Friday, November 26, 2010

book review

Bhojpuri Cinema – Celebration of the Local

C S Venkiteswaran

… at a time when regional political parties continue to assert their identity, the rise of Bhojpuri films is only part of the remodeling of Indian cinema. The availability of cheap technology has allowed dozens of ‘little cinemas’ to flourish in dialects such as Chattisgarhi, Kumaoni, Gharhwali and Khariboli. Even Ladakhis have begun making films in their local dialect. Avijit Ghosh, Bhojpuri Cinema (p 94)

Within a few years of its inauguration at Grand Café, Paris, cinema had cast its magical spell over people in all continents luring a number of showmen and entrepreneurs who made it the most massive mass art ever in the history of humankind. Though cinema has such an international history, enthralling people and drawing them into its global network and idioms, it also has ‘national’ and ‘local’ histories with its own specific characteristics. The latter exhibit a great variety as they followed trajectories of their own depending on local narrative traditions, existing conditions of performing arts and appreciation, openness to new forms, and of course, the socio-economic environment that enveloped all these.

One can see that the new magic of cinema illuminated several hitherto unrealized/unrealizable desires of ‘seeing’ as well as ‘making visible’. In this process of seeing and making visible, the medium – as an industry with a mass base/market – had to necessarily contend with existing or constantly evolving global formats on the one hand, and on the other, the narrative and scopophilic desires of the local. Moreover, it was not just a question of making oneself visible to the world outside; it was also an attempt to make oneself visible to oneself – something that unleashed many a hitherto repressed facets of social and psychological lives in the public domain. Ironically, they were largely played out and imagined within the idiomatics of the national/global, as an assertion of the marginal/regional vis a vis the centre/national/global. And to imagine into being its ‘pure’ untrammeled self, it more often resorted to imitations and ‘remakes’, and brings into play interesting discourses about ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’. When films flop, the blame is put on the avaricious producers from ‘outside’. When they succeed it is due to the verve and vigour of the land and its indigenous culture. But like any cinema of the local, even while it celebrates one’s own ‘culture’, its thematic concerns are with its discontents – casteism, class exploitation, dowry system, illiteracy etc.

The film histories of cinemas in India have a tumultuous history of competition between the ‘vernaculars’ and the national marked by the constant rediscovery and assertion of local identities. Avijit Ghosh’s Cinema Bhojpuri is a very interesting account of the same in the Bhojpuri context. The book narrates the history of Bhojpuri cinema, which virtually turns out to be an account of its encounters with the national-popular – the Hindi cinema that threatens to subsume all sub-nationalities that constitute its market-hinterland and also catchment area of themes and locales. The rise of Bhojpuri cinema in that sense is also a moment of pride and a new sense of selfhood, against the all-consuming tide of the national. Avijit Ghosh quotes a newspaper article written in 1965 about the perception of ‘outsiders’ about Bhojpuri people: ‘A few years ago the rest of the country considered Bhojpuri as the language of the rustic people of east Indian villages. In Bombay, it was known as the language of the ‘bhaiyas’. In Calcutta and other cities, it was known as the language of labourers of north India and Bihar.’

The book tracks Bhojpuri cinema from its beginnings in 1962, when Nazir Hussain, at the behest of Dr Rajendra Prasad, made Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyar Chadhaibo(O Mother Ganga, I’ll offer you the Yellow Cloth). Obviously the offering was indeed a very auspicious one, for since then, there was no looking back for Bhojpuri cinema. This is something really astounding if one takes into consideration other ‘vernacular’ cinemas that constitute Hindi cinema’s market, which have grown more and more marginal and almost non-existent.

