Insights into mainstream cinema
Reviewed by Rachna Singh

Melodrama and the Nation: Sexual Economies of Bombay Cinema
by Karen Gabriel.
Women Unlimited Publications.
Pages 392. Rs 595.

BOLLYWOOD, despite its numerically stunning 245 annual film releases, has been peripheral to academic concerns. The song-dance sequences, the macho super hero, the melodramatic content and comic relief of mainstream cinema did not appeal to a majority of film scholars as subject matter for cinematic discourses. Karen Gabriel in her book Melodrama and the Nation rectifies this disjunction between scholars of cinema and the popular cinema of Bollywood.

Gabriel in her inter-disciplinary treatise focuses on the emergence of gender relations and sexuality as a cinematic response to the socio-political ethos. In doing so, she moves away from the traditional ‘film-as-text’ approach to the more contemporary ‘film-as-a-cultural-product’ affiliation. So, the political crisis of the 1970s becomes the stimulus for the rise of the ‘vigilante’ figure as crafted by Bachchan in Zanjeer with its reclusive but ‘decidedly modernist and stylised type of heroism’. This champion of social rebellion, however, was steeped in ‘fundamental orthodoxy of sexual economies’, which negated the articulation of strong femininity. The relative political stability of the 1980s and 1990s saw a fragmentation of the messianic icon and emergence of alternate heroism espoused in Parinda, Prahar or even Khalnayak.

There was also the emergence of the deviant anti-hero articulated by Sharukh Khan in Baazigar and Darr, or Nana Patekar in Agnisakshi. Feminine articulation, which was initially restricted to arm-candy characters, showed some signs of revival in Damini, Zakhm and Hey Ram. But here, as Gabriel argues convincingly, we see a representation of ‘wounded’ femininity that is vulnerable and succumbs to violence both communal and social. Rape becomes a cinematic metaphor for representing perpetration of such violence.

Gabriel also acknowledges the ‘cultural, social and religious plurality’ of Indian society and analyses the consequent shaping of the cinematic discourses on Indian identity. So, Border ‘displaces war as the central concern of the film’ and becomes instead the backdrop for the articulation of ‘specific ideologies of masculinity and the nation’. Prahar also talks about the ‘preservation of preferred modes of masculinity’ and ‘a notional nation’. The treatise goes on to explore the ‘ideal Indian subject’ with its ‘mythical homogeneous purity’ and its modulation in the presence of the Hindu right. As a consequence, the dichotomy between communities that disrupts the ideology of secularism and the concept of the ideal nation is also touched upon. The narrative of melodramatic cinema is examined as it shifts from crisis to resolution that typically pivots around ‘affirmation of patriarchal values’, diminution of women and ‘marginalisation’ of the issue of reorientation of sexual politics.

Gabriel’s book is a well-researched and scholarly rendition of the analysis of cinematic discourses and sexual economies in mainstream cinema. A great read for research scholars of commercial cinema.