Identity through Bollywood cinema : The "reel" or "real" zone?

Jennifer Takhar

Bombay hosts one of the world's largest film industries, which is popularly known as Bollywood. Indian cinema plays an essential part in the identity of the South Asian diaspora. To a remarkable extent, the Indian diaspora -- those people of Indian descent who live in other countries -- have come to heavily depend on Bollywood's incredible films in shaping their own reality in their new homelands.

The marvellous world of Bollywood also attracts organised crime members, and indeed some films have been financed by the moguls of Bombay's underworld, who may be responsible for facilitating the meteoric rise of certain starlets. According to the findings of BBC radio 4 guest reporter Sanjeev Bhaskar, "organised crime members tell producers to pick up certain actresses." What we are about to see is just how much fantasy and illusion is linked to the world of Indian cinema, maybe more than in any other country world-wide.

The hundreds of popular Hindi films belched out of the numerous Bombay studios provide the purest form of distraction for the hundreds and thousands of Indian viewers who watch them each year. Many of these films are "the stuff of dreams" with their highly unrealistic storyline and peripetia, just like Indian mythological or "theological" films as Rushdie calls them, adaptations of the Indian epics in which characters like Gibreel Farishta, of The Satanic Verses, have starred (24-25). These typically bollywoodian films enable viewers to escape the difficulties of everyday life, especially for the sub-continent dwellers. These immensely popular films with their predictable plots, which made specifically for the masses, transporting their aiudience into an illusory universe.

Neorealistic cinema has never had good press in India. The famous realist film maker Satyajit Ray, who was showered with awards and accolades everywhere in Europe, received little acclaim in India itself. Bombay's eclecticism and reputation as India's wild and wicked city is reflected in Aurora Zogoiby's chaotic canvases "packed" like "an Indian film." Those of us studying Indian literature must inform ourselves about these films -- films that India's intellectuals deplore in public but they irresistible in private. Rushdie packs his novels with allusions to various Indian films, some more easily identifiable than others ; the presence of the actors Nargis and Sunil Dutt in The Moor's Last Sigh being a far more explicit example than the more disguised case of Gibreel Farishta in The Satanic Verses, whose character is based on real-life bollywood actors Amitabh Bachan and N.T. Rama Rao.

In the satirical novel Show Business by Shashi Tharoor, which shamelessly lampoons the Indian film business and its superficiality, we have perhaps the best example of bollywood's fantasy element. In this novel nothing is as it first appears, something that movie megastar Ashok Banjara finds out when he undresses the legendary actress Abha Patel, famously known in bollywood for her beauty and the abundance of her bosom. Ashok remains stupefied when his eyes lay impaled on the actress' full frontal nudity : "I can't believe what I have just seen. The most famous bust in India is a pair of falsies" (20). According to Tharoor bollywood film viewers "dream with their eyes open" (20). Fantasy is part of everyday life in India as Dom Moraes substantiates in his account of post-independence India, East West (1972):

The bulk of the people are deeply influenced by the films they have (seen)...they believe in these dreams more uncritically than any other audience in the world. To forget the squalid reality of his own life, a poor man will visit the cinema every day. (p.143)

The Bombay film industry is a prolific dream-machine. Bombay, "that super-epic motion picture of a city" (Moor's Last Sigh, 129), a microcosm of India, is the teeming film capital of the country. According to Vijay Mishra, more than 700 films are produced per year, making "Indian cinema [rank] among the country's top ten industries. . . .The total output of feature films in all Indian languages in 1983 was in fact 742" Vijay Mishra in After Europe (121-122)

Indians have cinema under their skin and that India's cinema stars enjoy enormous celebrity which can be known to escalate into mighty political power. So how can we find evidence of popular or masala cinema in Rushdie's fiction?

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV