Visual outlaw: the disruptive
history of Bombay cinema

Review by Sagar Krishna

Unruly Cinema: History, Politics, and Bollywood by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta (University of Illinois Press, 2020)

In Rini Bhattacharya Mehta’s Unruly Cinema: History, Politics, and Bollywood, popular Hindi Cinemais a cultural commodity that refuses to play by the rules. The colonial and post-colonial rulers knew the potential of cinema to affect the masses, yet Hindi cinema could never be subdued entirely under their dictates of control. As she delineates a new disruptive genealogy of Bollywood, which always contained within itself polarities and offshoots, Mehta divides this book into four chapters centered around four distinct moments in the history of popular Hindi cinema. By analyzing the history, market, media, and politics which shaped these discrete moments, Mehta explores how popular Hindi cinema, and later Bollywood, always found ways to rehabilitate itself back within the public realm. Instead of linearity, the book traces the history of Indian cinema through its ruptures and discords.

The author contains the anarchic dissonance such an examination could entail by smartly structuring the book around those four distinct moments, which marked visible shifts in production, form, content, aesthetics, and circulation from the period before. In a kind of parallelism, the colonial and post-colonial governments took an approach to popular Indian cinema that was unnaturally similar to the product itself—one of apathy and paternalism, simultaneously negating it as a serious art form while recognizing its industrial potential. Cinema always seemed to need reining in by the government deploying bureaucratic machinery, economic supervision, or ideological reform. This perennial uncertainty about what pop cinema is and what it should be constantly plagued the state. In fact, pop cinema in India had the ability to mutate according to given social conditions or because it itself emerged from a bedrock of chaos, desire, and enterprise rather than an orderly commercial realm. Disruption and unruliness are encoded into the socio-cultural DNA of Indian cinema.

An early Parsi theatre company. Pre-independent Indian cinema drew its aesthetics from Parsi theatre, among other modes of representation.

Mehta enlists reference to copious histories of Indian cinema ranging from the early works by Chidananda Dasgupta, Gaston Roberge, etc., to newer scholarly works of Ajay Gehlawat, Valentina Vitali, and others, via Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyskha and M. Madhava Prasad. She renders a broad account of the unseen workings of socio-economic undercurrents which prevailed to destabilize Indian cinema. Indian cinema, here explicitly, refers to the long lineage of popular Hindi language cinema, which started in 1912 and borrowed from the aesthetics of scroll painting, Indian folklore and mythologies, and Parsi theatre. Bollywood, now erroneously used as an umbrella term for pan-Indian cinema, is the latest formulation in this long, meandering line of cinemas. While regional cinemas were making their films in parallel, the book focuses on how Indian cinema reinvented itself time and again, reflecting the desires and realities of the nation, eventually becoming the medium that acted as the intermediary between the state and its citizen subjects, while at the same time at loggerheads with the state. This dichotomous relation of the state’s unsaid dependency yet overt public dismissal is fascinating and vexing. Mehta’s book is an intervention in re-reading the linkages that connect Indian cinema, the state, and the viewing public, bringing forth a relation that existed somewhere between a silent avowal by the state about film’s reach, impact, and presence in forming and fomenting the repressed desires of a nation, yet its formal legal drive to control film’s dissemination, popularity, and aesthetics.

In her first chapter, “Colonial Indian Cinema: A Peripheral Modernity,” Mehta looks at the beginning of Indian sound cinema under the shadow of the dominating Hollywood and also British efforts to propagate Empire Cinema. But before that, she sketches a brief history of photography in Colonial India, a medley of old and new technologies coming together for utility, as technological distribution was highly uneven under Colonial rule. Mass photography and other image projection devices, like the Shambarik Khaolika (Magic Lantern) made in 1892, were early instruments whose use of frontality (borrowed from painting), dialogue, third-person narrative, and live music were added aesthetic elements that anticipated cinema. So the early Indian audience was not unaware of the aesthetics of cinema, as it was a progressive continuation of the pre-cinematic visual language they had encountered. The earliest Indian film artists were young experimenters like Hiralal Sen and Harishchandra Bhatavdekar, who made “actualities” akin to the Lumiere Brothers.

In the first two decades of the 1900s, a crop of entrepreneurs with an artistic bent, like J.F Madan and Dhundiraj Phalke, set up production companies and co-opted the Swadeshi movement as an endeavor to produce cinema made in India. But these films did not have the resistive politics of the Swadeshi movement and were derived from mythologies. Phalke was especially successful in melding these two aspects for visual success. Madan and Phalke were agents with the economic wherewithal to pursue production in this new medium. Madan was shrewd enough of a businessman to sense the market potential for cinema and set up a production and supply chain.

Thus under the studio system which had cropped up in the 1920s within the production companies, several directors produced mythologicals like Baburao Painter and DG Ganguly, under whom worked a younger crop of artists like K. Damle, V. Shantram, Debaki Bose, and PC Barua, who would carry the cinematic mantel into the 1940s and 1950s. But unlike the Bombay studios, the studios based in Calcutta drew their stories from Bengali literature, thus forging a different idiom of aesthetics and content. Mehta here identifies the early form, materiality, and relations between cinema and its production, revealing the interplay of new technology and old narratives in a chaotic, disaggregated setting that becomes moderately cohesive over time in terms of regularizing production and circulation.  

The 1920s boom of Indian cinema led to anxieties among the colonial government, which saw its economic potential and wanted to extract those benefits but was also threatened by the inflammatory nature of cinema. Post the 1857 mutiny, the British had become cognizant of the potential inherent in mass media to incite. Drawing from the Indian Press Act of 1867, to formalize the policing of cinema the Indian Cinematographic Act (1918) was passed, and regional censor boards were established (in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Rangoon). In 1928, the Report on the Indian Cinematograph Committee was published—an attempt by the British government to push through censorship and further fortify channels of circulation while also trying to understand how to foster a market for Empire Cinema. This report foreshadows the future post-colonial state’s desire to put cinema on a leash.

While Hollywood was importing cinema into India, the Britsh controlled every aspect of production, circulation, and distribution; in this trajectory, the advent of sound in 1931 was the first disruption that upended the status quo. The Great Depression of 1929 and the cost of dubbing dialogues into Hindi reduced the inflow of Hollywood films. At the same time, a truly indigenous form of cinema, a narrative version of the musical genre, made an influx into the Indian market. This new form was made possible by the advent of sound, which came with its web of linkages.

Along with thematic shifts from the religious to the social, film structure shifted from the iconic to the narrative. The industry’s patterns of engagement with labor also changed. A new demography of artisans engaged with each other’s work arose, including directors and actors and a music recording industry with its own star system. The non-diegetic song was incorporated seamlessly into the narrative. This new development created a problem—the linguistic splitting of the audience, as Hindi was not a pan-national language. But this was resolved partially by producers’ adopting Hindustani (a mixture of Urdu and Hindi, a language associated with trade and commerce widely used in Central and North India) as the aural idiom of the cinematic spoken word.

The star system of the music industry was carried over into the star system of the film performer, which Mehta identifies as another significant shift during the 1940s. The Second World War bought in an influx of illegal money and rationing of resources for production. Cinema seemed the perfect medium to channel this illicit capital, as it was capital-intensive. While independent producers jumped in to make films without studio support, cash incentives for performers increased, including freelancing, where actors worked on multiple projects simultaneously. This form of production remained viable for a short while as it broke away from bureaucratic rigmaroles, accelerated output, and accrued profits. In the first chapter, Mehta traces cinema history from early experimentations to the functioning of the studio system. That system created an ingenious yet innately native musical narrative that captured the market, followed by a shift from studio-centric to star-centric production. This trend continues to this day. The changes occurred under many different circumstances, including battles against Hollywood, the unborn death of Empire cinema, state censorship and regulation, and war. Multiple variables jostled to subdue Indian cinema, which refused to be disciplined.

Audio Cassette cover of Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) by Raj Kapoor. Post-independence, his cinema helped forge a new postcolonial national narrative dubbed the “nationalist social,” which became the dominant language for cinematic nationalism.

In Chapter Two, “Shadow Nationalism,”weenter the Nehruvian realm, wherein the paternalistic state considered Indian cinema like an unwanted stepchild. This apathy specifically towards cinema is revealed when the State institutes national academies for music, literature, and arts but not for cinema, with not even a performative interest in the cinematic medium or its business. Again there are parallels between the Indian state and the cinematic production structure of the times, with both functioning within a close-knit group of elites operating in opacity and deciding the needs of the public. Though the façade of civility was maintained between the two entities, collisions regarding taxation, censorship, circulation, and distribution continued underneath the surface. Like the British, the post-colonial state was wary of the revolutionary agitation possible in cinema and did its best to exert its will over Indian cinema production. However, the Nehruvian era also came with an additional mission to imbibe the masses of the new nation with morals and education. The state’s vision of progress and development and Indian cinema’s volition to rebel found a middle ground when the Hindi film industry created another unique cinematic narrative form—the nationalist Social. Mehta analyses this popular form through Raj Kapoor’s Awaara cycle of films (Awaara, Shree 420, and Anari, 1951-59). The nationalist Social was further split into the melancholic social and the social noir.

Post the Second World War; the industry was thriving, making independent productions on an ad-hoc basis, using freelancing stars and illegal funds, and without a distinct lack of organized structure. The Nehuvian state wanted to enlist cinema in its vision of the new nation. In 1951, the Report of the Film Enquiry Committee was tabled as it tried to address issues plaguing Indian cinema. This report had very little effect on any policy as the government ignored it, though the Cinematographic Act was passed in 1952. This act which governed censorship and licensing, reflected the same anxieties as did the colonial film policies. But the irony is that the state’s rationale to discipline Indian cinema through taxation and censorship was over an industry that it willfully refused to legitimize. The Censor Board committee became an official arm of the state, which could arbitrarily excise aspects of a film that it found unappealing, a debacle that still survives. Mehta here through a careful reading of the guidelines of the Board Film Certification, illuminates the genesis of the fabricated Indian state, ahistorical in nature, where all political conflicts based on class, caste, and gender were to divorced from the film’s central plot as they might betray the real political-realties of the nation-state. This logic of the apolitical subject now finds its logical end under neoliberal cinema, where images are stand-ins for commodities and consumption.

No matter how strained the engagements between the state and Indian cinema became, it was the most prominent cultural component that brought the nation together. In a country as diverse and expansive as India, cinema was the common link that bound all its disparate parts. The nationalist Social was a genre that bridged the state within the cinematic realm. Herein the narrative was constructed around a family and the main hero, whose marker as a North-Indian upper caste Hindu is obscured enough to make him a stand-in for a pan-Indian subject of indeterminate class or caste. The identification is achieved through the hero’s stardom; the story is set in an urban locale which accords him the mobility to brush with the forbidden and the illicit. The hero’s fall from grace is balanced through his punishment by the state, exonerating him to return to the heteronormative social order with reinforced traditional values. In this narrative mode, the state is a ubiquitous presence, an intangible force that provides a predestined narrative closure. Raj Kapoor succeeded in forging a formula that critiqued the dangers of private wealth and capital accumulation, aligning with the state’s socialist agenda. This genre also reflected certain themes weighing on the collective unconscious of the new nation—the reticence towards capital and modernity, the troubles of inheritance (personal and national) garbed in melodrama.