Cart before the force

Cinema India
July 4, 2003

Bollywood has become a familiar term in the West for the Indian film industry. The authors of Cinema India eschew it, however, in favour of earlier nomenclatures - popular or commercial Hindi cinema.

Notwithstanding the argument over terminology, they provide an in-depth insight into what is generally considered to be the largest film industry in the world. Written in an academic style, the book should appeal to students with an interest in world cinema.

It begins with a brief history of Indian cinema, its roots in urban western theatre, evolution from silent to sound, and modes of production.

It moves on to the language of the film itself. We learn about the use of melodrama to tell a story; the different elements of spectacle; the song-and-dance numbers and the role of the stars.

Bollywood films have always been made to entertain and appeal across the spectrum in India. In the earlier period, social comment and messages were also permissible, with films such as Mother India depicting village India and Nehruvian socialism, while Waqt commented on wealth and consumerism.

These films reflected the society of their time.

The authors devote much thought to visual style through analysis of sets, locations and costumes, and an elucidation of its conventions. They also comment on how this culture is disseminated to audiences, beginning with an exposition of 20th-century popular art and how it was appropriated and developed as a medium by the film industry.

Film publicity has not changed much over time. Light of Asia, a silent film about the life of Buddha made in 1926, used two different visual images to market the film to western and Indian audiences. For the former, the poster was more exotic; the imagery for the latter used a more spiritual style.

The book is lavishly illustrated. Particularly illuminating are the illustrations covering the period from the 1930s to 1950s in which cinema dealt with the travails of living in a modern society. For example, Dr Madhurika, a film about a "modern" wife who neglects home and husband, and Modern Youth, which was heavily influenced by art deco and cubism, in which lines and fonts were used to denote "progress".

Although contemporary Bollywood cinema also deals with modernity, especially the consumer society and its coexistence with "Indian values", the photographic advertising imagery for movies such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, featuring stars in designer-labelled casual wear, does not make a comparable impact. The old hand-painted billboards are unique; computer-designed iconography cannot replicate their impact.

Bollywood cinema formulated a pan-Indian identity that was very powerful in India. Today, in some ways, it is less so. Ironically, when Bollywood cinema can use television and the internet to sell itself, and can control its image, it is less pervasive than in the early days when a decorated bullock cart with live musicians would announce the coming to town of a new film.

Suman Bhuchar is a freelance writer and speaker on Bollywood cinema.

Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film

Author - Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel
ISBN - 1 86189 124 5
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95
Pages - 240

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