The News on Sunday: For the uninitiated, how did you become interested in Bollywood to the level where you wanted to pursue it academically?
Rachel Dwyer: Well, I’ve been taught classical Indian Studies — I had Sanskrit in my BA, then I switched to Gujarati for my PhD. Before I was doing my research in Gujarat, I started watching Bollywood. I had seen Satyajit Ray movies and other films on the festival circuit. And, I loved them. When I watched the regular Hindi films, though, they made no sense to me at all. I mean, I didn’t know the language. I don’t, even today.
I started watching the films before I learnt a bit of Hindi. That was the beginning of it. I only got deeper and deeper from that point. And, I liked these movies not only as entertainment but as a way to learn about the Indian culture and the way the people think in India.
TNS: How do you view the contemporary cinema of India? In the absence of a clear-cut distinction between ‘art’ and ‘commercial’, do you think the film maker of India today is rather confused? Even when he follows his heart, he has a disturbing eye on the box office? A Shyam Benegal makes a Zubeida now.
RD: See, you can’t make a film if it ain’t going to make any money. It doesn’t have to make you 100 crores, but you have to make enough money to be able to pay the salaries.
Having said that, some film makers genuinely seek to be creative within what we now call Bollywood. There’s a whole range of other cinemas available on different budgets and scales, and people can try to get into those and work in different ways.
I agree that some of the old-school lot have moved closer to Bollywood, perhaps because they are more interested in playing with the set formulae. But I also find new people coming up all the time who are trying. I recently saw this amazing film by Anand Gandhi, Ship of Theseus, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before in India; it’s a very different type of film.
TNS: You are a film academic who has several books on Bollywood to her credit. Do you write for newspapers also?
RD: I occasionally write op-eds for Indian newspapers. That’s it. I’ve a very informal Facebook page and I don’t even do blogging. I have been an academic all my life.
The books I have written on Bollywood are also academic in some ways; the prose is quite simple, which may not be your idea of a popular book.
TNS: In practically none of your sessions at the LLF ’14 did you speak about the Bollywood actresses. Why?
RD: Because I think at the moment the actresses are very beautiful but we haven’t seen an actress who has got the real star power equivalent to any of the men. We saw that with people like Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi but after them there have been big stars but they have not been as important. I mean, for instance, Katrina Kaif is a big star but there isn’t a Katrina Kaif film. There’s usually a Salman Khan or a Shah Rukh Khan film. Maybe there will come an actress shortly who can change that.
TNS: Are you working on a book presently?
RD: I’ve got a book that’s coming out later this year. It’s called Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Modern India. I am looking at the films which ought to be or ought not to be addressed because I think what the films talk about, they don’t talk about very importantly. Why do they talk about the national and not the regional? Why don’t they talk about the castes? How they look at people’s lives? How do they look at families? Questions like these are all framed through looking at the cinema, but only from the last 20 years.
TNS: What future do you see for Bollywood in the international market? It has a growing audience, no doubt, but isn’t it chiefly among the Asian communities?
RD: That’s partially true. In most of North America and North West Europe, for instance, there isn’t much interest in Bollywood. But in Germany, there is an interest in Shah Rukh Khan in the German-speaking world; otherwise, not really. In Berlin Film Festival, I’ve seen people go mad. I went to a conference at the University of Vienna and the people there were crazy about Shah Rukh Khan.
I think it’s mixed. If I write something in the papers, I get all sorts of reactions. Some of the people even say, ‘You are stupid!’ I would really like to get good critical feedback. That is important. But academically, my university made me a full professor in Indian Cinema — their first. I think that was nice.
TNS: Have you ever been tempted to explore the film industry on this side of the border which is but essentially similar?
RD: I am interested in what’s going on now. We’ve certainly seen some films coming out in recent years, like Khuda Kay Liye, Bol and Khamosh Pani. Even The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in some ways Pakistani. And, that’s been interesting. Meenu who co-directed Zinda Bhaag, was my PhD student at SOAS. I have seen Maula Jutt as well, but how many of these ‘gandasa’ movies I can watch is a different matter.
But I believe Pakistan is culturally in the news because of its literature — Hanif, Mohsin, Kamila and a great deal of new writing that’s coming out of the country has grabbed people’s imagination — so why not films?
What I am certainly interested in is what went on in Pakistan before 1947 because Lahore was a hugely important centre for film. When Noor Jehan came and they took over the studio, what happened then, what happened to the old films that were made here; where are they?
Frankly, if it wasn’t for Lahore, Bollywood wouldn’t be Bollywood, because we wouldn’t have the Chopra family, the Anand family, Balraj Sahini who made the film industry very Punjabi. This is really where the similarities lie, because Punjab is Punjab. And, I think when Yashji made Veer Zaara in 2004, he was trying to say that he was born on that side and lived there and that a Punjabi is a Punjabi wherever he or she is. And, I thought that was a very brave film. He got a lot of abuse in India for making that film. He was accused of being pro-Pakistan and all that.
There’s always that Pakistan rhetoric — of all sorts, you know. When I was coming to Lahore, everybody said, ‘How lucky you are! We dream of going to Lahore!’ There’s this huge interest also.