Review: Indian Popular Cinema

Indian Popular Cinema
Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change
K. Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake
Trentham Books Limited, Staffordshire, England, 1998

Review Copyright © 1999 Garret Wilson — January 5, 1999, 4:00pm

In learning more about Indian cinema, I was looking for a book that gave insight into the various devices it uses, an explanation of its relation to Indian culture, an introduction to some of its major figures, or at least an overview of its history. Disappointingly, while the book at times claims to address these issues, overall the composition of Indian Popular Cinema by K. Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake is jumbled, incoherent, and weak in its content.

It’s not that some of these subjects are not discussed. History of Indian cinema is presented to some extent. A few devices are explained. You’ll learn about some famous actors, actresses, and directors. The authors even attempt to show how what is on the screen relates to Indian culture. What is lacking the most, however, is structure and depth.

The book needs to have been rearranged — maybe an outline would have helped. Several items were discussed two or three times, with almost identical content in both areas — take, for example, the information on Hinduism and dharma: page 54 is mostly just a rehash of the information back on page 39. Why are some points made over and over, with little or no additional information given? The six influences of Indian cinema from the first chapter (17) are discussed yet again in chapter six (94), yet there seems to be no substantial reason (other than to give more content to another chapter) to go over the same material, resulting in two discussions that would greatly benefit from combining and restructuring. Maybe a very small mention of the six topics, followed by a more intense discussion later, would have made more of an impact.

It’s possible that an outline was actually used for the book, but if one was used it (besides being poorly arranged) didn’t seem to gain much content in the actual creation of the book. A few directors are named and a few major actor and actresses are discussed, but everything feels very superficial. The only section that seemed to make any sort of impression was the fifth chapter, "Women in Indian Cinema" (75).

On the whole, one comes away with the feeling that the authors didn’t know the information first-hand, and instead used second-hand (and third- and fourth-hand) information throughout. In a very extreme example, we read that the authors quote from a work which in turn reviews several books the authors of which give opinions on the conditions of India under Indira Gandhi: "Sharma records how the authors of the books he reviewed noted that, ‘Nepotism, corruption, and venal personal conduct became... a pervasive part of the political culture..." (104). After reading that, I think I would have rather read Sharma’s work firsthand, or maybe some of the books Sharma reviewed.

The authors seem so distant from the actual information as to make the work seem as if it were created by a student for a dissertation — and a poor dissertation, at that. In fact, some of the material is drawn directly from a paper presented at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London (43). (I must say that I, currently attending SOAS myself, am impressed with the source, but I have attended paper presentations there and think that a book should be more than just a reformulating of someone else’s paper.) Continuing on the theme of staying far away from original sources, they draw from a postgraduate paper from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (47). Apart from a few personal interviews (in particular a phone interview by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya), nothing strikes me as original. Speaking about the monetary aspects of film-making, for example, the authors do little more than provide a reading list of works by other writers (48).

The book doesn’t even seem to have been proofread extensively. Quoting Arora, for example, an entire quoted section is not indented properly (51). They refer to the Bhagavad Gita as a "famous Hindi text" (55). Did they mean, "Hindu text?" Wasn't the "Bhagavad Gita" in Sanskrit? And if "Religious Symbolism in Film" is the "third category of religious films" (57), why aren't the rest of the categories given subheadings as well?

Even the style of the writing varies. Over half-way through the book, the style suddenly temporarily switches into "after-movie-study-guide" mode, asking questions about a certain movie, such as, "When you are watching the film, what do you think...?" and "How does...?" — a structure found nowhere else in the book (88).

Besides the chapter on women in Indian Cinema, about the only insight I received that seemed transcend the superficial was an observation by Raina that there is a Middle Cinema that exists between popular cinema and artistic cinema. This Middle Cinema raises issues but really doesn't address them, appealing to a middle-class audience (89). Even here, however, this observation was not an original concept of the authors.

The book seems to be build on simple facts, simply presented. The fact that Hollywood film-makers try to conceal the "constructed nature" of the films while Indian film-makers make no attempt to do so, for example, is repeatedly mentioned and highlighted throughout the book (but not really expounded upon), as if such an observation is earth-shattering and in itself bears repeating (95). Neither this book nor its content is earth-shattering. If you don’t have access to any other books on Indian Cinema, and have never seen an Indian movie, you’ll learn some things from the book. If you already know that Indian movies contain a lot of singing and dances, are usually in Hindi but are sometimes in other languages, and that they reflect Indian culture in their portrayal of women, living conditions, and religious differences, and you want a bit more insight, maybe you should pass on this one.