The centenary celebrations of Hindi cinema is about to draw to a close. If one were to talk of Indian cinema, the centenary was crossed sometime back with Hiralal Sen’s films that came before Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra. But there is no print available of those films and thus no recognition either. However, Bollywood, the largest dream factory in the world, has come a long way. In this interview, Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinemas at School of Oriental and African Studies, who has written BFI’s 100 Bollywood films and a tome on Yash Chopra among others, talks about drama, feminism, secularism, caste,audiences and above all, about films and makers that continue to endure.
What made you take up Indian Cinema as a subject for research?
I was studying Sanskrit and Gujarati and when I was staying in Gujarat doing my PhD research, I started watching films because at that time before the channels came in and there was no internet, what there really was were weekly films, the film songs and there was the Mahabharat and I didn’t know Hindi then, so these were the things I started watching, people explained the films and then you realise people were talking about the films and you listen to that, and then you start reading the magazines and it just really grew from there. I thought a good way of learning Hindi was to watch films.
This is the centenary year of Indian Cinema, but we often equate that with Hindi Cinema…
I mean obviously the first thing to remember is the early cinema was silent cinema, so how much you can call it Hindi cinema or anywhere, it’s not really open because you can’t really have inter-title cards with different languages. But I think in a way, Hindi cinema has just come to dominate film studies, and so much of the way Indian cinema is seen overseas. Whereas in India where many of the other cinemas which we unfortunately have to call regional because we don’t have another term for them or non- hindi cinemas are usually seen more in localities or by those language groups. And I suppose it’s more like literature, is how do you get to really watch films in languages you don’t know because a lot of people don’t like subtitles and a lot of the films aren’t dubbed very well.
Say in Maharashtra, the big film studios – very big studios like the Prabhat studios in the 30’s and 40’s – and today there is a very lively cinema in Marathi but very few people outside Maharashtra watch this because people don’t understand the language . But I think hindi cinema has become identified with all of Indian cinema and this Bollywood thing, I mean it’s what I work on, but it’s partly language restrictions, I couldn’t work on Bengali cinema because I don’t read Bengali literature but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy watching Bengali films. In India, I don’t know why there isn’t more scholarship on the non-Hindi cinema, there is some on Tamil cinema, some on Telegu cinema but small numbers.
I was watching this presentation of yours where you talk about how Hindi cinema actually represents modern India. So what is modern India?
I think Hindi cinema represents modern India. I think what Hindi cinema does, is share how modern India imagines itself and I think that’s a big difference because Hindi cinema has got quite a tenuous relationship with reality, it’s not a realistic cinema, it doesn’t try and show things like how they are in real India, more like an art cinema or realistic cinema. But what it does try to show is what modern India thinks about itself and you know… its dreams and fantasies about how we’d like to live our lives, possible lives. It’s about people who are incredibly beautiful and rich and successful; you know it’s not realistic cinema in any way not just in its narrative but it’s not realistic in the way the songs are used, it’s not realistic in the way the films are shot; everything’s glamourized in Hindi cinema and I think that’s quite an important distinction to draw. But I think you get an idea by the way it addresses young people, because a majority of the cinema audience is young, a different way of how it thinks about itself and how it thought 20 years ago. The cinemas of the early 1990s is often about how to be romantic, how to fall in love, how to bring that into the family. Now a lot of films are about what do young people do after college, what choices they make about their life, how they want to live and so on. That all changes over time.
“Like the Kapoors, bring them on! The Kapoors haven’t produced minor figures, I mean they have had some like you know Prithviraj, Raj, Shammi, Shashi, I mean they have produced the biggest stars, now Ranbir is the only new big male star.”
Religion plays an important part in all of this and specially the Hindu religion…
Well it does but then you know, you have surprising films, I mean if you showed me a trial of OMG: Oh My God, I would have thought “He’ll never get away with this in India”, people will be offended and outraged and yet people took it well, because the audience always surprises you that they were smart enough to realise that the way they showed the kind of corruption in religion wasn’t Hinduism itself. It was the people who appointed themselves as leaders and how they bamboozled people who followed them and yet the film showed you alternately that you are safe with the real god in Krishna and he will benefit you. It’s always like the kind that we need to reform ourselves in the way we think about religion. So in a way it was radical and in a way deeply conservative and I think that was a very interesting example of how sophisticated the audience actually was.
