Bollywood B-Movies: Cult Cosmopolitanism and the Reception of Indian Genre Cinema in the West

By Iain Robert Smith

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On 24 May 2012, Ashim Ahluwalia’s film Miss Lovely competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in Mumbai’s cinematic underbelly of horror and exploitation movies, the film follows two brothers Vicky and Sonu Duggal who produce C-grade sex horror pictures evocative of genuine titles from the period such as Kabrastan / The Graveyard (1988) and Khooni Panja / The Bloody Claw (1991). Modelled on real-life trash filmmakers such as Kanti Shah, Mohan Bhakri and Vinod Talwar, the Duggal Bros make low-budget genre films that are designed to play on a circuit of fleapit cinemas outside of the metropolitan centres. While Miss Lovely is aesthetically closer to an elliptical art film than the exploitation features it takes as its subject, the film has nonetheless drawn attention to a rich history of Indian genre cinema that has rarely been addressed by academics or fans in the West.

Indeed, for Canadian film critic and programmer Kier-La Janisse, the significance of Miss Lovely for non-diasporic audiences is that “it taps into all the licentious elements that would attract a western exploitation film audience while presenting a history we know virtually nothing about.”[1] This statement is rather telling. Despite India’s status as a centre of global film production, with a long history of producing low-budget horror, science fiction, and fantasy cinema – genres that other national industries such as Japan and Hong Kong have successfully exported around the world – it is notable that these Indian genre films have, until recently, rarely crossed over to fans in the West. In this short article, therefore, I would like to start by outlining some of the factors shaping this lack of circulation, and then follow this with a consideration of the ways in which Indian genre cinema is starting to be acknowledged by non-diasporic audiences in the UK and US. This case study will then open out into a broader consideration of the politics of “cult cosmopolitanism” – a term I am coining to describe the cosmopolitan embrace of cultural difference through cultists’ consumption of international popular culture.[2]

If we look at existing scholarship on cult cinema, it is clear that Indian cinema is conspicuous by its absence.[3] No Indian films are discussed in the three major academic collections on cult cinema, J. P. Telotte’s The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason, Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper’s Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics, or Mark Jancovich, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer and Andy Willis’s Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste, nor are any included in the BFI Screen Guide to 100 Cult Films.[4] Even supposedly exhaustive fan listings such as The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (3000+ titles) and Videohound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics (1311 titles) contain no references to Indian films.[5]

Significantly, one of the few cult publications to acknowledge Indian cinema at all, Videohound’s Dragon: Asian Action and Cult Flicks,[6] lists eight Indian films including Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) and Raja Nawathe’s Gumnaam / Anonymous (1965) but this compares to over 700 films from Hong Kong and over 250 from Japan. As these omissions suggest, while Indian cinema has an extensive history of international distribution, it has rarely been framed as an object of cult interest by fans or scholars in the West. Unlike Japanese and Hong Kong cinema, which have a number of cross-over traditions of genre cinema such as wuxia and J-Horror, Indian genre cinema has not crossed over to this audience of cultists. While there is not the space here to go into the many social and industrial factors that have contributed to this lack of circulation, it is important to note that this should not be understood primarily as a failing of the Indian industry given that these films were not designed to circulate beyond a relatively specific domestic audience.

In recent years, however, Indian genre cinema has started to do so through a variety of cult channels including some limited formal distribution and a developing online fan presence. Initially this relied upon the efforts of Pete Tombs who wrote about Indian horror films in a chapter of his 1997 book Mondo Macabro[7], produced a short documentary on South Asian genre cinema for Channel 4 in 2002, and subsequently released three DVD sets of Bollywood Horror through his Mondo Macabro label. More recently, a number of websites and fan publications have continued this attempt to introduce Indian genre cinema to a Western audience, including Todd Stadtman’s reviews on his international popular cinema blog Die, Danger, Die Die, Kill!, Tim Paxton’s column on Indian Fantastic Cinema in the fanzine Weng’s Chop, and Keith Allison’s reviews on the cult culture site Teleport City. [8]

