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Writing the Industry

Debashree Mukherjee

Bombay city in the 1930s had already consolidated its reputation as India’s foremost ‘modern’city. One of the surest indices of a city’s relation to modernity is the nature of its public life. And nowhere was Bombay’s dynamic public sphere so readily apparent as in the pages of the daily newspaper. From Congress rallies to racecourse news, workers’ strikes to theatre listings, the newspaper served as a digest of city life and its attitudes. By the thirties, Bombay had a firmly entrenched newspaper culture with high literacy levels and a mixed, cosmopolitan reading public. There existed a wide variety of journals in a number of languages like English, Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati. The nature of this reading public can be glimpsed in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ sections of dailies like The Times of India and The Bombay Chronicle. Here was an aware and opinionated public that regularly ‘wrote back’ to the paper. Here was a community of readers that believed it had a stake in the life of the nation, a life played out in the public sphere. The entry of cinema into this informed space of two-way public discourse makes for a fascinating moment.   The Bombay Chronicle was founded by Pherozeshah Mehta in 1910 and edited by Syed Abdullah Brelvi. It was a self-avowed progressive and nationalist English-language daily with a wide readership base. The 1930s saw dramatic transformations in the paper’s investment in cinema. Like all other newspapers, its first encounter with cinema was through advertisements on rented space. Next, there came regular listings of film screenings, venues and times. Soon the texts graduated to basic plot synopses and cast & crew information and then finally moved on to elaborate reviews, articles, interviews and opinion pieces. From a couple of untitled columns, film information grew to two full-page sections dedicated to ‘Indian’ and ‘Foreign’ films on two separate days of the week. By 1938, articles on the film pages began to carry the sign-off ‘By our Film Critic’. This was a significant articulation that clearly defined the film journalist as a specialist. There was now a rubric for this new work. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas was one of the first publicly recognized film critics in Bombay. Compelled by the ideology of The Bombay Chronicle, Abbas joined the staff as a rookie political reporter in 1935. His interest in cinema soon helped him bag the resident film critic position. ...

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