Our Films, Their Films: Some Speculations on Writing Indian Film History

Brian Shoesmith. Handbook of Film Studies. Editor: James Donald & Michael Renov. Sage Publications. 2008.

When I first began writing about Indian cinema as an Australian film scholar in the 1970s, there was very little material available. There was, it seemed, Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy’s Indian Film (1963; 1980), A Pictorial History of Indian Cinema (1979), a chronicle by Firoze Rangoonwalla, and SatyajitRay’s Our Films, Their Films (1976). The major film journals carried very little—the odd review and comment about the size of the industry. On the few occasions that I was brave enough to present a paper at a conference I was greeted with incredulity. Australian colleagues were puzzled as to why I would want to talk about a cinema nobody knew anything about and probably never would, which was totally under-theorized and culturally inaccessible. Indian colleagues were puzzled about the reasons why I wanted to talk about what they regarded as ‘rubbish’, whilst they recounted in great detail the plot line of every individual film I put forward for discussion and corrected any error I made with a command of detail that daunted me. In short, writing about Indian cinema for a foreigner, a gora, has always been problematic.

What are the problems? Here I wish to discuss two. First, what is Indian cinema? In a culture fragmented by community, language and regional difference it is difficult to be sure what constitutes our field of study. Convention has it that ‘Bollywood’ films, produced within an industry based in Bombay and following a set of narrative tropes of excess, are representative of India and therefore may be regarded as constituting Indian cinema. The metaphysics of this decision are dealt with elsewhere in this handbook, but in industrial terms Bollywood accounts for little more than 25 to 30 per cent of films produced within India in any one year, and yet the burgeoning discourse on Indian cinema focuses almost overwhelmingly on this one segment of film production. The reasons for this are not difficult to detect if you go back and look at the literature.

The Bombay industry engaged in remorseless self-promotion from the late 1920s on, proclaiming itself to be the national cinema for three basic reasons: it used Hindi as its primary language of dialogue, although many of the scripts in the National Film and Television Archives in Pune are written in Urdu; it had created national distribution chains throughout India, thereby ensuring a national audience for its productions; and the Bombay industry controlled the professional and industrial organizations that were designed to promote and represent the industry to largely unsympathetic governments, both British and Indian. Organizations like the Motion Picture Society of India (MPSI), formed in 1932, the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPPA), founded in 1936, and the Indian Motion Picture Distributors Association (IMPDA) have consistently promoted the claims of Bombay to be the primary centre of film production in India in their publications with considerable success (see MPSI, 1939; Shah, 1950). The outcomes of this promotional activity have been twofold: first, to create a view, largely accepted by the critical establishment, that Bollywood is Indian cinema and second, to ensure that any history of the writing of Indian cinema is a history of absences rather than a ‘cinema of interruption’ (Gopalan, 2002).

This leads to my second problem: What is absent? I have yet to find a thorough analysis of the myriad of magazines that surround the industry in all its phases. In the 1930s there were over 68 magazines devoted exclusively to the cinema, including the excellent Filmland, a Calcutta journal that addressed industrial as well as cultural issues. There is no study of Cineblitz, an influential Bombay journal or the idiosyncratic Filmindia (later Mother India) edited, written and published by Baburao Patel in the 1940s and 1950s. This leads us to confront another significant absence—the lack of translation of significant accounts of the regional film industries from the regional Indian languages into English. The Continuum publication (O’Regan and Shoesmith, 1987) of Phalke’s writing first published in Kesari (The Lion), the major Marathi-language nationalist news¬paper (which is published to this day even), in 1916 and subsequently translated by Narmada Shahane and published in mimeographed form by the Film and Television School in Pune, remains in demand. There is no other source for this important body of work and the translation and publication of other local writings would greatly enrich our understanding of early cinema in India.

