A Book Review by Alison Frank.
It is difficult for a book of just over 100 pages to cover any topic in sufficient detail; a decent overview of one director’s career, perhaps, or an in-depth reading of a single film. Nevertheless, Wallflower’s Short Cuts series has the ambitious aim of offering a short-form introduction to a whole concept, technology, genre, movement, or, in the case of Bollywood: Gods, Glamour and Gossip, a whole industry. Of course, the operative word here is ‘introduction’, but some topics are so vast that it seems absurd to attempt even an introduction in such a slim volume.
For those who know nothing about Bollywood, Kush Varia’s book can offer a basic overview, but one suspects that the neophyte would come away at least half as informed if they simply watched a few Bollywood movies for themselves. For those already familiar with Bollywood, Varia gives the impression of stating the obvious in the middle chapters of the book where he outlines standard Bollywood ‘characters and morality’ and ‘settings and style’. Some of the supposed characteristics of Bollywood films become so general that they could be applied to storytelling across many world cultures.
While the book’s short format does not allow room to go into great detail, you might expect it to encourage precision and accuracy—not least because careful diction can allow an author to convey more information in fewer words. One would also expect that the shorter the book, the more thoroughly it will be edited, as it takes so little time to read. It is hard to believe that anyone other than the author set eyes on this book before it was published; a good editor would at least have cleaned up the many examples of redundancy in Varia’s writing, even if they couldn’t increase the variety in his expression. In one characteristic example, speaking of contemporary male heroes, Varia says that they ‘often portray a hysterical and contradictory portrayal of masculinity’.
Varia’s book does, nevertheless, offer some valuable information and insights for the informed reader. He opens with a brief overview of the history of Bollywood, explaining its relationship to the anti-colonial movement, as well as its importance in defining India as an independent nation and working through the traumas of Partition. Indeed, much of the book treats Bollywood with a seriousness that belies the book’s frivolous subtitle; Varia focuses far more on the historical, social, cultural and artistic importance of Bollywood than its capacity to create larger-than-life personas and feed audience fantasies. The main frustration of this book is that it presents several intriguing ideas which it does not have room to pursue in detail, but the reader will at least come away with a number of topics for further reading, whether in Varia’s own future publications or in one of many longer books that already exist on the topic. One particularly interesting notion is the role of religion both within Bollywood films and around their production: for example, many films set up a relationship of darshan (seeing and being seen by a god), either within the diegesis or between the spectator and the film. Another promising avenue is Bollywood’s fluctuating attitudes to gender, from the sexual violence in films of the 1980s, which made cinemas a male preserve and kept family audiences at home, to the way in which dosti (close male friendship) may be interpreted as homoerotic in films from Sholay (1975) to Dostana (2008). Varia also offers an engaging, if seemingly anecdotal, survey of viewing habits and fan culture in India.
Almost as valuable as the film’s insights are its case studies: synopses of films that epitomise given themes and characters or key moments in Bollywood history. Here, Varia’s appreciation of the films shines through in spite of any limitations of his writing style. As he covers a broad range of periods and styles, even the informed reader is likely to find at least a few good recommendations, always welcome when attempting to navigate an output as prodigious as Bollywood’s.
Alison Frank is a freelance film critic based in London. She has just published her first book, Reframing Reality: The Aesthetics of the Surrealist Object in French and Czech Cinema (Intellect, 2014). You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank.