JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

 

Notes

1. My heartfelt thanks to my writing group buddies Aswin Punathambekar, Greg Schneider-Bateman, and Megan Ankerson for reading multiple drafts of this work and helping me find my argument. I am also grateful to the editors and anonymous reviewer(s) of Jump Cut. Their generous and detailed feedback has made this a much stronger essay. [return to page 1]

2. The term Partition refers to the division of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947. Bishnupriya Ghosh analyzes films like Jodhaa Akbar alongside novels by Tariq Ali and Salman Rushdie in her article “Once There Was Cosmopolitanism: Enchanted Pasts as Global History in the Contemporary Novel,” Ariel 42, no. 1 (2011), 11-33.  

3. I place the term “historical” in quotation marks here because not all Hindi films that concerned themselves with the past fall neatly into this cinematic genre. As the titles listed earlier indicate, a number of these films were biopics based on actual historical figures; others are better described as fictional period dramas. Still others, like RDB (2006) and Amu (Shonali Bose, 2005), were more explicit about revisiting the past from the vantage point of the present. (Both films foreground the constructedness of the past by rendering it as a film-within-the-film or as fractured memories.)

It is also worth noting here that while the independence movement was and is the focus of many a historical film, other moments of political and social conflict also get referenced. For instance, Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi/A Thousand Such Desires (Sudhir Mishra, 2003) is about the divergent paths taken by three friends who were student activists in the late 1960s and 1970s; one of the characters remains involved in the Naxalite movement, the guerrilla struggle of Maoist tribals and lower-caste landless peasants against elite landowners and the Indian state that continues to this day. Amu, meanwhile, highlights the violence against Sikhs in the early 1980s (a matter on which RDB is oddly silent, despite its protagonist DJ being a Sikh man). Hindi cinema has maintained its interest in historical narratives, as is evident in more recent films like Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se/We Play With All Our Heart (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2010) and Chittagong (Bedabrata Pain, 2012).

4. The Indian Constitution took effect on January 26, 1950.

5. Meghana Dilip, “Rang De Basanti – Consumption, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere” (master’s thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2008): 30-39. As will become plain below, RDB’s explicit appeal to youth is encoded in its plot: the film focuses on a group of close college friends and charts their transformation into adults. This trajectory is key to several acclaimed films, such as Dil Chahtha Hai/What the Heart Desires (Farhan Akhtar, 2001), Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi (2003), Rock On!! (Abhishek Kapoor, 2008), and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara/You Only Live Once (Zoya Akhtar, 2011). A number of these youth films combine a standard coming-of-age story with another recurrent trope in Bombay cinema, the concept of dosti or undying male friendship. In contemporary takes on youthful bonding, the focus is not on a male dyad (with a woman forming the third term in the love triangle) but on a group of young men.

Often, women are a part of the group but their stories typically fall away—this is certainly the case with RDB, which pushes the two women, Sonia and Sue, to the sidelines in the second half. Romantic comedies that use the bildungsroman arc offer a sharp contrast, keeping women at the center of the narrative. Salaam Namaste/Hello Good day (Siddharth Anand, 2005), Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na/Whether You Know It or Not (Abbas Tyrewala, 2008), and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani/This Youth is Crazy (Ayan Mukerji, 2013) are good examples of what one might call a “coming-of-age romance.” However, it is the rare film that narrates the transformation of a group of young women friends: Page 3 (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2005) comes to mind here.

While a full discussion of the gender politics of RDB falls outside the scope of the current article, I take up the question of the initial boyishness of our protagonists with regard to the film’s conception of history later in this essay, in the section entitled “Other Times, Other Places.” For now, let me add that the combination of the themes of youth culture and political protest that made RDB such a success is also taken up in later films such as Aarakshan/Reservation (Prakash Jha, 2011) and Satyagraha/Protest (Prakash Jha, 2013). I am grateful to the reviewer(s) for reminding me of the connections between RDB and several of the aforementioned films and film genres.

6. Namrata Joshi, “My Yellow Icon,” Outlook, February 20, 2006. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?230266.

7. Ibid., note Ranjini Mazumdar’s critique of the film. See also Neelam Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema,” Third Text 23, no. 6 (November 2009), 706, and M. K. Raghavendra, “Globalism and Indian Nationalism,” EPW, April 22. 2006, 1503-1505.

8. Here I draw on Ranajit Guha’s critique of the Hegelian concept of “World-history” (Weltgeschichte) and his discussion of how the Indian notion of itihasa, grounded in Hindu religiosity and mythology, entails an alternative conceptualization of time. See Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World-History (NY: Columbia University Press, 2002).

9. On the “disappearance” of the song-dance sequence in contemporary Hindi cinema, see Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2013) and “No Longer a Frivolous Singing and Dancing Nation of Movie-Makers: The Hindi Film Industry and its Quest for Global Distinction,” Visual Anthropology 25 (2012): 340-365; Ian Garwood, “The Songless Bollywood Film,” South Asian Popular Culture 4, no. 2 (October 2006): 169-183; and Sangita Gopal, Conjugations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). See Garwood (especially pp. 170-173) for a succinct summary of the industrial changes that have allowed for the emergence of the “songless” Bollywood film in the past ten years.

In her chapter “When the Music’s Over: A History of the Romantic Duet,” Gopal provides a longer and very illuminating history of the same phenomenon, but links it to the constitution and re-constitution of coupledom in Hindi cinema at different historical moments (see chapter one of Gopal, Conjugations, pp. 23-59). Ganti’s interviews with contemporary filmmakers indicate that whereas in the past the omission of songs in a film was construed as a deliberate anti-commercial stance, one that sought to limit the film’s audience to the discerning elite (Ganti, Bollywood, 79), the same choice is today seen as a way to reach a global (read Western) audience (Ganti, “No Longer,” 349-357). Lip-synched songs are also seen to be at odds with New Bollywood cinema’s emphasis on realism.

Still, the functions that song-dance sequences once performed remain crucial. Those are now accomplished by other narrative strategies, such that even songless films “contain the traces of the form they are ostensibly eschewing” (Garwood, “Songless Bollywood Film,” 173).

10. Rai is an Algerian folk musical genre that first gained prominence in the 1930s as the music of the urban poor and disenfranchised. Over time the genre has absorbed a wide range of musical influences from traditional Bedouin music to Moroccan and Egyptian wedding songs to western rock. The genre still retains its strong associations with youth and social protest, with the (usually) male singer or cheb voicing concerns of the “common man.”

Bhangra, too, is a vibrant, danceable musical style that has its roots in folk music. Traditionally associated with the spring harvest festival in Punjab (in the Indian subcontinent), bhangra was infused with rap, reggae, and hiphop elements by British Asian deejays in the 1980s. It circulated widely in Britain and India as dance/clubbing music and also become a staple in mainstream Hindi cinema.

11. Hindutva is the religious and cultural nationalist philosophy embraced by several right-wing political parties in India. Pride in Hindu culture and identity is accompanied, in this worldview, with the belief that Indian culture is fundamentally Hindu and that the state and civil institutions must reflect Hindu values (however narrowly defined).

12. As feminist scholars have amply documented, the marginalization of women (as agents) in discourses of nation and nationalism is common the world over. In (post)colonial literature about the Indian subcontinent, the white woman often plays the role of a sympathetic outsider. While mainstream Hindi cinema has historically villified foreignness and whiteness (in the post-independence period, for example, vamps were portrayed as overly Westernized and thus un-Indian), more recently the white woman has emerged as a benevolent nationalist muse. While she is positioned as a lover of India and of the Indian hero, inter-racial romance is typically interrupted in these films.

Shyam Benegal’s film Junoon/Obsession (1978), an adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s novella Flight of the Pigeons, is an early example of a film starring the “good” white woman. Lagaan (2001) famously revived this motif in contemporary Hindi cinema. RDB developed it further by positioning Sue and her filmmaking project as the catalyst for DJ and his friends’ nationalist “awakening” and by allowing more of a romance to develop between the British woman and the Indian man than in previous films. For a comparative analysis of the role of the white woman in Lagaan and RDB, see Jann Dark, “Crossing the Pale,” Transforming Cultures eJournal 3, no. 1 (February 2008): 124-144.

13. Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema,” 713. 

14. The group’s title is only visible in one shot of the film, in a sequence called “Lalkaar” (Clarion Call) that I discuss below. This sequence is a reference to the historic 1928 meeting at Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi, when members of the aforementioned Hindustan Republican Association and other radical groups converged to organize themselves into a new organization named HSRA. All of the revolutionaries referenced in RDB were members of this socialist organization.

15. DJ’s mother is the only person to address him as Daljeet. That said, DJ’s Punjabi moorings are ever present in his accent and turns of phrase, and in the bhangra of the title song. [return to page 2]

16. “Khaliwali” was itself a version of a highly popular qawwali “Le Gayi Dil Mera Manchali” by the renowned qawwal Jani Babu (Syed Jan Muhammad) released on a 1992 album. This detail is important because it draws attention to the phenomenal growth of cassette culture and non-filmi music in the 80s and 90s. While the burgeoning of other kinds of popular music was initially framed in terms of the challenge those genres posed to the hegemony of film music (consider Peter Manuel’s Cassette Culture), more recently scholars have begun to acknowledge the ways in which the film, television, and music industries fed off and sustained one another. See, for instance, Shanti Kumar, “Innovation, Imitation, and Hybridity in Indian Television,” in Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader, eds. Gary R. Edgerton and Brian G. Rose (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 314-335.

