Mainstream cinema has always tried to create a singular, gendered and coherent sensibility it needs to be commercially viable…

Melodrama and the Nation is a veritable compendium of Bollywood. Although it has two primary aims — to “analyse the ways in which gender and sexuality emerged in the cinema of [the 1970s]” and the correspondence between the Bombay film industry and the birth of the nation — it also examines a vast number of allied themes which Bollywood has aided in constructing. These include ideas relating to masculinity, femininity, heroes and villains, patriarchy, heterosexuality and a host of other aspects.

But as one reads on, the author's concerns appear to be endless as the narrative moves breathlessly from realism and realist representations to film certification and censorship, from camera work to sound systems, and from “art” films to the “protocols of ‘international' realism.” However, Gabriel soon settles down to pronounce that her chief interest lies in mainstream cinema, but one that is demarcated from commercial, popular and “masala” films. While “popularity” makes “mainstream” cinema a “commercial” success, mainstream does not imply any of these in their totality. For example, “Maine Pyar Kiya”, “Ardh Satya” and even “Sholay” were not produced as mainstream films, yet made enormous forays into the mainstream. On the other hand, mainstream films like “Khuda Gawah” and “Jadugar”, conceived as “formula” films that were sure to succeed at the box office, bombed.

Neglecting minorities

For Gabriel, mainstream cinema necessitates the creation of a “national audience” by homogenising a variety of classes and groups to construct a “singular, ‘coherent' national sensibility”. Such cinema, thereby, is negligent of the minorities as it ossifies the patriarchal system, reinforces the disempowerment of women and accentuates the marginalisation of subalterns. It thus creates the primary problematic of the nation which is a hyper-masculine narrative of cult, iconic figures. Concordantly, the icon of mainstream cinema became “the angry young man”, the vigilante of the nation, Amitabh Bachchan, who slowly but surely edged out the heroine. A quintessentially masculinist, homosocial perspective has been the primary expression of Hindi cinema when it seeks to represent “Indianness”, one that inevitably excludes “others” such as the women, the Muslims and the lower classes. Side by side with this “orthodoxy of sexual economy”, there was a phenomenal increase in screen violence as themes of rebellion and vendetta took over. It was only in the late 1980s, with the ageing of the angry young man and the decline of this genre, that issues of female agency and the lop-sidedness of power relations begin to encroach upon the former. As Shyam Benegal says, “Most people have multiple identities. . . . [T]o coerce them into a single identity is not meaningful and sometimes outright dangerous, generating very strong xenophobic or chauvinistic emotions which are destructive.”

Thus, a study of gendering on the cultural plane becomes part of Gabriel's project of cinema studies. As she writes, “the cultural text of Hindi cinema is simultaneously a construction of sexualities and the inscription of ‘culture'.” The former includes theories relating to gender, sexuality, nationalism, modernity and post-colonialism while the latter explores cinematic form, genre and textual analysis of Hindi cinema dexterously woven through the eight chapters.

Gendered view

As we well know from many studies on the gendered nature of the nation-state, the nation has not only been imagined symbolically in feminine terms but has also appropriated feminist demands to the extent that women have been marginalised utterly, as is evident from films like J. P. Dutta's “Border” and Nana Patekar's “Prahaar”. I might add for the lay reader that Gabriel's book enables the readership thereby to understand why women tend to play the part of ma, biwi, behen and bahu rather than what are called “meaningful” roles. This perhaps highlights the significance of “melodrama” in the title and its synonymous equation with Bollywood. The same goes for women directors who are sometimes not even trusted with handling machines and technology.

Melodrama and the Nation: Sexual Economies of Bombay Cinema, 1970-2000, Karen Gabriel, Women Unlimited, p. 392. Rs. 595.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012