The name ‘Bollywood’—till recently there were still some who resented the term thinking it conveyed a satellite status, but now it seems universally accepted—refers not just to the Hindi film industry in general, but also to a specific site, the city of Bombay (now, Mumbai), and a specific style of film-making different from others, particularly in the use of songs and the mixing—some would say the outright murder—of genre conventions.
Before the arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s, the Hindi film was not a Bollywood film as we know it. This distinction is not made in Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History. For Bose, Bollywood begins the day cinema arrived in India in the late 19th century. He has written a curious book, high on enthusiasm but low on insight, containing plenty of personality sketches, but for the most part, rehashing old arguments and interpretations in equally careless prose.
As Bose points out, unlike other western inventions, the cinema came early to India, almost as soon as it was birthed. In December 1895, the Lumiere brothers showed their first selection of short films to a thunderstruck audience in Paris; seven months later, the films were being screened at Watson’s Hotel in Mumbai, and a newspaper carried an advertisement about “the marvel of the century, the wonder of the world”.
India took to the movies almost at once: Viewers were enthralled, short films began to be made immediately by native film-makers, cinema houses mushroomed, and within a few decades, the Indian film industry was the world’s second largest.
How did the new art form capture the Indian imagination so swiftly? Bose does not spend any time over this, but the explanation surely lies in the power of the medium itself. As film theorist Noel Carroll has argued, the movies are an unusually clear and intelligible medium, requiring little or no training on the part of the observer (unlike, for example, reading). Thus, film easily superseded prevailing forms of spectacle in India, such as the theatre.
Several parallel film industries, each working in a different Indian language, sprang up, but of these, the Hindi film industry emerged the strongest. Early on, the Hindi film industry worked along the lines of the Hollywood studio system; later, as star power grew, actors began to freelance and the star system emerged. Many of the early luminaries of Bollywood were foreigners, such as the German director Franz Osten, who made 14 movies between 1935 and 1939, or the spectacular stunt queen Mary Ann Evans, who became famous as ‘Fearless Nadia’.
With the arrival of sound in the 1920s came not just spoken dialogue but, just as significantly, music. Indian popular narrative traditions had always incorporated music, and the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931), had seven songs. As films were then all shot in sync sound, the actors needed to be able to sing capably, as did stars like K.L. Saigal.
Later, image and sound were broken up, and the tradition of playback singing emerged. Bollywood also attracted some of the best writers of the time, like Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto (whose superb memoir of his days in film, Stars From Another Sky, Bose quotes frequently).
From this potential treasure trove of material, Bose has produced a severely undercooked book. Although he has written other good books, most notably, A History of Indian Cricket, Hindi films are clearly not his strong point. His method is to paraphrase a bit of history, augment it with a long quote, supply a few plot summaries here, retail a bit of gossip there. His book does not extend our knowledge of Bollywood. Not only is Bose’s writing pedestrian, his book is full of an unseemly self-regard: He constantly makes references to his own experiences when they have not the least relevance to the subject. Further, coming from a major Indian press, this book is shockingly copy-edited. Grammatical errors and misspellings are abundant: One character is quoted as saying, “In the old days you controlled the release in order to wet (sic) the appetite.” Bollywood: A History does indeed wet the appetite.
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