Bollywood’s Starry-Eyed Fans, Movie Moguls, and the Invisible Workers Behind the Camera

In her new book, Bombay Hustle, Professor Debashree Mukherjee tells the story of the rise of the Indian film industry.

Professor Debashree Mukherjee says in her new book, “Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City,” that the Indian films of the 1930s, like those of today, covered everything from the serious and political to frivolous mass entertainment. (Photo: Columbia.edu)

Drawing on original archival research and an interdisciplinary approach, Debashree Mukherjee, a professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, offers a panoramic portrait of the consolidation of the Bombay film industry during the talkie transition of the 1920s to the 1940s in her new book, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City.

She recently discussed the book with Columbia News, along with her recommendations for the best films to watch now, what she’s been reading, and who she would invite to a dinner party.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. More than a decade ago, I had quite a different life and career. I was working full-time in Mumbai’s film and TV industries, navigating many different emotions and situations—from joy in my work to freelancer precarity, ridiculously overpriced rental apartments to a fantastic community of kind, talented colleagues. As a freelancer, I had a lot of spare time between gigs, and I started to ask questions about the history of film practice in Mumbai. Why do we make the films we do? Where did these techniques, aesthetics, and ideas about cinema come from? These questions arose out of my own deeply felt identification of myself as a media worker. I had to make a deep dive into official and unofficial archives, searching for fragile traces of lived experience to try to answer the questions. I believe that understanding the past—its practices and its people—can give us a critical view of who we are today, and also help us imagine our futures differently.

Q. How did the early 1930s days of Bombay cinema reflect the relationship between the developing, modernizing city and the anticolonial agitation that was occurring not only in Bombay, but throughout India?

A. The 1930s are the decade in which talkie films emerged and took over the popular imagination, at least in places that were able to rapidly build talkie movie theaters. In Bombay—which soon had the largest number of theaters as well as producing studios in South Asia—cinema became a vital part of efforts to modernize, to reform society, to build wealth, or to critique colonialism. It is hard to overstate the importance of watching people who look like you on screen, and—with the availability of talkie technology in the 1930s—to listen to them speaking in your language. So, despite the continued popularity of Hollywood films, locally made movies in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Marathi, and Bengali became a huge craze.

Bombay Hustle looks at how the people making these movies (many of them working invisibly behind the camera) inhabited and crafted techniques of becoming modern, becoming free, or becoming cine-workers. These practices of becoming, of making movies, and remaking selves is crucial to understanding the place of cinema in the history of South Asia. At the same time, we can see that the desires of colonized peoples don’t always coincide with the idea of the nation-state.

A book cover with text and a photo of people on a film set.

Q. What sorts of films were being made in Bombay at that time?

A. The short answer is: all kinds of films! From Arabian Nights tales of magic and adventure to Hindu mythological films about beloved gods and goddesses and stunt films featuring badass heroines, Bombay’s film companies were spinning out stories to appeal to a range of tastes. The genre I focus most on in my book is what were called “socials” by filmmakers and journalists at the time—contemporary films that dealt with the challenges of modern life. Though most of these films are lost to us forever, I invoke their traces to stitch together a picture of how cinema spoke to local anxieties of stock market crashes and the financialization of everyday life; desires for companionate marriage and female higher education; dreams of wealth redistribution and an equitable society.

Q. How does the 1930s Indian film industry compare to today’s Bollywood?

A. Like today’s films, those of the 1930s ranged from serious and political to frivolous mass entertainment. But across genres, there was an impulse back then to speak to ideas of modernity and freedom, drawing on the momentum of various anticolonial and social movements of the day. As I try to show in the book, these cinematic imaginings of the future could be vastly different and nuanced, as well as surprising for the 21st century viewer/reader.

The term Bollywood tends to obscure a lot of the dynamism and variety in contemporary film output from Mumbai. Yes, apart from the continuing trend of socially conservative films, there is also a very dangerous trend of hypernationalist films and blatantly Islamophobic historical epics whose raison d’etre seems to be mainly to curry favor with the current political regime. At the same time, there are filmmakers who are actively telling other stories about progressive politics and social justice.

Q. What movies would you recommend watching during the pandemic?

A. The pandemic lockdown in India has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times—the mass migration of labor from big cities back home by foot. Scenes from these excruciating journeys have played nonstop on social media and some national news channels, prompting a new recognition among the country’s urban middle classes of migrant labor, domestic workers, and informal work. In this context, two films that I found especially useful to rewatch recently were Gaman (1978), Muzaffar Ali’s debut film that tells a simple but powerful story about a young man who leaves his wife and mother to find work in Mumbai as a taxi driver; and Kharij (1982), a remarkable film by Mrinal Sen that directly confronts middle class complicity and caste exploitation. Both films are about the lived life of labor, and, as such, they speak to a core theme of Bombay Hustle—cinema as labor.

On the theme of filmmaking, I’d recommend Luck by Chance (2009), directed by Zoya Akhtar, for a sharp insider’s critique of the film world mixed with a happy dose of star power; Manto (2018), directed by Nandita Das, which gives you a glimpse of the 1940s Bombay film scene through the eyes of legendary writer Saadat Hasan Manto; In Search of Famine (1981), directed by Mrinal Sen, which is about a film crew in the 1980s setting out to shoot a film on location in West Bengal about the 1943 famine; and for sheer delight, you can watch Solva Saal (1958), directed by Raj Khosla, a large portion of which is set in a film studio.

Q. What is on your reading list?

A. This year I’ve been reading a lot about histories of indentured labor, plantation colonies, and oceanic voyages of colonized peoples, alongside histories of cinema and technology. This is all in preparation for my second book, which looks at mediatic and mediated traffic between colonial India and other British colonies of the Indian Ocean region. Some of the titles include Brij V. Lal’s Chalo Jahaji, Samia Khatun’s Australianama, and Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media. For a new course on media, technology, and society, I’m also reading Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Roopika Risam’s New Digital Worlds.

Q. Do you read actual books or e-readers?

A. I still prefer reading paper books, but I also read a lot in electronic pdf form; pdf’s have saved my sanity these last few months!

Q. What is your ideal reading spot?

A. A comfortable couch with my feet up is perfection. But I’ve also taught myself to get really focused reading done on the subway.

Q. You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three professors or academics, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

A. If I may, I’d love to change this question and invite three film professionals from 1930s Bombay. First up would be Shanta Apte, who wrote a scathing analysis of the extractive film economy. I’d love to chat with her about what she was reading and who she was discussing her ideas with at the time she wrote the book Should I Join the Movies? Next is Sulochana, née Ruby Myers, who was, hands-down, the first superstar of Bombay cinema. Oh, the stories she could tell about her dramatic career transition from telephone operator to film star, sexism in the studio, and learning Hindi as the talkies appeared. The third guest would be Jaddan Bai, a famous singer who started her own production company and multitasked as actor, director, screenwriter, and music composer. Given the strong personalities of these three women, it’s bound to be an interesting night. No plus-ones.

(This article first appeared Sept. 22, 2020, in Columbia News)

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