A Pitt professor's new book explores the roots of movie-celebrity culture in India. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Pitt professor's new book explores the roots of movie-celebrity culture in India. 

A culture's contradictions reveal its growing pains. Take India's massive film industry. Though known worldwide largely through its Bollywood spectaculars, Indian cinema has a rich history, and even its own cult of celebrity. In her first book, Wanted -- Cultured Ladies Only!: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s-1950s (University of Illinois), Neepa Majumdar explores how this culture's paradoxes narrate India's turbulent shift to modernity.

The book began with Majumdar's interest in Indian celebrity culture -- and the contradictions that dwelled in the gap between oral culture and the written record.

"When we study Hollywood stars and their potency, it's through [both] screen roles and offscreen stories that are told," says Majumdar, an associate professor in English and film at the University of Pittsburgh. But older Indian cinema, including Mumbai-based Bollywood and other regional industries, offered only half the picture -- the onscreen half. "Private information existed; as people talked, they whispered about the stars, but never wrote it. I couldn't find any non-role-related information on Indian stars."

Majumdar was most interested in India's revolutionary era. Her research included time at the National Film Archive of India. Among her findings about India's hushed celebrity culture: While Indian films promoted nationalism through traditional narratives, film itself was seen as "Western." In anti-colonial India, that cost the very medium respectability. In response, studios scouted higher-society, "cultured" people to join their ranks, hoping to win audiences with such appealing company.

Majumdar explains that female stars underwent particular scrutiny: Women were traditionally domestic, and seeing them paraded as entertainment shocked the traditional system. Studios hoped that "cultured" actresses might soothe the shift. But that word was undergoing its own changes.

"Being a cultured woman means you're aiding in the national movement; they're working in meaningful roles," Majumdar says. Like American housewives during World War II, Indian women became conscientious supporters of a national purpose.

But admiration didn't mean acceptance. Thus, respected film stars acted in traditional female parts, while the adventure-seeking action heroine was left to less respected actresses.

Despite attempts at sophistication, one problem still stymied the studios.

"On the one hand, they want cultured ladies, but if they work in the movies, they would be talked about and no one would see it," Majumdar says, recalling distaste for "public" women. The distaste persisted even in gossip, a subtle form of which could be found in Indian film-industry magazines.

Majumdar is eight years into a teaching career that began at Indiana University-Bloomington. Wanted is academic but accessible to the lay person. 

 "It's a subject that appeals to people," Majumdar says. "Because it's women and class, in Indian cinema. I found it similar to the contemporary celebrity culture."


Neepa Majumdar hosts Filmi Views: Bollywood and Indian Films about Films. Next screenings: In Search of Famine (1980), 7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 19, and Colorful (1995), 7 p.m. Sat., Feb. 20. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Schenley Drive, Oakland. Free. 412-624-5578 or www.filmstudies.pitt.edu



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