Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 29 (Jan 1996) p. 45.

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Bombay and Its Public

^Ravi S. Vasudevan

In this paper I look at Mani Ratnam's much-debated film, Bombay, in its movement between cinematic address and public reception. As a film, and as a form of popular narrative, my concern is to understand its structural features, its generic location and its intertextual animation of key motifs in public life. In terms of reception, my analysis is concerned with the response of the articulate strata of 'the public', as expressed in the outlook of mainstream politicians, journalists and reviewers. Writers of liberal outlook, left-wing affiliation, and the votaries of majority and minority identity have been outspoken in their evaluation of Bombay. They have argued about the rules of representation that ought to govern the exploration of national crisis, in particular the place of the 'real' in this enterprise, and the way prohibitions surrounding women are central to definitions of communal identity. I also try to understand a practice which is both a form of production as well as one of reception, that of government censorship. The prohibitions enforced by the censor board add up to a certain image of the state and its understanding of the impact of images on social perception and official authority.

I have argued that the narrative construction of this film has a tendency to discontinuity, with segments acquiring a certain autonomy from each other. However, a pattern emerges over the time of the narrative, one of forgetting the past within the text. These features are echoed in the way the narrative is constructed by segments of the audience. The opinions I draw upon make sense of the text through a selection of material, and by highlighting the logic of certain narrative phases. The last section of this essay presents my own susceptibility to vesting the film with coherent meaning. In seeking to go beyond the existing terms of the debate, I focus on a particular feature which has not attracted much attention, that of the sacrificial male body. Through this figure, I try to suggest that the particular way the text seeks coherence generates contradictory elements which offer the spectator an ambivalent viewpoint on the narrative of communal relationships and sectarian violence.

Number 29

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