2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
Musical interruptions and global connections:
making meaning with Bollywood music far from home
by Neha Kamdar
Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance. Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti (ed.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 352 pages. $25
The back cover of this anthology on Bollywood song-and-dance draws attention to Indian film studies as a rapidly developing area. While it is true that an interest in cinema from India – Bollywood or not – has rapidly emerged within film studies, it is striking how little and how recently this interest has developed. It is striking because of the manic popularity of Bollywood films globally, due perhaps to the ability of Bollywood’s global audience to separate their viewing experiences from any possible contemplation or comprehension of the cultural difference Bollywood represents. A big part of Bollywood's appeal lies in this very difference – it allows the films to be consumed as exotic.
Thus I find it interesting and exciting to read an anthology that takes as its subject of analysis the single most "exotic" and culturally specific aspect of Bollywood – the song-and-dance sequence. Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti have compiled essays by film, cultural and literary theorists from India and across the world about, as the book's subtitle puts it, the travels of Hindi song-and-dance.
In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti take time to demarcate Bollywood's specific terrain. Given that India has many small and large film industries that are often culturally very different from one another, this kind of beginning is frequently used as an opening rhetorical strategy by scholars writing on film from India. Gopal and Moorti then spend some time defining the phenomenon of song-and-dance, or filmigit as they call it, providing a certain amount of historical and cultural context. The most important point made in the introduction is to indicate the various ways in which Bollywood in general, and filmigit in particular, interact with globalization. Gopal and Moorti identify three different modes of global interaction with Bollywood song-and-dance: “metropolitan, diasporic, and subaltern.” These modes define the book's overall structure of the book, as the essays are divided thematically according to the three patterns of global interaction.
These three sections are entitled Home Terrains, Eccentric Orbits and Planetary Consciousness. Home Terrains starts off with three essays that frame the anthology's main premise – that song-and-dance has a life independent from the film in which it originally appeared – in a detailed socio-historical context. In this light, Anna Morcom, in her essay on the commercial life of Hindi film songs, attempts to answer the following questions:
"What is the nature of the film songs’ commercial power, and how is it related to, or independent from Hindi films? Do songs sell films or do films sell songs? Songs are currently used to market the parent films, but how are the songs themselves marketed? How has the commercial life of film music been affected by the advent of cassettes, videos, compact disks (CDs), video CDs (VCDs), digital video disks (DVDs), satellite television and the Internet?"
Morcom’s essay, along with those by Biswarup Sen, and Nilanjana Bhattacharya and Monika Mehta, extensively trace the evolution of song-and-dance in Bollywood. While Morcom traces the growth of the film music industry in India beginning with the advent of sound film, Sen discusses the development of Bollywood film song, pointing out how filmigit incorporates musical styles from the world over, thus developing a
“structure of feeling that is emphatically transnational. Bollywood song, along with Bollywood film, is thus an art form that not only functions as an expression of Indian modernity but at the same time exceeds the limits of the nation-state and contributes to the making of global culture.”
Bhattacharya and Mehta make the first detailed, explicit connections between the historiography traced out in the first two essays and postcoloniality and the ideology of the State. Their essay “investigates how the Indian state uses film music to define its own citizens and national identity.” It then proceeds to discuss
“how the world music industry questions and reformulates these definitions to propose its own visions of an India freed from its moorings in the nation-state.”
In several ways, this chapter takes up most of the anthology's themes. For example, much of film studies in India in the 90s discussed Bollywood in the context of the ideology of the postcolonial state, nation-building and the construction of the ideal citizen-subject. Bhattacharya and Mehta take these theoretical frameworks further, applying them to Bollywood's song-and-dance sequence. What’s more they consider the "travels" of these song-and-dance sequences, broaching the question of the potential modes of global interaction mentioned by the editors in the introduction – metropolitan, diasporic and subaltern.
The next essay in the section, by Shanti Kumar, discusses the “transnational economy of film production” with the establishment of the Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad in southern India. Kumar points out that Ramoji Film City is said to be the biggest film studio/post-production site of its kind in the world. It prides itself in being a one-stop shop for filmmakers, who only need to turn up with a script. Everything else is available at Ramoji Film City. While this essay provides an interesting and perhaps important cultural study about Indian film production in general, given the very specific theme of this anthology, I struggled to find a reason for why it was included. Howeverm the last chapter in the section aptly picks up from where Bhattacharya and Mehta left off.
Anustup Basu, in "The Music of Intolerable Love," analyzes “political conjugality” in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998). Dil Se is a prototypical film for the kind of postcolonial/ideological analysis common in the 90s, replete with direct representations of the nation-state, the threat of the Other, and the conception of the ideal male citizen-subject. Basu takes Lalitha Gopalan’s reading of Bollywood cinema as a cinema of interruptions, where “song and dance sequences work as a delaying device.” Basu analyzes the song-and-dance sequences in Dil Se as expressions of forbidden love. His formulation of these sequences as alternative spaces to the film's main storyline is intriguing and provocative.
The second part of the book, Eccentric Orbits, deals with the journeys that Bollywood song-and-dance takes outside India. The three chapters in this section deal with mutations of filmigit as seen in Indonesia, Egypt and Israel. Bettina David, in her chapter on dangdut music in Indonesia, discusses the evolution of the dangdut genre and its close relation to Bollywood music. She defines dangdut as
“a hybrid pop music extremely popular among the lower classes that incorporates musical elements from Western pop, Hindi film music, and indigenous Malay tunes.”
