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The Grid of Imagined Nationhood

Moinak Biswas

By Jyotika Virdi
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 258, Rs. 595.00


The puncept in Jyotika Virdi’s title shows the continuing attraction of nationhood as an interpretive horizon in the study of Indian popular cinema. This despite the fact that similar other quibbles, such as ‘impersonation’ (in Sumita Chakravarty’s book National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1998, a constant reference in Virdi), did not seem to yield much in terms of interpretive work. The problem, of course, is not with words; one has to reflect on the general usefulness of a critical strategy that maps the history of the Hindi popular film on the grid of the imagination of nationhood, calls upon that imagination to act as the unifying dynamics across genres and phases covering fifty years of a cinematic practice.   Virdi argues that, unlike British or Latin American cinema, popular Indian cinema is a “national cinema proper”; not only because it is produced and consumed primarily within the confines of the country, but also because it inherits and circulates “notions of national identity”, negotiates “conflicts experienced by an imagined community”, produces “new representations of the nation” “through special cultural referents” (p 7). To begin with, it is hard to see why these characteristics do not obtain in cinemas of other societies; but there are more important questions to ask. Why should a national cinema motivate a reading that privileges imagination of nationhood over other meanings? What exactly is there to elevate the nation question to the status of a master narrative subsuming all other narratives that films might struggle to put together?   As the author sweeps across fifty odd years of Bombay productions since Independence, she narrows the critical focus on family, womanhood, romance, sexuality, the moral dichotomy of characters, as specific cases demand, assuming that these formations and subjects are always working substitutes for the singular subject of nationhood. The logic of substitution is never worked out since a transcendental signified is already in place for the argument. Thus family is taken as the “primary trope to negotiate caste, class, community and gender divisions” through which Hindi cinema “configures the nation and constructs a nationalist imaginary” (p. 7). The unmediated passage from family to nation in the sentence is symptomatic as cinema is treated as a reflection of a certain social discourse.   Is it to be taken as a case of reiteration because cinema is an ideological ruse, just a matter, say, of staging the national imaginary under the garb of ...

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