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  • The Cinematic ImagiNation:Indian Popular Films as Social History
  • Aswin Punathambekar
Virdi, Jyotika . The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003. 256 pp., 26 black and white illustrations. $22.00 (paper). ISBN 0-8135-3191-8.

The place of "popular" media in the imag- nation of the Indian nation has only recently received scholarly attention. Over the last decade an increasing number of scholars and students have turned to cinema as a profoundly important "national-popular" domain that has negotiated various transitions and conflicts in the sociocultural and political fabric of India ever since the medium entered the country in 1895. In conversation with these efforts—such as Madhav Prasad's Ideology of the Hindi Film (1998), Ravi Vasudevan's Making Meaning in Indian Cinema (2002), Vijay Mishra's Bollywood Cinema (2002), and Lalitha Gopalan's Cinema of Interruptions (2003)—Jyotika Virdi's book aims to "claim a place for film in the domain of South Asian cultural history" (xii).

The overarching question that frames Virdi's project is how Hindi cinema constructs and maintains the fiction of a unified Indian nation in the face of many disruptions and challenges. Drawing on film theory, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory, Virdi examines postindependence Hindi cinema by juxtaposing a reading of films' narrative and representational strategies with the sociocultural and political context within which they were produced, circulated, and debated. Tracing a number of key periods of transition—postindependence euphoria of the 1950s, modernization and the shift from a feudal to a democratic social order, disillusionment with state-led development in the 1970s, liberalization and Hindu revivalism in the 1980s and 1990s—Virdi demonstrates that it is on the terrain of the family that Hindi cinema dramatizes social conflicts. It is by narrating the "nation and/as family" (34) that Hindi cinema constructs and maintains the fiction of an "Indian" nation, successfully negotiating and containing various faultlines of religion, language, region, class, and caste. Throughout, she pays close attention to the ways these discourses of nation, class, caste, and (religious) community hinge on "the sharp hierarchy of institutionalized gender inequality" (12) and how women's agency is at once enabled and domesticated in Hindi film narratives.

The first chapter tackles films that celebrate independence and narrate the tensions inherent in the project of modernizing a new, postcolonial nation. Virdi's analysis of Aan (1952) and Madhumati (1958) illustrates how Hindi cinema served as a staging ground for contradictions between several constituencies in a newly independent nation, particularly between feudalism and democracy, and a questioning of the project of "development." Reading films of this period as embodying a critique of both colonialism and feudalism, Virdi points out the differential positioning of men and women in these narratives and how they are called upon to serve the "nation" in different ways. The creation and sustenance of an "idealized female figure" is examined in greater detail in the second chapter, where Virdi explains how powerful forces of Victorian values and Brahminic ideals converged to position the "Indian woman" as a repository of tradition, as "different from everything Western" (85). Reading Guru Dutt's Mr. & Mrs. 55 (1955) in relation to the debate surrounding the Hindu Code Bill and Maniratnam's Bombay (1995) in relation to controversies stemming from discussions of a Uniform Civil Code, she underscores the ambivalence inherent in Hindi cinema's use of an idealized figure of the "Indian woman." Mobilized for different articulations of identity (national, community) at different times, these representations signal not only elisions of crucial differences (class, caste, religious) but "a wishful desire for a utopian nation" (86).

Employing sociological and psychoanalytic techniques, chapter 3 ("Heroes and Villains") presents an analysis of constructions of masculinity in Hindi cinema. Virdi first examines villains, the threats to the nation that these villains represented, and shifts in heroic ideals as these threats [End Page 72] were successfully countered. She suggests that these films, spanning several decades, are more than just "treatises on masculinity" (109) and goes on to analyze mother-son relationships in "maternal melodramas" such as Mother India (1957) and Deewar (1975) to argue that it is critical to understand heroes-fighting-villains...


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