Debashree Mukherjee's Bombay Hustle is a rigorous, empathetic study of the making of the film industry in colonial India

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya
·15-min read

The history of Indian filmmaking, particularly in and around the Bombay film industry, is deeply intertwined with the history and making of modern India. Film historian and media theorist Debashree Mukherjee's latest book €" Bombay Hustle €" is "an ambitious history of Indian cinema as a history of material practice". Mukherjee relies extensively on original archival research and conducts a detailed study of numerous facets of film production €" from finance, to pre-production paperwork, casting, screenwriting, acting, stunts etc.

An assistant professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University, Mukherjee works across the fields of production studies, new materialisms, feminist film historiography and postcolonial studies. Bombay Hustle too has Mukherjee's new insights to the studies of production and circulation of movies in Bombay of the 1920s-1940s. She throws light on "a range of marginalised film workers, their labour and experiences; forgotten film studios, their technical practices and aesthetic visions; and overlooked connections between media practices, geographical particularities, and historical exigencies."

(LEFT) Debashree Mukherjee (RIGHT) Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City.
(LEFT) Debashree Mukherjee (RIGHT) Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City.

(LEFT) Debashree Mukherjee (RIGHT) Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City.

In an email interview with Firstpost, Mukherjee spoke about her book and various facets of filmmaking in Bombay of the late colonial era. Edited excerpts follow:

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How and when did the idea of Bombay Hustle take shape? Could you share with us your process of research and data collection for this book?

I first got interested in the history of commercial film production and practice when I was a freelancing assistant director in Mumbai in 2005-2006. I started consulting newspapers from the 1930s to get a sense of the films being made in Bombay during the early talkie years. That's when I also returned to stories by Saadat Hasan Manto on the film world of pre-Partition Bombay. Those stories read to me like a window onto the world of film directors, writers, assistant directors, producers, and actresses from a time that remains unchronicled in an ethnographic vein, i.e., with a focus on the emotions and everyday practices of film professionals.

After a while, I realised that in order to do systematic research I first have to equip myself with the right historical, conceptual, and methodological tools. Which is when I decided to enrol in a film studies program at JNU. As an academic, I developed the vocabulary and insight to formulate research questions and I also found resources to travel to archives across India and abroad. The book, in its final shape, came together in the last three years, but I have been researching these questions for almost a decade now, in some form or another.

There's a specific reason why you chose the name "Bombay Hustle" for this book. Would you like to share that with us?

The title came to me about two years ago. The book was finally taking a coherent shape and I realised that at the core of my story was the idea of struggle, the struggle to survive in Bombay city as a film practitioner, the dreams that sustain people in their struggle to "make it", and the ongoing nature of that struggle. The word "hustle" has become so prevalent today to describe different efforts to make it in an unequal marketplace of labour and commodities. It offers me a bridge between the 1930s and today, and to name the intensely speculative work of gambling on the future with your body and your emotions; future-oriented attempts to become something in the film industry and create an identity for yourself.

Why did you base or rather set the premise of your book during the 1920s-1940s? What were the major historical markers during this era that shaped Bombay and its image of a thriving centre of cinema production in India?

The period I look at, roughly between 1929 and 1942, is the period when Indian film industries make the transition from silent films to talkies. This is the period when Bombay city starts to become the foremost centre of film production in the subcontinent. This is also a very fascinating period in the life of an emerging nation: the last phase of the freedom movement, anxieties about a rumoured partition, intense labour struggle and strikes in Bombay's textile industry, and a time when women start to become very visible in the public sphere as professionals and as activists. So this is a very significant period of transition for Indian cinema which also allows me to locate the story of film within the political, social, and economic flux of the time.

As I show in the book, there were many factors that contributed to Bombay's emergence as the leading film production centre in South Asia; from cotton finance to the many writers who flocked to the city because of its status as a cultural and political hub; from the huge numbers of unskilled workers who migrated to the city and became the most important paying audiences of talkie cinema, to Bombay's cosmopolitan milieu which attracted men and women from every part of the subcontinent with hopes of doing something creative with their lives.

(LEFT) Dr. Madhurika or Modern Wife (Sarvottam Badami, 1935), starring Sabita Devi. Image courtesy the National Film Archive of India. (RIGHT) Actress, or Bambai ki Mohini (Balwant Bhatt, 1934), starring Miss Panna.
(LEFT) Dr. Madhurika or Modern Wife (Sarvottam Badami, 1935), starring Sabita Devi. Image courtesy the National Film Archive of India. (RIGHT) Actress, or Bambai ki Mohini (Balwant Bhatt, 1934), starring Miss Panna.

(LEFT) Dr Madhurika or Modern Wife (Sarvottam Badami, 1935), starring Sabita Devi. Image courtesy the National Film Archive of India. (RIGHT) Actress, or Bambai ki Mohini (Balwant Bhatt, 1934), starring Miss Panna.

