Provincialising Bollywood

Among the many histories that can possibly be written of Indian cinemas, one would be around the axes of family audience. In mainstream cinema addressing bourgeois urban audiences traditionally addressing the family as the smallest unit of spectatorship, cinema was already situating itself in contrast with the public life in Indian cities where the place of women and family were limited, thanks to various socio-cultural control mechanisms. But even more importantly, it would produce a crack between production and exhibition, two ends of the cinema lifecycle not essentially aligned with the family axis. Therefore, a family film and a family theatre could not always be synchronised, particularly as you moved away from the metropolitan regions. The success of mainstream films, therefore, depended not only upon making the films that would attract a family audience, but also upon bringing the film to a theatre which the family audience would prefer.
When we take into account the heavily risk-prone nature of film trade in India, as well as the coming of video cassettes first, then the television, and finally the digital revolution, we are confronted with a large proportion of theatrical spaces regularly falling out of favour with the middle-class family audience. In a way, then, this project is an attempt to capture the resonances within that cinema culture which thrived in the shadow of family circuits. However, I enter this alternative circuit from the side of contemporary moment, driven as it is by a digital revolution leading to a plethora of media platforms where the audience can access cinema as a product as well as a service. In this multimedia atmosphere, cinema is unable to hold itself together through a linguistic, visual or stylistic schema that would be exclusively its own. And at the same time, spectatorship too has disintegrated into not only individuation, but also highly individuated preferences which demand from cinema, a particular sort of media, not necessarily cinematic, experience.
Having said that, in India, we have seen this fragmentation take multiple forms. If the urban middle- classes have taken to the mall-multiplex as hotbeds of generally youthful consumerism and forced cinema to package itself in a new sensorium, the televisual spectatorship has found deep resonances with middle-aged women across the country, but more often than not, on strongly regional cultural terms. Simultaneous to these two circuits, there has also been an explosion of vernacular media, marked by various orders of subalternity. Not only does this vernacular media address people across cultures through a performative nativity, it very often works with hybridizations of the most eclectic kind. Circulating mostly through illegal circuits on DVDs or cellphones, these circuits are infested with content which may be recycled from older Bollywood fare, or may be remixing folk forms along mainstream popular cultural rhythms. Bhojpuri cinema is one among many of these contemporary vernacular forms doing the rounds of shadow economies, aided by the digital turn, rejuvenated by a pirate modernity, performing the search for the location of culture in a routinely dislocated cultural atmosphere.
Bhojpuri cinema, however, had deeply familial origins. In its first two phases which ended in early 1990s, it produced what was broadly considered rural melodramas attracting large female audiences. In the contemporary phase, however, abandoned by the Bhojpuri middle-classes already in the folds of Hindi – of which Bhojpuri is considered to be a dialect – Bhojpuri cinema stands for being distasteful and vulgar, and only attracts illiterate lower-caste lower-class audience. This phase, fittingly then, originated in Mumbai and then many other towns including Delhi, where large Bhojpuri migrants work as construction labourers, rickshaw pullers, and coolies. Not only were these people unable to afford the mainstream Bollywood fare which had already moved to the modern family theatre – the multiplex – mainstream Bollywood fare itself had moved a few notches above in the technical (broadly visual) sophistication thereby leaving aside regional, rural or hinterland concerns, catering directly to its core trade preferences, much in tune with an overall media turn away from all things outside the urban confines. Coming up in decrepit theatres then, where half the seats would be broken, electricity could be cut off anytime, and no civic sense would prevail, Bhojpuri cinema offered itself to the mofussil audiences in urban crevices, as well as people in mofussil towns unimpressed by the non-resident turn in Hindi cinema. Indeed, as had been the norm across the entire history of B and C circuits – as the ‘other’ cinema circuits are known – the crucial absence in this circuit is that of the female audience.
At the heart of this then, is the question of a civic contact, even a civic gender contract, in the absence of which the vernacular culture industry has an unstable relationship with women in general. Right since the early days of cinema, female audience were earlier sanctioned a separate place in the theatres, or later they would make sure they paid extra for a ‘safe’ place amidst the gentry. After the decline of the ‘feudal family romance’ or social melodramas and the rise of vigilante films filled with violence, female viewership dwindled first, then gave in to home viewing on video formats, also television. The coming of multiplex, however, brought women out in significant proportions, but often limited itself to younger women. A part of this project then, addresses the gender tension at the heart of cinema spectatorship in India thus studying cinematic vulgarity as an affect of the female absence: homosocial masculinity ruling the dark confines of cinema, pulled apart by civic indecency laden with class implications, as manifested most obviously in Bhojpuri cinema. Relatedly, then, it must also be asked whether the gender equation within the vernacular is burdened with a supplemented subalternity, possibly a key to the vulgarity question. The vulgar however is not an easy notion to grapple with. If Bhojpuri cinema contains a performative vulgar, mainstream Hindi cinema has reached the same point after fiddling for a long time with what was considered to be its visual variant. Today, both cinemas are anchored by the consistent production of an other sitting at the heart of their narrative flow: the mujra-style song laden with a blatantly sexual provocation. Not only does the mujra or nautanki refer to a stylistic otherness, it also directly refers to a linguistic otherness always haunting the rapid anglicisation of Hindi cinema. This linguistic tension has vital political resonances with ownership of cultural forms, which erupts through a digital enabling of various notions of ‘our cinema’. It is of utmost importance to study this emergence because it happens simultaneous to the profusion of access to, and excess of, world cinema. Not only does the move then question the ownership of world cinema, but also asserts the negligence of the local in the name of global.
Provincialising Bollywood is a project that attempts to make sense of the efforts to challenge the global through the provincial, in order to combat its hegemony and take charge of pirate networks and shadow economies. Indeed, the provincialisation, as one would expect, not only reconfigures the existing social but also takes place at its cost. The familial note, then, finds itself disfigured, not only by the counter-energies, but more disturbingly by the heavy-duty migrations – enforced upon provincial people by a systematic assault on rural livelihoods – and the propensity of the digital to individuate and to enable an easy copy-culture.

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