Monday, March 01, 2021

A book about Bombay's 'cine-ecology' in the early years of the sound film

(Did this very short review – for India Today – of the new academic book Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City. Much more to be said about this diligently researched book than can be covered in a 450-word piece; I’ll try to share a few short excerpts soon.)

In one of the more engaging chapters of this book about Bombay’s “cine-ecology”, Debashree Mukherjee examines the larger significance of the hunger strike by the actress Shanta Apte against Prabhat Studios, Poona in 1939. Part of what Apte was protesting was the de-humanisation of the cine-worker, treated as no different from inanimate machinery. “Exhaustion / Thakaan” is the chapter title, and in a recent online promotional event Mukherjee mentioned two key words that help denote how film work is different from other kinds of work: exhaustion and waiting. Waiting to be called, waiting for lighting, waiting outside a vanity room.

The Apte story is just one of many sub-narratives that make up this wide-ranging academic work, which studies Bombay cinema as a site of production – focusing on the industry as it developed between the “transitional” period spanning the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Bombay Hustle is divided into two parts: the first is a macro view of the industry – the organisational efforts, the financing, the technical practices – while the second is a more intimate view, focused on the bodies and energies that flow through the world of film production. How did Bombay become such a pre-eminent film centre? When did work practices and aesthetics start to crystallise into the things we recognise (and even take for granted) in the industry of today? These are among the book’s foundational questions.

In addressing them, it discusses the vital early link between the industry and speculative trade in the cotton futures market (via the stories of colourful figures such as Ranjit Movietone founder Chandulal Shah, who put gambling profits into his films); the role of the mill-workers who were among the earliest, most enthusiastic viewers; the idea of the “public woman” as a marker of Bombay’s modernity, and the phenomenon of the once-very-popular “abhinetri films” which argued that women had the right to work with dignity and safety as actresses (and often accommodated a modern and traditional vision at once).

It’s obvious that in choosing this subject and period, Mukherjee didn’t take the easy route. Whenever there are references to specific films and personalities (along with some evocative and intriguing promotional images), one is sadly reminded that the vast majority of films made during this period are lost. So is enormous amounts of archival material. Given this, the magnitude of the research involved here is admirable.

The writing itself is not always easy to get through, especially for the non-academic reader. For me, personally, some of the content felt repetitive and abstract, and the more stirring sections were the ones about the experiences of specific people – including when the author places herself in the text, discussing her experiences as an assistant director in the early 2000s and reflecting on how the term “Struggle jaari hai” has applied equally to cine-workers living a century apart. Or how, when she was returning home late one a night, “a street corner awash in yellow tungsten light felt like a film set”, and cinema and the city seemed to merge into one.

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