There are other absences too numerous to cover here, with two exceptions. It should be acknowledged that the regional cinemas have been largely ignored in comparison to Bollywood. Tamil cinema is best served through the work of Theodore Baskaran, M.S.S. Pandian, Sarah Dickey and recently Salvaraj Velayutham, and there is the work on Ray and the Bengali cinema but beyond that there is really very little. Telegu, Marathi and Malayali cinemas have, on the whole, been ignored in English-language accounts of the Indian cinema, although there is a considerable body of work in the local languages. Another serious absence is the lack of scholarly work on the studios that dominated the industry between the 1930s and 1950s. John Lent’s essay, ‘Heyday of the Indian studio system’ (1983), remains an important work and has been augmented by my own work (see Shoesmith, 1987; forthcoming). Barnouw and Krishnaswamy discuss the studios, and an implicit recognition of the significance of the studios infuses Manjunath Pendulkar’s Indian Popular Cinema (2003) but beyond that there is very little serious scholarship on Imperial Studios, Bombay Talkies or Ranjit Studios other than the occasional reference in the hagiographies of the stars that seem to dominate much of the writing about early Bollywood. A recent exception is Dorothee Wenner’s excellent biography of Nadia, which hints at the riches yet to be uncovered (2005). Wenner uses the career of Nadia (Mary Evans) to investigate the importance of Wadia Movietone, a major studio from the 1930s on, the cultural perceptions of women as actors and the general economic status of studios in an economy that placed enormous emphasis on nation-building economic activity and paradoxically chose to ignore the cinema. Wenner demonstrates the rich veins that run through Bollywood and how mining the archives can produce a perceptive historical account of Indian film history, albeit in popular form.

With these qualifications in mind I shall develop a tentative historical schema of writing about Indian cinema since the 1920s under three headings. Cinema arrived in India towards the end of the colonial era and coincided in the 1920s and 1930s with increasing pressure for independence—this was the period in which the campaigns led by Mohandas Ghandi were developing widespread support. A transitional period began in effect with the start of the Second World War in 1939 and continued through the granting of independence and the partition of the country into India and Pakistan in 1947 and the nation-building led by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress Party during the 1950s and 1960s. The third period I identify is the postcolonial era that can be said to start some time in the 1970s. Each era will focus on: the recurring themes of control and censorship, incorporating the issues of imperialism and ideology; state support for the industry through subsidies and protection from foreign productions; the studio system that in its heyday produced the social genre that dealt with social issues of class and caste; the meretricious nature of the popular commercial films collectively known as masala films, and latterly Bollywood and the rise of the star system.

The Colonial Era

There are four major sources of information about the formative years of cinema in India. First, there are extensive files relating to cinematography in the National Archives of India, and to a lesser extent in the regional archives, the India Office and Library files now lodged at the British Library. Second, the Indian Cinematographic Committee of Inquiry, 1927-28 Report (ICC) (Government of India, 1928), supported by five volumes of evidence amounts to over 2,000 pages of detailed enquiry, which is the most thorough review of an emerging film industry ever undertaken. The holdings of the various archives combined with the volumes of evidence published by the ICC provide a vast reservoir of data and information about the formative period of the Indian film industry that has yet to be fully explored. Third, there are also partial runs of film magazines and journals published in the major cities between 1920 and the Second World War and lodged in the National Film and Television Archives. Fourth, there are publications that emerged from professional organizations such as the MPSI and IMPPA in the 1930s and 1940s. These four sources collectively constitute the basis of all subsequent accounts of the formation of the film industry in India, such as Wenner (2005) and Priya Jaikumar’s work on the ICC (2006). They are significant because they provide insight into the impact of film, as social imaginary or ideological resonators, outside the usual Hollywood-dominated view of film.

