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Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, I930s-1950s.

Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, I930s-1950s by Neepa Majumdar. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2009. Hardcover US$ 65, softcover US$ 25.

The excitement with which Neepa Majumdar s book has been anticipated in the networks of Indian film studies is telling. The early decades of cinema in India have only recently received serious academic attention. Some quick facts might help explain this situation: Of more than 1,300 silent films known to have been produced in India, less than 20 survive; the National Film Archives of India was set up as recently as in 1964; and even basic institutional histories or celebrity biographies are scarce. In such a scenario, works like Priya Jaikumar s Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India (2007) and Prem Chowdhry's Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology, and Identity (2001) have been significant moves to document and analyse the industrial, governmental, and cultural negotiations of the initial decades of cinema in India. Here one must also mention Kaushik Bhaumik's doctoral dissertation, The Emergence of the Bombay Film Industry (2001). Wanted Cultured Ladies ... is a timely and engaging work that weaves together rigorous archival trawls and an engagement with socio-political currents of the period between the 1930s and '50s.

Majumdar goes to the heart of the matter: how do film historians approach under-researched territories when most available models of inquiry pertain to Hollywood? She argues for cultural and geographical specificity when considering the seemingly global cinematic phenomenon of stardom. And she makes her point with much rigour and no petulant polemics. The book asserts that by the 1930s, Indian cinema had imported a range of materials as well as cultural technologies from Hollywood, one of the latter being stardom. At the same time, the question of "import" is complicated by a consideration of the diverse local performative modes in circulation during the period. Unwilling to participate in a simple "transcultural relocation of the star concept" (p. 4), the book argues that stardom in India was peculiarly imbricated within the bourgeois nationalist project. This project has been discussed most acutely in Partha Chatterjee's 1988 essay, "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question" which analysed the ambivalence of 19th-century Bengali nationalists towards institutions of modernity. This ambivalence was supposedly resolved by the construction of the false binaries of home/world, spiritual/material, and feminine/ masculine. Thus woman, particularly the middle-class Hindu "New Woman", came to symbolize the essence of indigenous tradition and was granted a restricted amount of freedom and mobility once she accepted the new nationalist version of patriarchy.

Miriam Hansen's influential category of "vernacular modernism" emphasized Hollywood's role in disseminating the liberatory impulses of modernity. This formulation has allowed film historians to move beyond the national as the sole framework for apprehending cinema. According to Neepa Majumdar, however, the concomitant moves to analyse female participation in national filmic contexts as varied as China, Japan, or Britain have led to replicated patterns of cinematic modernity. The national has been discarded only to be replaced by the homogenizing model of the "modern". Moreover, in the Indian context, the familiar modern figure of the New Woman significantly pre-dates the historical moment addressed by vernacular modernism.

Majumdar then points out that Richard Dyer's famous model of the star text as comprising both cinematic and extra-cinematic discourses might not hold in the South Asian context. While the Hollywood mode of stardom celebrated consumption of products and lavish lifestyles, the Indian context was marked by a strange reticence regarding the private. Biographical information about "stars" in popular print media stayed limited to professional and educational trajectories and shied from any explicit conjecture about the star's sexuality. In the 1930s, respectability became the prime parameter for female virtue as star texts modelled themselves on "normative Hindu womanhood" (p. 6). Much of this story is familiar to the informed reader. Accounts of the social stigmatization of acting as a profession, the recruitment of dancing girls and sex workers in the silent-film period, and the anxious moves to employ "educated" and "cultured" ladies to redeem the cinema as a bourgeois-nationalist form, are available across a variety of academic and popular works on cinema. However, Majumdar's work makes a key intervention in terms of methodology. In excavating a genealogy of fame and celebrity in India, Majumdar privileges orality, speculation, and the suggestiveness of star gossip.

It is the fragmented nature of Indian cinema archives that necessitates such a methodological move. For Majumdar, this archival absence is symptomatic of the dominant attitude towards popular cinema in India as a dubious entertainment form, an attitude that lingers till today. Further, she suggests that this attitude was assimilated by the film industry itself as it strove to create a more "acceptable" image for itself in the late 1930s. Therefore Majumdar argues that the 1920s cosmopolitan female on-screen figure was supplanted by the bourgeois "cultured lady" during the transition to the talkie film. This shift reflected and was structured by the rapidly changing finance structures and employee demographics as a studio system came into place. Moreover, the ambivalence towards cinema's cultural status rendered stardom itself as feminine and marginal. It is this logic that Majumdar uses to restrict her analysis of stardom to female stardom.

The book is divided into two sections titled "India Has No Stars" and "This Stardom Racket". The first part is a genealogical analysis of local notions of celebrity across sites like folk theatre, the Parsi stage, 19th-century Bengali autobiography, popular painting, and early photography. Majumdar then looks at specific actress-stars like Sulochana, Devika Rani, Durga Khote, and Fearless Nadia to illustrate the competing models of stardom in circulation during the consolidation of the talkie studios. Interestingly, while the Jewish Sulochana (Ruby Myers) is considered an emblem of the cosmopolitan Modern Girl in contemporary studies such as those by the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, Majumdar argues that Sulochana's liberatory star appeal was retrospectively constructed once she started appearing in talkie films with a reformist message. A narrative logic of "improvement" imposed itself in these later social films with their emphases on traditional moorings and Hindu femininity (e.g. Indira M.A., 1934).

The second part of the book looks at specific film texts and stars in the 1940s and '50s (including the playback singer Lata Mangeshkar) to understand the implications of the star-centric production model that emerged with the collapse of the Bombay studio system post-WWII. Majumdar is especially interested in processes of on-screen and playback doubling that worked to "repair" and manage the off-screen anxieties connected to the star persona. She looks at the little-discussed Nargis-starrer, Anhonee (K.A. Abbas, 1952), to examine how the good sister/bad sister trope moves the private into the realm of the public. The film mobilized Nargis's celebrated status as an actor and dignified public personage even as it capitalized on common knowledge of Nargis's adulterous affair with her married co-star, Raj Kapoor. This is an important illustration of the ways in which extra-cinematic modes of private knowledge of stars circulated through innuendo in fan magazines and oral networks. By the mid-1940s, film journals were favouring a more direct interest in the private lives of stars, but oral networks of gossip still remained a key source of scandalous information.

Majumdar makes a welcome inclusion of fan testimonies in the analysis of star affects and opens out interesting questions for future researchers. One such area would be the analysis of the ways in which the star herself might have participated in the production of the celebrity image. Part I initiates a tentative discussion on the status of autobiographies but stops short of discussing the significance of the star writing herself in retrospect. Another question is whether the nationalist influence on star texts left any scope for negotiation. Could we see a performative potential in roles such as Indira MA. where Sulochana revels in the fashionable flamboyance of the flapper mode up until her character's eventual marriage, divorce, and contrite return to "roots". Rather than being a straightforward "narrative of transformation" (p. 98) we might argue that the film also allows the star to play out a forbidden fantasy through most of its running time. If one were to analyse Bombay cinema strictly in terms of narrative closure, one would miss the multiple meanings unleashed through costumes, songs, props, and set design.

In a country where the film star is a person-phenomenon that transcends the screen often to be literally consecrated in temples, Wanted Cultured Ladies ... is a much-needed work that remains serious and yet approachable. Crucially, Majumdar acknowledges the work of the fan as well as the emerging industry of film journalism in the production of stardom. Majumdar's careful research, endnotes, and citations point to a wealth of alternative archives like song booklets, court cases, and governmental reports, and successfully open out a key area of film historical research.
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Author:Mukherjee, Debashree
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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