From Bombay to Mumbai: capitalism and cinema

Initiated in 2008 to investigate and reflect upon the influence of the city on cinema and the other way round, the arts initiative Cinema City will wrap up on 11 January at a function at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai. The end will be marked, ironically, with the launch of Project Cinema City, a doorstopper tome that, in keeping with the multidisciplinary nature of the project, includes essays on cinema, its links with Mumbai’s spatial geography, graphics, maps, collages and posters riffing on various aspects of the movies (a visual representation of scenes from three movies featuring John Abraham in the Dharavi slum is just one example). Published by Tulika Books, the anthology was preceded by a smaller, and slimmer, book two years ago that featured an idiosyncratic and annotated timeline of Mumbai’s history, overlaid with social, economic and political changes that have transformed the metropolis over the years. The new publication includes the catalogue of an art show mounted in Mumbai and Delhi in 2012 by Majlis, the non-governmental organization that initiated Cinema City in collaboration with Kamla Rajeha Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies, Mumbai, and Max Mueller Bhavan.

Among the meditations on urbanism, capitalism, stardom, inequality, the manufacture of fantasy and the design aesthetic of popular cinema is Princeton University, US, professor Gyan Prakash’s essay on what he calls “Image capitalism"—the manner in which capitalism was packaged for consumption both in real life and on the screen, and the way in which key popular classics represented the hopes and fantasies of the decades gone by. Edited excerpts from Prakash’s essay.

“Image city" means seeing the city as a picture, and the means by which it appears as a set of visual projections. The driving force behind the emergence of this mode of perception was the aestheticization of capitalism that accompanied the growth of mass industrial production in the early twentieth century. Advertising and mass merchandising techniques deployed art, photography and cinema to wrap commodities in an attractive gloss, turning them into objects of desire. Architecture and design pushed forward capitalism’s aesthetic turn, providing stylistic flourishes to the built environment and objects of everyday life. Visuality acquired increasing importance and images permeated social life in the city, giving rise to what can be called, with a nod to Benedict Anderson, ‘image capitalism’.

This image capitalism crystallized in Bombay between the late 1920s and the 1950s, when the city emerged as a modern industrial metropolis. The change could be observed by the early 1930s in advertising. Boxed classified advertisements continued to appear in print, but purple prose, eye-catching graphics and illustrations gained favour. J Walter Thompson (JWT) set up shop in Bombay in 1929, soon becoming the leading agency. The artists and copywriters of JWT, as well as other agencies such as Stronach and Lintas, showcased the novelty and design of buildings, furniture, bathroom fixtures, lighting, automobiles and everyday objects. Their cleverly designed copy, accompanied by eye-catching illustrations, covered the pages of newspapers and magazines. They imparted a glossy sheen to commodities, drawing on such design movements as art deco to provide a stylish spirit to industrial goods.

Art deco emerged at this time as a powerful style that bound commerce with design. Unlike avant-garde or modernist art, it was not utopian but pragmatic; it championed novelty without being radical. It incorporated industrial symbolism in design—clean and simple shapes, the use of plastics and other man-made materials, and the use of decorative motifs without being ornamental.

Other parts of the city, including the Fort, Apollo Bunder, Colaba, Dadar and Mahim, also witnessed the erection of office buildings, homes and apartment blocks built in the style. But the most concentrated cluster of art deco buildings came up on Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan. Not surprisingly, soon after the completion of this picturesque promenade’s construction in the 1940s, Marine Drive became Hindi cinema’s favourite location.

The connection forged between art deco-lined Marine Drive and cinema was not fortuitous. Both emerged as expressions of everyday life under industrial modernity; one in the realm of architecture, the other in the arena of entertainment. Registering this connection were the centrepieces, the grand new art deco cinema theatres: Regal, Eros and Metro. Built in the 1930s, these theatres encased modern technological entertainment in flamboyant design and layers of luxury, making cinema a symbol of modernity, style and exuberant life. They largely screened Hollywood films and catered to the elite. Patronized and shaped by the circuit of advertising, art deco and Hollywood cinema, the upper crust lived and projected Bombay’s image as a modern cosmopolitan society. The colonial, class and linguistic divides did not diminish this capitalist image production; rather, the international flow of capital, people and ideas enabled by the imperial connection became positive elements in providing an aesthetic gloss to capital’s life in Bombay.

Capitalism drew the elite into its fold with a particular set of images, but the address of its aesthetic drive was not limited to it. In this respect, cinema played a critical role. Beginning with the sensational exhibition of cinématographie by the Lumière Brothers at the Watson Hotel on 7 July 1896, and Dadasaheb Phalke’s 1913 film Raja Harishchandra, cinema had come a long way in the city by the 1930s. Increasingly producing films in Hindi—the biggest market—Bombay emerged as the leading centre. Films projected the novelty and excitement of the new industrial medium. The exhilarating spirit of stunt found its most spectacular and popular expression in Wadia Movietone’s ‘Fearless Nadia’ series. Though the heroic exploits

of the blonde warrior Mary Evans, who played Nadia with great aplomb, resonated with the traditional figure of the brave veerangana (female warrior), Nadia exuded the autonomy and individuality of a modern woman.

The achievement of Indian independence in 1947 brought a new phase in Bombay cinema’s expansion and its ambition to reach a mass audience. Not surprisingly, the nation defined Bombay cinema’s narrative frame in the aftermath of independence. But equally important, the city provided the locale for showcasing the nation’s shortcomings. Film after film depicted the failed achievement of full national citizenship in urban unemployment, injustice and crime. The 1950s films of Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand are classics of this genre. Almost always set in Bombay—and frequently using Marine Drive as a mise-en-scène of metropolitan grandeur and romance—they returned again and again to the theme of how money and power in the city came in the way of honest, lawful life and love.

What happens when the historical space for the production of the image city changes under globalization? With consumption spearheading capitalism’s global expansion, marketing and advertising have acquired unprecedented importance in stoking the desire for commodities. Advertisements, hoardings and signage promoting commodities dot the urban landscape. Film stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan trade and enhance their image by becoming brand ambassadors on television. Cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni acquire their iconic status as much by what they achieve on the field as by the display of their advertising power on television and other media. The exponential proliferation of media—television, cable and satellite broadcasting, film, internet and Youtube videos, glossy magazines, tabloids, etc.—now overwhelms the cityscape. In light of the contemporary landscape, an earlier Bombay and its image-circuit appear quaint. Gone is the social imagination that was formed in the space of capital, colony and the nation that animated the melodramas of the 1950s. Substituting for social explanations is an exploration of the city as a space of sensations, emotions, drives, aspirations and style.

Project Cinema City will be launched on 11 January at 5pm.

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