Avijit Ghosh follows an episodic style and summarizes major trends in the history of Bhojpuri cinema, which he divides into three major periods. The first period (1962-68) begins with Ganga Maiya..; and the next extends from 1969 to the beginning of 21st century, and is a volatile one of crests and troughs. But the last one starting from 2001 marks the advent of ‘a new, confident Bhojpuri cinema’ with a big boom in production (with around 275 films between 2004 and 2008), and ‘the fledgling cottage industry of the 1960s’ turning into ‘a bustling regional film industry’. In the chapters that follow, the author provides brief sketches of the major personalities – actors, musicians, producers, exhibitors and critics - who made all this possible.

Obviously, the major thread is the relationship with the other – Hindi cinema – which is one of love and hate, and absorption and imitation. Storylines, themes, music, songs, dance and action – all resonate with the ‘other’. For instance, Mother India turns into Dharti Maiya, Sholay into Gabbar Singh, Judaai into Saiyan Se Solah Singaar, Hum Paanch into Pandav, and eventually Bhojpuri cinema having its own stars similar to the trio of Khans. Evidently, we find here the local celebrating the same old clichés that the qasbah and small town audience enjoys everywhere: ‘the rich-poor conflict, urban-rural differences, tradition-modernity contradictions, a good-as-gold brother-bhabhi relationship, lustful villains, stupid comedians and a class-conscious father-in-law’ (p 60). As character actor Brijesh Tripathy observes ‘the scenario has changed completely from the days when we started out. Now we have film parties, premieres and awards. We get interviewed like Bollywood actors do.’

Yet, despite this overwhelming ‘sameness’, Bhojpuria is asserted over and over again, most loudly through its rural locales and rustic themes. (The promo for a Bhojpuri film Hamar Sansar announces: ‘A ground-breaking Bhojpuri film where you’ll see India’s soul – the village environment, the fields, a glimpse of the real life of a farmer’). But the most important of all is music: the 1990s witnessed a virtual revolution in terms of the rediscovery of local folk tunes and lyrics, singers and musicians.

This expansion of local cinema is not without resistance from the ‘other’. The book provides glimpses of brewing tension that is triggered by the success of the regional. Elsewhere, Bhojpuri films have been the target of some sectarian groups like Maharashtra Navanirman Sena and Babbar Khalsa in Maharashtra and Punjab. In urban centres like Nashik, Mumbai, Thane or Ludhiana, cinema halls become virtual congregations of minorities as they are thronged by labourers from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is an instance where ‘local’ cinema becomes a vulnerable ‘locality’ that can be easily targeted.

What is most interesting from a film-theoretical point of view, is Ghosh’s attempt to explain the phenomenal rise of Bhojpuri cinema in the last decade. According to him, “One should rather view it as a process with various interweaving strands which at certain points are complimentary and, on other occasions, contrast with each other. At one level, the resurgence of Bhojpuri films could be construed as a reaction to the way Bollywood refashioned in cinematic language and landscape after the arrival of satellite television in 1991. With the growth of the dollar-rich NRI market and multiplexes becoming urban India’s new temples of entertainment, young gel-and-cologne film-makers with Hollywood sensibilities found a formula to bypass ‘India Unhappening’. Soon, Hindi commercial cinema’s alienation from vast snatches of middle India was complete…It was this fissure in aesthetics that the region-specific Bhojpuri cinema adroitly filled.’

Avijit Ghosh also hints at the predicament of the regional identity of Bhojuri cinema now. Growing confidence resulting from geographical widening of locations and expanding storylines, it has stepped out of its comfort zones and experiments with the larger world, which is increasingly blurring the distinct identity of the regional film. A paradox that leads to questions like the one raised by Arti Bhattacharya, first woman director of Bhojpuri cinema: ‘When we watch a Hindi film, it feels like a Hollywood film. When we go for a Bhojpuri film, it is like watching a Hindi film. Where’s our film?’

One major gap in Indian film studies is the lack of writings in English about the history of regional cinemas. Such lack has often led to the preponderance of Hindi films in film studies about Indian films. Ghosh’s book – about one of the youngest cinemas in India - is a significant contribution in this direction – and one that reminds us of the absence of similar attempts about other cinemas in India.


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