IN 1886, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition was held in London. It lasted for six months, and visitors — there were said to be over five million of them — came from all over the world to view it. It was a time when the British Empire appeared to be at its zenith; it had been some decades since the Indian ‘mutiny’ of 1857, and the empire’s power over its far-flung outposts had once again been solidified. At the same time, it was necessary to keep British voters at home satisfied with the imperial project. Not everyone could be taken to British colonial landholdings, obviously, and so the curators of the exhibition decided to bring the empire to them.
At this exhibition, the British public could see Indian arts and crafts, view artisans — many of them said to be prisoners in India — at work, eat Indian food, gawk at Indian women, and so on. The purpose here, as with previous exhibitions was to underscore how the colonial project was not about loot and subjugation but of altruistic concern at the abhorrently primitive and pre-modern lives of the native colonial subject.
Fast-forward to 1896. That year marked the date on which the first film was screened in Bombay. Few would ever have guessed then that Bombay would become one of the most productive film-producing cities of the world. At that time and in the immediate decade following, Bombay could not even claim to be the most important centre of culture (and thus film) in the subcontinent. Cultural production happened in other cities of the subcontinent in the colonial era. In cities such as Delhi, the cultural industry had long been patronised by the city’s Muslim elites. There was a framework that existed to promote art, and film after all was art.
For their part, the colonial rulers held the same philosophy as they did during the 1886 exhibition. They thought Indian cinema like so many other facets of Indian life could be co-opted and put into the service of Empire. Film after all was terribly modern, a utilisation of technological advancement to do what had been previously unthinkable: make pictures move. In presenting visions of urban life, the British could encourage dowdy pre-modern Indians to now be like the subjects of the films — progressive, forward-looking and ultimately malleable to the general modernising project of the British Empire.
It is true that a kind of national identity formed around cinema.
This was the state of affairs until pictures began to talk. In her book Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, author Debashree Mukherjee notes how the end of the silent film era and the beginning of the talking cinema marked a moment when the easy equation of empire and modernity did not sit as well as it once had. This was not quite obvious at first, as the themes of cinema stayed the same. Many Hindi movies at the time featured the ‘arrival’ theme, in which a poor Indian peasant arrives from the rural outposts of the country to the big city of Bombay. This was the colonial motif; old lives and ways of thinking had to be discarded if one wanted to be remade in the modern, advanced city. The openness of the character to being remade suggested India’s relationship with modernity.
Sound, it seems, changed everything. When dialogue came to film, the actors were now whole — laughing, singing, arguing and so on. In India, it also meant the wild multilingual melee of films made in its many various languages. This new development indigenised Indian cinema in a way that disrupted the idea of film as a foreign power’s means to bring pre-modern people into the modern age. Instead, talking cinema solidified nationalist sentiments, as the characters chatted away in Urdu and Hindi. The talkies were also difficult to control. In the 1930s and 1940s and sometimes before, British censors had to be appointed to make sure that the cinema was not fomenting hatred against the colonial administration. Obscenity thus was a crime that could be committed against the colonial administration. This created visible hypocrisies; if the cinema was a sign of progress and advancement, then censors of the cinema were naturally preventing such scientific progress from spreading to the colonised population.
It is difficult to come up with numerical proportions of the extent to which the emergence of talking pictures produced in Bombay might have contributed to the independence movement. It is true that a kind of national identity formed around cinema. In Bombay, the industry was further facilitated by trading in cotton futures, which produced capital that could be and often was invested in the movies. The speculative nature of film production thus used up the city’s financial capital with cultural production.
Even today, Indian cinema continues to rely on nationalistic themes. Alas, unlike the movies of old, which tried to create a post-colonial subject and imagined a future free of colonial occupation, today’s productions do the opposite. Hindu nationalists now demand revisionist versions of history, the inclusion of at least one if not more villainous characters, and liberal copyright infringement of songs produced by Pakistani singers. Far from being forward looking, much of it seeks to create revisionist history and to pad the facts to make Hindu characters into kings and conquerors.
Despite this, however, the story of the Bombay Talkies is one which typifies how technological advancements, as unexpected as they may be, can produce the sudden and dramatic change that makes people look at the world entirely differently than they used to mere months and years earlier. It is entirely possible that the emergence of handheld devices that provide access to movie making and movie watching will be seen as similarly transformative from the vantage point of the future.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2022