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Rachel Dwyer on Indian Cinema

  • Posted On: 26th September 2013
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Rachel Dwyer on Indian Cinema

Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London, Rachel Dwyer completed her BA in Sanskrit at SOAS, followed by an MPhil in General Linguistics and Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford. Her PhD research at SOAS was on the Gujarati lyrics of Dayaram (1777-1852). She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in cinema and supervises PhD research on Indian cinema. She has written a book in the British Film Institute’s ‘World Directors’ series about one of the great figures of the Hindi film industry, Yash Chopra, with whom she has worked for several years. She later wrote the BFI’s guide to ‘100 Bollywood films’. She talks to Blue Chip about her views on the increasing popularity of Indian cinema.

You spent a great deal of time with the legendary Yash Chopra and authored a biography on him, can you share some of your insights on his personality and career?

Rachel Dwyer: : “Yashji’s career was unusual in that, apart from a few dips, he was a leading director from his first film, Dhool ka phool (1959) to his last in 2012. He was also an important producer, especially after DDLJ ending in the corporate, but family-run, Yash Raj Studios. I was interested in the longevity of his career and his ability to modernise while keeping true to his traditions. Although he lived in Bombay for most of his life, he remained strongly Punjabi and Veer Zaara, made after I published my book, was a very personal film for him, about Punjabiness. Born in Lahore, he knew Urdu as well as Hindi and Punjabi, and had a real feel for poetry, working closely with Sahir Ludhianvi, one of Hindi cinema’s greatest lyricists. His ability to show metropolitan and diasporic Indians but to understand changing middle class values was one of his many strengths.

Yashji had a great – or terrible – sense of humour and was always excited about what was going on around him. He was quite shy in many ways and very private. He loved being at home with his family and his real friends or on a film set. Pam runs an amazing house, and every meal for him was a feast. He never grew old, even when he was 80. My students loved him and his films and said when they first met him, he was so unlike they imagined and so straightforward, they thought I was playing a joke! He really lived his life to the full so like many people, I thought he’d be around forever.”

Can you explain the importance of song and dance in Indian films and do you see Indian films moving away from the musical genre?

RD: “I don’t know why people feel the song and dance needs to go. It’s such a pleasure Hindi cinema. In recent years the song has been presented in different ways and when it’s done well by people who really understand its role, it’s an essential part of the film. Hindi cinema is melodramatic or hyper-emotional and music is one of the best ways of communicating emotion. Song lyrics are generally more intense and expressive than dialogue. Dance is about bodies in motion and on display. The song is much more about sexuality than the rest of the film. Songs are also important for marketing and advertising the film.”

What are your views on the increasing number of Indian art films being produced?

RD: “The more kinds of cinema the better. However, it has to be good, rather than well meaning, cinema. India has produced one of the greatest film makers of all time – Satyajit Ray. I haven’t yet seen ‘The ship of Theseus’ which sounds fascinating but didn’t release in the UK.”

Indian actors like Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor and Amitabh Bachan have starred in leading American and British films, how has this come about?

RD: “Indians are very much part of the western world today so it’s not surprising to see them on screen. There are several prominent British Asian actors too. AB hasn’t starred in a western film (yet), and Anil Kapoor is unusual in going from mainstream Hindi cinema to western cinema but I think people often didn’t realise he was a good actor as well as a star. The NSD-trained actors and the theatre actors can easily make the transition. Frieda Pinto is well known too. I don’t see why there shouldn’t be more Indians in Hollywood in future. Sabu was one of India’s first stars in the west and that was in the 1930s!”

With the ever-increasing popularity of Bollywood, what impact has Indian cinema had on the international film scene?

RD: “Bollywood is known as a style but the cinema is mostly seen by people of Asian origin and from the non-western world. Most attempts to ‘do Bollywood’ just show how difficult it is to do it well. The emotional conviction is essential and the parodies are not funny.”

How do you see Indian cinema evolving in the future?

RD: “I honestly don’t know. More diversity, I hope, but maintaining its strengths. I’d like to see more non-Hindi films. I can watch Hindi or Gujarati films without subtitles but it can be hard to find subtitled DVDs. There’s also less coverage in the English press so it can be hard to now where to start. I saw a delightful Bengali film recently, ‘Bhooter Bhabishyat’ , and Marathi cinema has produced some interesting films such as ‘Natrang’. I find some Tamil films with subtitles but Telugu is almost impossible. Hindi cinema is changing – there are many different kinds of cinema from the mainstream to the more realistic types.”

What are your favourite Indian films?

  • Awaara
  • Pyaasa
  • Mughal e Azam
  • Amar Akbar Antony
  • Deewaar
  • DDLJ
  • Lage raho Munnabhai
  • Dabangg
  • Gangs of Wasseypur
  • Iruvar
  • Sant Tukaram
  • Charulata
  • and I love mythologicals… I'm looking forward to seeing Zinda Bhaag – co-directed by one of my former students, Meenu Gaur!”

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