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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Bollywood backstory

Rochona Majumdar calls Hindi film music a “series of codes” tracing India’s history.

photo: Since the 1980s, Majumdar says, the “we the people” of India’s constitution has disappeared from Bollywood screens.

Since the 1980s, Majumdar says, the “we the people” of India’s constitution has disappeared from Bollywood screens.

There’s no getting around the song-and-dance sequences in a Bollywood film. Interspersed throughout the narrative, these lavish, melodramatic spectacles—closely choreographed and overdubbed by professional singers—send actors leaping and whirling mid-scene. Almost every Bollywood film, serious and silly alike, includes half a dozen musical numbers, often pushing the movies’ running times past three hours. Some critics complain that the interludes are tedious, contrived, or  have little bearing on the plot. They call them ostentatious and unnecessarily theatrical. “In short,” says Chicago film and cultural historian Rochona Majumdar, PhD’03, the critics argue the songs “keep Bollywood”—India’s Hindi film industry—“in a state of primitive cinema.” After all, musicals ceased to be a Hollywood staple decades ago.

But Majumdar doesn’t see it that way. A native Bengali, the South Asian languages & civilizations assistant professor teaches Indian film and cultural history. She views the song-and-dance sequences as a mirror reflecting—more or less intentionally—India’s social and political transformations. In the six decades since the country’s independence, inaugural prime minister Jawahar-lal Nehru’s nationalist, populist government, rooted in socialist ideals, has given way to neoliberalism and globalization. On the screen, this evolution meant the end of “the category known as ‘the people,’” Majumdar says, a concept that found its seminal depiction in films by legendary actor, director, and producer Raj Kapoor. In 1955 Kapoor sang and danced his way into city life in the wildly popular Shree 420. A Chaplinesque tramp and endearing swindler, Kapoor’s character embodied India’s ordinary citizenry, “the ‘we the people’ enshrined in first line of the Indian constitution,” Majumdar says. Full of joy and laughing at his own poverty, he sings a nationalist refrain, translated: “My shoes are Japanese / These trousers English, if you please / On my head, a Russian hat; / My heart’s Indian for all that.”

Upon arrival in the metropolis of Bombay, he makes himself at home on its streets, which become “his domain, a national space he claims as his own,” Majumdar says. “The street belongs to the ordinary, the underprivileged.” In movies like Shree 420 (whose title refers to the Indian penal code outlawing theft and deception), average In-dians come exultantly to life on the street despite squalor, overcrowding, and routine petty crime. To Bollywood songwriters in the 1950s and ’60s, city streets were playful and teeming with possibilities. Albeit idealized, their depictions animated a then-true national identity: in “innumerable” songs, Majumdar says, “you see the dream of socialist India come to life.”

As the global economy arrived at India’s shores in the 1980s, however, the collective people disappeared from Bollywood screens. The iconic city street darkened, becoming a “contested space,” she says, where people from different religions, castes, and professions—criminal or otherwise—strove for dominance. Bollywood itself splintered, producing different films for distinct audiences. India’s wealthy diaspora saw movies in which characters from large, affluent families fall in love and get married, their weddings setting the stage for grand musical sequences. Often these films, which emphasize individual—rather than universal—experiences, are set abroad in places like Switzerland, Egypt, or New Zealand. These are the films foreigners consider typical Bollywood fare, and their popularity has inspired Hollywood and other film industries to use Bollywood conventions, directors, and stars for movies like Monsoon Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham, and Bride and Prejudice.

For Indian residents, meanwhile, Bollywood filmmakers began producing gritty gangster movies. Shot domestically, they reflect the country’s growing disillusionment with politics and public life, Majumdar says, portraying “the web of crime and corruption that welds India to an informal global economy of crime.” Politicians are presumed to be corrupt, and criminals are threatening. “You see the city as urban ruins, almost,” a change that corresponds to a real rise in murder and violence, and to the popular perception of “a nexus between underworld smugglers, terrorism, and anti-nationalist elements.”

Protagonists have retreated from the streets into alleyways and discotheques. No levity lingers, for instance, in a song from the 2002 movie Company, which accompanies a dimly lit nightclub dance. “Money for votes, a fraud in a dhoti, a wounded heart,” a man sings to a driving beat. “Meaning your friend fawns on you to your face, then stabs you from behind. / It’s all dirty, but that’s the business.”

A third, smaller faction of Bollywood makes films about social issues like gay rights, AIDS, women’s empowerment, and sexual harassment. “I welcome these ‘alternative films,’” Majumdar says, even though their audience is only a thin slice of educated India. “They rattle you; they make you think these problems could happen to you. In that sense, they’re interventionist.”

Despite frequently somber themes, even the alternative films—such as My Brother Nikhil, about a champion swimmer with AIDS, or Being Cyrus, a dark comedy on serial murders in an affluent Parsi community—include musical numbers. Asked if Bollywood might someday shed song and dance, Majumdar responds: “Very emphatically no.” Often outliving their films, the songs almost always make more money. Their popularity, in fact, dates to India’s independence, when broadcast minister B. V. Keskar tried, for the sake of “good taste,” Majumdar says, to ban them from the national radio station. When listeners defected to a privately owned station, he relented. “If anything, song and dance will be the site of more innovation,” she says. “It’s happening already. Bollywood music is a thriving and important industry.”

The category of the people, meanwhile, may be making a comeback. In movies that “creatively use history in ways that make historians uncomfortable,” Majumdar says, filmmakers have begun stoking Indian patriotism and reviving the heroic everyman. “These films become the voice of the people.” She cites 2005’s The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, about a sepoy who fired at British officers in 1857, launching a rebellion that doomed the East India Company. Some historians insist Pandey was drunk, but the film portrays him as a nationalist, romantic hero. “Films like this make history come alive,” she says. “Not according to any objective, rigorous standards, but in a loose sense” that’s “more in keeping with the pulse of the people.” And, of course, there’s music and dancing.