Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bollywood Nation - India Through Its Cinema - Vamsee Juluri

'Bollywood Nation' looks at India through the 100 years of its cinema which makes it an interesting perspective considering that our lives are filled with movies, cricket and gods. The story begins with Dadasaheb Phalke's 'Raja Harishchandra' the first film made in India, to 'Peepli Live' and the important landmark movies in between, in Hindi and Telugu cinema mainly. Vamsee takes a broad look at how cinema reflected Indian consciousness of those times and how sometimes, the consciousness affected the cinema. Split into four parts - God (mythological films), Country (Imagined India),  Home (Pride) and World (how the changing world has inflicted changes on us and our movies), Bollywood Nation takes the reader on India's ride through the films it made and the films that made it.
Who better than Vamsee Juluri to write this book? Vamsee is currently professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of 'Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and belonging in Indian music television' and a novel 'The Mythologist' (which I read and reviewed). He is also closely related to the Telugu film industry - his mother Jamuna was a popular and leading actress and was known as the 'People' Actress'. Vamsee has lived and breathed cinema all his life  and now studies cinema so I cannot think of anyone better placed to write this book. And he has done a fine job of it too, by making it highly readable to the non-academic reader like me as well.

The first part of the book is on God and deals with the movies Raja Harischandra, Draupadi Vastrapaharanam, Sant Tukaram, Tyagayya, Bhukailasa, Maya Bazaar and Sri Krishna Tulabharam. Interestingly Indian stories were mainly drawn from the epics and the stories of our gods for a long long time. These were what fed our audiences more than any other aspirations. The fact that the audiences could see the gods of whom they had heard about day in and day out, made the entire experience one of total awe. (There were times when people took off their footwear and even prayed to the images on screen.) I was caught wondering what if those movies were made now - those mythologicals - for the first time? I am sure many extreme thinkers of religion would have had their sentiments hurt - some costume, some color, some choice of artiste would have surely offended them. But in those days the makers of the movies were enterprising and no mischief was suspected by the audience in terms of the representations of gods. The mythologicals, most of which were made in the South, brought god to the theatre and gave god a shape and a face. God as good, God as one, god as many, God and devotion are all discussed as are the popular views of gods in India and the people's devotion to their gods through the movies. This period was in an era when the British still ruled India and our many cultures were still melting.

The second part on 'Country' deals with the concept of Imagined India through movies such as Devdas, Jagte Raho, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain, Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony, Deewar, Don. This period started with Nehru's context of India as a secular nation that encompassed ideal values of nobility and sacrifice and as these values began to be questioned, and the people became disillusioned with the lack of nobility and sacrifice from its leaders, the angry young man came forth. How the pendulum swung from sacrifice to romance to anger shows how India progressed. Mother, motheraland, land and realism and recognition are discussed. It is about how we see ourselves as Indians, in Nehru's context of India and Indira Gandhi's.

The third part is 'Home' and Vamsee looks at it through the introduction of Doordarshan, Ramayan and NTR. It deals with how television brought a new India and its aspirations and troubles into our homes through the serials of Hum Log, Subaah and other serials. Viewers looked at people like them who had problems like them and grew addicted to the serials. Now tv brought home drama from another home right into ours, a few free movies and Chitrahaar and other such luxuries all while sitting at home. Ramayan brought the nation to a halt every Sunday and the entire ritual of opening the tv screen, some praying to it are quite vivid. This chapter also deals with the Andhra Chief Minister, the charismatic N.T. Rama Rao who came to power riding on the pride of six crore Telugus.

The fourth section covers a time that went beyond god and voyeuristic peeps into other homes. Now we had Star TV that dared bring western serials and western music and its attendant men and women. So we look at India during the times of Baywatch, Channel V, MTV, Made in India, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Indian, Mission Kashmir, Company and Lage aho Munna Bhai. The changes in our world, the rise of the yuppie hero and the disaporic desi (sounds like a good title for a Mira Nair film) are all discussed and it makes fascinating reading like some old newsreel in your head.

Vamsee talks of how in the Indian context showing emotions is paramount - Indian cinema becomes real when it makes you cry. And in another space he observes that the Mahatma may not have liked movies, says Vamsee, but its in films that his spirit has remained than in politics or economics. Ironic, but true

Vamsee writes in his introduction that he hopes to address both academic and non-academic readers and  I think he has succeeded there. Thankfully for me who understands nothing of academic writing, the first of the academic words came in page 20 and had something to do with post modern and those words fizzled off later on in the book. I found the book an engrossing and enjoyable read and found it fascinating to see India through its movies, most of which we had seen. Much of Vamsee's world is also mine as I grew up in Hyderabad roughly at the same time he did and probably watched the same movies he did. From the Bachchans to the Salmans, we have seen it all, we have felt it all. And we feel for ourselves now as the medium gets alienated from us, and grows younger to reach its audiences. And along with us a billion more must feel the same way, the same pain, the same tragedy and angst, the same joy and euphoria we felt as the screen lit up our lives and gave it images that were so precious then. Images now are dime a dozen and nothing can probably impact the mind as easily as it did then. What the cinemas made to us we know, but what they will make to his generation we must wait and watch. At the end of the book Vamsee ponders over the you and I and also that we are all the same, that life is flowing through us all, the same one. Its comforting to know that the same life is passing through Amitabh and me and Vamsee. For all those who followed Indian cinema and are interested in knowing its impact on India and vice versa, a must read. For the others, I can safely vouch that this book will leave you no poorer.

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