Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City

Ranjani Mazumdar,
Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4942-6
US$22.50 (pb)
257 pages
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

The recent growth of international interest in commercial Hindi cinema has resulted in the publication of a number of books which are important aids to teaching and research in this area. This is a significant addition to that list, given that it grows out of a couple of areas whose theoretical interest stretches beyond an interest in Asian cinema. The author is at pains to emphasise that her book is about Bombay Cinema rather than Indian cinema. This is not only a useful way of problematising the analytical framework of national cinema, but more importantly for Mazumdar’s purposes, it puts her book into that area of study which tries to link film form and history with a specific urban metropolis through large scale concepts such as modernity. Those interested in the application to the cinema of work by Walter Benjamin will find much of interest in this book which gives those ideas fresh application. However, those looking for detailed film analysis may find the pickings rather thin.

Film studies has long been drawn to capacious conceptual tools such as desire, culture, and now modernity. The aim of this book is to combine big-picture epochal analysis with an element of local specificity, by demonstrating that formal and generic attributes of Bombay cinema are linked to the specific form of modernity which has evolved in that city. Mazumdar begins by suggesting that the specificity of the Indian urban experience is in its continued close relation to the rural village, even as globalization is felt with increasing force. Her thesis is that Bombay cinema imaginatively narrates not only the changing face of modernity but also the relation between the modern and the traditional.

In her Introduction, Mazumdar states that she wants to link “a range of cinematic practices and the urban experience.” (p. xviii) She proceeds to do this not through a widespread survey history (for those looking for an introductory text on Bombay cinema I’d still recommend Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema) but rather through five case studies based on symptomatic analyses of character type and genre. The first three chapters are based on films grouped together around character types: the angry young man, thetapori or streetwise trickster, and female vamps and heroines. The characters are related in quite interesting ways to broad social contexts – the angry young man to the crisis in Indian nationalism and the Emergency period of the mid-1970s, the replacement of vamp with the heroine as globalization and commodification become more widely entrenched in Indian society and open up space for women as consumers rather than marginalized symbols of purity.

The final chapters deal with two genres which are now prominent: the family-based spectacular (best exemplified by the films of Dharma Productions) and the gangster film. These genres are seen as complementary because the former consistently excludes the urban exteriors of Mumbai, while the latter works at reincorporating them, and thereby showing the complex weave of contradictions in urban life within that metropolis.

The primary thrust (and strength) of Mazumdar’s analysis is the construction of this kind of large-scale generalization: in the 1970s sexual display through dance was limited to vamps, but in the 1990s it is the province of the fashionable heroine; in the globalised 1990s, major films moved away from the location shooting which had dominated in the previous two decades. These are insightful generalizations at which, I suspect, the next generation of writers on Hindi cinema, will now begin to chip away.

The primary evidence for much of this work is the appeal to theoretical authority, backed up by interview material with filmmakers and the analysis of two or three emblematic films for each chapter. As with much of the recent work on urban modernity, the sacred texts at the heart of this enterprise are those of Walter Benjamin. This is a densely written book (“The materiality of the world and its relation to the human habitus involves a serial transference of signs that results in a psychological semiosis” [p. 115]), whose strategy is to bounce off films, using them as end points of its numerous theoretical excursions: Benjamin, Barthes, Simmel, Jameson, hypervisuality, hybridity, the numerous ‘imaginaries’ that are a defining mark of work influenced by Robert Stam, allegory, the gaze, the flâneur, identification – all jostle for explanatory position.

While Mazumdar claims that her analysis ‘privileges mise-en-scène’ (p. xxxv) over narrative analysis on the basis that melodramatic excess is at the basis of Bombay cinema, the analytical pay-off is bit meager. Most of the analysis of Deewar (1975), for example, deals with symptomatic interpretation of the narrative. We are told that Amitabh Bachchan’s “novel body language” (p. 10) accounts for his star status, without any elaboration. She also writes of “camera angles providing speed, energy and perspective” again without further detail. The closest we come to mise-en-scène analysis in the section on Deewar is the reference to a “tableau-like framing” which is then re-described as a “cinematic framing,” providing a segue into a discussion of Kracauer’s ideas on photography and history (p. 20). References to “the mobilized gaze of contemporary film” (p. 141) and claims that “(t)he cinematic gaze has a special affinity with the gaze of the flâneur” (p. 92) suggest a highly ontological theory of cinema.

Mazumdar is certainly not alone in her invocation of the flâneur as an explanatory mechanism, but the prevalence of this idea bears some comment. The flâneur is this decade’s voyeur, light on the psychoanalytic theory now that that paradigm has receded, while preserving the idea of a masterful subject position. Where we used to explain film through analogy to psychoanalytically explained phenomena such as dreams, it is increasingly popular to explain it through analogy to window shopping and dandyish strolling on the boulevards. I find this frankly puzzling. One uses analogy to explain one phenomenon through comparison to another about which more is known. But surely, we know more about the construction and consumption of films than we know about flâneuring through the arcades? There is a curious insistence in all of this that the truth of cinema is always to be found elsewhere.

The end point of this critical work is a familiar form of reflectionist criticism. Deewar “articulates the specific tensions of the time” (p. 21). Just as psychoanalytic criticism looked to psychical pathologies for its explanatory framework, urban life is here characterized by delirium and anxiety and described as “an imaginary landscape of deep psychical dislocations” (p. xxii). As Kracauer famously demonstrated in From Caligari to Hitler, the reflectionist approach generally leads you to assume that what is being reflected is some kind of collective psychical anxiety. Once you start looking for anxiety, societies always seem to be collectively anxious about something: film noir reflecting anxiety about post-war domesticity, 50s sci-fi reflecting anxiety about the cold war. These types of top-down generalisation seem to me to be interesting up to a point. Mazumdar tells us in her Introduction, that Bombay cinema represents a “unique choreography of music, melodrama, fantasy, and spectacle” (p. xvii). I look forward to more detailed analytical work which gives us a richer understanding of that uniqueness.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University, Australia.

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →