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Sirens of Modernity: World Cinema via Bombay (University of California Press, 2022) chronicles the travels of 1960s’ Hindi-language cinema. Authored by Samhita Sunya, Assistant Professor of Cinema in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, the book (available open access here) enquires into the international appeal of Bollywood films, many underrated. This interview with Sunya delves into the peculiar nature of these films.

Cover of Dr. Sunya’s book.

RBF: What brought you to the study of the generally obscure films you scrutinize in your book?

SS: I have been repeatedly watching many of these films since the earliest moments of my dissertation research, but for a long time, I remained unsure of how they fit together. I started to realize that the value of these films lay not so much in their obscurity, but in the challenges they pose to how one writes histories of films which do not readily fit into accounts that focus on a single industry or language or national context. I was also struck by the films’ own incredible reflexivity over their own misfit status, and how earnestly they extol and defend popular cinema as a medium with the capacity to reach and endear audiences to one another across boundaries. I don’t take their allegorical arguments about cinema at face value, but instead seek to understand the significance of such cinema in a particularly volatile Cold War-era period in both India and the world.

RBF: Your book opens with a discussion of the “item number” in Chintu Ji (2009). Also referred to as “item bombs,” you explain that the term may have derived from America’s atom bomb tests at Bikini Atoll just after World War II. This history, and the garment named after the atoll, comes together in the performance of item numbers where a siren “bombshell” is always sexily clad. Certainly the case in the Chintu Ji item number “Akira Kurosawa,” you describe its lyrics as “a litany of canonical–and largely mid-century–world cinema auteurs’ names.” This reminded me of a similar litany of the names of western film icons in Madonna’s “Vogue” (1990), a song that centers these Golden Age Hollywood stars at the same time as it co-opts the dance style of its title from the queer Black and Latinx underground scene of the New York of its day. Yet, what “Akira Kurosawa” does that “Vogue” cannot is to portray the complexity of cultural dialogue between media genres. As a product of 1960s’ Hindi/Bombay cinema, what made the item number an apt site of negotiations of gender, culture, and international politics?

SS: The “Akira Kurosawa” sequence references global cinematic histories that have informed contentious debates over “good” cinema, as it playfully contrasts a proper art cinema with an excessive commercial cinema through its invocation of Satyajit Ray, whose name is uttered as “tribal” gibberish in a climactic moment. While we often hear of Bollywood “going global” in the 1990s, when it became increasingly visible in the West, such statements belie a much longer history of Hindi films’ popularity throughout the second and third world. “Akira Kurosawa” parodies several apparent excesses of commercial cinema that were vociferously debated in the 1960s: especially audiovisual spectacle and feminine sexuality. Often, these are conflated. But we must ask ourselves: On the basis of what values are we perceiving something as excessive or gratuitous?

Production still from Subah-O-Sham (1972): Persian film star Fardeen with Hindi film stars Waheeda Rehman and Sanjeev Kumar.

RBF: I was struck by your identification of a 1963 Indian government report that called for dubbing films in other languages as a way to assert “state control over Indian films’ overseas distribution and earnings.” Further, you note that while western critics saw the song-and-dance numbers in such films as a liability, the Indian government and viewers in various countries thought otherwise. I am curious as to whether these music-dance elements that are now so synonymous with Bollywood cinema were transformed over time because of this international popularity.

SS: A fascinating thing about the overseas popularity of Hindi films in the 1960s was that it was driven by largely ad-hoc, informal practices of distribution. Both the Bombay industry and the Indian state regarded this overseas popularity of Hindi song-dance films opportunistically and made unsuccessful attempts to exert control over this unruly field of distribution. So, there was little incentive on the part of Hindi filmmakers to cater to these audiences in any special way, beyond rare attempts like the prestige co-productions that the book discusses. In addition, the overseas popularity of Hindi films was often imbalanced. Hindi films were incredibly popular in places like Iran and Egypt, but the reverse was not true.

Still from India-USSR coproduction Khozhdenie Za Tri Morya (1958) aka Pardesi (1957): Afanasy’s romantic reverie.

RBF: You identify the Soviet-Indian co-produced film Pardesi/Khozhdenie Za Tri Morya (1957/8), based on the historical travels of fifteenth-century Tver merchant Afanasy Nikitin, as a transnationally made film that points to possible transgressions of the “[organization of] the world along hierarchies of gender, race, caste, and class.” Over time, Bollywood films have explored international and diasporic connections. However, is Pardesi/Khozhdenie set apart in that it prefers the possibilities of cultural and social exchange amongst ordinary people (despite the extraordinariness of their circumstances)?

SS: What sets Pardesi/Khozhdenie apart is its production at a time when many believed in the real possibility of a global, revolutionary Left and in the centrality of popular cinema to public life and world-making. Cinema was seen as a potent medium for reaching and influencing large numbers of people in the world, for better and for worse. In this case, the “better” came from a faith in cinema’s potential to address working-class audiences and galvanize popular social movements around such pressing issues as gender, race, caste, and class inequalities!

Dr. Samhita Sunya.

RBF: As we close, let’s talk about bangles. Your research for the book uncovered “a smuggling ruse involving waste celluloid headed for bangle factories” in the 1960s! Films consigned to the bangle factory, you explain, is a metaphor for failure. At the same time, you relate the bangle as a feminine accoutrement to “the politics of sexuality in the Indian state’s concerns over [international] smuggling,” especially in relation to films. You conclude that even with films that flopped, like the India-Iran co-produced Subah-O-Sham/Homa-ye Sa’adat (1972), there is something to be learned about gender, international relations, and their nexus. Is this still true in a time of globalization?

SS: Even in the “long” 1960s, it was not uncommon for audiences to consume media produced in foreign locations. The key here, in a case like Subah-O-Sham/Homa-ye Sa’adat, is that the film’s production was both emerging from and pushing the envelope of established practices. While we might more readily turn to avant-garde films for examining such histories of bucking trends, I was interested in cases that embraced—rather than opposed—popular cinema as a scalable means to an ethical end that is vociferously professed to be something other than profit.

R. Benedito Ferrao

R. Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William & Mary and Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies.