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Bollywood & Diaspora

January 01
22:42 2012

Striking a chord with global audiences

Meheli Sen

NEW JERSEY: With their lush scores and lavish dance sequences, Hindi-language films draw an audience of millions worldwide.
But the phenomenon known as Bollywood does more than entertain, a Rutgers academic believes. The billion-dollar industry introduces Indians living in dozens of countries abroad to their heritage and gives them a much-desired link to their culture.
“A lot of how Diasporic citizens understand themselves comes through these films,” says Meheli Sen, assistant professor of cinema studies and African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures (AMESALL) in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences. “The movies help them answer the question: How do I hang on to traditional Indian culture while I’m here?”
Sen, who grew up in the eastern region of India, several hours from Calcutta, has devoted her research to post-independence commercial cinema, particularly as it pertains to genre, gender, post-coloniality and globalization.
Since coming to Rutgers from the University of Oklahoma in September, she has been introducing a wide range of students – those of Indian descent, general film lovers, and the merely curious – to the collective body of films she calls “a central access point to Indian culture.”
“Bollywood’s connection to any kind of reality – Indian or otherwise – is tenuous at best. But the very spectacular excesses of this cinema strike a chord with global audiences and fans,” she says.
The English-language press in India coined the term “Bollywood” to refer to movies produced in Bombay (now Mumbai) roughly since the 1990s, Sen says. Although the designation encompasses many film genres, all feature a strong reliance on stars; a running time of three hours or more; and the inclusion of at least six to eight songs which may or may not be integrated into the narrative.
“Hindi cinema has something for everyone,” the professor says. “The films tend to operate more on an emotional sense than a linear one, and they try to speak to a maximum number of people across all divides: language, gender, age, social status.”
Mumbai produces between 300 and 450 Bollywood films every year, targeted as much to Indian-born residents scattered around the world as to its own population, Sen notes. Many of these are exported to Dubai, England, and other countries with large concentrations of Indian ex-patriots.
“New Jersey has the largest Indian Diaspora in the world – that’s one of the things that brought me to Rutgers,” says Sen, who is co-editing an anthology titled Figurations in Indian Film and working on a book-length manuscript on post-colonial Hindi cinema.
The educator received her PhD from Emory University after earning a bachelor’s in comparative literature and a master’s degree in film studies, both from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. She says her tendency to “think through images” drove her into her field of research – that and a love for films in general.
In addition to Hindi films, she counts among her favorites the French classic Mon Oncle, and the American perennial The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Through a series of Friday-night screenings on campus – 15 or 16 of them over the course of the semester – Sen conveys her zeal to students, many new to the tropes of Bollywood.
“These movies tend to operate on more of an emotional plane than some of them are used to,” she says. “There’s not always continuity in the storytelling. What I try to get across is that Bollywood is not only one type of film, and that this is a constantly evolving type of cinema.”
Off-campus, New Jersey residents can get a taste of these productions at selected movie houses, including several in Edison and Iselin, Sen notes. Many are also available online.
For the uninitiated eager for their first exposure, she recommends Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness), a 2001 release and one of India’s highest grossing films. With its running time of 210 minutes, the movie incorporates 11 elaborate song-and-dance numbers and features Amitabh Bachchan, a megastar in the Indian pantheon.
Now nearing the end of her first semester in New Brunswick, Sen says she’d like to bring the glories of Bollywood to a broader audience, both on and off campus. She envisions a film series, open to the public, which would include not only movies but also a question-and-answer session and a lively discussion.
“I would love to have that sort of connection with the community,” the professor says. “These films are such a vital part of our cultural consciousness, and it would be wonderful to watch them with as many people as possible.”

{Courtesy: Rutgers Focus}
FREDDA SACHAROW

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