On Madhava Prasad

an overdue appreciation.

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Read the rest of the review here, or below:

In Cine-Politics: Film Stars and Political Existence in South India, film studies becomes politics, but also society, identification and desire. Prasad’s book contains six well-thought-out chapters, and reappraises the context of focus upon the well-known names and stars of ‘regional’ cinema from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Larger-than-life political icons MGR, NTR and Rajkumar will need no introduction within India, yet, from this book, the outside reader will also get sufficient detail and a good idea of the kinds of films, from ‘mythologicals’ to ‘socials’, that made up their cinema careers. However, the chapters also present the political trajectories of these stars, and the book’s significance is that the turning of film into politics demands a wider scope than any film studies’ focus has hitherto provided. The book importantly goes beyond any mechanical understanding of how film stars might use the cinema for political gain.

The first chapter shows how central government initiatives, especially the States Reorganization Commission of 1953, had deep ramifications for regional film, reflected both in the organisation of cinema as an industry and in the role accorded its emerging stars. The phenomenon of the ‘star-politician’ in South Indian films uniquely impacted upon politics there. Successive chapters then discuss MGR in Tamil Nadu, NTR in Andhra Pradesh, Rajkumar in Karnataka, and ‘fan Bakhti’, with an appendix on Jayalalithaa (see below). MGR, NTR and Rajkumar are so famous that we recognise them by their familiar initials or single names (Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran aka MGR; Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao aka NTR; and Singanalluru Puttaswamayya Muthuraju aka Rajkumar). Yet, even though each of them played a significant political role in his respective state, he did so in quite different ways and reflecting different political developments and changes. MGR was already a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party activist before starting in films, and his film roles helped his party to success in 1967, before he formed a new party in 1972 to continue on as chief minister of Tamil Nadu until his death in 1977. In Andhra Pradesh, NTR’s entry into politics and film was through the Telugu language and Telugu nationalism; this gained him status and prestige in the state, but was less readily translated beyond the regional. Similarly, Rajkumar was identified with the identity politics of Kannada. As a political investment, this identity politics suggests a wider path and pattern, indicating a parallel organisational format between his political persona and his screen personality.

It is Prasad’s contention (and not inconsequentially Freudian in analytic reach) that ‘an adequate explanation for the cine-political phenomenon…cannot really be found in the content of the relevant films’ (p. 57). He makes this claim at the very end of a chapter on the cinema strategies of the DMK party in Tamil Nadu, whereby a kind of commodity logic is expanded. Prasad gives us the truism that, certainly in the last ten years, Bollywood has become ‘an appendage of the consumer goods industry via advertising’ (p. 22) and ‘a reflexive commodity, consciously produced in conformity with its own image’ (p. 23). It is not beyond the readers of this book to recognise an anti-commercial and regional argument that Bollywood is shaped by and yet also subsumes the regional. While not ‘any’ South Indian film will do to establish this point, a preponderance of star persona films, and the accompanying film marketing strategies, are identifiable and discernible as influences in, of and on Bollywood.

All the same, a question about content might clarify some issues for us. Do we need to have seen the films of the larger-than-life MGR for Tamil Nadu, or NTR for Andhra Pradesh, to know that there is something different going on with the star-persona film vehicles here than in that ‘other’ dominant Indian film tradition that regionalism necessary backs up against? In Prasad’s discussion of comparative cinema, the scope is larger than the screen. At stake is history itself when he develops a point from an earlier essay in which ‘modernity continues to be identified with the historical concretion of Western modernity, [and so] it will always seem that every other form is a deviant, or not yet modern’ form.11. Madhava M. Prasad, ‘Singular But Double-Entry: Paul Willamen’s Proposals for a Comparative Film Studies’, in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 14, no. 1 (2013), p. 9.View all notes This deviation is important because where once Hollywood, even at a remove, was regarded as ‘a source of knowledge and values that hold the promise of a better life’—and its ideas were ‘stolen’ and inserted into Bollywood films—today, instead, we see ‘an epochal change in cinema [that] comes in the wake of opening up of the economy in the process of liberalization and globalization’.22. Ibid., p. 10View all notes This gives us the rationale for Prasad’s new book as a development beyond his own 1998 scene-setting work on the melodramatic in Ideology of the Hindi Film;33. M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988).View all notes it is by going beyond melodramatic narrative content that the political appeal of an MGR or NTR is activated in a wider context.

