Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 23-24 (Jan 1993) p. 51.


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Shifting Codes, Dissolving Identities

The Hindi Social Film of the 1950s as Popular Culture

U^Ravi Vasudevan

This article takes up the notion of the popular in relation to the Hindi commercial cinema of the 1950s. I begin by drawing upon aspects of the theoretical debate on popular culture to outline my approach, I have chosen to concentrate on formal and narrative features of the cultural product though the major preoccupation in cultural studies today is with the reception of the product. These studies have yielded valuable insights into the variety of ways in which culture is consumed, interpreted and even reordered into a new practice. But I will argue that reception studies have reintroduced the problem of the intrusion of the historian in recovering audience perception.

I will make an effort to bring the cinema audience under historical scrutiny in terms of the way cinema places the spectator through formal and narrative strategies, an experience which does not readily surface in viewers' accounts of cinema-going. My analysis will also re-examine the boundaries posed between high, mass and popular culture. These boundaries as conceptualized in the contemporary discussion of the cinema in the 1950s, signalled the institution of certain regimes of taste and distinction in aesthetic perception. But an analysis of formal features shows, on the contrary, that these boundaries were not rigid, that within the cultural product there were intersections at which elements from different systems of representation were brought together.

I do not, thereby, deny the existence of those distinctions which acquired concrete form with the emergence of an art cinema in the 1950s. It is only my suggestion that certain currents in the commercial cinema addressed rich and contradictory representational problems in a creative way, although this cultural work was necessarily bounded by the cinema's drive to hegemonize the spectator into dominant social norms. I will also argue that the commercial cinema articulated contemporary nationalist discourse in ways which both overlapped with and were dissimilar from those of the liberal intelligentsia who criticized it. This is an issue of considerable interest in

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