Recently I agreed to review a book titled Bollywood Travels: Culture, Diaspora and Border Crossings in Popular Hindi Cinema, by Rajinder Dudrah (a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester). When it arrived, I flipped through the first 4-5 pages and knew I was in for a long, hard ride. Sample sentences:
All cinemas offer border places and spaces of ideas, of different sorts, but it is the focus on the imaginative positing of border places and spaces through Bollywood’s idiosyncratic audio-visual construction of such a possibility that is of focus here.
The notion of the haptic urban ethnoscape is developed out of a critical theorising about the concept of representation, as a way of extending text-based analyses beyond the materiality of film and media, and to consider their articulations in and through urban cultural geographies.
It’s a slim book, thank FSM, but even 110 more pages of this...long, deep sigh.
As I’ve often said in this space, we need more intelligent literature on popular films. But such writing – rare as it already is – should try to be accessible to readers who have not been weaned on the hermetically sealed language of academia, and who believe that there are lucid ways of expressing ideas.
Pauline Kael often cautioned against the dangers of film criticism falling into the hands of university circles, resulting in stodgy “over-analysis”. This view is, of course, open to debate: you might disagree with it if you believe (as I do) that popular films deserve serious, engaged analysis. But it's important to consider the quality of the analytical writing. Remember that Kael herself wrote many long, passionate reviews full of detailed observations that could only have come from her and no one else. And some of my own favourite cinema writing is by academics such as Robin Wood, who knew how to write clearly and directly.
Dudrah’s writing, on the other hand, is often dense and obfuscating in the way that a certain type of (widely parodied) academic writing tends to be – full of generously recurring “heuristics” and “diagetics” and convoluted sentences that appear to be an end in themselves rather than channels for conveying meaning or insight. But the problem with Bollywood Travels isn’t just that it is over-academic – in fact, it isn’t consistently so. There are passages where it is self-consciously informal, almost as if making a hip effort to eschew the language of the classroom (and perhaps suggesting that behind the garb of the lecturer is a fanboy who is interested in movies and movie stars at a more elementary level). Dudrah references the dim-witted comments that typically appear under YouTube videos (“srk is a kid, Amit G is his baap”) and elaborately quotes Tweets by Bollywood stars like the Bachchans to understand how stars “are using this medium to extend their onscreen personas, to perform themselves in a virtual public setting...”. In a charming little aside he even mentions asking Salman Khan (on Twitter) why he disliked the term “Bollywood”, and not receiving a response.
The bigger problem is that much of the prose – both in the complicated passages and in the simple ones – is awkward in ways that anyone with a functioning knowledge of English would recognise. Thus: “John Abraham is known for keeping fit and working out regular (sic) and his buff body is put to good titillating use, often revealed at almost every opportunity with only shorts on throughout the film.” And: “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom [...] is a knowing film: knowing that Bollywood is being noticed by the international entertainment industries and knowing too that a little creative licence would not go amiss in the execution of this popular text.” There are many other instances of such triteness.
It’s a pity, because there are passages here – especially the detailed analyses of sequences from Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and Dostana – where one senses that Dudrah has an eye for detail, knows how to read movies and occasionally has noteworthy things to say about them. But his form is so muddled that the content rarely stands a chance.
[More on the book later]