Indian film began to attract British attention when concerns were expressed to parliamentarians in London and to the Government of India about the impact the medium would have on the ‘credulous minds of the childlike masses’. British residents in India felt deeply that cinema undermined the prestige of the European in Asia—a view that was shared by the Dutch in Indonesia. The files in archives such as the India Office in London and Indian National Archives in New Delhi are littered with complaints by such expatriates about film corrupting the masses, portraying European women in unseemly ways and showing ‘lesser breeds’ (a term used especially frequently between 1913 and 1920) rebelling against the power of Europe. The India Office in London demanded action against this perceived social evil that possessed the potential to disrupt a finely balanced social and political order. The Government of India prevaricated but introduced a Cinematographic Act in 1918 that was subsequently modified to conform to the new political realities in a post-war era. This failed to produce a decline in the level of complaints from Europeans or, it must be added, from socially conservative Indians who tended to see film in similar terms to the British residents. The outcome was the ICC, established in 1927.

Although Australia, England, France and Germany all conducted enquiries into their local film industries and their putative relationship to Hollywood at around the same time, none was as thorough as India. Every major Indian urban centre was visited, including Rangoon, then part of the Indian empire. All of the major participants in the industry, importers, producers, distributors, exhibitors and viewers were consulted and the evidence was collected and published in four volumes. A fifth volume of evidence included the Commissioners’ responses to specific films viewed, along with the in-camera evidence made available to officials by members of the industry and deemed to be commercially sensitive, was also published for limited circulation within government circles. The ICC produced a remarkably balanced and comprehensive report that provided an indepth look at an emerging cinema. The committee was united on all recommendations made except one: the introduction of quotas to encourage Indian film production. The division within the committee was along racial lines. The Indian members supported the idea and pointed to England where quotas for English-made films had been introduced. The European members rejected the idea, and in his minute of dissent John Coatman, who later became an important administrator at the BBC, argued that the introduction of synchronized sound would ensure sufficient protection for Indian cinema—an example of the right decision being made for the wrong reasons!

Once it was established, the ICC was given a tripartite brief: to investigate the workings of the established censorship system and make recommendations for its improvement; to investigate the possibility of introducing an empire film scheme, which in effect would guarantee a market for English-made films in India; and almost as an afterthought, to investigate the state of the local industry.

In one form or another, these themes have dominated the history of film writing in India ever since the ICC published its report. From a nationalist perspective the committee was formed to find ways of suppressing local production and capturing the Indian market for British-produced films. The British film industry certainly wished for this to happen but the members of the committee quickly dismissed any suggestion that it would take this path and concentrated on the issues of censorship and the emerging Indian film production. Censorship has attracted more attention than any other single issue relating to Indian film, both in the British period and post-Independent eras. The ICC found that, generally speaking, the devolved censorship system, comprised of censorship boards in the major cities of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and later Rangoon and Lahore, worked effectively. What really fascinated the ICC was the emerging film industry, something the British governing apparatus knew very little about. The ICC documented the industry in great detail and went on to make a series of recommendations designed to encourage its growth. In all three areas—imperial preference for films, film censorship and state support for the Indian film industry—the ICC’s recommendations proved contentious and in many respects are still contested. Since Independence there have been three government-sponsored enquiries into the state of the Indian film industry that traversed the same ground as the ICC.

Other writing about Indian film during the British era in the 1920s and 1930s is thin. Apart from the ICC there are three main sources of information: the film journals that sprang up in Bombay and Calcutta in the 1930s; the industry propaganda issued by the professional film bodies such as the IMPPA; and Y.A. Fazalbhoy’s The Indian Film: A Review (1939).