Quite like Bollywood music in India, though, dangdut has become the site for negotiating what David calls “globalizing modernities” in a rapidly changing and westernizing Indonesian society.
In another chapter, Walter Armbrust traces the presence of India, specifically Bollywood, in Egypt. Working through layers of historical and cultural interactions between the two countries, Armbrust indicates different ways in which Egyptian culture has used Bollywood for defining the Other, and through it, the self. In the third chapter in this section, Ronie Parciack describes the use of Bollywood music in commercials – political or non-political – in Israel. While this chapter asks more questions than it answers, it is an important one because it goes into the details of what the essays on Indonesia and Egypt suggest, and what I believe lies at the heart of understanding the uses of Bollywood music in other non-western countries. In the three examples presented in this book, or in the famous Chutney Soca music of the Caribbean, or in a Bollywood song-and-dance performance I witnessed in Thailand once that completely took me by surprise, what emerges as a commonality is the fact that Bollywood music negotiates cultural gaps and differences in modernizing, non-western societies that are straddling native traditions and globalization. Bollywood itself, in many ways, stands at the cusp of global/western/modern and Indian/eastern/traditional. In this way, it provides fertile grounds for cultural negotiations in numerous non-Western societies.
Part three, Planetary Consciousness, echoes some of the themes of part two, except in this case, the perspectives come from young, diasporic Indians. The overall question is similar – how does a person who finds herself caught between two opposing cultures and identities use Bollywood song-and-dance to negotiate these? The person, in this case, is the second or third generation diasporic Indian, and the opposing cultural identities are the traditional values learnt at home and the Western sensibilities imbibed through the host culture. Sangita Shresthova addresses these questions in her chapter on the performance of Bollywood song-and-dance by south Asian-American (or desi) students in the Unites States. She correctly points out that
“the proliferation of Bollywood dance is most prominent outside India, where its study and performance is fast becoming an expression of Indian identity and an emergent marginal chic.”
The stage for the performance of song-and-dance becomes the stage where crises of identity and sexuality are played out. Rajinder Dudrah asks similar questions in his chapter, albeit from a completely different perspective. While his essay is also about the negotiation of identity, he discusses the possibility of queering Bollywood. Homoeroticism in Bollywood has always been something that is only hinted at by film scholars, and Dudrah, in this essay as well as in his book, is among the first to discuss it explicitly and in depth. [See also "Nagina: Conversations with a Snake" by Anandam P. Kavoori and Christina Joseph, Jump Cut no 43, July 2000] The points Durdah makes in this essay are, first, that a queer reading of Bollywood makes possible a negotiation between Indian conservatism and sexual orientation. Second, he believes that queer readings of Bollywood do not always have to be made consciously, and that often enough, Bollywood cinema provides enough material in an otherwise heteronormative romance for queer readings.
Edward K. Chan’s essay, on the connection between the marketing of food and film music to a western audience is another essay that made me wonder why it was a part of this section. Its inclusion in the anthology, however, may be justified, as it is an interesting study of the cultural economy of exotic food and music. Finally, the last essay in the anthology, by Richard Zumkhawala-Cook, is about the intersection of hip hop and bhangra and the racial politics surrounding the two musical genres. This is an essay steeped in the politics of U.S. ties with south Asia, the history of racism, narratives of Orientalism, and a common progressive strain in both hip hop and bhangra. As Zumkhawala-Cook puts it,
“Young people of the Indian diaspora in the United States construct grassroots networks of collective affiliation and affect by linking antiestablishment and progressive codes of African American identity with Bollywood or classical Indian aesthetic structures.”
Film theory coming out of India has produced abundant scholarship that closely analyzes the ideology of Bollywood cinema. Throughout the 90s especially, film scholars like Madhav Prasad, Ashish Rajadyaksha (both of whom are cited several times in this anthology), and Tejaswini Niranjana wrote extensively about the creation of pan-Indian identities, the hegemony of the nation-state, and the implicit and explicit gender biases of Bollywood cinema. This work is very valuable, but remains more critical than appreciative of popular culture. An important part of understanding any cinema fully is not only to dissect it ideologically, but also to try to explain the reasons for its mass appeal. One of the main reasons why this anthology is welcome is because it ventures into territory few have bothered with previously. Dudrah’s essay is a good example of a new kind of interrogation. As I mentioned earlier, few film scholars have taken up queer readings of Bollywood. While I’m not convinced of the final point Dudrah makes about Bollywood answering the call for queer readings by consciously providing material for it – it is only very recently that Bollywood films have begun explicitly acknowledging homosexuality – his essay is invaluable in the avenues it opens for possible alternative readings and queer studies of Bollywood.
Admittedly, not all the questions raised by these essays have been answered. Some of the attempts at explaining the presence of Bollywood song-and-dance in strange lands seem tentative. But the book remains important for its overall treatment of filmigit. The socio-historical context provided in the first part is spot on and essential for anyone aspiring to study not only filmigit but also Bollywood cinema in general. The discussions in parts two and three are thoughtful, current and provocative. Overall, the anthology makes a significant contribution to the development of Indian film scholarship.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.