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Melodrama as Method
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A striking aspect of the early cinema archive in India is its partial and truncated nature. Other non-Western examples include Iran and Japan, which too have few or no surviving films from the early period. Despite this absence, scholars like Kaveh Askari and Aaron Gerow have offered innovative and substantive accounts of early film culture in these countries in the face of the unavailability of the films themselves. Here the very lack of material acts as the driving force that spurs film historians to assess cinema’s place within a broader institutional framework encompassing a slew of interconnected concerns: modernity, capital, technology, global film traffic, colonialism, genre-formation, and archives of print and visual culture, notwithstanding the academy’s own late arrival into this scenario. We were, in other words, smitten by the fragment—frustration became the key motivation for so many of us.

In my own research, which began nearly a hundred years after the birth of cinema, I could no longer talk to a flesh and blood person. Like the films, there were few survivors. All that was left was a select group of films that had somehow escaped fires or being thrown into junkyards. My most reliable sources turned out to be autobiographies; as such, they presented informal versions of official history while being selective and somewhat unreliable as chronicles of the lives of famous people. Could such quotidian recollections be incorporated into a heuristic mode of academic inquiry? As a scholar, I was faced with considerable anxiety about how to script such material into an acceptable academic framework. Nor did I want to arrange the small number of films in hand into yet another narrative of loss and lament. But because I thought I had nothing, I ended up with a vast amount of material once I overcame the initial stumbling block of what constituted an archive: song booklets, publicity materials, film posters, newspaper advertisements, interviews—oral and informal modes of remembrance (including my grandmother’s coy account of watching her first movie in a darkened room reserved exclusively for society ladies). Scouring libraries and film archives, I became a scavenger of sorts, wading through a heap of other unlikely sources such as the German periodical Lichtbild-Bühne , the British serial Bioscope , and even American newspapers like the New York Times . Could such material, which featured little narrative content, be part of film scholarship that fell outside the purview of ethnographic observation and commentary? I was torn between focusing on what appeared to be private and inconsequential and accounting for cinema’s public role. Veering between embarrassment and excitement, I soon realized that what I needed was an academic voice that could reckon with scraps and account for the personal in the academic. I had to be able to speak about the quotidian and foreground the marginal—no matter how contingent, I needed a rubric that was attentive to a larger domain of historical production where the experience of early cinema was being expressed and articulated.

Was there a method to this madness? Not surprisingly, it is in the quotidian that the history of melodrama became visible. Melodrama’s other pseudonyms had to be excavated from the vocabularies of colonial dominance. Materials that were peripheral to cinema threw melodrama’s umbrella-like emergence into sharp relief, revealing paths that were quite different from its American, German, or British trajectories. Indian newspaper advertisements foregrounded an entirely different set of genres that were specific to the formation of the film industry. Whether it was the mythological, the historical, the stunt, or the social, melodrama appeared again and again as the connective tissue that linked disparate genres, appearing primarily through the dramatization of conflicts between good and evil, and through the repeated manifestation of novel forms of suffering. As a mode, melodrama was both familiar and unfamiliar, heimlich (homelike) in its Manichaenization of good and evil while the specifics of its mobilization of form and affect made it Indian and quite unheimlich (un-homelike) from the perspective of western film theory and history.

I recognized melodrama in the mythological Raja Harischandra (D. G. Phalke, IN, 1913), where Lord Shiva performs a stunning coup d’état , restoring not...

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