These writers are drawing attention to areas of Indian cinema history that have generally been downplayed or omitted in earlier accounts, such as the 1960s cycle of science fiction movies, the 1970s cycle of ‘curry Westerns’, and the 1980s cycle of ghost films, and it is significant that many of the films that they are writing about have never been subtitled into English. While much of the canon of Western cult cinema has already been written about extensively, these reviewers are deliberately seeking out films that have never even been released in the West. As Jamie Sexton and Ernest Mathijs have identified, the emphasis in this form of international cult fandom is on “the discovering, for Western audiences, of a form of cinema hitherto hidden.”[9] What this means is that these films are framed as cult objects, not because they have developed a substantial cult following in their country of origin, but primarily because of their relative obscurity and novelty for these Western fans.

Tim Paxton’s introductory column for Weng’s Chop is representative of this trend when he explains,

The major appeal that these films have for me is their sheer exotic quality… In some ways, my randomly buying VCDs and DVDs is not unlike peeling an onion and each layer leads me to a new slew of bizarre horror/monster movies from India, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Turkey and other countries.[10]

What we see here are the ways in which the reception of international cult cinema often betrays a tension between a desire to celebrate the cinema of other cultures and an exoticisation of the cultural difference that is manifest in these works. Indeed, an emphasis on films that are framed as “exotic” or “bizarre” runs throughout cultists’ reception of Indian genre cinema, and international genre cinema more generally. It is no coincidence that Pete Tombs’ pioneering work on the topic, Mondo Macabro, is subtitled ‘Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World’.[11]

Bhaskar Sarkar has recently critiqued the ways in which North American fans have ascribed cult value to Hong Kong martial arts films and Bollywood musicals through a combination of fascination and disdain. He expresses his frustration that these “self-styled cosmopolitan audiences” have “discovered and learned to love and laugh at yet another alien culture industry.”[12] I would contend, however, that we should be wary of dismissing entirely this form of cosmopolitan engagement with international cinema. Instead, I would like to propose that we take it seriously as a form of what I am calling ‘cult cosmopolitanism.’ In coining this term, I am drawing on Henry Jenkins’ use of the term ‘pop cosmopolitanism’ to refer to the myriad ways “that the transcultural flows of popular culture inspire new forms of global consciousness and cultural competency.”[13] From the self-described otaku who love all things anime, through to the martial arts fans who valorise the Hong Kong films of Jet Li and Donnie Yen, there is a growing number of North American fans who are looking beyond the domestic sphere in order to celebrate international forms of pop culture. As Jenkins argues, however, these pop cosmopolitans walk “a thin line between dilettantism and connoisseurship, between orientalistic fantasies and a desire to honestly connect and understand an alien culture, between assertion of mastery and surrender to cultural difference.”[14]

When we move from a discussion of popular culture more broadly, and focus specifically on cult reception practices, I think these tensions become even more acute. The phenomenon of cult cosmopolitanism that I have been describing reflects a sincere desire to discover and celebrate overlooked areas of global popular culture, but it also relies upon an exoticisation of cultural difference through a focus on elements that are perceived to be weird and/or bizarre. Moreover, this is not limited solely to film fandom. As Edward Chan has identified, non-diasporic audiences often consume Indian film songs as exotic kitsch through cult compilation albums such as Doob Doob O Rama and Bizarro Bollywood.[15] These cosmopolitans may be attempting to move beyond the culture of their local community and embrace cultural difference, yet, at its worst, this reception can seem to reinforce problematic orientalist fantasies of the exotic. The repeated emphasis upon weird and bizarre elements – from kitsch pop songs through to B-grade monster films – runs the danger of exoticising other cultures, especially since this reception often displays a lack of comprehension of the cultural and historical context from which these forms emerged.

