Shahrukh for scholars
Tilted Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood, the international conference hosted here by the University of Vienna recently was a celebration of the fact that Indian film and media are finally considered serious business today. While Shahrukh Khan remained in the neighbourhood in Berlin shooting for Don 2 at a cost of 12 million euros, scholars from different continents spent three days exploring issues in Indian cinema, including gender, sexuality and religion.
That Indian cinema is indeed worthy of study is as thrilling a thought as a report in Spiegel Online, a German newsmagazine, that Shahrukh's car in the Don sequel in the making had flown through the air over several vehicles at Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate.
Despite his busy schedule, the conference received a page-long message from Shahrukh, expressing among other emotions that he was filled with pride for being at the centre of discussions in Vienna. "My being discussed here today is evidence to the fact that Indian cinema has already made inroads into the hearts of people in nearly every corner of the globe..." Shahrukh wrote in an email.
In a postscript the superstar added that his kids believe he can fly, but they cannot believe there is a conference being held with him as a subject.
For too long popular film culture in India has been neglected. It is considered low brow and looked down upon as a technicolour fantasy catering to the masses. However, this attitude has already undergone a revolution with the work of scholars like Rosie Thomas, Ashis Nandy, Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Madhava Prasad and Rajinder Dudrah, over a period of less than three decades. Thomas, Rajadhyaksha, Nasreen Munni Kabir and Dudhra were all present in Vienna to reassess their views on the way Bollywood or popular Indian cinema has created a presence in a variety of locations around the globe.
The rise in scholarship demands new theories and methods to understand this kind of cinema better, and global glare is now fully focused on Bollywood and other Indian film cultures. India's is one of the largest film industries in the world with an audience that exceeds any other globally, and this inspires significant academic enquiry, both in India and abroad.
Popular Hindi cinema Is dismissed as merely entertainment or time pass for the illiterate masses. How do we study this contemporary phenomenon that is Bollywood? How do we locate Bollywood within cinema and media studies? What is Bollywood as nomenclature and object of study? These are only some of the questions on the mind of scholars.
"Unthinking" Shahrukh Khan, suggests Dudrah, head of drama and senior lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester, is one way of looking at popular Indian films critically. Bollywood makes interesting study as the masala films it offers are kitsch rubbish at their worst, but at their best they are enthralling entertainment that has the audience reeling with laughter and tears from one minute to the next, says Dudrah.
However, there are concerns too. After Indian cinema was granted official industry status, some filmmakers began to identify and promote commercial Hindi films through formats more familiar to international audiences of Hollywood genres, including hyper payments and publicity in a bid to woo not only traditional South Asian viewers but global non-diasporic audiences too.
This is what Rajadhyaksha, film and cultural studies theorist, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema and senior fellow at Bangalore's Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, calls the "Bollywoodisation" of Indian cinema. Rajadhyaksha prefers to separate the Bollywood industry from Indian cinema.
He says that cinema has been around as an industry for the past 50 years, while Bollywood is more recent. Bollywood is defined as a term used for Indian movies with a feel-good, all-happy-in-the-end, tender love narratives with lots of songs and dance, and best represented by Shahrukh Khan, India's leading example of 21st-century stardom.
Given that Shahrukh is primarily a movie star, it is striking how little he depends on cinema to define himself. For he is as much a television star as he is a sports icon, a designer clothes horse and a brand ambassador. This leads to the interesting question: what's Shahrukh Khan or his income got to do with cinema?
"It is our enchantment with cinema that is real," said Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, navigating the topic back to cinema. In her closing remarks Dwyer almost warned that the fascination with Shahrukh Khan can prove to be as illusive as the man behind the curtain.
Pay no attention to him, what?