From across Kaala Pani
A diehard Indophile, Rachel Dwyer tries hard to understand Indians, their emotions, religions and films. Watching her hold forth on Bollywood and beyond is a compelling experience
MASALA MYTH Rachel Dwyer: `The myth that song-and-dance in Hindi films turns off a Western audience is rubbish.' PHOTO: SAMPATH KUMAR G.P.
She speaks with the same authoritative breath about Yash Chopra as she does about the country's first silent film Raja Harishchandra, K.L. Saigal's Devdas, the gangster flick Satya and its lovable character Bhiku Mhatre, A.R. Rahman's music or the role of the vidushaka in Sanskrit drama, images of prayaschitta and redemption in films such as Pyaasa and Guide. Rachel Dwyer can give any Indian a complex, with her vast and deep understanding of Hindi film history, Hinduism and oh-so-many-more subjects, without any colonial trappings.
It's indeed an insider's perspective: she's stepped into the great Indian film akhada and seen, heard and felt for herself this mesmerising phenomenon, but admits humbly that hers is not a definitive perspective; only one she hopes will get people thinking.
With over eight books on Bollywood and various aspects of Indian modernity to her credit already, and two more in the offing, Rachel just can't seem to stop. Something her publishers love about her. She agrees she's seen as someone unusual. A professor in London who writes voraciously on Bollywood, and with such passion. (Her friends call her "The Factory", confesses this RGV fan, pleased with the reference.)
A Reader in Indian Studies and Cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London, she's currently working on the book Filming the Gods: Religion and Hindi Cinema. Her books on Yash Chopra and 100 Hindi Films are doing well in India and abroad. She was in Bangalore on the invitation of the British Council and the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society and spoke extensively to students on religion and films at St. Joseph's College.
An Indian would find it difficult to believe and refuse to understand why she did her B.A. in Sanskrit and her Ph.D. on Vaishnava poet Dayaram's Gujarati lyrics, and then switched to writing about Hindi cinema.
"I was interested in classical languages. I did Greek and Latin in school. So I took Sanskrit in college. But when I first came to India in 1981, what I had learnt didn't fit into the modern India I saw," explains Rachel. "It was as if history was compressed in India. Things were changing rapidly over a short period of time."
She started studying the more modern India and found a link in new Indian writing, especially fiction. Friends in Baroda, where she was doing her Ph.D., got her to see Hindi films. "The first Hindi film I ever saw was on a video coach on my way to Chandigarh. It was awful!" she laughs. She had already seen 10 intense years of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen classics before she encountered her first Hindi masala flick.
But she had arrived when a new genre of Indian films had arrived Maine Pyar Kiya and Chandni had hit the screens and they intrigued Rachel. "I didn't know Hindi, so I started watching films for the language. Then, things started to connect."
Hindi films today have a lot more Western influence, though this influence has always been there, feels Rachel. "The social duality has been there. But often something was taken from the West and so Indianised, it couldn't be recognised. It's like when friends here try and cook me stuff that I eat back home, but inevitably end up putting green chillies in them!" But it's this green-chilli-Indianness that is working wonders for Indian films in U.K. and the U.S. now, says Rachel.
And she radically breaks down this masala myth. "The myth that song-and-dance in Hindi films turns off a Western audience is rubbish. People want to see Indian costumes, locations. No one wants to see Indian heroines wearing Western rip-offs! They want to see gritty realistic cities and the crime and life of the underworld. A film like Bunty aur Babli will go down well with such audiences. When I was playing the film's music in my car, people asked me what it was because they loved it. Everybody in U.K. loved Monsoon Wedding."
It also helps that one of Rachel's big loves is music, and that she is partial to old Hindi film hits, those associated with her youth. "Today it's more dance music. But that's what people in U.K. like about the new films." She loved Kandukondein Kandukondein for the melding of the same two factors traditional costumes and great music.
Indian cinema is the only one in the world that can stand up to Hollywood, says Rachel. But will Bollywood be said in the same breath as Hollywood one day? "I don't know... " she slowly admits, but doesn't dismiss the idea at once. Hollywood is a giant, and one who's been there real long; it's a marketing maverick loaded with script doctors. Hollywood is also getting smarter, brining in directors like Ang Lee and others from Hong Kong and Taiwan. "Cinema is so much about fantasy, and everyone's fantasy is not the same. But Hollywood has created a universal fantasy."
Rachel is convinced that marketing is the biggest problem Indian films face abroad. "The wrong films get sent abroad. Language is not really a barrier, but some films are far too long. And star power doesn't work outside India. No audience in the U.S. knows who Shah Rukh Khan is." Tamil films are making it big now in the U.K., with the large presence of Sri Lankans. "Now I can see Mani Ratnam's films with sub-titles. I love his films; they are so exquisite to look at. He is definitely one Indian director who can cross over. Malayalam films, especially Adoor's, are well-known in the art film circuit. But I still can't find sub-titled Telugu films in the DVD market," she complains. "A lot of people ask me where I see Indian films headed in the future and I say `Ask me after the next release!' because each one brings unpredictable turns."
Her friends and colleagues suspect she was an Indian in her previous janma, she laughs. But adds with a twinkle in her eye she still can't figure out what karma and paap acted on her stars that she was born across the Kaala Pani.
Check out her website www.racheldwyer.com
`Never underestimate the ignorance of the West about India'
Indian film studies is a new and emerging discipline. And institutional support is necessary if such studies are to be encouraged, says Rachel Dwyer. "You need money for such research." She points out that even today, in the West, those studying Indian cinema are essentially people of Indian origin. One of the first formal studies on the Indian film industry was an "enquiry" in 1927 by the British Government that wanted to know if films contained any propaganda against the Empire!
Speaking of how Indian art and Indian films are still unpopular abroad, she hands out a friendly warning: "Never underestimate the ignorance of the West about India."
But it won't be of much help if writings on Bengali cinema, for example, remain in the Bengali language alone, untranslated and inaccessible. There have been studies on nationalism in Indian cinema, never secularism. The study on religion in cinema is long overdue. A look at Hindu and Indian modernity, which she sees are two very different things, is necessary, feels Rachel.
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