Pendakur, Manjunath. (2003). Indian Popular Cinema: Industry, Ideology, and Consciousness.
Though it accounts for the world's greatest per country film output, few in the United States know much about the cinema in India, much less what Pendakur terms "Indian popular cinema." By this he refers to a range of production: "Bombay cinema, commercial film, masala film, formula film, Bollywood film, and so on, all of which refer to the films aimed at the mass audience" (p. 1). This mass audience encompasses both city dwellers and villagers. The films themselves go well beyond the high cinema of directors like Satyajit Ray and includes films produced for the many linguistic groups in India.
True to its subtitle, Pendakur's book addresses a range of topics: the structure of the industry, the star system, the genres of Indian film, and popular reaction. Unfortunately, this leads to a book that more closely resembles a series of independent investigations rather than a synthetic look at Indian cinema. The fact that the book is a labor of love to which Pendakur returned again and again over a 15 year period reinforces that sense. But the individual chapters have great value in introducing the reader to a vast and often little understood part of world cinema.
An introductory chapter lays out the scope of the book and of the cinema. The non-Indian reader comes face to face not only with films in different linguistic traditions but also with different cultural traditions. The scholar wrestles with a lack of resources: loss of primary documents, a late start on film preservation, more writing in the popular press than in academic journals, and a disinterest among film principals (producers, directors, actors) in any kind of research (pp. 3-4). But Pendakur has persevered nonetheless.
As part of the general introduction, Pendakur captures some of the distinctive qualities of Indian popular cinema:
Indian popular cinema springs from a long tradition of Indian theater and art. The garish costumes, music, dance, the eye-popping visuals forming the spectacle, and convoluted story lines originate from the folk drama tradition that was so popular prior to World War II. The audiences know what to expect out of a popular film. They don't necessarily go there to find a new story every time, but to see how the formula unfolds, how clever the director is in coming up with the twists and turns to the plot, and how good the songs, dances, and fights are. (p. 11)
Knowing this goes a long way to understanding Indian cinema.
Chapter 2 examines the industry, particularly the changing scene of exhibition, production, and distribution. From big city locations to the "touring cinemas" that travel from village to village, distributors organize an industry that accounts for some 13 million ticket sales each day (p. 16). But this is only one part of an industry that coordinates exhibitors and producers. In addition, the Indian popular film industry now supplies a growing expatriate community in global markets. And, like many other industries in many other places, Indian films face pressures from underworld figures or racketeers.
Chapter 3 switches the focus to the film industry's relationship with the government. India has a National Film Development Corporation to support production; the government also has a bureaucracy of film censorship (which, as in other countries, has seen changing cultural values and hence film guidelines). In addition the government influences the film industry by regulating the import of non-Indian films.
After the general sketch of the external structures that shape Indian film, Pendakur turns to the internal landscape of the cinema: aesthetics, genres, and topics. In Chapter 4, an examination of the "masala film" anchors a larger discussion of the interplay of aesthetics and politics.
Masala is an appropriate metaphor to analyze India's popular cinema because it draws attention to the variety of ingredients that make up the basic narrative structure of the popular film. Just as there are regional variations to the masalas (spices) that are used in Indian cooking, cinemas also take on certain regional specificities. (p. 95)
These typically melodramatic films have not only predictable plots but particular aesthetics, which play into the various nationalistic movements in India and its regions. One feature of these aesthetics that most (even non-viewers) outside of India know is the use of music. Chapter 5 takes the reader on a tour of film music, its kinds, functions, and extra-film manifestations.
The last two chapters of the book examine sexuality in Indian cinema. Chapter 6 puts it in terms of a kind of voyeurism coupled with government enforced restrictions. The last chapter examines a particular kind of film--snake movies, "in which snakes play central characters" (p. 173). Despite the potential for opening up difficult topics, both chapters tend more to feature plot summaries or move-star gossip. We learn a lot about various actresses and their roles, but not so much about the overall cultural significance of the representation of sexuality.
While this film comment approach is most evident in the later chapters, Pendakur veers into it throughout the book. In the midst of many of the discussions, the reader must detour through the plots of representative films. Such an procedure does teach about Indian cinema, but this reader, at least, found it distracting.
The book has a reference list, subject and author indices, and a list of interviews. Since it is one of the first academic books of its kind, the interviews are very helpful in preserving a partial oral history of Indian cinema.
--Paul A. Soukup, S.J.
Santa Clara University
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|Author:||Soukup, Paul A.|
|Publication:||Communication Research Trends|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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