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Voyeurs Off The Screen

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Remember the sizzling number Hum Tum from the 1973 blockbuster, Bobby? The young fans of Bollywood may find the song both erotic and a bit comical. And, to the middle-aged or old, it may be pure nostalgia. But to Ajay Gehlawat, the author of Reframing Bollywood, the song offers an opportunity to contest some of the taken-for-granted theories on Indian, especially Bollywood, cinema. He says the song is an example of cinematic voyeurism, and invalidates the theory that watching a movie is akin to religious worshipping (darsana), where both the deity and the devotee acknowledge each other's presence and, hence, there is no voyeurism involved.

This book has five chapters based on five ‘frames' such as religious, musical, subaltern, heterosexual and crossover. Gehlawat profusely uses theories of writers of various disciplines to understand Indian cinema. Curiously, he refuses to consider Bollywood as the national cinema, but tries to emphasise its global orientation. The author challenges the perception of Hollywood musicals being predecessors of Bollywood. He dissects songs and dances from Dil Se (1998) and Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999) to prove such sequences in Bollywood films are both Brechtian, and, at times, post-modern. And he unlinks Bollywood from Hollywood. The third chapter criticises the view that Bollywood's lineage lies in an oral tradition and viewers are infantile or illiterate. Instead, it recognises how an active viewer synthesises the disconnected images projected on screen into a story. Once again a song, from Guide (1965), comes in handy here.

How Bollywood deals with homosexuality is the key concern in the fourth chapter. Focusing on Kal Ho Naa Ho and Dostana, it suggests that the heterosexual theme actually plays second fiddle to the dominant homosexual message. This is both deliberate and playful. It adds that more intimate homosocial bonding is seen in earlier films such as Silsila (1981). The final chapter discusses crossover films such as The Guru and Bride and Prejudice.

Despite the wide use of long winding sentences that put off readers at certain junctures, the book is a good academic read on Bollywood.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 18-10-2010)