Guide National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987 (Texas Film Studies Series)

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Studying popular film is studying Indian modernity at its rawest, its crudities laid bare by the fate of traditions in contemporary life and arts. These distorted reflections, one might add, not only exaggerate features but also paradoxically dictate patterns of normality. In this sense, they shape and impose exemplarity by broadcasting role models, figures of idealization and identification at once.


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Popular cinema is thus a major actor of social engineering. The elites of the popular Hindi film industry, like producer-director Yash Chopra, are very conscious of their role. Hence it is not surprising that the Non Resident Indian NRI , 2 who is imagined to be necessarily rich and westernized but who is also known to contribute financially to the Sangh Parivar , became a role model for a fast growing middle class facing the challenges of globalization and its own anguish or feeling of guilt due to a possible acculturation.

Unsurprisingly, the popularity of themes related to the diaspora and the nationalist ethnic and cultural discourse aimed at people of Indian origin living abroad reached a peak during the period corresponding to the BJP-led governments The s and early s could in fact be considered the Golden Age of the NRI, heralded as the emblem of the emerging middle class and the new material aspirations of an India in the midst of economic liberalization.

Cinema, more than other media like television, mobile phones or the Internet, constitutes a medium for the enacting, teaching and dissemination of this nationalist discourse heralding the combined virtues of consumerism and devotion and of cosmopolitanism and roots. Once unloved and portrayed as the epitome of moral corruption, he became in the past fifteen years the embodiment of the national ethos as well as of a triumphant capitalism.

Right from the s and through the early decades of the 20 th century, the big screen became the blank page on which nationalist pride was inscribed in a mythological vocabulary. Cinema, a medium which Indians took to with great ease and rapidity, has indeed been part of the nationalist historiographic project since the early years of the 20 th century. Twenty films were made in India in the 10 years after the first Indian motion picture was released in Seven years later, at the time when the country was embarking on the swadeshi movement, a first Film Enquiry Committee was set up in order to recommend the substitution of British imports with locally-made films and an Indian magistrate named as its director.

In spite of British censorship, the number of films with a social concern and pro-independence stance increased in the s and s although the films dwelling on social issues generally insisted on the civilizing impact of colonization. During the Second World War, the quick pace of industrialization facilitated important investments in cinema while the reduced sea traffic gave rise to a large black market. Cinema became at the time a real local industry that mattered in the national economy.

The intervention of the state raises the question of agency and reception: who dictates the terms of exemplarity? And can it be dictated at all?


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  • However, all through the years of Nehruvian socialism, screenplays reflected the ideals of the young nation-state. During the s, with the war with China and the war with Pakistan, films adopted a more belligerent and chauvinistic tone. Later, in the s, while the country was undergoing a profound social transformation, Amitabh Bachchan embodied the angry young man perhaps symbolizing the nation going through a crisis.

    Nevertheless, one should be careful not to disregard the highly symbolic aspect of the representations portrayed as authentic and apolitical Sircar As a matter of fact, irrespective of the historical period, Indian cinema has always crystallized a view of Indian identity that it later projected and imposed more or less forcefully in order to comply as much with the current governmental ideology as with the market. The shift from the expatriate as a counter-model to the NRI as the epitome of modern India follows the same logic.

    National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-87 (Texas Film & Media Studies Series)

    The very first Indian documentary, shot in , focused on a certain Mr. Paranjpye, a former scholar at Cambridge Alessandrini But the expatriate Indian did not gain currency on the big screen until with An Evening in Paris Shakti Samanta and Purab Aur Paschim [East and West, Manoj Kumar] three years later the terrain had been prepared by Sangam in , which shows foreign locations and Indians moving freely around the world for leisure.

    This period corresponds to the coming of age of the first generation of Indian migrants in the United Kingdom, the adolescence of the second uprooted generation and the mass influx of educated Indians in the United States after the Hart-Cellar Act of However, the overseas Indians are portrayed in both films as depraved persons or as outsiders whose very Indian identity is dubious.

    In An Evening in Paris , for example, there is no question of immigration as the hero Sam, played by Shashi Kapoor, is not Indian and is neither presented as a videshi [foreigner] nor as a pardesi [outsider]. Even though Sam is visibly Indian, speaks Hindi fluently and strongly defends the honour of Indians when arguing with his friend Michel, he introduces himself as a Frenchman as if his place of residence were a determining factor for defining his nationality.

    This illustrates the way Indian nationality was viewed at that time: it was based above all on the law of the soil and circumscribed by national borders before mass migrations redefined the sense of national belonging. The young hero played by Manoj Kumar is called Bharat [India] and quite explicitly embodies the nation. He visits London to meet the Sharmas, friends of his father.

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    Their daughter, Preeti, smokes and drinks like her mother, wears mini-skirts and, in a supreme gesture of acculturation, has dyed her hair blond. Manoj Kumar however grants his characters redemption at the end of the film: either through death for Orphan or a return to the native country for Preeti.

    This ideological construct of migration as a morally reprehensible act, Rosie Thomas points out, is deeply rooted in Indian lore and goes back to the character of Ravana, the king of Lanka, in the Ramayana. Until the late s, emigration still bore the seal of moral disgrace. This attitude starkly contrasts with the peons the successive governments have sang of NRIs in the past ten years, priding themselves on the potential benefits of migration in the form of remittances, FDI, image and lobbying. The term vilayat gave way to pardes to designate the place of residence of overseas Indians.