The All-India Film and Television Archives in Pune contain incomplete runs of a number of film journals such as Filmland, which was published in Calcutta in the 1930s. Filmland provides film analysis, industry news and commentary. Although the series is incomplete, the extant issues provide an interesting antidote to the Bombay-centric information contained in Filmindia, for example, which was published from about 1936 to 1958. We know that 68 film journals were published in 1938 and that they varied in focus and quality (Barucha, 1939: 301-18). Some were little more than gossip tabloids, what Vijay Mishra calls the ‘fanzines’ (2002: x-xi), inventing behaviour for stars (something that still occurs), but others were more serious in intent such as Film India and Filmland and at a later stage Filmfare, Cinemaya: The Indian Film Quarterly and Cineblitz, for example. The editors of Filmland were convinced that the professional organizations emerging in Bombay in the 1930s were designed to advance the interests of the Bombay industry at the expense of the other regions, despite claims to the contrary (see Filmland, 1933). Filmindia, on the other hand, made no attempt to disguise its bias towards the Bombay industry. In more recent times academic journals such as Indian International Centre Quarterly, Journal of Arts and Ideas (India), Framework edited by Paul Willemen (UK) (1986) and the Quarterly Review of Film Television and Video edited by Myra Reyms Binford (US) (1989) have published special issues devoted to Indian film. However, it is the local popular publications, the fanzines, which should become the focus of a major study.

Wenner uses Filmindia most effectively in her study of Nadia and Wadia Movietone studio. The Wadia brothers were key members of the Bombay film establishment. From the 1930s to the 1950s they turned Wadia Movietone into the most successful and most prosperous Bombay studio. J.B.H. and Homi Wadia were Parsi brothers who built a studio around stunt films that starred Nadia. Their studio was run something like an extended Indian family with a loyal group of actors and artisans working on all of their films. Further, they ploughed their profits back into their studio, which they had organized vertically and horizontally in order to have continuity of production. The Wadias were founding members of the MPSI and IMPPA. J.B.H. Wadia was the industry representative on the Film Advisory Board, which allocated film stock to production houses during World War Two. They were Parsi intellectuals who recognized the importance of collective behaviour and along with Chandulal Shah, Nanbhai Desai and Chunilal Moti, all major figures in the Bombay industry who had appeared before the ICC, supported the formation of a number of interlocking industry organizations that made representations to both the regional and the central governments and published a number of souvenir programmes and reports that remain a rich source of information about this crucial period of Indian film history (see Film Federation of India, 1956).

The most important book to be published in this period was Y.A. Fazalbhoy’s Indian Film: A Review (1939). It draws heavily on the publications of the IMPPA and its related organizations such as the MPSI and IMPDA, in particular the Report of the Indian Film Congress held in Bombay in 1939 (see MPSI, 1939). Indian Film provides considerable detail about the Bombay industry, its structure and organization, its aspirations and fears. Clearly the Bombay industry took Hollywood as its inspiration and it feared the independents that were beginning to emerge at this point. The independents or ‘freelances’ were filmmakers who sought to work outside of the studio system, funding production through innovative arrangements with the film distributors and the indigenous banking system. Together with B. Barucha’s Indian Cinematographic Yearbook, 1938 (1939), a compendium that provides information on film personnel and the studios, as well as advertisements for a variety of film technologies, processing and stock, Indian Film provides a clear picture of an industry on the cusp of change. As Fazalbhoy makes clear, the studios were under threat from the independent producers who were actively seeking ways to capture the stars and production personnel from the established studios. It was not just paranoia on the part of the heads of studios. However, reading between the lines of the book where the various aspects of the Indian industry are discussed in detail including distribution, exhibition as well as production, it is clear the studios were vulnerable. Few had invested as extensively in their infrastructure as the Wadias—they paid their staff, including the stars, miserable salaries and provided little security to their employees. Consequently, after 1942 when black money became freely available for investment in film the studios were ripe for the plucking.

The Transitional Period

The declaration of war on Germany made by Lord Linlithgow in 1939 without reference to any of the Indian political parties saw the introduction of the Indian Defence of the Realm Act that superseded all civil legislation and had an enduring impact on the Indian film industry. ‘At the beginning of the war the studios in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were in a position’ otherwise it sound as though studios declared war!! By its end in 1945 this had been undermined completely by a combination of factors including internal dissent amongst the major producers about where they stood in relation to the war effort and support for the British in a tense political situation, the burgeoning war economy and the influx of black money that supported the ‘freelance’ production at the expense of the studios, and the decision by the British to allocate as much scarce film stock to the independents as to the established studios.

The studios dominated production in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Poona from the 1930s to the 1950s for a number of reasons. The men and women attracted to the industry from the 1920s onwards admired Hollywood and sought to emulate it in India, which proved a continual struggle because of the insecure financial arrangements they operated under. Nevertheless, this period of film production is indelibly linked to the studios and their generic productions. Their dominance was achieved through relentless publicity and industry organization that sought to protect the economic interests of the studio heads and squeeze out any opposition. The underlying theme of the 1930s and 1940s was the perennial struggle between the producers and the distributors, the established studios and the independent producers. By the 1950s the dominance of the studios had ceased and the fourth major theme of Indian film writing had emerged: what happened to the studios?

Between the 1940s and the 1970s there was very little serious writing about Indian film. The magazine industry continued to flourish, especially in Bombay, and compendia like those by B.V. Dharap and Firoze Rangoonwalla (1968) were produced and served a valuable function insofar as they provided production details of films and preserved photographs from the era.6 There are, however, four exceptions, to this sweeping observation, namely Panna Shah’s Indian Film (1953; 1981), Barnouw and Krishnawsamy’s Indian Film (1963; 1980), Ray’s Our Films, Their Films (1976) and Aruna Vasudev’s Liberty and Licence in the Indian Cinema (1978).

Shah had impeccable connections within the industry and produced a fine book, based on her PhD, and sought to establish and analyze a taxonomy of film genres produced within the Bombay industry, thereby reflecting institutionalized links to the studios. Shah goes into great detail about the generic conventions of Bombay cinema, especially the socials (films that dealt with explicit social issues that seemed to trouble the Indian middle classes, such as love across caste boundaries and widow remarriage), the historicals (films such a Sohab Modhi’s Sikander [India, 1941]) and the adventure films such as Hunterwali (Homi Wadia, India, 1935) that starred Nadia. This work is of considerable value as she arrives, albeit implicitly, to the conclusion that the costume drama had become the dominant genre of studio production, and not the socials that many commentators seem to remember with great nostalgia (Lent, 1983). In emphasizing the costume drama Shah identifies the origins of the masala film, a style of film that seamlessly combines traits from all other generic types, that has dominated film production from the 1950s to the present. Shah acknowledges the influence of Hollywood on

Indian popular film production but sees the masala film as a specifically Indian style that synthesizes Indian cultural traditions with Hollywood stylistic tropes. By contrast, Mishra points out that this multigeneric film form has transformed itself into Bollywood, a quite distinctive form with transnational, even global, implications and is no longer particular to India (2002: x).

For many years Barnouw and Krishnaswamy’s book was the standard text, indeed the only text on Indian film known in the West. As such it carried an impossible burden: it had to be all things to all people. Part history, part analysis, part film plot summaries and apologia, it is a much better book than it has any right to be and is still a useful guide to the early history of Indian film. This is due, in part, to Barnouw and his vast experience in writing about large topics (see also Barnouw 1966; 1968; 1970) and to the fact that Krishnaswamy was a child of the industry and provided openings that hitherto had been closed to Western writers. In short, Indian Film remains an important book even if it’s only to write against. The authors elaborate on the four main themes of Indian film scholarship—censorship; the impact of British government policy and actions on the fledgling industry; state support for the Indian cinema; and the decline of the studios—in an exemplary manner. It remains a great feat of synthesis.

