fortunately their editing within the body of the book is generally much better, although some entries are still too compressed. For example, most readers will make little of the attempt to define genres in terms of the distinctions the authors draw between socials as "insufficiently cinematic" and melodramas as "genuinely cinematic". Others may be confused by comments such as this about the star Vijayantimala: "In Sangam Raj Kapoor used this (Vijayantimala's) image for his post-60s exploration of links between voyeurism and decadent classicism."
Still, we now have a ground-breaking reference tool compiled with great intelligence that has set a stimulating and rich agenda which future writing can examine, unpick and debate. Indian cinema studies have been well served by this remarkable contribution.
Rosie Thomas is a senior lecturer in film theory, University of Westminster, and an independent television producer.
Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema
Author - Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen
ISBN - 0 85170 455 7
Publisher - British Film Institute and Oxford University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 568