- Beyond Bollywood?
A popular film magazine in India ran a television advertisement with the following slogan in the 1980s: “You can love us. You can hate us. But you cannot ignore us.” This slogan pithily sums up how scholars of South Asian film feel about the moniker Bollywood. We defend it at conferences and parties, we include it in book titles to grab eyeballs on Google Scholar, we lament its insatiable appetite for cannibalizing other cinematic formations among peers, and we endlessly explain it in introductions to the books we write. Most of us do something with it. And we encounter it often in startlingly new ways.
In the fall of 2010 I attended what was, to my mind, an extraordinary conference called “Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood.” First, an entire academic conference dedicated to a Bollywood actor—albeit a star of planetary magnitude—is unusual. To add to the novelty was the location of the conference: Vienna, Austria. Shah Rukh’s enormous fan following in Europe is common knowledge, of course, but I had assumed that the hysteria surrounding him was largely limited to the United Kingdom with its large South Asian diaspora. Vienna, with its “high culture” vibe, was another matter altogether. To my astonishment, not only did the conference attract a considerable number of globally renowned scholars of Indian film; the events organized around it also brought home just how phenomenally popular Shah Rukh Khan (and by extension, Bollywood) is in what we may consider unlikely locations.
Closer to home, a recent Heineken beer commercial features a hipster couple frantically gyrating to an old Shammi Kapoor hit from the 1960s, and my local AMC in New Jersey shows a couple of Hindi films every week.1 Bollywood’s steadfast popularity in the former Soviet and Middle Eastern nations and in African countries like Nigeria has also been amply documented. In short, Bollywood is not simply going places; it seems to have cast its spell all over the world. The scholarship on Indian cinema has flourished in tandem with this global visibility; almost every year in the past decade has seen the publication of multiple scholarly books on Indian film. However, as several scholars of Indian cinema have noted, Bollywood remains a [End Page 155] dehistoricized, reified category whose very ubiquity tends to evacuate it of meaning. This story of spectacular planetary popularity is of somewhat recent provenance.
In the late 1990s, as I was completing a master’s degree in Jadavpur University’s Department of Film Studies, I knew I wanted to continue to study the cinema seriously. But there were hardly any schools in India at the time that granted PhDs in film studies. Happily, this is no longer the case. But back then, I was faced with a strange conundrum: to support myself while researching and writing about Indian cinema, I had to leave India. The terrifying prospect of taking the GRE prompted some friends to decamp to Britain. But British (post)graduate students were notoriously underfunded, and the romantic image of the starving scholar in a cold garret apartment did very little for me. I dabbled in journalism and the television industry for a couple of years, until Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts finally offered me the kind of support I needed to be able to do the work I wanted to do. Emory was also tempting for its excellent film studies program, and I was excited about working with a faculty that included Matthew Bernstein and David Cook. In spite of all the excitement about pursuing a graduate degree in a new country, it was extremely difficult to leave all that was known and familiar behind. In those early days, as I struggled to find my footing in strange social and intellectual spaces, my research—especially the films themselves, with familiar faces, spaces, and songs—came to constitute an ersatz home away from home. And even though I have chosen to live and work here in the United States, I have never stopped feeling homesick.
When I arrived in the United States in 2001, I had no idea what to expect from the American academy...