In contrast to Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, Ray was an essayist and polymath. He wrote detective novels, the Faluda series, children’s books as well as music for his films and wonderfully detailed story boards. Although he is venerated in Bengal and acknowledged as a master in the West, in much of India he is either unknown or seen as a regional filmmaker—and this despite his links to Tagore, Santiniketan and the Bengali intelligentsia, all important components in defining modern Indian identity. Our Films, Their Films reflects the cultural ambiguity that surrounds Ray. Whose films is he referring to? In truth it can be any number of possible combinations: Indian cinema versus the West; Indian aesthetic traditions versus Western aesthetics which draw on entirely different ways of seeing the world; or even his films, which are heavily influenced by Western film techniques and aesthetics versus the mass- produced masala film, which Ray sees as highly formulaic and devoid of any artistic or cultural value. Ray’s essays reproduce an aesthetic stance common among Indian intellectuals of the time. Ray is very much a product of elite Bengali culture with its longstanding literary and artistic traditions, which learnt to accommodate and then transcend the British influence long before other Indian cultures were presented with the problems of modernity. Ray’s films are rooted in this culture. The imagery and symbolism are clearly Bengali but always, in the background, are the signs of modernity, the trains and cars and the slippage between the Bengali language and English by his characters. In his book Ray demonstrates his mastery of Bengali culture, his deep knowledge of film history and practice but at the same time betrays his prejudices. The essays in the book proclaim Ray as a modernist beyond doubt.

Vasudev has strong links to this position insofar as she disapproves of the commercial film production system, which she views as devoid of any artistic merit. Vasudev is a prolific author and successful activist taking the opportunity to promote Indian and Third Cinema at every opportunity. Her first book, Liberty and Licence in the Indian Cinema (of which there was precious little under either the British or their Indian successors), makes significant use of the vast collection of files pertaining to cinema in the National Archives in New Delhi and looks closely at the workings of film censorship in India under the British and subsequent Congress governments. Vasudev argues that the crass commercialism of the mainstream Indian cinema gives rise to the need for censorship and further that commercialism may be attributed to the British because of their refusal to subsidize the Indian film industry by not implementing the recommendations of the ICC, thereby leaving it open to commerce rather than art. Vasudev ploughs a strictly nationalistic furrow in her interpretation of events. In her account of the history of censorship and its affects on popular Indian film there are two villains. The British because they created an elaborate censorship system that, in her view, stifled the artistic growth of film. The other villain is the industry itself, which chose not to challenge the censorship regime but comply and go on to produce anodyne, formulaic films of little artistic merit. Vasudev slots neatly into the dichotomy set out by Mishra who argues that Indian film writers ‘have divided Indian cinema into two almost irreconcilable parts’; the art house films for the transnational aesthetic elites and the commercial cinema for the masses (2002: xv). After a perfunctory survey of the British period—where she finds little evidence of actual censorship but clear evidence of the creation of an ethos in which it becomes an accepted part of the process of film production—Vasudev moves on to the more significant part of her history. This deals in much greater detail with censorship post-Independence, where she shows conclusively that censorship under Indian control was much more rigorous and limiting than under the British. Nevertheless the book marks a major transition in thinking about Indian film as Vasudev makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate on censorship and state support for the industry through her use of the archives that had hitherto been largely ignored.

The Postcolonial Era

In the 1970s a new paradigm of Indian film scholarship began to emerge that has given birth to a new discourse on and about Indian film that escapes the limitations of the nationalistic discourse. Young Indian scholars like Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1986) and Ashish Nandy (1980) could invoke Michel Foucault and psychoanalysis respectively without having to gesture towards the old nationalist shibboleths. There was a new confidence in the writing about the origins of Indian cinema and its contents that articulated a clearly defined sense of ‘Indianness’. Rajadhyaksha subsequently collaborated with

Paul Willemen who had produced the BFI Dossier on Indian Film with Beroze Gandhi. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen went on to edit the highly influential and indispensable Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1999) that has subsequently been emulated in a number of other encyclopaedic publications such as Tejaswimi Gauli’s Bollywood: A Guide to Popular Hindi Cinema (2007). At the same time as Willemen and Rajadhyaksha were redefining approaches to Third Cinema in Framework, Rosie Thomas (1985) and Ravi Vasudevan (1989; 1990) were publishing in Screen. In short, not only was a new paradigm for thinking and talking about Indian film being forged but also a new audience for the films was being created. Interest in Indian cinema was no longer a marginal and eccentric activity but had moved to the mainstream, if not centre, of contemporary Film Studies. This shift was confirmed by the 2002 Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition in London devoted to Indian film and its associated publications (see Patel and Dwyer, 2002).

The underpinnings of this new paradigm can be found in the theoretically-informed historical work of people like Gyan Pandey (2001), Dipesh Chakravarty (1989; 2000) and the subaltern studies group led by Ranajit Guha, who rejected the old colonial historicist approach and reworked our understanding of nationalism by discovering the voice of the subaltern (see Guha and Spivak, 1988). Writing about Indian cinema now drew upon a variety of disciplines thereby dramatically expanding our understanding and appreciation of the form and breaking irrevocably the old distinction based on aesthetics. The diversity of approach can be found in the work of the likes of Rachel Dwyer with a background in linguistics; Vijay Mishra who comes from comparative literature; Manjunath Pendulkar who comes out of the industry and writes from political science and communication studies perspectives; and Ashish Nandy whose work draws heavily on psychoanalysis. Dwyer (2006) has a deep love of the lush melodramas of Yash Chopra but at the same time seeks to explore Indian film from a perspective deeply influenced by her knowledge of Indian cultural mores. Mishra also shows how Indian films draw heavily on existing cultural traits. It is the ‘Indianness’ of the films that attracts the attention and leads to the realization that we need to understand the films within that context rather than one manufactured out of lament that the films are not more like Hollywood, or better still European art house cinema.

The last of the major themes I wish to deal with, that of the star syndrome, also feeds back into this sense of ‘Indianness’. Stars have always played a pivotal role in delineating the commercial Indian cinema. Initially they were paid employees of the studios, but by the 1940s they had begun to acquire such cultural capital that they became the agents that allowed the independents to undermine and ultimately destroy the established studios. Quite simply, the independents paid the stars such huge sums that they defected from the studios and, in effect, brought their fans with them (Shoesmith, 1987). Stars became the public’s main reason for seeing films. In the 1940s and 1950s people like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Nargis, and Waheeda Rahman built up huge fan bases that were supported by a strong film press in the major cities. The apogee of stardom appeared in the form of Amitabh Bachchan who created a persona of the angry young man that captured the imagination of many Indians through his appearance in films like Zanjeer (Prakash Mehra, India, 1973), Deewaar (Yash Chopra, India, 1975) and Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, India, 1975) (see Dasgupta, 2006). The social capital of stars is immense and it has been translated into political power with regional stars like N.T. Rama Rao in Andrha Pradesh and M.G.R. (M.G. Ramachandran) and Jayalalitha in Tamilnadu forming governments in the respective states. At the same time, stars are perceived as role models with their every action, real or imagined, commented on and often emulated. It is therefore not surprising that an entire genre of publication devoted to stars has emerged. The more populist of these are little more than hagiographies but the work of B. Reuben (1994) in particular can be most useful when we want to understand the role of the studios in the 1940s and 1950s. However, Mishra, Peter Jeffery and Brian Shoesmith’s ‘The Actor as Parallel Text in Bombay Cinema’ (1989) showed that stars could be written about from a more scholarly point of view. Others have followed culminating in Susmita Dasgupta’s biography of Amithab Bachchan (2006), which is based on her doctoral thesis undertaken at JNU in New Delhi. This publication more than any other sums up the crucial shift whereby Indian film is no longer an object of derision, marginalized and frequently ignored. It has moved squarely into the mainstream of Indian academia, which in itself is a narrative waiting to be written.

