Melodrama and the Nation: Sexual Economies of Bombay Cinema 1970 – 2000
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This insightful analysis of popular Bombay cinema presents a comprehensive discussion of its contemporary history, background, financing and social and political underpinnings. It maps the cultural landscape of this medium, tracing the relationship between the state, cinema and society. It reviews the ways in which gender and sexuality are articulated in the organization of images, and demonstrates how heterosexuality operates as a stabliser within this constellation. More generally, it looks at the emergence of heroes and anti – heroes, at the changing faces of masculinity, at femininity and the regulation of desire, and at Bollywood’s construction of gender, sexuality and the nation.
Karen Gabriel is associate professor in the Department of English, St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She has written extensively on issues of gender, sexuality, nation and representation.
‘Babumoshai!’ That cry is now almost a legendary moment in mainstream Bombay cinema lore. At the end of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1971 classic, Anand, the grieving Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) rages at the corpse of his dead friends, Anand Sehgal (Rajesh Khanna), demanding that he speak to him again. In an electric moment Bhaskar is startled to hear Anand call out, ‘Babumoshai!’ from what is revealed to be a recording on a tape that has accidentally been left on. The recording turns out to be a recital, a speech asserting the unpredictability of life and the inevitability of mortality, through the metaphor of life as puppet – theatre. This becomes the fortuitous means by which Bhaskar manages to reconcile himself to his friend’s death. Rajesh Khanna, who played the eponymous tragic hero of the film, was then at the peak of his career while Bachchan was a relative newcomer struggling to fin roles, and still several films away from becoming the phenomenon that he would be in a few years. Yet in Anand they both essay to perfection the kind of roles and characters that were their hallmark: Rajesh Khanna as the charming, tragic, heroic idol of a fading upper middle class still haunted by its feudal past, and Bachchan as the angry, brooding, intense hero, voice of an emergent impatient and acquisitive middle and lower middle class. Given Bachchan’s subsequent meteoric rise and Khanna’s almost concurrent and steady fall, this 1971 film seems to mark the transition from one kind of hero to another, as if in Anand’s death, singing a paean to an age that was passing. This change in fortunes is in many ways symptomatic of the myriad changes that the mainstream Bombay cinema industry underwent from the 1970s onward, and that form the inception to this study.
The 1970s constitute a benchmark in Hindi cinema because it was during this period that important changes that began in the late 60s intensified, consolidated and manifested themselves cinematically, in unmistakable ways. These included the political and social upheavals of the time, and organizational and structural changes in the industry – the collapse of the studio and star systems, the flow of unaccounted money, the power of the underworld – which became apparent, cinematically and narratively, in generic changes, and in the emergence of new idioms of gender, sexuality, rebellion and heroism. The decision to mark the 1970s also proceeds from a need to understand why specific modes of masculinity and femininity developed at the time, and their relationship to representations and narratives of identity, community, nation and the sexual economy.
Most scholarship on Hindi cinema has tended to focus on the period before the 1970s. The central purpose of this study, however, is to analyse the ways in which gender and sexuality emerge in the cinema of this period, particularly with regard to what is means to be Indian as an individual, as a community and as a nation. It will look at the ways in which institutional, social, political and ideological configurations are gendered an sexualised, how they inflect the cultural practice of mainstream Bombay cinema and its representation of sexual economies, and indicate how this impacts on interpretive strategies. This will involve mapping the post’ 60s role of cinema within a national cultural field, while tracking state – cinema – society relations. It will further argue the usefulness of the melodramatic mode in rendering mutually influential accounts of the nation, community, patriarchy, gender and sexuality in mainstream Bombay cinema, establishing how these factors interrupt that mode. This will enable us to understand how and in what ways the sexual is the underbelly of the social; and how it drives and structures discourses, practices and narratives. This in turn allows us to see how recommendations and practices of orthodox heterosexuality are elementary for the stability of the above mentioned constellation of factors; discourses of community – national or local – are not merely implicitly heteronormative, they are based on orthodox cal notions of heterosexuality.
As with debates on the novel, cinema, too, discussed its possibilities and limitations, its central subjects, and the treatment of its matter. In both cases, these debates were inflected by considerations of reader/spectator, the medium and its functions. However, given differences in economic and organizational aspects as well as in the scale of production between the two forms, the scope and trajectory of these issues were far more critical for cinema. Film – making is always a joint venture, and a very expensive one at that; a single film often costs several million rupees and finance is difficult to come by. Simply to continue, films need to be market – friendly and key imperatives must be factored into understanding preferred themes, their treatment and the caution with which experimentation is undertaken. Further, both the actual production and its organization are considered industrial in many ways – the Bombay film industry falls under the Industrial Disputes Act. Therefore, debates about aesthetics, representational strategies, the politics, created needs, desires and pleasures of cinema need to consider its economic organization (star system, sources of finance, links with big/unaccounted capital, foreign markets) urban bias, an increasingly influential and rich diasporic audience, and so on. These factors in turn are acted upon by the political economy and ideology, all of which vary over time, between industries and between countries. The discussion of mainstream Bombay cinema, its pleasures, representations, significations and discourses of identity; and their relationship to the organization of gender and sexuality will be located within this matrix of elements.
|Political History, Political Economy
|Bombay Cinema and Questions of Form
|Towards a Theory of the Sexual Economy
|Femininity and the Regulation of Pleasure and Desire
|The Changing Faces of Masculinity
|Gender, Sexuality and Nation
|Communities and Their Others
|List of Films
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