Utpal Borpujari

October 10, 2008

Seduced by the Familiar: An incisive look at mainstream Hindi cinema

Raghavendra’s book makes great reading if you are believe there is more to Hindi cinema than just mindless entertainment, writes Utpal Borpujari



Indian popular or mainstream cinema mostly panders to the frivolous when it comes to themes and treatment. The allegation, particularly from those who believe cinema as a serious art form, often is that it caters largely to the lowest common denominator when it comes to creativity, a few exceptions here and there notwithstanding.


The allegation may well be true, but the fact remains that this opium of the masses in India is the only popular art form which attracts a frenzy incomparable to any other mass media. Quite expectedly, most of the books written on Hindi cinema, referred to as Bollywood across the world, too end up as celebrity-chasing hagiographies or coffee table books, though there have been honorable exceptions, including some illuminating analyses by the likes of B D Garga, Chidananda Dasgupta, Ashish Nandy, Sudhir Kakar, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Ravi Vasudevan.


M K Raghavendra’s Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford University Press) falls in the category of exceptions. Raghavendra’s writings more often than not have focused on deconstruction of cinema from the sociological point of view. Examples that this are galore in Deep Focus, the academic film journal of which he was the founder-editor, and in many other publications. And this book is no different.


Raghavendra selects some iconic Hindi films made over the years for his analyse,

through which he has sought to offer a fresh perspective to look at them – as a tool that continually soaks in the socio-political situation of the country and in turn offers a commentary on it. And what he has done makes quite an absorbing read, though for the reader, it remains a niggling question whether the sub-text that Raghavendra has read in a particular film was consciously co-opted into the script by the filmmaker or not. It is more likely that it has been mostly a case of sub-conscious co-option, but nevertheless the reading of the sub-text makes the book a highly-interesting read.


The Bangalore-based academic has chosen the films for deconstruction quite carefully. They are more often than not path-breaking films in the Hindi film industry, for either their commercial success or their content that sought to break new ground despite firmly remaining within the parameters of the so-called mainstream formulae. From Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949) to Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), and from Suraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! (1994) to Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), Raghavendra scans a vast list of highly-successful Hindi films to offer his arguments. And to put things in a global perspective, he studies the traits of Hindi films of various periods with the cinema made in Hollywood at the same time, contrasting and comparing the trends.


Raghavendra states quite clearly at the very beginning of the book that academic study of Indian cinema has become highly difficult in present-day India because of what he calls a “vast gap” that has opened up between the academic critics and the lay spectator. But he refused to pander to the whims of this majority chunk – as most of the market-savvy chronicler of the story of Bollywood tend to do – and dives headlong into his core strength area of academic analyses.


The author admits that trying to even list out the traits of popular cinema could be a hazardous exercise because “what the critic notices usually depends on his or her agenda”. And he also makes it clear that his study of a film is focused on its narration from the point of view of representation of space, time and logic.


Some of the analyses offered in the book – of films made by the likes of early filmmakers like Baburao Painter, Franz Osten and Ardeshir Irani to recent filmmakers like Ramesh Sippy, quite fascinating to read if one is interested in reading more into popular Hindi cinema going beyond its primary role to entertain the masses. For example, it says that Khan’s Andaz, made just after India attained its independence, makes an attempt to provide the image of a modern India, even though it by itself does not have any historical marker to contextualise it in those terms. Or in Mahal, it argues that Ashok Kumar’s and his characters belonging to the legal professions suggests that they belong to the ruling class and the fact that the former was reincarnation of an earlier ruler suggests that the ruling class of independent India are just a continuation of the class during British India.



Divided into decade-wise chapters, the book argues that mainstream Hindi cinema is able to permeate the farthest corners of India because it follows an idiom in which all localised references are avoided so that everybody can connect with the characterisations through specific melodramatic and generalised societal traits.


Seduced… makes a highly-intelligent reading. It is definitely not a book for readers who look for the frivolous, but it is certainly a must read for anyone who is well-versed about and loves mainstream Indian cinema.


(Seduced by the Familiar; by M K Raghavendra; OUP; Price Rs 695; pp 362)


 (An abridged version of the review was carried in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 10-10-2008)


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