Two other aspects need to be commented on. First, the rise of academic interest in Indian film in the US university system that has become the engine for much of the most recent and interesting material on Indian cinema. The work of Sumita S. Chakravarty and Priya Jaikumar is notable here. These scholars are working in the South Asian film programmes at institutions like the University of Texas, Austin, where young scholars are slowly filling the absences identified above. They are also well served by such sympathetic publishers as Duke University Press (US) and BFI Publishing (UK) who produce as a matter of course, recent scholarship dealing with Indian and other non-European cinemas. The second is the emerging interest in regional Indian cinemas. The best served are Bengal and Tamil. Bengal because of the presence of Ray and other major figures such as Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and, from an earlier period, Nitin Bose, P.D. Barua and B.N. Sircar. These figures are claimed and celebrated as important figures within Bengali culture by writers such as Chidananda Das Gupta and Gaston Roberge, a Jesuit who pioneered Film Studies with the creation of the Chitra Bani Centre at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta. Interestingly the work of Zakir Hossain Raju (2000), whose focus is Bangladeshi film, has expanded this interest and creates the possibility of talking about a greater Bengali cinema that incorporates Bengali and Bangladeshi cinema after 1971.10

The Tamil cinema is different as it is the political dimension that has attracted the most interest. First discussed by Robert Hardgraves (1972), the links between cinema, especially scriptwriting and Tamil politics, have long been the focus of scholarly attention, notably by Baskaran (1996), whose meticulous historical writing traces the evolution of Tamil cinema, and in Pandian’s fine monograph on the career of M.G.R. (The Image Trap, 1992), the charismatic leader of Tamilnadu in the 1960s. Other aspects of Tamil cinema are explored in Dickey’s anthropologically-based study of peoples’ use of, and ideas about, cinema in rural India (1993), and in Salvaraj Velayuthan’s edited collection, which covers virtually all areas of Tamil cinema (2007). In a sense, the fact that Tamil cinema is now being taken seriously may be seen as a tribute to its position as one of the three most important cinemas in India after Telegu and Hindi in terms of production and reach (a position it has long held). We can only hope that this interest will be extended to the other major regional cinemas like the Marathi, Telegu and Bengali film industries.


This chapter, like its topic, is marked by omission. The number of books published relating to Indian cinema has proliferated in the past decade. Books that I could have mentioned in this survey that have made significant contributions to the historiography must include the works of T.G. Vaidyanathan, Ravi Vasudevan, Madhava Prasad and Prem Chowdhury. However, what I have tried to show in this highly selective and partial account of the writings about Indian cinema is two things. We have moved from a situation of drought, as it were, to a flood of publications. But, even though Indian cinema has moved into the mainstream and is no longer confined to a few paragraphs or a small section in surveys of world cinemas, nevertheless the range of themes discussed remains limited. These are, broadly speaking, confined to censorship and control, state subsidy for the cinema, the demise of the studios and the star system. It is also apparent that the writing about Indian cinema has become more theoretically informed and sophisticated. It is no longer possible to write simplistic and reductionist accounts of the film industry or film content based on aesthetics or taste. These are welcome developments. However, there is still a great deal to be done, hence my characterizing the writing about Indian cinema as a cinema of absences. There is still no history of the Indian cinema from an industry perspective in the manner of Tino Balio’s analysis of Hollywood (1985). There is no comparative work that focuses on the differing cultural practices in filmmaking between Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. There is no major study of the trade unions involved in the industry at any stage of its history. There is no detailed, major study of Bombay Talkies, Imperial Film or Ranjit Studio—all major Bombay studios of the 1930s through to 1950s that were instrumental in creating an industry—not to mention New Theatres Ltd in Calcutta. The list could go on. What is encouraging, however, is that young scholars are emerging who can take on these tasks even though the above demands are unrealistic and the archives incomplete. But as Wenner demonstrates, it is possible to construct a more than adequate account of a major studio as well as an insightful portrait of a major star from the available materials. I look forward to the future with interest.