Reimagining nation, reasserting region

Apart from books on the celebrated dyad of Indian cinema — Hindi films and Bengali directors — the epitome of commerce and art, other cinemas in India seldom get a mention in these ‘national’ narratives.

Written by CS Venkiteswaran | Updated: November 18, 2017 12:08:10 am
Beyond Bollywood, MK Raghavendra, Harper Collins, indian express book review A panoramic view of the film industry down south that will appeal to scholars and cine-fans equally.

Book- Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India
Edited- MK Raghavendra
Publisher- Harper Collins
Pages- 352 
Price- Rs 499

The term Bollywood is often used synonymously with ‘Indian’cinema, and is considered the ‘national’ cinema of India. Though in terms of thematic diversity, technical excellence and production figures, cinemas like Tamil and Telugu outrun and outshine it, the synonym persists in popular discourses and haunt Índian’ film studies.

Apart from books on the celebrated dyad of Indian cinema — Hindi films and Bengali directors — the epitome of commerce and art, other cinemas in India seldom get a mention in these ‘national’ narratives. They are dubbed ‘regional’ or ‘vernacular’ in the pan-Indian art and commercial discourses. Some exceptions from the past are attempts by Theodore Bhaskaran, Randor Guy and MSS Pandian who wrote on Tamil cinema, Aruna Vasudev and John Wood on the Indian new wave, Avijit Ghosh on Bhojpuri cinema, MK Raghavendra on Kannada cinema, and SV Srinivas on Telugu cinema.

In the last decades, with film studies becoming part of university curricula, there is a renewed interest in the histories of other language cinemas in India. But they too are largely writings in English, produced by and for, the academicians. In this context, Beyond Bollywood edited by MK Raghavendra is a welcome attempt — one that is scholarly but refreshingly free of academic jargon and is useful for scholars, researchers as well as cineastes. The book brings together four long essays which are panoramic surveys of the history of four major language cinemas in South India, viz., Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam.

In his introduction to the book, Raghavendra probes the question why Hindi cinema is considered ‘national cinema, and makes some very insightful observations about the ‘regionality’ of regional cinemas. According to him, Hindi cinema which has placed itself in the position of non-local cinema, along with the ‘nation’ imagined by it was always asymmetric; “if it was once dominated by the ‘cow belt’, it is now increasingly centred on the metropolitan city, usually Mumbai and sometimes Delhi, but rarely Kolkata or Chennai.”

He goes on to observes that, compared to Bollywood, regional cinemas are richer and more complex. They are rich in their ‘signifiers’ and so, more challenging for the interpreter, “for they address local concerns as well as national ones and take overlapping identities — the regional one based on language as well as the national one — into consideration in addressing their chosen constituencies.”

The focus of the book is on popular cinema, and each essay follows its own method and trajectory to chart the history of cinema, along with their thematic evolution as well as growth as an industry. N Kalyan Raman, begins his delightful essay on Tamil cinema, that explores the relationship between cinema and society, by cautioning the reader that it “deals with the narrative content of only those Tamil films that are seen to have an apparent connection with societal trends and events’ and forthrightly admits that ít is not informed by theory, critical or otherwise.” He journeys through the history of Tamil cinema that constantly wove dreams of belonging and the identity of Tamil people.

He examines the plethora of early mythologicals, later replaced by social reformist themes in the next decades that, in turn, synergised with the Self Respect Movement of Periyar to create ‘Dravidian’ cinema. He follows the thematic shifts in cinema and its constant engagement with social and political movements, the rise of MGR, the return to village themes on the one hand and urban angst on the other, followed by the return of caste and Dalit themes in contemporary cinema.

MK Raghavendra’s essay on Kannada cinema surveys the shifts in address within Kannada cinema, which “began by addressing only the citizens of princely Mysore”, whose moral discourse revolved around the conflict between dharma and artha, to the centrality achieved by Bengaluru city. Sketching the political events leading to and following the linguistic reorganisation of Karnataka state, the author follows the shifts in national and regional political formations in their confrontations and negotiations over the idea/l of the nation and modernity as reflected and refracted in film narratives. He ends his essay by saying, “if Kannada cinema must reinvent itself to survive, it must necessarily address the experiences of those outside its traditional territory, which has itself gradually shrunk to the environs of Bengaluru, dealing mainly with those who are forced to interact with the city”.

Sathya Prakash’s essay on the Telugu film industry offers a concise chronological account of it by surveying major events and films in each decade. It traces in detail the patterns of film production, thematic shifts and the emergence of major directors and stars from the beginning to the present. The author’s focus is on weaving a historical narrative that is supported by details, data and dates, offering a panoramic view of Telugu cinema through decades.

Meena Pillai’s theoretically informed essay on Malayalam cinema looks at the role of cinema in the making of Keralam and Malayali modernity. The attempt is to trace the history of Malayalam cinema “beginning with the post-sacred genre of social in Malayalam cinema and tracing back to its melodramatic, mythological and revivalist trends” in order to explore “the contextual and textual elements of the popular in the cinema, through forging connections with the historical, social and cultural specificities of their reception”.

Given the lack of analytical writing on films, filmmakers and film industry other than Bollywood, this book is a significant contribution to the understanding of south Indian cinemas. One hopes this collection will trigger new dialogues and debates about the ideas about and the configurations of the regional and the national.

The writer is a film critic and documentary filmmaker

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