Cine-Politics asserts that after a distinct period in which writers were dominant in the movies, the celebrity star system took hold, and this star persona system now acts like a contagion. In the past, and consistent with melodrama, the fragmentary and episodic form of stories and plots existed within an abstract whole. Subsequently, the movement from writers to star system evident in Tamil films and in the discussion Prasad offers of MGR, means the writer’s message-communicating model has been hollowed out. The message is now the star. It is revealing that the phrase used to warn against dismissing this transition is that of the haunting spectre of denial. To take cinema as transparent is to remain caught within a communicated messages model that had already been warded off as a mere propaganda tool, thus inviting ‘positive or negative valuation depending on one’s agreement or disagreement with the content of the propaganda’ (p. 46). The cultural content that haunts here is not a contained narrative or plot; MGR is not seen to be significant in any particular film, but across all films. Grand narrative returns as embodied persona. MGR plays the gods in general, and in the ‘socials’.

Cine-Politics is not just a fan book on the extraordinary and curious phenomenon of larger-than-life film stars, it is also a commentary upon issues of such long-term interest that the book will surely become the standard reference for persona studies and a major contribution to film theory, significant well beyond its subject area and location. In Ideology of the Hindi Film, the discussion of screen kissing and subsumption, the conjunction of melodrama and Marx, made that book an indispensable reference; now Prasad recaptures his pre-eminence via a regionalism that reaches out to place region at the centre of an already full field. This is the peculiar brilliance of a study that thereby changes everything at the same time, such that arguments about melodrama as the presentation of the ideology of the nation as family drama are now worked through not only Mother India, but via the regional cousins too. The family resemblance of subsumption, even as a difficult theoretical framework, is explained and reinforced with local detail. The films are described with a film buff’s affection, but the analysis relocates MGR, NTR and Rajkumar, and with a passing mention of Rajinikanth and Jayalalithaa, conceptually in the mainstream.

Along the way, the too-quick judgements of journalists and sociologists, who should know the context better, are exposed as inadequate. MGR was indeed a heart-throb and hero through many films, but the viewing public is not simply programmed or predetermined to worship personalities. Nor, despite NTR’s penchant for portraying deities, do these film stars somehow ‘replace’ the gods in the public’s estimation. Prasad displays a healthy scepticism here; even if there is some truth to the adoration and identification observed in such commentary, it does not in any way satisfy or explain the political appeal of personalities, or the persona role, for the stakes are higher than that. Prasad offers substantiation via statistics to show that, for example, NTR’s roles in ‘mythologicals’ were secondary and subsequent to his roles in ‘socials’, films about issues and themes of social relevance. Playing gods was not typecasting of him (p. 76); his ‘star’ recognition had already been established long before his first appearance as Lord Krishna in K.V. Reddy’s Mayabazar (1957).

Some questions remain for debate: is NTR’s election as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh subsumed under a greater regionalist Telugu politics, or is Telugu regionalism subsumed in NTR’s star narrative? Is how the theatre tradition gives way to mass popular film, where the allocation of roles within theatre groups moves towards a different kind of logic in that the central character acquires an importance, beyond the symbolic importance accorded to the drama itself (p. 99)? Does film technology figure deeply here, in close-ups, tracking shots and audience responses to stars, persona and life, and in ways relevant to ‘star systems in every popular cinema industry’ (p. 100)?