17. Videocon Flashback re-introduced Hindi film songs from the 1960s and 70s to young people, grabbing viewers’ attention through the gimmicks, mimicry, and catchy dialogues of the show’s VJ, comedian Javed Jafferi. Ibid., 326.

18. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

19. In contemporary India as elsewhere in the world, cassette tapes have been replaced by newer technologies such has CDs and mp3 players. Thus, RDB’s fetishization of the tape deck might strike one as outmoded, or a sign of hipster nostalgia for outdated technology. I suggest that what saves the cassette player from being too quaint or kitschy is that it is one of many different technological apparatuses that together articulate RDB’s investment in the entwined histories of music and nation in India.

20. David Lelyveld, “Upon the Subdominant: Administering Music on All-India Radio,” in Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in A South Asian World, ed. Carol A. Breckenridge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 59.

21. Manisha Basu, “Rang De Basanti: The Solvent Brown and Other Imperial Colors,” in Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora, eds. Rini Bhattacharya Mehta and Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande (London: Anthem Press, 2010), 108-109.

22. In the Indian context, the term “liberalization” refers to the “opening up” of the economy to private and foreign investment via the easing of fiscal and tax regulations. The process formally began in 1991 with the sweeping reforms introduced by then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. As several scholars have noted, these economic changes had a profound impact on the media landscape.

23. Basu, “Solvent Brown,” 109.

24. While Rahul is introduced early on as a pathetic figure, he is clearly significant for his name recalls the music director Rahul Dev Burman, whom he references on his music program.

25. One of R. D. Burman’s earliest hits was “Aao Twist Karein” (“Come, Let’s Do the Twist”) from Bhoot Bangla/Haunted Bungalow (Mehmood, 1965). This was followed by his hugely successful soundtrack for Teesri Manzil/Third Floor (Vijay Anand, 1966).

26. Aswin Punathambekar, “Ameen Sayani and Radio Ceylon: Notes Towards a History of Broadcasting and Bombay Cinema,” BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 1, no. 2 (July 2010), 189. 

27. Prasoon Joshi rewrote the lyrics of Bismil’s poem for RDB.

28. Subaltern studies historians have used the concept of the fragment to challenge totalizing narratives and the historiography of the nation. See, in particular, Gyanendra Pandey, “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing About Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today,” Representations 37 (Winter 1992), 27-55.

29. McKinley’s informal account also communicates his memories of his experience (it is written in the past tense), expresses his deep disillusionment with official British policies, and focuses on characters devalued by both official nationalist historiography in India and Sue’s bosses, who would rather make films about Gandhi or even the Algerian feminist writer and filmmaker Assia Djebar. All of this gives his diary a distinctly counter-hegemonic status. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the written and the visual persists in the diary entry, diminishing its ability to challenge an empiricist understanding of history. I argue that the oral, performative, and narrative concept of itihasa that RDB foregrounds offers a more thoroughgoing challenge to the notion of history.

30. I do not mean to suggest that film is solely focused on eyes and the visual at the start. The image of kohl-lined eyes is followed by a strong aural representation of Hinduism. The camera appears to pan right to the adjacent cell, where a man cleanses himself as if performing a sacred ritual. As he pours water over his head, he chants a Sanskrit shloka (Hindu chant). His clear, crisp notes ring through the jail as our gaze (aligned with McKinley’s as jailor) travels to the next two cells, which also include male prisoners. We recognize in retrospect that the first shot was that of a man lining his eyes with kohl, and that was visual shorthand for his Muslim identity. The juxtaposition of the visual and the aural (that is, the Muslim prisoner’s kohl-lined eyes and the Hindu prisoner’s chanting) introduces the theme of Hindu-Muslim unity that runs through RDB. Similarly, as I discuss below, the title credit sequence uses a “deejay aesthetic” in the editing of the images and in the soundtrack. All this to say that mine is not an argument that disconnects the aural and the visual. My point, rather, is that RDB uses shifts in the voice-overs to dissuade us from prioritizing the written and the visual in thinking about history.

31. It was here that Ajay had proposed to Sonia surrounded by his friends, and where the group had decided to avenge Ajay’s untimely death.

32. The idea that “words” live on is also conveyed by the repeated reference to Ram Prasad Bismil’s poem “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” and the way Karan echoes (almost verbatim) his late friend Ajay’s convictions about patriotic service.

33. This point about aurality is underlined via the non-visual form in which it is communicated, the voice-over. There are two points of further interest here: first, Sue’s voice-over emphasizes the affective dimension of the past as it persists into the present. The laughter, the happiness in her friends’ voices, is what floats back into her ears. Second, it is notable that the women are the ones who are the auditors of the past. Thus, the shift from a visual to an aural conception of the past is accompanied by a shift in the gender of the person making sense of “that laughter, those words, those memories.” One might argue that this ending not only tempers the masculinist ethos of the rest of the film, but also carves out an important place for women in the crafting and telling of history.

