A Persian romance and Bombay cinema

“The poem can also feel very like a Bollywood love story, and one could easily mark up the text to indicate where the songs and dances should appear.”

[Dick Davis.. from the intro to Vis & Ramin]

This brief extract from a much longer and truly enlightening introduction on the significance and aesthetics of this great Persian epic ties in neatly with a recent discussion here. Davis argues for what is termed the ‘jeweled style’ of the epic (with its hyperbole and episodic qualities as well as the reliance on flowers and jewels for the principal metaphors) and what was once derogatorily termed the ‘Asiatic style’ and traces its influence on medieval European literature, chiefly the Tristan and Isolde legend. And it is not at all coincidental that he introduces ‘Bollywood’ into the discussion as a privileged example.

I would argue that following current Indian convention Western critics too have fallen into the trap of defining all of Bombay film history as a continuum and using the term ‘Bollywood’ for it. The configuration that is encountered in the 1990s and beyond and which is also the historical point at which this term becomes common currency (entirely appropriately for reasons I have argued elsewhere) is fundamentally different from what I would in turn term the true ‘jeweled style’ moment of Bombay cinema (but why just ‘Bombay’? One should really refer to commercial ‘Indian’ cinema; ‘Bombay’ as a stand-in for the latter is very imprecise and even blatantly inaccurate because while Hindi cinema has been hegemonic it is not like Hollywood the only industry in its national space and even if it has been influential in many regards the ‘Southern’ or Bengali industries for example have had their own aesthetics which have in turn led to cross-pollination with Bombay. To wit, the traffic has often traveled in the other direction) which it seems to me defines the great masala moment of the 70s more than any other. It is certainly the case that if one looks at this industry through a prism of ‘rootedness’ one might think of a ‘classic’ phase of Bombay cinema that began in the post-Independence period and went on through the very early 80s in various manifestations. Within this history however the epic narrative was wedded to a peculiarly Shakespearean ‘mixing of the genres’ (a marriage of ‘high’ and ‘low’) at exactly one point (even if one could certainly spot elements of this framework in other periods) and this was during the masala tradition of the 1970s (which is not exactly coterminous with this decade). Again there are elements in the ‘Southern’ industries even today that correspond to such a ‘jeweled style’. But has been more or less extinct in Bombay since the advent of the Yashraj diaspora model. ‘Song and dance’ alone do not satisfy this definition.

When I borrow this term (‘jeweled style’) for the masala tradition I do not intend a precise analogy. And yet allowing for all kinds of cultural and critical translation it seems to me that this analogy (which I am expanding upon following the hint of the Vis and Ramin translator) is not completely ‘infelicitous’ either.

An aside is perhaps warranted here. I try never to stray too far from Manmohan Desai (!) even if regrettably I am forced to use an example from his work today that I least like — Mard. Here towards the end there is that outlandish hand to hand combat between Dara Singh and Amitabh Bachchan, father and son though unknown to each other in these roles. Desai was rather more prone to happy endings than that greatest model of Persian letters he was relying upon and that by way of various ‘twists and turns’ found its way into Indic consciousness and therefore indirectly Desai’s — the Shahnameh. The most famous tale of this epic involves the extraordinarily dramatic fight between Rostam and Sohrab with the former finally slaying the latter and only then discovering that he is the latter’s father. The Shahnameh with its true epic grounding cannot be considered as suitable a model for the ‘jeweled style’ of ‘romance’ of which of course Vis and Ramin is a good example but the distance between these two works is somewhat like the distance between the latter and ‘Bollywood’ (as Dick Davis would have it). In each instance the epic style wedded to much more intimate ‘jeweled style’ vignettes.

I embarked on this bit of fancy as part of my more extended polemic in favor of Indian commercial cinema. We have long had those audiences (both in India and outside) who even as they have consumed all kinds of Indian cinema have often regarded the triumphs of this earlier masala period as their own version of the ‘Asiatic style’. A ‘guilty pleasure’ never to be canonized. When it is still discerned today in for example Tamil or Telugu cinema it is deemed entirely regressive. The adherents of this view in contemporary India might be called the ‘multiplex audience’. Those who are always insistent on Hollywood models consciously or otherwise. The achievement of an Indian commercial film in this worldview might be measured in terms of its distance from Hollywood codes. I was making the same point in the older discussion on the sense of time involved in Indian commercial cinema versus classic Hollywood musicals and so forth. It is also a distinction I bring to most debates on the subject. This does not mean that one cannot critique masala cinema (or any other commercial kind in India). But it must not be attempted through Hollywood eye-glasses unless there is a specific reason to do so. Ironically the films that ‘multiplex India’ seems to lionize are actually the very works that are most susceptible to deconstruction by way of a ‘Hollywood reading’ and often in ways not entirely to the credit of the former. The analogy between those Persian epics and Indian commercial cinema is precisely this — each tradition has sometimes brought forth a rich, eclectic mix that has made its audiences and equally its critics uneasy for different reasons. Eventually there has been canonization but the debates have never entirely subsided. Whatever Indian commercial cinema might or might not be the reliance on a Hollywood (or ‘Western’ model) to ‘authorize’ it (or otherwise) is certainly comprehensible and even interesting as the byproduct of a mode of colonization but this does not make the exercise justifiable on its own terms. My polemics are forever oriented toward this end…

9 Responses to “A Persian romance and Bombay cinema”

  1. Vis and Ramin were the greatest lovers. Dick Davis is the authority for Persian poetry translation. This one’s a gem by Gorgani…

    “And, elsewhere, sudden arrows entered eyes / Like sleep that takes a warrior by surprise; / Like love, spears pierced through hearts, and like good sense / Axes split open heads and arguments. / It seemed that swords found out exactly where / God placed the soul with such abundant care, / And where men’s flesh was opened by the blade / The soul fled through the gaping wound it made.”

    Shahnameh is another one. Good you mentioned that.

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  2. Very stimulating post here, and thanks for the superb lines offside. Especially striking to see the inversion: ordinarily abstractions like love, reason etc. are analogized to physical combat; and here the opposite is done (e.g. it is not love which is like a spear piercing the victim, but spears which are like love)…

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    • Davis comments on Gorgani’s inversions in the introduction. So for example instead of analogizing a certain kind of erotic passion to a fire Gorgani does the opposite. And this makes what would otherwise be cliches ‘strange’ in his imagining.

      The other great Persian romance/epic which unfortunately has not seen a complete English translation to the best of my knowledge is Nezami’s Khusrau and Shirin from a century later (12th). The story is there in the Shahnameh but of course the later work is much more expansive. The Shirin-Farhad plot is part of this as well.

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    • Oh I just saw your acknowledgement… it’s good to know there’re some who enjoy ‘life-in-a-day’ analogy as well as a day-in-a-life!

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  3. “I would argue that following current Indian convention Western critics too have fallen into the trap of defining all of Bombay film history as a continuum and using the term ‘Bollywood’ for it.”

    Indeed Satyam, and this is a grave injustice, methinks. This is not an area I am well-versed on – an understatement – but this was a fascinating essay, and a splendid summary here:

    “Whatever Indian commercial cinema might or might not be the reliance on a Hollywood (or ‘Western’ model) to ‘authorize’ it (or otherwise) is certainly comprehensible and even interesting as the byproduct of a mode of colonization but this does not make the exercise justifiable on its own terms. My polemics are forever oriented toward this end…”

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  4. Very interesting reading here and a good extension of the previous discussion about the song sequence.

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