It is important that we do not forget, however, that this form of cult cosmopolitanism can also function to draw attention to areas of global culture that have previously been neglected and ignored. As we have seen in the growing fandom surrounding Indian genre cinema, these cultists are mapping out and historicising areas of Indian cinema that have up till now been largely overlooked, especially in English language scholarship. This desire to seek out and understand a foreign culture, even while focused on the exotic and the bizarre, still has the potential to produce a genuine cultural engagement upon which a deeper understanding can be built.

To conclude, therefore, I would like to propose three questions that we need to address in order to better understand these processes of cult cosmopolitanism: 1) To what extent are cult reception practices producing the kinds of genuine cultural engagement that I am describing? 2) What happens to our understanding of cult reception when we move beyond the Anglo-American context and place it into a transnational framework? 3) What relations of power underpin these transnational forms of cult reception? While this short article has only been a preliminary survey of the issues raised by this topic, I hope that future scholarship will start to address the wider implications that cult cosmopolitanism has for our understanding of transnational film reception, and processes of cultural dialogue more generally.

 


[1] Kier-La Janisse, “Miss Lovely’s Ashim Ahluwalia Talks ‘Bollywood Underground’”, Spectacular Optical, 20 June 2014. <http://www.spectacularoptical.ca/2014/06/bollywood-underground-an-interview-with-miss-lovely-director-ashim-ahluwalia/> [Accessed 15/09/14].

[2] I am not claiming that this increased interest in B-grade Indian cinema is solely a Western phenomenon. There are a number of fan groups based in India that are devoted to Indian cult cinema, and this is a growing phenomenon. My focus here, though, is primarily on the ways in which these films circulate to non-diasporic audiences and what this can tell us about cult cosmopolitanism.

[3] Similarly, while scholarship on Indian cinemas has been flourishing in the last decade, the discussion of Indian genre cinema – and especially the B and C grade industry – has been limited. Moreover, the work that does exist has not framed these films in relation to discourses of cult cinema.

[4] J. P. Telotte, ed. The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1991); Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper, eds. Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics (Guildford: FAB Press, 2000); Mark Jancovich, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer and Andy Willis, eds. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003); Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, eds. 100 Cult Films (London: British Film Institute, 2011).

[5] Michael Weldon (ed.) The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983); Carol A Schwartz and Jim Olenski, eds. Videohound’s Cult Flicks & Trash Pics (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2002).

[6] Brian Thomas, ed. Videohound’s Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2003).

[7] Pete Tombs, Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World (London: Titan, 1997).

[8] Die, Danger, Die Die, Kill! http://diedangerdiediekill.blogspot.co.uk/; Weng’s Chop (McHenry, Illinois: Wildside Publishing, 2013-); Teleport City <http://teleport-city.com/> [Accessed 15/09/14].

[9] Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema: An Introduction (Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 130.

[10] Tim Paxton, “Roll Dem Bones! Or How I Spent a Week’s Grocery Money on Indian Monster Movies and Didn’t Live to regret it”, Weng’s Chop Issue 0 (May 2012), p. 52.

[11] Pete Tombs, Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World (London: Titan, 1997)

[12] Bhaskar Sarkar, “Tracking ‘Global Media’ in the Outposts of Globalization” in Nataša Durovicová and Kathleen E. Newman (eds.) World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 34.

[13] Henry Jenkins, “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Media Convergence”, Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 156.

[14] Ibid., p. 164.

[15] Edward K. Chan, “Food and Cassettes: Encounters with Indian Filmsong” in Sujata Moorti and Sangita Gopal (eds.) Global Bollywood: The Transnational Travels of Hindi Song-and-Dance Sequences (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), pp. 264-287.


Notes on Contributor

Iain Robert Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Roehampton, London. He is author of The Hollywood Meme: Transnational Adaptations of American Film and Television (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and editor of a book-length special issue of the open-access journal Scope entitled “Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation” (2009). He is co-chair of the SCMS Transnational Cinemas Scholarly Interest Group and co-investigator on the AHRC-funded research network Media Across Borders.