Gaps in the text can leave these questions open, and this might help us think for ourselves. What perhaps is needed is a larger chapter on MGR’s co-star and political successor, Jayalalithaa Jayaram. We can perhaps understand why she only receives a short discussion in the appendix, but it could be fruitful to consider how continuity might have played out if the book had taken on her mastery of self-presentation and indeed ‘fan Bakhti’ in both film and politics. Here, regional analysis of the particularity of South Indian films of a specific time and context shows that the figures of MGR, NTR and Rajkumar, as well as Jayalalithaa in particular, can be understood as ‘roles’ or personas who extend beyond the film text into the socio-political in unprecedented ways. The ‘socials’ too contain specific characters for whom patronage and clientelism prevail, but also in which uplift projects and social programmes are initiated in the generic name of the star. The cine-political is not star charisma at the ballot box, nor is it a propaganda vehicle, but a moment in the history of cinema when specific audiences have been prepared to follow the leadership of on-screen political investments orchestrated by adept political operatives—and then act to consecrate such figures as leaders. It is with this that Prasad’s text is full of suggestive insights inviting further analysis. For example, he notes how an actor’s persona across films ‘begins to communicate through other channels than the films’ and even in ‘parallel to the diegetic content of the narrative’ (p. 142). His commentaries centre on enthusiasm, sovereignty, language, ideology and the commodification, and even mass reproduction, of star persona effects (p. 184). With these openings, Prasad’s thoughtful and thought-filled volume should become a classic of film studies, and not only for its regional specificity.

Notes

1. Madhava M. Prasad, ‘Singular But Double-Entry: Paul Willamen’s Proposals for a Comparative Film Studies’, in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 14, no. 1 (2013), p. 9.

2. Ibid., p. 10

3. M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988).

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Statues – 1970 Kolkata.

Mrinal Sen’s great film Interview begins with a few shots of the removal of colonial statues from the Maidan in Calcutta, shipped off to a closed space in Barrackpur Cantonment. You can enable the player here and watch the film (and so many others, its a treat):

https://indiancine.ma/grid/year/year==1970&language==Bengali&productionCompany==Mrinal_Sen_Productions

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Bollywood and women

For the reminder files, an email response to a student met doing Capital in India proposing a PhD on women in Bollywood. I'm not sure I'm the one to ask and if my response is any help, but here it is:

"Sorry its taken a few days to get back to you properly. I have been travelling.

I've read your research proposal and thought about what you ask, and mainly I have some questions for you before I can answer really. Well, I can make some guesses at what you might want as an answer and give some suggestions, but really I'm not clear enough on your circumstances to best advise.

There are some corrections to be made on your text, but they are minor grammar ones and hardly the sort of thing that matters, especially if this is a draft that will change. I've ignored them as they are minor infelicities of speaking, extra prepositions and so on. Mistakes anyone can make in a longer text. So, first question – is this a draft?

IF this is a draft, are you committed to this study in this form? I mean, the image analysis, textual analysis, and interviews with spectators aspect seems, well, of a certain vintage. Is this kind of analysis the best we can do? Will it provide any result that achieves what you perhaps want it to – and, most importantly, what is that? What is the purpose of the analysis in the widest possible sense? The promotion of women in films? An understanding of this? A critique of this? There are many other possibilities.

I ask about this because there are people you might seek to work with who have done similar sorts of studies, using similar methodologies. I can suggest some perhaps. There are others who would possibly seek out students to do things a bit differently.

Another similar question, which shapes who might be suggested as a person to work with for PhD has to do with your engagement with a certain version of feminism. There are of course many versions, and not all scholars would put Laura Mulvey and Angela McRobbie in the same box, and some might find their work dated as well – there are others, doing good work. And not necessarily white western feminists. Of course not all women of colour feminists are the same also – ranging from identity to feminism-marxism you of course find the same range of variation. You must at least engage with these scholars. I guess I am asking if for this study you even need the version of western feminism that you set out in your draft?

Maybe you do want to do a study that is particularly focussed upon some version of feminism like that of McRobbie. I cannot think then who to suggest, but you could ask her. Similarly, you could ask Laura Mulvey. But then, I'd suggest asking someone like Meeta Rani Jha for advice. Actually she did interviews with women viewers of Bollywood film for her PhD. I've not read it in its final version, but read early chapters a can confidently say I am sure its really very good. I'd encourage you to look her up. I am not sure if she is teaching now, but she is on facebook.

