Nowhere has the cinema made more foundational a public intervention than in India, and yet the
Indian cinema is consistently presented as something of an exception to world film history.
What if, this book asks, film history was instead written from the Indian experience?
Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid reconstructs an era of film that saw an unprecedented
public visibility attached to the moving image and to its social usage. The cinema was not
invented by celluloid, nor will it die with celluloid’s growing obsolescence. But ‘celluloid’
names a distinct era in cinema’s career that coincides with a particular construct of the
twentieth-century state. This is not merely a coincidence: the very raison d’etre of celluloid
was derived from the use to which the modern state put it, as the authorized technology
through which the state spoke and as narrative practices endorsing its authority as producer
of the rational subject.
Arguing that there was a ‘spectatorial pact’ around the attribution of state authority to the
celluloid explores the circumstances under which social practices surrounding the celluloid
experience also included political negotiations over its authority. While modern states
everywhere have put the cinema to varied and by now familiar uses, in India we had the
politicization of key tenets associated with the apparatus itself, Indian cinema throws
significant new light on the uses to which canonical concepts such as realism could be put,
and on the frontiers at which cinematic narrative could operate.
The book throws new light on a phenomenon that is arguably basic to all cinemas, but which
India’s cinematic evidence throws into sharpest relief: the narrative simulation of a
symbolically sanctified rationality at the behest of a state. This evidence is explored
through three key moments of serious crisis for the twentieth- century Indian state, in all of
which the cinema appears to have played a central role, Bollywood saw Indian cinema herald a
globalized culture industry considerably larger than its won financial worth, and a major
presence in India’s brief claim to financial superpower status. The debate on Fire centrally
located spectatorial negotiations around the constitutional right to freedom of speech at a
key moment in modern Indian history when article 19 was under attack from pro-Hindutva forces.
And the Emergency (1975-77) saw a New Indian Cinema politically united against totalitarian
rule but nevertheless rent asunder by disputes over realism, throwing up new questions around
the formation of an epochal moment in independent India.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha is Senior Fellow at the centre for the study of culture and
society (CSCS), Bangalore, and a critic and writer on cinema, art and culture. He is author
and editor (with Paul Willement) of the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, and author or Ritwik
Ghatak: A return to the epic.
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