You have coined the term 'cine-ecology' in the book and you describe it as "a material reality as well as a method for a processual and non-dualist approach to film". Would you tell us about the conception of this term? What are the different facets of this "cine-ecology" that you have tried to explore in your book?

When we refer to film production in Bombay we use the term "industry" and I believe that the term "film industry", while useful, is also very imprecise. What is this "film industry"? Is it a bunch of producers or a handful of film stars? Where is it located? In Andheri or Goregaon? The other term that is popularly used for the pre-independence film scene is "studio period". That too is quite imprecise and historically inaccurate. Was all filmmaking being done by established studios? Does the term studio refer to a specific model of industrial or economic organisation?

As I started to find more primary sources from the 1930s I realised that filmmaking in those years was a diffused and decentralised terrain of practice. Many different sources of finance were being used to make films; some studios had soundproof stages and many did not; some had a corporate approach to the division of labour and some worked in ad hoc and improvisational ways. The term ecology allows me to argue that the "industry" is a constantly changing and shape-shifting thing without any clear boundaries. It also helps me to underline the fact that even though we may celebrate individual directors or stars, film production is a fundamentally collaborative and ecological form which draws on the talents and energies of hundreds of people, objects, equipment, locations, and even the weather.

And most importantly, it allows me to show that film practitioners, whom I call cine-workers, come in all shapes and colours and they mark the city with their labour and their dreams... be it in tea stalls or cigarette shops, on set or on location. Cine-ecology, therefore, is a way of saying that a city like Bombay has been fundamentally shaped by the practice of making movies, while also saying that cinema is the creation of stories and meanings that cannot be restricted to the screen or to the studio.

Meera and Mumtaz Ali rehearse a scene for Vachan (Franz Osten, 1938). Image courtesy The Josef Wirsching Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography.
Meera and Mumtaz Ali rehearse a scene for Vachan (Franz Osten, 1938). Image courtesy The Josef Wirsching Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Meera and Mumtaz Ali rehearse a scene for Vachan (Franz Osten, 1938). Image courtesy The Josef Wirsching Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography.

How did colonisation affect or impact the cine-ecology in Bombay? How was it different here in comparison to other filmmaking cine-ecologies around the world €" for instance, Los Angeles, Berlin, Moscow etc.?

Indians started to experiment with movie-making at the turn of the 20th century, which was also a time of great political turmoil. The British colonial state was mainly interested in Indian films from the perspective of censorship, i.e., to keep a check on any signs of anti-colonial messaging. No state finance was available to aid a fledgeling enterprise, and banks were unwilling to invest in such a risky and speculative venture. Hollywood got a lot of structured corporate finance in its early decades and Russia and France had state support for their filmmaking.

Indian cinema was spectacularly bereft and can be called a "survivalist" cinema. Beyond this question of colonial surveillance and financial neglect was the fact that colonialism created a set of cultural and social dilemmas that also impacted filmmaking. There were major public debates on what was appropriately Indian and what was foreign; what would a properly modern Indian woman look like and at what point did her modernity become socially unacceptable? Binaries between traditional/modern, Indian/Western, respectable/scandalous were reproduced and also contested in talkie films, especially in the representation of women.

The Bombay film heroine, then as now, has been the laboratory for tense social experiments with how to define Indianness, authenticity, and modernity.

This need to prove, via culture/cinema, India's readiness to participate on the global stage or to construct ideas of India's glorious past before colonial rule, is a product of the colonial condition.

One of the very interesting subjects that you explore in this book is the arrival of the talkies, and with that dialogue and speechmaking as legitimate art. What were the biggest landmarks in India's history of motion pictures with regard to these aural aesthetics in the field of filmmaking in India?

I'm glad you enjoyed this chapter! It was a lot of fun to write. I was trying to understand what was new and exciting for audiences about sound films. This is not as simple a question as it seems. Silent film viewers were already accustomed to live orchestras in the theatre and people shouting out intertitles for those who couldn't read. At the same time, many film viewers also had access to music and songs through live stage performances and the gramophone.

What the talkie film provided was not simply sound but the visual of the speaking body mass-reproduced via technology. It was a huge innovation to see Indian actors speak in local languages. There was a major emphasis in the 1930s on scenes with a lot of heavy dialogue-baazi which borrowed from the Parsi theatre's declamatory style, but also drew on the many genres of live speechmaking that were critical to the world of anti-colonial and nationalist politics. I look at courtroom dramas from this period in which over and over again we see "lady barristers" make impassioned arguments in court. This is approximately two decades before Nargis plays Rita in Awara! This emphasis on dialogue, and speech as a form of argumentation, informs Bollywood even today, though now the speechifying voice is more likely to be a male voice.

Tell us something about this cine-ecology's tryst with gender, religion and caste politics in India. How much did the latter influence the discourse and narratives around the former and its functioning? And could you throw some light on the feminist wave during that era both on-screen and off-screen and how it transcended into shaping the socio-cultural fabric of the city of Bombay?

