Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium: Panel 2, Rini Bhattacharya Mehta & Michael Silvers - Response by Jessica C Hajek

Friday, March 18, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 14, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Faculty Fellows Symposium, highlighting the research projects of our current Faculty Fellows. Panel 2 of the day included Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, Assistant Professor of Comparative & World Literature, and Michael Silvers, Assistant Professor of Musicology. Below is a response to this panel from Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology).]

Immoral Noises: Bollywood Cinema and Brazilian Castrati
Written by Jessica C. Hajek (Musicology)

Rini Bhattacharya Mehta (Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and Religion): "Embracing the Noise: Bollywood and Neoliberal India"

This presentation provided a brief snippet of Mehta’s book manuscript Unruly Cinema: A Counterhistory of Bollywood, which is her contribution to the recent explosion in research interest on Indian cinema. Her contribution to this scholarship is the story of how Bollywood has continued to grow as an important aspect of Indian identity despite every attempt to control, reform, and refine it.

By centering on the case study of Shah Rukh Khan — “the biggest movie star you’ve never heard of” — Mehta explored the idea of being Indian in the world of cinema. In looking at the trajectory of the marketing of Indian cinema during the 20th century, Bollywood films can be understood as a consequence of economic liberalization and post-nationalism in India since the 1990s. Mehta suggested that this time period represents a shift from the view of the “immoral” pro-corporate nation-state in cinema to the identification of the success of capitalism with the success of the nation.

Her discussion was framed as a reverse chronology that investigated three points in time in the history of Indian cinema. Starting with Bollywood’s presence at this year’s upcoming Cannes Film Festival, Mehta demonstrated that there has been a recent and well-concerted effort to popularize and sell Indian cinema to a world market. Several organizations—including FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry) and the MIB (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting)—have been explicitly involved in marketing Indian cinema as a brand in order to make the country attractive to foreign investors. However, as she pointed out, the penetration of this market has only just begun.

The second point in time focused on the first Hollywood ventures into making Bollywood films in 2007. Citing a NY Times article, she noted that American film companies like Sony, Fox, and even Walt Disney began collaborating with Indian companies to make Indian films that would cater better to Indian audiences and compete with domestic pictures. Using the example of the Sony/Columbia release of “Saawariya,” Mehta showed how these Hollywood cinematic endeavors were in fact hardly distinguishable from Bollywood-financed films of the time.

The third point in time focused on the impact of the liberalization of Indian media in the 1990s in an attempt to answer the question of why Hollywood ventured into Bollywood in the first place. First, Mehta unpacked the relationship between foreign and domestic market saturation pre- and post-1990. For example, Coca-Cola was squeezed out of India and replaced by locally-manufactured Thumbs-Up in 1977. But after liberalization, PepsiCo entered the Indian market in 1991 and Coca-Cola bought Thumbs-Up in 1993 to compete better in the Indian market. Second, she looked at liberalization’s impact on Indian media, including an increased availability of private cable channels and imported Hollywood films dubbed into Hindi—such as “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Speed” (1994). Whereas there had been resistance to foreign films in India since the 1920s that helped spur domestic consumption of local-language films, Mehta pointed out that after the 1990s, actors like Keanu Reeves were speaking Hindi in these films. How could domestic films compete?

At the same time that Hollywood films were saturating the Indian market, the increase in available cable channels also created an increased demand for new, local content. As a result of this, Mehta suggested that Indian film music underwent a kind of “MTV”-ization (emphasizing staging as much if not more than signing). The newly emerging middle class became the source of growing consumerism and confidence as a part of a new nationalist image of “Shining India.” This paved the way for a resurgence in the production of Indian-language content—along with Bollywood films—and the need for a supra-national Indian identity.

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Movie Poster of Bollywood Film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge [Source]

In conclusion, Mehta stressed the role of the Indian diaspora in particular as a strategy of economic development in post-1990s neoliberal India. With the example of the film “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” from 1995, Metha returned to actor Shah Rukh Khan as an example of the expatriate Indian as a central figure of Indian cinema. Following this, Mehta brought her discussion back to the critical year of 2007 with scenes from the film “Guru”—which premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. This film captured the realization of “Bollywood noise,” as we see the central character (loosely based on a successful Indian businessman) become the hero of the film and a source of national pride.

Michael Silvers (Assistant Professor in the Department of Musicology): “A Naturally Immoral Voice: The Story of Castrato Paulo Abel de Nascimento”

This presentation was based on an excerpt of the second chapter of Prof. Silvers’ manuscript Voices of Drought: Forró Soundscapes in Northeast Brazil, informed by recently completed ethnographic research on the subject.

By focusing on the case study of “natural” castrato Paulo Abel de Nascimento, Silvers explored how Nascimento carried the marks of his hometown of Ceará with him into the world. In doing so, Silvers unpacks the relationship between music and drought in Northeast Brazil as both a natural and social phenomenon and how this relationship pertained to identity construction and marginalization. Silvers suggested that Nascimento’s “immoral voice” serves as the locus for nature versus materiality and gender/race categories in Northeastern Brazil.

Silvers began his discussion by looking at the height of Nascimento’s career after returning from a world tour in 1985 and appearing in the 1988 classic “Dangerous Liaisons.” At the same time, he pointed to the contradiction of Nascimento embodying a “natural” castrato, who was also criticized for the strangeness of his voice. Silvers clarified that, in fact, Nascimento’s condition was not given to him by nature, but instead a consequence of a testosterone deficiency brought on by malnutrition—a so-called “stigma of hunger.”

Silvers continued his discussion by exploring the sociality and materiality of the voice. Interestingly, Nascimento referred to his own condition as a by-product of growing up in the state of Ceará in Northeastern Brazil not from a social standpoint, but a material one. Nascimento explained his condition by recounting how he was the 13th boy in his family (the youngest of fifteen overall—nine of whom died in childhood) and that therefore, there was no testosterone left for him. Nascimento also ascribed ethnic mixing as a cause of his natural voice.

However, these material effects on the voice also suggest social issues. Silvers explained how 20th century Brazilian national racial identity was steeped in the notion of racial democracy and the balanced miscegenation between Portuguese, African, and Indigenous roots. In contrast, the local identity unique to Ceará was based on drought and physical traits attributed to the population's mestizo (Portuguese and Indigenous) heritage. Therefore, Brazilian miscegenation from a Cearense point of view was responsible for the projected shame and prejudice that became associated with Nascimento’s voice. Thus, what was called “an immoral voice” by fellow Cearense Maestro Eleazar de Carvalho can be attributed to “chronic provincialism” and prejudice-filled art music institutions that had little room for otherness and non-gendered normativity.

Map of the States and Regions of Brazil [Source]

However, despite being marked by his hometown experiences with drought and hunger, Nascimento was able to achieve great success abroad. Silvers posited that this was due in part to a confluence of events that allowed Nascimento to transcend his local identity and tap into cosmopolitan values. First, by the 1970s, Nascimento openly identified as “homosexual” (a term that was still rare in Brazil, when Brazilians still preferred a variety of local alternative terms to categorize sexuality). Nascimento’s behavior stood in stark contrast to standard Northeastern gender norms where at the time, regardless of sexuality, masculinity was rooted in violence and bravery. Second, Silvers showed how Nascimento was also readily able to garner success abroad in the 1980s because of a resurgence of interest in historically accurate performances. In Europe and North America, the stigma of Nascimento’s natural voice was able to fit into current art music tastes. In other words, his “stigma of hunger” could remain invisible and be recast into the Western patriarchy.

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