Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Bhaiyyas Fight Back

Back in the late 1990s, before I had ever heard of Bhojpuri films, I used to wonder what would stop large sections of the domestic audience seceding in the face of Bombay cinema's turn "away" from the traditional hinterlands of Bollywood audiences, and "toward" (mere?) consumerism. For anyone who wishes to understand the future of popular cinema in large parts of the Hindi heartland, this piece is a must.

One problematic aspect that I would have liked the piece to have explored is the posited link between "cultural values" and how women comport/dress themselves onscreen. I am of course highly sympathetic to the view that contemporary Hindi cinema alienates large numbers of Indian moviegoers, but I am troubled by the notion that "our" culture dictates only one sort of gender relation, such that cultural authenticity becomes synonymous with a reified view of femininity and of the "place" of women...

On balance, of course, the flowering of Bhojpuri cinema is of tremendous significance. Although the industry is facing a financial crunch (this piece warns of the possibility, but I have read news articles over the last year suggesting that the crunch is already here), I do not believe it is going anywhere, and represents a major cultural development (who would have thought 20 years ago that a thriving "regional" industry might mean not Tamil or Telugu but the milieus that put the "heart" in "heartland"). I've never seen a Bhojpuri film, but I am certainly fascinated by that industry as a social phenomenon, as well as by the fact that points to the possibility of the survival of "local" idioms even in an era dominated by big corporations, big money, and big media...


Latika Neelakantan said...

Qalandar, thank you for your kind and helpful comments on my article. You make an important point about the way "cultural authenticity" in this case goes along with particular gendered representations. I hope to make this more clear in my academic work - but did try to indicate in the article that this cultural revival is spearheaded by elites, really, by a migrant bourgeoisie. These are their definitions of what is authentic and what is not, based in part on their own kind of audience ethnography (many directors and distributors sit in theaters and observe reactions and do interviews, as I did). Of course the people I spoke to were based in Bombay and therefore observed an overwhelmingly male audience. I don't know if Bihar-based distributors observe audiences in the same way. (I plan to go to Bihar at some point, haven't done this yet). It is also interesting to think about how their perception of audience behaviour may affect who they speak to - do they see men as dictating tastes? And does being questioned in this way change the preferences of audience members who may get cues about what they are supposed to like? Are these the folks who typically would go up and talk to the person hanging around trying to talk to somebody?! Requires more observation than I managed.

The clothing-fixation happens to dovetail neatly with the male migrant's view, which has something to do with the massive transformations in gender relations that the very fact of migration brings about. I did not do fieldwork in Bihar, but I imagine that audience reactions there will have a slightly different take women's clothing.

Also - all Bhojpuri films have nautankis and mujras, which the directors curiously call "item numbers" - and describe as a Bhojpuri invention carried over into Hindi films! Women's clothing is of the "saucy rustic" variety in these songs (I mentioned this in the article). These aren't 'respectable' women in the narrative, although they are not "western" or "urban" either.

Also, there is a very interesting thing about the way "westernised" women figure in some of these films. Take Sasura Bada Paisawala, the biggest Bhojpuri blockbuster till now. The woman in western clothes is actually a migrant student who has returned from the city for a holiday. Such travelling figures are part of the landscape of Bhojpuri film. Even after she falls in love and starts wearing sarees, she is still more sexually aggressive than the man - and some very "authentically" Bhojpuri bawdy songs speak to this theme. Clothing "means" something beyond authentic/inauthentic even if it is spoken of in that register - it is a pretext for arguing about changing power relations resulting (in part) from the institutionaization of seasonal and permanent migration.

Qalandar said...

Your comment is as insightful as the original piece was! Very very useful to me, there is much food for thought here...I especially am intrigued by the way in which you interrogate/examine clothing "beyond" the authentic/inauthentic divide...superb stuff!