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And the Award Goes To… India?

After early training in western classical music, Gregory D. Booth began the study of North Indian tabla drumming with Ustad Zakir Hussain in 1977. He has published widely on South Asian classical music pedagogy, processional music, and Hindi film music. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland. In his book Behind The Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios, he offers a compelling account of the Bollywood film music industry from the perspective of the musicians who both experienced and shaped its history. In the original post below Booth looks at Slumdog Millionaire.

In February, 1989 I was in Hyderabad, in southern India, and decided to go to the movies. I was then in the midst of my research on Indian wedding bands (Brass Baja) and wanted to see the latest multi-star Hindi film hit, Ram–Lakhan, whose songs were just beginning to be heard in the brass bands’ performances. By the time I reached the theater, however, it was sold out, “House Full,” as they say. So, because it was showing in the same theater, and was just starting, I went to see Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, a gritty narrative of life in Mumbai’s red-light district, seen through the eyes of a young orphaned boy and the kidnapped girl he befriends.

The theater was, perhaps, half full when the film started; half of those there departed at the intermission. The diehards I spoke with afterward asked why India was being portrayed so negatively.

In a more recent and successful Hindi film (Bunty aur Babli), the voice of actor Amitabh Bachchan introduces “India” over a long shot of the lights of Mumbai at night: “This is India; the land that glistens, shines. The land bedecked with the glitter of dreams beckoning you. ‘If you hunger for anything’, she says, ‘come here, you’ll find it.’”

If anywhere in India lives up to Bacchchan’s description, it is Mumbai, India’s glamourous and wealthy center. But Mumbai the glamorous land of opportunity is a view that many in and out of Mumbai would contest, just as others contest the one-sided view of the India portrayed in Salaam Bombay or in the current hit of the cinematic world, Slumdog Millionaire.

These films are like “Bollywood” itself; they are structured around extreme visions and evoke extreme responses. They make a more realistic and pluralistic understanding very difficult. In my research for Behind the Curtain, I spoke with musicians and others across Bollywood’s socio-economic spectrum. What they showed me, and what I learned is that both their industry and their city are filled with people—in slums, in high-rises, in street-side stalls and luxurious offices—all going about their daily lives; having good times and bad times; living fulfilled and unfulfilled lives in country that manages the impact of history and diversity with roughly the same rate of success as any other.

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