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The Velvet Light Trap 51 (2003) 43-53

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Lyrical Nationalism:
Gender, Friendship, and Excess in 1970s Hindi Cinema

Priya Jha


The Bombay film industry (Bollywood) is usually considered, along with other state-sanctioned institutions, in its role as a force for cultural and political consolidation within the architecture of postindependence Indian identity. 1 The products of the industry and, indeed, the "filmic system" itself project a fantasy of a homogeneous culture that in fact masks the hierarchy of subject positions and belonging divided along the lines of gender, class, ethnicity, and caste. 2 In this essay I examine one particular feature of the films, the song-and-dance sequences, as they draw attention to the fractious nature of the postcolonial nation while simultaneously attempting to construct a space for the articulation of a consolidated national identity.

Songs in pop Indian film, as metanarratives, allow the spectator to create meaning within the larger, scattered, melodramatic filmic space. Consequently, they provide insight into an otherwise incoherent narrative. At the level of the "real world," the popularity of a song from a film often determines the failure or success of the film, since its economic success is largely indebted to the "catchiness" of the tune. 3 If the radio replay of the song is successful, the film audience will repeatedly (sometimes as often as daily for the entire run!) go back to see the movie. Another significant point is that the actors in the films do not perform the songs (although there have been exceptions); rather, voices attributed to the songs are of well-known playback singers. Neepa Majumdar's insightful work on the connections between stardom and song sequences is worth mentioning here. She argues for a connection between the star system in Bollywood and the "song picturizations" that take place on-screen. 4 According to Majumdar, the very definition of the term song picturization renders meaning to the image "in the terms set out by the song" (167). In song picturization, then, resided the aural and visual pleasure that gave Hindi cinema its unique nature. The split between the singing voice and the performing body on-screen became the desired norm by the 1950s.

Song-and-dance sequences, which had already been part of the formulaic device for Hindi cinema, became one of the key transmitters of Indian culture, since the music industry and the consumption of music on the radio relied heavily upon films to produce music as commodity. The "extra-textual" insertion of the playback singer adds to the "non-filmic investments that are integral to its [the film's] popularity and reception, the multiple positions from which its performance is conducted" (Vasudevan 44). Therefore, a "more complex knowledge is conveyed around the musical performance" (Vasudevan 44). Thus, cinema constitutes songs, along with other "para-narratives," as "narrational instances of its own authority" (Vasudevan 45). 5 At the same time, however, as Vijay Mishra states in his discussion on songs within the film, "the song sequences (often also dream sequences) do permit excesses of phantasy which are more problematic elsewhere in the film, for they allow the continuities of time and space to be disregarded" (127). Thus, Hindi film songs are viewed as working extradiegetically both within the filmic space and in the material world. The particular dialectic that exists between the two spaces anticipates a revisioning of the function of melodrama and its relationship to the film, the songs, and the spectator. [End Page 43]

Using this as a springboard, this essay investigates the contentious relationship between women, the cinema, and the articulation of postcolonial nationalism through song spaces in Hindi films. In particular, it asks a series of key questions about the relationship between song spaces and the construction of the postcolonial viewing subject, especially as song spaces articulate a particular narrative of nationalism that is gendered in its composition. Is there a space for female spectators to occupy multiple positions, thus becoming active participants in anticolonial power struggles that unevenly position male and female subjects? How may female spectators resist the narrative that secures...


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