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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Filming the Gods

That is the title of Rachel Dwyer's forthcoming book on religion and Indian cinema. She was in Bangalore a couple of days back, talking about this book at a lecture organized by CSCS. Religion, she pointed out, has been a topic that has largely been ignored within film studies. Surprising, no doubt, that scholars working on Indian cinema have also tended to stay clear of issues pertaining to religion (be it at the level of representation, industry practices, or audience reception). She also suggested that her work might push those working on questions of modernity to think critically about religion. Given that many of India's experiments with modernity are taking place in the mediascape, broadly speaking, this book seems well-timed.

While the talk was well-received overall, there were two important problems that were brought up during the Q&A session. One pertained to the genre definitions that Dwyer was using. She divided her films into two broad categories: mythologicals, and devotionals. She defined devotionals as films with devotees as central characters. Ashish Rajashyaksha immediately pointed out that another way of thinking about devotionals is through the kind of spectator position that a film creates. In other words, if a film manages to construct a spectator as a devotee, it could be termed a devotional.

Two, and more important perhaps, was the question re how a study on religion in Indian cinema could focus only on Hindi cinema. Srinivas pointed out that a study that makes claims about religion, cinema, and Indianness could ill afford to ignore Telugu and Tamil cinema. For a good 40 years (from the late 40s to the 80s, and revived again in the 90s), religion has been a defining element of Telugu cinema in very explicit ways. Dwyer got a little defensive about this, and asked why those who understand Telugu and Tamil (she doesn't) aren't writing about those cinemas. But she missed Srinivas' larger question - given the Bollywoodization of Indian cinema, isn't this as good a time as any to regionalize (I'd prefer the term provincialize) Hindi cinema?

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