Javed Akhtar says that the tastes of the middle class has declined, from the 50s and 60s to today. Today aPan Singh Tomar cannot make 100 crores unlike a Golmaal. Isn’t that a simplistic argument to make?
I feel cinema is consumed by different audiences and it’s changed over time. So in the 50’s, the elites who were largely the service elites, the IAS types, some professionals; I don’t think that so many of them watched cinema. I think cinema was seen, way until the 1990’s, when the elites thought it was a bit embarrassing and tacky and you know I’m sure people in the 50’s thought Raj Kapoor’s cinema was tacky in a way that we wouldn’t nowadays because we see its finesse. And I think then, probably films by Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor were watched by not the elites but the middle-classes. But since the 1990’s liberalisation, the middle classes are different, they’re much bigger than they were. They’ve got a lot of purchasing power they didn’t really have then, so that will have changed and then the cinema I think nowadays is largely catered to the middle classes, but people do watch it from beyond that. So elites now would watch cinema they wouldn’t have watched and poor people do when they can. You know we were talking about how prohibitive the ticket prices are, you know the people that go to multiplexes has to be middle classes because poor people can’t afford even Rs.200 for the cheaper multiplex.
But what about the smaller cities?
Well there’s a lot of money in the smaller cities. If you go to Delhi and if you go to some of the fancy malls, you’ll see a lot of the money that’s changing hands in those shops coming from outside the open area. There are lot of very rich people now in smaller cities in the country as well as a lot of the poor people, so this is thing here, with complexities I think are quite grave. But I don’t think you can say something like the middle class have a bad taste. That’s something that I think is quite an important question because they have a different taste from ours. So say, I might see something that I think is really tasteful and somebody in the middle class may think that’s old and shabby. Now I might think something in black looks really sophisticated, I look at clothing and they might say that looks awful, we much rather have it in orange or yellow. You know it’s a difference in taste and there are different tastes but I still believe that many of these films nowadays that you see are more niche than they used to be. I think in the old days films were more general, you had a film that went well across more territories and more classes; whereas now you have a film that say went well in the metros like a Karan Johar film, or you might have a film that runs well in UP or Punjab, like Salman Khan, I mean Salman Khan reaches beyond that. So I think you have films that reach different markets unlike the 50s.
I think there are a lot of interesting films going on now, I mean just look at 2012; would you believe aVicky Donor would have worked? Kahaani, English Vinglish, you know these films which have done well, are quite surprising. The other kind of films that are going on, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, they are different kind of cinema.
Caste is an important factor in India. A lot of politicians rule by caste in fact, but our cinema doesn’t reflect caste at all…
No, I mean there’s a handful of films that we have, that mention caste otherwise you don’t really mention caste. You occasionally have films that mention caste like in Rowdy Rathore or things like that where you have a caste name mentioned or Agneepath where you have a “Chauhan”. On the whole, films don’t mention caste. I think caste is very sensitive, lots of castes don’t want to be represented like the fuss over the film Billu, I think you remember that the Barber community certainly never wanted to be mentioned as that. I think people somehow feel that caste is anti-national. I think it’s the feeling after independence that it was a problem and Ambedkar and Gandhi differed over the way they thought of caste. I mean they thought it was there but it had to be dealt in a different way. I think modern India was meant to be caste free. And then you have the paradox of course because in the 80’s and 90’s you widen reservation, you are actually then raising the issue of caste. Caste isn’t just something local, but you don’t really get films that bring in caste, maybe because people feel you can’t make films that hurt the sentiments of a community, so it’s not mentioned. When you get caste mentioned, everybody’s high caste, so there are Malhotra’s and the Khannas. People like the OBC’s or SC’s or anything like that, you don’t get that mentioned. And when you do have a film that does caste like Aarakshan, you get Saif Ali Khan to play a Dalit, nobody’s going to be convinced by that and that’s more of a problem. I mean the number of Dalit’s you have on films is miniscule.
“Hindi cinema has got its own views about women, it’s a bit of a problem about how to deal with it. The films have a lot of fantasies, its own imagery about sex and romance and you know gender politics here, tends to be a bit wobbly.”
What about secularism in cinema, I mean the biggest superstars are the 3 Khans, so does that make the Hindi film industry secular? What’s your take on that?
Secular means different things in different countries, but in India it means equal respect for all religions and the Hindi cinema industry has always done that. I mean in India, 85% of the people are Hindus, so it’s bound to be Hindu and the kind of Hinduism seen is normally Brahmanic Hinduism, it’s not popular Hinduism. I mean it’s popular but it’s not kind of a folk Hinduism, you don’t see that. It’s kind of mixed. You see a bit of Punjabi, you see a bit of Maharashtrian, you mix it all up. But usually the characters are Hindu. If the film is about Muslims, it’s either a Muslim social or it’s about terrorism or it’s about dancing girls, something specific. I think the Hindi film industry always has had a large number of Muslims working in it, and I think it also has political reasons to be secular which is first of all is to make a film which is anti any community, you would get banned. If you made any film which was vehemently anti-Muslim, it wouldn’t work with the overseas audiences in the Gulf or in the UK or wherever. I just don’t think people would go into cinema or would want to make a film that was anti another community but yes about the idea representing the modern Muslim is very limited now, I mean if you see those films from the 1950’s, if you see Yash Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool where Abdul Chacha, has a beard and is a Muslim in his name and his religion and everything and when he tells the child you know you won’t be Hindu, you won’t be a Muslim; you’ll be a human being. Whereas now if you see a character in a film who has a beard and who is called Abdul, you know you’ll probably think he’s going to be a terrorist or something like that and I think I sometimes wonder if things have got worse and this feeling that India’s Muslims are part of a wider Islamophobic view is very worrying. I think some of the films try to raise the issue but they actually complicated it, like Kurbaan, it was more like a horror film in many ways with a Muslim as a monster in it, I found that quite disturbing.
Since you talk about this Islamophobia, is it more dangerous now because it is latent, it’s unlike the Sunny Deol films which were in your face. But now you have to read between the lines, like a Kurbaan is not like Gadar?
I don’t know actually. One of these things about these Muslim films is that it’s set outside India, so in a way you are looking at a problem about India’s Muslims but you are not naming them, so you are trying to say it’s a part of a global thing. I mean one of the things with some films is Hinduism; politicized Hinduism – it’s always how this fear of the Muslims being part of a wider community whereas India-Hindu conflation is very dangerous. But I think it’s often the subtleties, you know, it’s the person next to you, your friend who you think is normal, turns out to be a terrorist. Sunny Deol’s film was about the partition and the Punjab which is different from this new kind of thing and this idea after the attacks on Bombay in 2008, people often feel that Indians are under threat from outside Muslims especially from beyond the border. If you look at a lot of the terrorism and atrocities, it has got nothing to do with Muslims, it’s a very wrong representation but when you start seeing films where you have a character who just happens to have a Muslim name but he’s like everybody else, then I think it’s more secular.
Since you just talked about Partition, what explains the complete silence on Partition in Hindi cinema till aGaram Hawa happened?