My next set of questions are also pretty naive on my part. But why do you want to go abroad to do this research? If it is to connect to western feminism, then it of course makes sense, but for a PhD from abroad… well, the reasons are several, but in this day and age it is not a matter of access to materials. With good internet you can get everything you need in India book4you.org, and sci-hub though surely questionable sites in terms of copyright, will get you any text you need. My strong belief is that you should choose where to do your PhD by going to work with someone whose writing you really like.

That may be, as noted, Mulvey or McRobbie. Or someone else. There are certainly people in India that would be great to work with on this topic. If you have not considered this, then you must – IIT Kharagpur has Anjali Gera Roy and she is doing great and I think original work. Of course there are other stars in India eg SV Srinivas is really great, there is Moinak Biswas and Abhijit Roy at Jadavpur of course (as you know) and Madava Prashad in Hyderabad.

Anjali Gera Roy's work is not well enough known yet:
Gera Roy, Anjali (2010) '"Global flows": Ethnographic Studies of the Hindi Movie in Africa', Journal of African Literature and Culture 7(8):33-48.
Gera Roy, Anjali ed (2012) The Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad, New Delhi: Sage.
Gera Roy, Anjali (2015) Cinema of Enchantment: Perso-Arabic Genealogies of the Hindi Masala Film, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan.

Then, maybe there are other reasons for you wanting not to be in India – social, political even. I will not judge. Then you should look first to whose writing you like, then try to work with them. Have you heard of Rajinder Dudrah?

Check out:
Dudrah, Rajinder (2002) 'Vilayati Bollywood: Popular Hindi Cinema-going and diasporic South Asian identity in Birmingham (UK)', Javnost, 9(1): 19-36.
Dudrah, Rajinder (2006) Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies, London: Sage.
Dudrah, Rajinder (2012) Bollywood Travels: Culture, Diaspora and Border Crossings in Popular Hindi Cinema, London: Routledge.
Dudrah, Rajinder, Elke Mader and Bernhard Fuchs (2015) SRK and Global Bollywod, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raminder Kaur at Sussex University would be someone to consider working with. she has done brilliant work on a wider range of things, all of it is great.

See her works, among others:
Kaur, Raminder (2003) Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism: Public Uses of Religion in Western India New Delhi: Permanent Black.
Kaur, Raminder (2013) Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns. Routledge, India.
Kaur, Raminder and Ajay J Sinha (2005) Bollyworld: Popular Cinema Through a Transnational Lens, New Delhi: Sage

I do not know if it is my place to even raise this, but have you funds for a PhD abroad in one of the expensive places (UK, USA)? I mean, there is very little chance of funding for Indian nationals for UK and US so its a big lottery if you are not already of independent means. Cost of living plus fees in the UK would reach £30,000 per year. Do not even consider converting that into rupees unless you are ready for the shock.

Which means, considering some of the less costly places to do a PhD.

There is Tejaswini Niranjana at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. I've no idea about fees there, or cost of living in Hong Kong, but the University is good and Tejaswini is a great scholar.

Of course I am not ruling out he US or UK if you have funds, and there are many people there.

I don't know enough about where and why you want to go. I repeat again that I think you should choose based on who you want to work with. Of course prestige of a programme also matters to some people (employers also) but in terms of quality of the research, you want to work with the people you think are the best.

I have not included anything specifically on women in my book just finished a few months ago, but I did try to survey what I thought was interesting in South Asian film studies in the recent period. Since some of the people I discuss are not mentioned by you, perhaps you would like to look at the book. I include it here (please NOT to forward to anyone). It will come out in India later this year I hope, also in more costly version in the UK. Its attached.

Check out form the bibliography there the work of Jigna Desai, Amit Rai, and Ajay Gahlawat.

