Welcome to Bollywood


Rochona Majumdar, PhD’03, assistant professor of South Asian languages and civilizations, was pleasantly surprised at the audience who came to hear her Bollywood lecture during the University’s 26th annual Humanities Day last Saturday. “We didn’t know how many had signed up until today,” Majumdar said, apologizing for a shortage of handouts as more than 30 people filed into the Stuart Hall classroom. When she asked if anyone had seen a Bollywood film—a movie produced by India’s Mumbai-based, Hindi-language industry—nearly every hand went up. Majumdar grinned. “Wonderful.”

One of 33 lectures, readings, discussions, tours, and performances offered during Humanities Day, Majumdar’s presentation centered on Bollywood cinema’s song-and-dance sequences, present in nearly every movie the industry produces. An “integral feature” that “turns the mirror back on society,” she said, the “song texts bear the imprint” of social change in India since its 1947 independence. One such change, she said, was the “death of the street” as an open, communal space for Indian people. Showing a song clip from the film Shree 420 (1955), in which the hero is a Charlie Chaplinesque tramp who comes to Mumbai to seek his fortune, Majumdar pointed out, “Here we see the nation comes alive in the street, and the street is the people.” By the 2002 release of Company, a gritty underworld drama, “the street has become a site of strife,” Majumdar said, and it no longer offers a haven for ordinary Indians. “Money for votes, a fraud in a dhoti, a wounded heart: / Meaning your friend fawns on you to your face, then stabs you from behind. / It’s all dirty, but that’s the business,” sing the characters in the Company song “Sab Ganda Hai.”

Comprising the most widely known—although not the only—segment of Indian cinema, Bollywood films today break down into three categories, Majumdar said. First are those like last year’s Bride and Prejudice, produced for Indian expats across the globe and incorporating a huge cast and numerous weddings into stories about happy, wealthy families. Gangster movies like Company, meanwhile, target a domestic audience and offer a grim, often cynical picture of India’s “global economy of crime.” Third—and fewest—are those that Majumdar called “alternate films”—movies that take on issues such as AIDS, sexual harassment, dual-income families, and women’s role in society. “These are the films I find most hopeful,” Majumdar said. “They talk about problems rarely addressed elsewhere.”


Photos: As the Chaplinesque tramp in Shree 420, Raj Kapoor found a haven on Mumbai's open, communal streets (top); the 1955 movie poster for Shree 420 (bottom).

November 3, 2006