“Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City” by Debashree Mukherjee

bombay

The Hindi film industry also known as Bollywood, or B-grade Hollywood, has an interesting history intertwined with economy, much of which remains unknown. The early years of the talkies as they unfolded in Bombay inform Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, a recent book by Debashree Mukherjee. The author’s first-hand experience in Mumbai as a freelance assistant director makes her well-placed to write about the past of the film and the city.

Mukherjee focuses on the years between 1929 and 1942—the years that saw the transition to sound—to characterize the age as one of “hustle”, a word that connotes many things from entrepreneurship to activity. While she touches upon various episodes, controversies, and highlights from the period, she is at her best when she talks about the material and economic contexts of these years. To understand what “Bollywood” is today, a scholar of film studies ought to look at what it was back then. Two insights from Mukherjee’s section on economic history stand out.

One is that it is odd to speak of the Mumbai film industry by contrasting it with Hollywood for while Hollywood was heavily corporatized since its inception, film-making in Bombay continued to be informal and less streamlined. Bombay was a unique film city:

 

If Hollywood was effectively corporatized by the 1930s, the German film industry was effectively nationalized under the Nazi regime. Soviet Russia and France had state support for educational and propaganda filmmaking. Japanese cinema, too, showed tendencies toward nationalization, especially with the passing of the Film Law in 1939. Both Japan and China, unlike India, saw the early involvement of banks in financing film studios in the 1920s and early 1930s, with Japan’s biggest studios, such as Toho, taking the route of vertical integration. Bombay cinema, in contrast, neither was a corporate media form nor did it count as “public” or “national” media. Through the 1930s and 1940s the cine-ecology remained stubbornly messy, inchoate, and decentralised, despite energetic moves by the biggest studios toward corporatization and creation of a narrow filed of production players.

 

It is only the last two or three decades that proper studios have arisen in Mumbai, bringing with them a regime of productivity and the concept of deliverables quite removed from the times when writers would be writing the scenes on the sets just before the shooting!

Bombay Hustle goes beyond film criticism and film history to contribute to urban history as well.

Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, Debashree Mukherjee (Columbia University Press, September 2020)
Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City, Debashree Mukherjee (Columbia University Press, September 2020)

Mukherjee’s other insight is concerned with the funding of the films. One of the reasons why film production had been a hustle was the uncertainty around cotton futures. Much of the investment in films came from l cotton magnates who could make as well as lose millions. Cotton and film were both speculative investments. Those who could handle the risk in one could handle it in the other as well. Both “hustles” were dependent on each other—cotton money fuelled films and films helped re-route the money made from cotton. Bombay cinema is characterized by “gamble” and “‘illegal’ vernacular gambling practices” in Mukherjee’s account.

These two dimensions of economic reality, combined with the cosmopolitan nature of the city, have greatly affected the cinematic output produced there. It is astonishing that Bombay was one of the centres producing Hindi-Urdu films and has remained the center of production of Hindi films despite  not being located in India’s Hindi heartland. The contrast stands out when compared with other film-producing cities in India: Chennai for Tamil films, Hyderabad for Telugu films and Kolkata for Bengali films, for instance. Mumbai cinema has a reach and flavor that goes pan-India, much farther than its immediate surroundings and reaches international audiences as well, the film Dangal being a case in point.

 

Among other things, Mukherjee brings to readers’ notice the way the actors and the crew responded to the rise of the talkies. As she points out, film directors would find it difficult to pinpoint the moment to announce “cut” to the crew: it took awhile for everyone to figure out how to shoot dialogue scenes. It is fascinating to read about the different responses to the new methods of casting: some actresses found it difficult to adapt to the demands of the sound—it was no longer enough to have a photogenic face; one had to have a “mike-suiting” voice too. Others like Sulochana, a star from the silent era, found it quite thrilling.

Bombay Hustle goes beyond film criticism and film history to contribute to urban history as well. It is a well-researched, well-written work of history weaving together elements of gender, class, caste and aesthetics to situate the 1930s as a period that deserves more attention from film enthusiasts and scholars alike.


Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.