You might consider working with the wonderful Earl Jackson at National Chao Tung University Taiwan. Their cultural studies dept, where I have been visiting prof and so has Madava Prashad, is really well respected. And Hsinchu is a very interesting city.

In the US also look at the work of H Mann, references in my book bibliography.

I hope it might be of interest and/or stimulate further thoughts. I'm sorry it was not in my competence to write anything particularly good on the role of women in films, though of course I do discuss related issues inevitably, Fire, Parched etc…

The book was what I was working on when we met. After working on it intensely after classes through that month, it was finished soon after.

Good luck
John"

Begum Jaan – trailer (remake of Rajkahini, রাজকাহিনী)

For those in need of an alternative to Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, in April 2017 we will get the Hindi film Begum Jaan, I hope soon also for a UK release. It is a remake of Rajkahini by the same director, Srijit Mukherji.

Impressed that the fire stuntsperson managed a fair impersonation of the map of india in this scene from the trailer.

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Watch the trailer here.

Since Begum Jaan ‘is the Hindi adapted version of Bengali movie Rajkahini’, the promoters have taken the remake principle to heart as a marketing strategy by staging a debate as to who is the better Begum, Vidya Balan or Rituparna Sengupta?? See here for the way to beat this up into a smart promotional angle with a series of other character match-ups.

The trailer for Rajkahini (2015) is here, of course with Tagore song…:

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and if you are into mapmaking its a tragic feast…

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Bangladeshi Cinema and Tanvir Mokammel’s “1971”, a review of John Hood’s ‘The Bleeding Lotus’

Hood

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Prepare yourself for trauma. John Hood’s book The Bleeding Lotus: Notions of nation in Bangladeshi Cinema (2015, Palimpsest) is not intended primarily as a gore-fest horror but is the more devastating for being a documentation of real and brutal violence on film, presented in relentlessly modest prose, requiring careful and sustained, if confronting, reading.

 

Hood begins his wonderful study of Bangladeshi cinema with an all too cute first line recognition that there were still many people who were ‘born in India, grew up in East Pakistan’ and who, he is writing in 2015, without having travelled, now ‘live in Bangladesh’ (Hood 2015:14). His next 200 pages document that bloody and violent history, tracking films from Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide (1971), Tariq and Catherine Masud’s Ontarjatra (2006) through to Nasiruddin Yousuff’s Guerrilla (2011), all the while in extended (short) book length commentary on Tanvir Mokammel’s epic three-hour documentary 1971 (2011). An elegiac annotation of the horrors of partition, language conflicts, civil war, and other assassinations and atrocities, the discussion is all the while shot through with solemn insights about Mokammel’s other films. Hood’s book casts up an ensemble – if that term can be used – that includes the rapist Pakistani military, the bloated bodies of murdered women, groups of dead children in a screen violence perhaps unprecedented, and a horrific witness: ‘deeply moving, powerful visuals’ (Hood 2015:75).

 

Hood knows Bangladesh, and his descriptions of movies that treat the events of the 1971 war, the Pakistan Army, the Razakar collaborators and the resistance, are comprehensive and relentless. Returning over and over to Mokammel’s 1971 with intuition and argumentation, the commentary and synopsis of a great many related films, documentary and feature, are hung on this bleakly enticing frame. The overwhelming humanity of the treatment obliges close attention (many of the films are online, albeit sans subtitles for non-Bengalis). No other film scholars are mentioned and little obvious debt to film theory is required, but the writing is fluent, engaging and engaged. One learns both of Bangladeshi film and and of the difficult birth of Bangladesh as nation, in a fraught emergence which cannot be reduced to a concert or a newsreel summation. Hood shows more clearly than anyone else I have read on this subject that the secularist revolutionary struggle for Bangladeshi freedom was heroic and so are the films, in various degrees of cinematic dress and competence, not spared any necessary critique where warranted, but all in all informative and done with care.

 

The problem of circuits infects film distribution as it does publishing or politics, imposing an hierarchy of visibility and voices according to who shouts loudest with which speaker system. Distribution costs money or favours and without vast resources, sensation and political intrigue substitute for worth. Thus it can be that the most widely viewed documentary ‘evidence’ of the Pakistani Army atrocities is a film that owed its international renown to a cross-border machinations by someone previously not much into the business of facilitating film reviews. As Hood argues in discussion of Zahir Raihan’s Stop Genocide (1971):

 

‘Released even before the war was over [this] was perhaps the earliest cinematic expression of a people’s aspiration for freedom in the face of an occupation army’s inhuman barbarity. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bought the film rights and had it distributed around the world to project the excesses of the Pakistani military [and so] to justify the Indian intervention’ (Hood 2015:17)

 

Never previously had a twenty minute film found such unlikely international backing, as Indira also used the cover of the war intervention to quash urban Naxals at home. It is then not without irony that Stop Genocide begins with a quote from Lenin and a refrain from ‘The Internationale’, before shadows of palms and the sound of marching boots, barking dogs, and gunfire. Lines of refugees – stop – close-ups of hungry faces and wide abject eyes – stop – the return of revolutionary anthem as a pleading dirge at the end smears misery across the screen, exceeded only with a reference to Auschwitz – stop, stop stop Genocide across the final frames.

 

What further circulates, however, supported in turn by that indubitably well-meaning and necessary Concert for Bangladesh, starring George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, is the globally distributed image of Bangladesh as a space of trauma. Abject nationhood sells, in the hands of such philanthropic friends. Other films or images of a tranquil Bangladesh find distribution deals harder to come by unless they can market the exoticist angles.

 

Hood’s lyrical description of the opening sequence of Morshedul Islam’s Khalaghar (PlayHouse, Dir. Islam, 2006) illustrates the dual tendencies in more recent times:

 

‘The setting is a lush and dense tract of riverbank. The camera focuses on a boat coming along the relatively narrow and secluded stretch of the river. Other than the boatman nothing comes into view; the only other sound than the splash of water by the moving punt is a gentle twittering of birds. It is a truly idyllic scene, which lasts for just about two minutes before the boatman draws to the bank under the cover of low over-hanging branches and in scary silence six young men emerge from the jungle behind the camera to meet the boat. Without a word the boatman proceeds to unload a cargo of arms, passing out guns to the men on the bank. Not a word is spoken’ (Hood 2015:122-3)

 

Reflections in the water play an important role in the sequence, ripples and shimmering in the image, the youth collecting the guns framed under the tree, before a bell rhythm introduces the opening credits. It is a full five and a half minutes before a word is spoken, when the teacher is informed of news about the fight for freedom. The idyll contrasts with an indication of the guerrilla war. Hood is right to double up on noting that words are unnecessary for the effect. Bangladesh, like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are rendered as paradise with violence; only sand, dust, mountains, or swollen rivers are interchangeable, and these stereotyped images, along with the all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood ready reckoner, circle the globe. Partition horrors, the emergency and the pogroms dull the tune. Of course other images and critiques of stereotypes are possible. A counter-narrative is found in Humayan Ahmed’s Shyambol Chhaya (2004) where towards the end the Bengali freedom fighters approach a Pakistani Army post disguised as musicians, who, when they get close enough, ‘exchange their instruments for guns and grenades’ (Hood 2015:140). This book and these films take us beyond the lingering consequences of long years of colonial misrule, restoring initiative where there is otherwise only the fading of the vibrant Raj pink of Empire’s nostalgic fantasy – rose-coloured as if the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre of unarmed civilians or Churchill’s wartime ‘necessary’ famine were mere administrative anomalies. If Empire left its outcomes in arbitrary lines and compromises that were unworkable from the get go, Islam’s film Khalaghar, Mokammel’s 1971, and Hood’s book as a whole, alongside many other films and commentary (Prasad et al.,) are efforts to help us negotiate the difficulties and stereotypes that refuse, perhaps especially through invitation and containment, to otherwise succumb to critique.