    The root of the word pardes is des , meaning country, home. The suffix par- corresponds to both per- and pro- in Latin, evoking an idea of movement and of being proactive. Pardes is therefore much more positive than vilayat and does not actually entail either a spatial or a moral distance with the homeland pardes can even sometimes designate a place within the national territory. Actually, more than half the films with the word pardes or pardesi in their title seen between and were made after the s. In the moral code upheld in this type of film, some values occupy a central place and are mentioned frequently like sharm, lihaz, izzat [shame, modesty, honour], three virtues presented as the preserve of women Karudapuram This new generation of neo-traditional films combining ethnic nationalism and the praise of materialism therefore also seek to champion a patriarchal structure that idealizes the woman sublimated by either virginity or motherhood while insisting on her submissiveness.

    In addition, the emigrant is no longer accused of forgetting his roots and values: it is the host country for example, firang foreign or Angrezi English culture and, more generally, Western culture that are held responsible if at all. Ideal Indians have hence become deterritorialized models of national identity.

    National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1947-1987

    In addition to fostering a sense of community going beyond the national borders Deprez , Gowricharn , most of the recent films with expatriate characters show that b eing a part of the national ethos is no longer determined by nationality or place of residence but by blood ties and morality. The same holds true for other movies of that period. Two basic principles govern the visual, structural and textual organization of these NRI-centric films: ubiquity and synchronicity, the ability to match place and time.

    Popular Hindi cinema actually illustrates the idea of the nation elaborated by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture : it is above all a narrative and discursive strategy in which temporal and spatial representation holds a central place.

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    He agrees on this issue with A. Long tracking landscape shots and quickly alternating views from India and abroad testify to this desire to recreate a new geography. The first scene in DDLJ is a perfect illustration of this technique. At the end of the sequence, the scenes of London make way for indoor shots. The viewer sees the back of a woman walking through a house holding a worship platter in her hands. Anjali, as a woman, represents India besides, she is the only character who wears traditional clothes and ensures a religious, symbolic and geographical continuity while holding together the family living abroad Uberoi The akhand bharatiya parivar [undivided Indian family] also symbolizes a new version of akhand Bharat [undivided India, as dreamt by the Hindu nationalists], the stability and perpetual unity of Hindu and North-dominated India even outside the national territory.

    In fact, the boisterous old grand-mom considers Punjab a part of New York. They need not keep coming back to India. Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody.

    When Raj lets her believe that they have slept together, she bursts into tears of rage and covers her face in shame. He then proceeds to reassure her by telling her:. Tum samajhti ho ki main bahut hi ghatiya kism ka awara larka hun. Par main itna bhi gira hua nahi hun Simran. Main ek Hindustani hun aur main janta hun ki ek Hindustani larki ki izzat kya hoti hai.

    Main sapne mein bhi tumhare sath aisi harkat nahi kar sakta [I know what you think about me. You think that I am a worthless boy but I am not that bad.

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    Simran, I am an Indian and I know what her honour means to an Indian girl. Even in my dreams I could not do something like that to you].


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    • The genre of the romantic comedy is by essence conservative since it is based on the assurance of a return to a moral and social order. Hindi romantic comedies projecting NRI role models go even further since they do not merely seek to reconcile individual aspirations with duties to the community: they seek to recreate and propagate a fetishized version of tradition and normalize reactionary if not sometimes illegal practices like forced marriages in Namastey London. The point of this juxtaposition is comic relief as well as providing a clarification about the much-desired NRI status.

      Indeed, the model Indian is not only a man who has retained conservative family values while living and earning money abroad: he must have done so in an appropriate country, preferably the USA, the UK or Australia, a white capitalist country Deprez And yet, the NRI became a central component of the definition and projection not of Western but of Indian modernity. Sooraj R. Barjatya really serves as a landmark in the recent evolutions of commercial Hindi cinema. It marked the renewed affection of the middle class for cinema halls, breaking hence all revenue records, and began, only three years after the liberalization of the Indian economy, a trend of unabashed consumerism advocated on the big screen Alessandrini All major blockbusters in the next ten years, a majority of which focused on NRIs, promoted consumption of generally imported brands through international product placements while key actors became known as brand ambassadors and dramatically increased their income through advertising Rao , Uberoi It adds a twist to the trajectory of commodity fetishism in the decade of sudden economic changes at the close of the twentieth century in India.

      Actually, popular Indian cinema in Hindi always revolves around a series of binary oppositions depicting a conflict or a major social change. The choice of capitalist role models, by contrast with the Nehruvian type embodied by Raj Kapoor or the anti-State angry young man interpreted by Amitabh Bachchan, does not only stem from changes in attitude towards consumption in India after , but is also largely dictated by economic motivations. Exemplarity in this case is therefore also meant to please a particular audience, which will identify the NRI figure as a modern achiever.

      This type of remark would be more unlikely today since most of the major international capitals have hosted Bollywood festivals and films been broadcasted on mainstream TV channels.