There wasn’t actually a complete silence, there were films in the mid 1940’s like in Raj Kapoor’s Aag,Nargis says that she has come from hell and mentions no name, so we’re not sure what community she is from. In his Barsaat, set in Kashmir which was also partitioned like Punjab and she’s a person that looks like and dresses like a Muslim, but people in Kashmir are Muslims but she is not a Muslim, she’s called Reshma which is slightly ambivalent. And there were films like Chalia, you know people like Raj Kapoor did make these few films, Yash Chopra made Paramputra in the 60’s, there was Nastik, but I think on the whole there was a silence about the partition generally until 1997. People wrote about it in literature, Manto and many writers but I think people felt the atrocities; they went through the shame – what happened to their families? Were people lost or abducted? Did people in their family commit acts of violence? People were very quiet about the partition in general, they didn’t want to talk about it. I think they were so traumatized that it took a long time and you know Urvashi Butalia’s The Other side of Silence raises this. People didn’t want to talk about it. And it was a few films, I think Garam Hawa was one of the best and then around ’97 started getting all these other films like Gadar , Pinjar which started to look at the partition again and then Khamosh Paani and you know what happened then. But I think again people just almost wanted to forget about it.
You can actually count these films on your fingertips unlike holocaust…
Ya, but I wonder will we get more films, more stories on partition, I don’t know. Are the wounds still too raw?
Is it a Nehruvian legacy?
I don’t think so because I don’t think there was any conspiracy in the silence. I think people just felt it was too awful and too brutal and you know the way through that partition wasn’t some random attacks from people you didn’t know… it was people you knew, people that you were friends with that attacked you. I mean this is what always happens in these films with civil conflicts, whether it’s your neighbours; but people still don’t talk much about the partition outside Punjab or bits around Bengal. You know it affected Kashmir, it affected the North East, and it affected lots of other bits of India as well.
Indian feminism has its own distinctive history. Where do you locate Hindi cinema in that?
(Pauses) Hindi cinema has got its own views about women, it’s a bit of a problem about how to deal with it. The films have a lot of fantasies, its own imagery about sex and romance and you know gender politics here, tends to be a bit wobbly. You have a lot of these images that make us feel uncomfortable, voyeuristic images of women or men stalking women, chasing them down the street. I remember that song fromAankhen –“Oh Laal duppatte waali”– I mean no women I knew would wear a red duppatta after that song! I remember when I was at Baroda, people used to yell “Oye ! Oye!” whenever we walked down the street! I do think it’s complicated but there are films which are very strong about women and women perceiving their worth, like English Vinglish, I mean it’s directed by a woman of course, but it’s a very feminist film about a woman finding her place, not rebelling against being a housewife because why should working women look down upon women who choose to be homemakers. But it was about the idea of making a place and pursuing her choices in life as well. Most of the feminist cinemas are outside the mainstream, so Shyam Benegal is probably Hindi cinema’s most feminist filmmaker. It’s this whole problem about gender, so tied up with classes, isn’t it? You know the politics of class with gender…
Do you think it’s also time to replace the phrase “male gaze” with “patriarchal gaze” because there are so many women in the film and television industry, but a Farah Khan choreographs Sheila and Munni?
There are very few women directors in the world, I mean it’s not peculiar to India but I think perhaps we should also think about not just the way women are looked at, but the way men are shown. Do we see positive images of masculinity in a lot of Hindi films? I’m not sure.
What I was trying to say is that does it actually make a difference if women are there. Look at the television industry, there are so many women. Look at Ekta Kapoor but she makes some of the most misogynist patriarchal shows. Is it about the male gaze or is it the patriarchal gaze?
I think part of it is how much you see the most radical and how much it’s not. The fact that the audience is largely male for films, still the male stars are paid more than the female stars, I mean it’s a male industry and there is a great patriarchy. But I’m not sure it’s always patriarchal, I think it’s sort of deeper than that. I mean I think the way you see young boys behave or younger men, not just the older men and I think in Karan Johar’s films for example, the way you have Amitabh as a patriarch, the way he shows Shahrukh- the new kind of softer weeping emotional man rather than the stern, strict patriarchal figure and that’s an interesting dynamic man. But I’m not sure I would change it from the “male gaze” to the “patriarchal gaze”, I mean there are few women exceptions but I don’t think that really indicates a move. Within filmmaking, there are a lot of women coming up at important levels whether its dance directors like Vaibhavi Merchant or some of the people working on the sets. But the key figures: the producers, the directors, the big stars are still male.