In terms of content, talkie films in the 1930s frequently took up important social issues of the day and many filmmakers adopted a nationalist and reformist lens to questions such as widow remarriage, companionate and inter-caste marriage, and women's education. Strong female characters were often at the centre of these social dramas. But it is hard to use the term "feminist" to describe these films as they displayed a wide range of attitudes from sexist to progressive even as they discussed the meanings of equality.

For instance, a film like Dr. Madhurika (1935) capitalises on the popularity of its female star, Sabita Devi, to tell a cautionary and regressive tale about how women with careers are a menace to the institution of the family. On the other hand, Barrister's Wife (1935) tells an inter-generational story about a mother who was shunned by society and her barrister daughter who defends her in court. Both roles are played by the famous actress Gohar. In Kunku (1939) we have an astonishing heroine who refuses to consummate her marriage with an old man as a protest against incompatible arranged marriages. But even here the radical possibilities of the character played by Shanta Apte are evoked most strongly in her bodily gestures and singing voice than in the basic storyline.

What is interesting for me is that all three films feature actresses who are hugely popular, good at their work, and financially independent. All three actresses became producers. In my view, therefore, the mass visibility of the film actress as a professional figure adds a different layer of meaning to the gendered content inside the films.

Caste too is a theme that is tackled in social films of the day sometimes very explicitly in films such as Achhut (1940), Achhut Kanya (1936), and Hurricane Hansa (1937). These films' vision of Dalit female emancipation however is quite diverse and often problematic.

The works of Saadat Hasan Manto and Shanta Apte are a recurring voice of observational past, of the bygone era, in your book. Do you think Manto and Apte's words, especially those pertaining to their association with the industry, paint a vivid picture of the oft-unnoticed tiny cogs and wheels of this giant film machinery?

Yes, it is through Manto's writings that I first got a sensory and experiential glimpse into the world of filmmaking in late colonial Bombay. And Shanta Apte's book, Jaau mi Cinemaant? (1940) just blew my mind. It is such a sharp and scathing critique of the exploitative logics of a capitalist film business. I haven't come across such a fierce and articulate critique by anyone else who was writing at the time, including the leftist Progressive writers!

I read Manto and Apte as two important theorists of the film who show us new ways of understanding film production €" as embodied work that is done within a forcefield of power asymmetries. But there are many other protagonists in my book, people who were famous in their time but mostly forgotten now €" such as Gohar Mamajiwala or Sarvottam Badami; and silhouetted figures who were marginalised even in their own lifetime such as Nalini D and Mohammed Rafique... I stitch together glimpses of these characters to create what I hope will come across as an intimate story of the mad world of filmmaking.

The very first page of your book starts with a picture featuring a light boy facing what could be a film set, and the very last chapter is titled "Struggle" referring to the fans, stunt artists, extras etc who you very rightly describe as "shadow imaginaries". Throughout working on this book, what has been your understanding of this cine-ecology and the flow of power in it? What are your observations on the disproportionate distribution of perks and privileges in an industry whose very foundation is based on collective, cooperative and collaborative practices?

Our world is made up of many structural inequalities, and film production takes place in this worldly reality. Through my research, I have tried to unpack the ways in which social, cultural, and economic inequalities in India are reconfigured in the cine-ecology and also how these power relations have been questioned or contested.

It is indeed true, according to me, that cinema has historically given thousands of Indians a chance to imagine new futures and possibilities for themselves. The cine-ecology has been able to accommodate a lot of social diversity and has provided unprecedented financial opportunities to many people. At the same time, gender, caste, language, and religion create challenges in the workplace which are very slippery to pinpoint using historical evidence. Which is why my sources for researching power hierarchies in the cine-ecology are quite unconventional. I don't know of any book on Indian cinema that cites police cases and lawsuits, or an academic book that is interested in shooting accidents and sexual harassment in Bombay. At the same time, as a historian, I have tried to complicate easy narratives that we continue to perpetuate, such as the evils of the star system, a narrative that places all on the blame on film stars.

My aim has been to revisit the tired clichés about the film industry and take a hard look at the complex forces at play in a formative period in Bombay cinema which continues to have consequences today.

As a former cine-worker myself, I have tried to look at past practitioners with empathy, and as a historian, I have tried to retain a sense of the messiness and contradictions of human intentions and their consequences.

Lastly, what has been your biggest takeaway from working on this book?

My biggest takeaway actually came after the book went into production as the whole anti-Bollywood saga on Indian mainstream television started to unfold this summer. Once again some amorphous thing called "film industry" was being conjured up and vilified. Once again, a young starlet was being demonised based on sexist assumptions about live-in relationships and scheming women. My main takeaway from this is a confirmation of something I argue in the book: that one of the biggest hustles in Bombay cinema is the hustle of women cine-workers to claim their basic right to work. A right to work with dignity and safety and to proudly identify themselves as cine-workers.

€" All images courtesy of Debashree Mukherjee.

€" Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (Film and Culture Series) released in India on 22 September | 2020 | Paperback: Rs 699 (9780231196185) | Columbia University Press

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