34. Guha, History at the Limit of World-History, 50-51.

35. Ibid., 61.

36. Ibid., 54.

37. Ibid., 62. I first came to appreciate the importance of different “tellings” that compose itihasa upon reading A. K. Ramanujan’s wonderful essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 22-49.

38. Guha, History at the Limit of World-History, 52.

39. See chapter 3, “Translating Life-Worlds into Labor and History, ” in Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 72, 78.

40. Anderson’s claim in The Spectre of Comparisons is that “everyday practices, rooted in industrial material civilization . . . have displaced the cosmos to make way for the world.” See Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (London: Verso, 1998), 29.

41. Ashis Nandy, “History’s Forgotten Doubles,” in "World Historians and Their Critics," special issue, History and Theory 34, no. 2 (May 1995), 50.

42. Alexander Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 73.

43. In the Director’s Commentary track of the DVD, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra emphasizes the importance of aesthetic construction and the creativity of the editor P.S. Bharati in making the credit sequence work. He says:

“This particular title sequence we shot at various [camera and shutter] speeds and then brought it back to normal. It kinda stretched reality and brought it back to look real. I must say Bharati had a tough job on her hand trying to make sense of what we’d shot because everything was so non-linear, so unconnected. It was an editor’s dream and an editor’s nightmare.” [return to page 3]

44. This pacifist reference may seem startling for RDB lionizes violent activism in the face of state violence. But, I would argue, this accommodation of contradiction and difference is a hallmark of the deejay aesthetic.

45. For the Fanonian resonances in RDB and a comparative analysis of RDB and Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous film about the Algerian War of Independence Battle of Algiers (1966), see Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema,” 76.

46. Corey Creekmur, “Bombay Boys: Dissolving the Male Child in Popular Hindi Cinema,” in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth,eds. Murray Pomerance and Frances Gateward (Wayne State Press: Detroit, 2005): 350-376. Creekmur argues that films open with a segment that introduces the protagonist as a child; shortly thereafter we see the same character as an adult. The swift transitions—often in the form of a dissolve, where images of past and present overlap briefly—ensure the coherence of the character despite the use of different bodies (i.e., different actors) for the same character. Maturation dissolves partially smooth the rupture in time and space as the narrative leaps forward to the present. They also reinforce the idea that the character is fundamentally unchanged: the pain and loss of childhood continues to drives the adult hero’s actions; there is little in the way of “character development” (353). This technique was largely dropped by the time we get to 1990s Shahrukh Khan films, where we get an adult hero who is “perpetually childish” (370).

47. Sudhanva Deshpande, “The Consumable Hero of Globalized India,” in Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens, eds. Raminder Kaur and Ajay Sinha (New Delhi; Thousand Oaks; London: Sage, 2005): 186-203.

48. Ritesh Mehta, “Flash Activism: How a Bollywood Film Catalyzed Civic Justice Toward a Murder Trial,” in "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Culture, no. 10 (2012). Doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0345. One of the most famous instances of the “RDB effect” was the mobilization against the initial acquittal of Manu Sharma, the son of a prominent politician, despite clear evidence that he murdered model Jessica Lall. Public dissent took the form of widely circulated (digital) petitions, rallies, and candlelight vigils, prompting comparisons to the protest scenes in RDB. While the murder had occurred in 1999, the acquittal decision came seven years later, in February 2006, barely a month after RDB’s release. The protest that bore the most resemblance to the film was the one organized by the weekly magazine Tehelka at Delhi’s famous India Gate; this memorial is the site of the peaceful protest that DJ and his friends stage in RDB to honor their friend Ajay. The Jessica Lall mobilization prompted a review of the case, which eventually led to a guilty verdict that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2010. Bollywood’s entwinement with the case continued in the form of the film No One Killed Jessica (Raj Kumar Gupta, 2011), which was also a critical and commercial success. The title of the film references the headline that ran in the daily Times of India the day after the acquittal; the film poster declared that the “case [would be] reopen[ed] 7th January 2011.”

49. Nandini Chandra, “Young Protest: The Idea of Merit in Commercial Hindi Cinema,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30, no. 1 (2010): 119. Other critics have also pointed out that the film’s suggestion that corruption is the only or the most important problem facing the country is itself reflective of its privileged point of view and address. See, for instance, Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema” and M. K. Raghavendra, “Globalism and Indian Nationalism.”

50. Gabrielle Spiegel, “The Task of the Historian” (Presidential address, 123rd annual meeting of American Historical Association, New York, NY, January 2-5, 2009). Emphasis in original.

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