Last year a lot was made about the emerging heroine vis a vis Kahaani, The Dirty Picture or a Cocktail. But then again Cocktail does play into the male gaze, the girl has to be traditional to be acceptable to the boyfriend’s family or a film like The Dirty Picture where the girl actually ends up committing suicide.
I don’t think those ones (The Dirty Picture and Cocktail) were what I thought particularly feminist but I think Kahaani and English Vinglish definitely were. I mean English Vinglish was turning over the way, her husband’s not a monster, he’s a nice man but he doesn’t understand his wife’s worth. Those small changes were much more important than some big radical change by the woman who rips out a gun and shoots the man, I mean women aren’t going to do that by and large. It’s the small changes in life, acknowledging people and their desires and wishes are much more radical than the big dramatic turn.
I agree with you on English Vinglish, but in Kahaani my point is that again it’s the Mother Goddess who is taking charge, isn’t that a trope as well? And she has to pregnancy to get her way…
I think within the genre, within the Hindi film, you saw a bit of the change and that association of Calcutta and the mother goddess is like every time you see Bombay you have to have a Ganesh Puja (laughs), it’s a bit of that really. And yes certainly evoking those tropes and the idea of revenge were done in a more realistic way than some of the films like Kalpana Lajmi’s Chingaari with Sushmita Sen (laughs). I thoughtKahaani played on it but on a more subtle way.
Coming to your book on Yash Chopra. What made you take up Yash Chopra?
Chandni was one of the films that I really enjoyed when it came out, which is why I really started watching Hindi films seriously. And then I’d seen Shahrukh Khan in Mani Kaul’s film The Idiot. It was the first time I saw Shahrukh Khan and then he did Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman and Dil Aashna Hai and I was totally taken with him at that point and I thought this was a new fervour in the film industry. Then Yash ji didLamhe and obviously Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge was a path breaking film in 1995 and then I realised this was the same man who did Deewar and Waqt . So I just thought this would be interesting to look at how somebody worked in the film industry for so long and how he came into it, what he thought about it and the people that he worked with and I met him, he wasn’t quite what I had imagined him to be, and that made him more interesting. And it was after a lot of persuasion that he was willing to do it and take it on. I still think he is one of the most important people in the film industry in recent years and he made films which were quite dark and complicated, a lot of very deep issues and then he glossed them over. The more recent Yash Raj films have been much less dark than in his work and I loved his music. I thought his films have some of the best music.
So what was his legacy to the film industry?
I’m not sure we know now but the Yash Raj studios is a big legacy, I think the music, the way he depicted women, I think Amitabh Bachchan’s roles were associated with Yash Raj films, Shahrukh Khan’s stardom owes a lot to Yash Chopra and I think the whole way of working in the industry and his ability to always shape himself to be young and new and lively and when he died he was 80, I mean you’ll never believe he was 80. He was fooling around with Shahrukh Khan like he was his age or younger it’s really funny.
Talking about the way he depicted women but it’s his studio again which makes a film like Ishaqzaadewhere to seek revenge, it’s the girl’s dignity which has to be targeted or a film like Dhoom?
Funny, I was invited to a preview of Dhoom and I went there and until the interval, (being 5 hours late) I thought I was at another film, I thought “it wasn’t a Yash Raj film”. Since the studio expanded in the early 2000s, the unifying link has been different. Aditya Chopra doesn’t speak up to the media at all but I certainly think anybody outside would notice that he probably has a great role to play in this. Yash ji wasn’t so much about the multi productions.
What’s you take on the dynasties in the film industry?
Like the Kapoors, bring them on! The Kapoors haven’t produced minor figures, I mean they have had some like you know Prithviraj, Raj, Shammi, Shashi, I mean they have produced the biggest stars, now Ranbir is the only new big male star. There are others who are interesting and who make a mark but this guy is a rage, from playing a Bollywood hero to playing something else; he’s extraordinary. So if dynasties are like that, we can’t object to them. There are dynasties where they all have been active, they have other roles in the film industry but you know if you are no good, people won’t go and see your films. I think it gets you launched but I don’t think you can hold your place. You have seen a lot of people who have come in and gone out.
This could be difficult, but what according to you would be the 5 or 6 films in the last 100 years that have been very important to Indian history?
Let’s get rid of the easy ones, first then. Mughal-e-Azam because of showcasing Indian history and showing Muslims as a part of Indian history. You get to see a change in the acting style from Prithviraj to Dilip Kumar, so that’s a shift. I think Madhubala was a big heroine, the lavish sets, the scenes from black and white to colours and seeing the foundations of that colourfulness, the issues of romance and politics and everything else, spectacle, fabulous music and that lovely romantic scene with the feather, so Mughle-e-Azam definitely .
Pyaasa, I think Guru Dutt was somebody who really could work within the Hindi film formula and adapt it to a very artistic style, very subtle lyrics, beautiful music, the way he uses songs very naturally in his films, his acting style and his use of close ups, use of black and white photography . There’s a way the stars are presented, the melodrama of the film, the emotionality are very poetic, so there you have the 2 easy ones.
I liked Deewar in many ways more than Sholay, I mean most people would prefer Sholay.
Why do you choose Deewar?
I love the dialogues, I love Amitabh’s anger more, not just the “mere paas ma hai”, all his dialogues in the film are very powerful and very strong. I feel it’s very clear and reflects a lot of issues, I like the way it looks back to Mother India and Ganga Jamuna. I also like the way it shows Bombay in the film and so definitely it’s on the list.
Lage Raho Munnabhai is one of my big favourite films, again because Hindi films are often about ethical issues and dilemmas people face and I thought Sanjay Dutt’s performance was extraordinary. I also thought it was one of those few films I’ve seen that’s been subtitled with imagination. I like it because it’s a comic film and yet it’s a very serious film.
I could take something from the 30’s I like but probably nobody would be interested.
I’m very fond of Yash Chopra’s Waqt, kind of the lost and found. My personal all-time favourite lost and found film is Amar Akbar Anthony, I could watch that film any day any time. Every time I watch it, I see something new, it’s crazy, it’s illogical, it’s mad. You watch and then first you start laughing at those blood transfusions, so stupid! But then it gets emotional, you get all carried away with it by the end so it’s a totally successful film and the cast was perfect in it. I think Rishi Kapoor is just extraordinary, I mean much underrated star of Hindi cinema.
It also makes a very picture perfect depiction of secularism as we know it in India…
It really does, so you have to remember that the family is ultimately Hindu and the good older boy becomes the policeman, representing the state, and the Christian and the Muslim are a bit exaggerated stereotypes really, aren’t they? Like every Muslim’s a Qawali singer.
What was the film you were talking about from the 30’s?
I love Sant Tukharam, amazing film, I mean just a masterpiece of world cinema.
Recent films which you felt were loaded with codes, ones that drew the attention of a film historian?
Dabbang! I love that film! I laughed my head off and then when I finished it, I watched it again straight away on DVD, loved it because you have lots of jokes and they’re all “snap snap snap”! Salman being ridiculous, doing those stupid dances, you having a fight with the farm implements, his shirt flying off, it was all about those other films and it was just too hilarious.
Outside of the entertainment, what did you read between the lines?
I think it was about nostalgia for a kind of cinema which is no longer made. It wasn’t about about the countryside. I think people over read that. But it was so funny people didn’t notice Chulbul Pandey was a Brahmin who is marrying a Potter’s daughter, their society has a “Sautela baap”, you don’t have a hindi film where your mother gets married again. All the family tingling each other, hating each other, the good brother, bad brother comes which is taken out of context, the policemen singing a drinking song. It was completely insane and yet nobody seems to sort of pick up on those things even a little bit because everyone was freaked out by the sheer force of Salman Khan and his personality.
So did you miss that in Dabbangg 2?
Absolutely I did, because I was so disappointed by the reviews, I almost can’t bear to watch it.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing this book about Imagining India and then a book about elephants.