Bollywood: Postmodernism’s Legacy to the International Dance World

Drid Williams

Postmodernism in the American dance world began in the 1960s, largely through the influence of Sally Banes (affected by Susan Sontag’s ideas about ‘‘a transparent art’’), and had adverse effects, worldwide, on traditional forms of dancing in the sphere of commercial dancing. The results are especially apparent in movies produced by an Indian conglomerate of film companies known as ‘‘Bollywood’’ and its namesakes.

The author argues that ‘‘Bollywood dance’’ is a debased version of traditional Indian culture that is both nihilistic and meaningless. At the same time, it provides valuable insights into a ‘‘pseudo-modern world’’ [Kirby 2006] and globalized mar- keting economics. Several postcolonialist writers enter the discussion because they object to formerly colonized peoples represented as ‘‘hollow mimics’’ of the Western world; however, the author suggests that they are simply praising other cultures at the expense of their own. She concludes with a quotation from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People [1928 (1882)].

On a recent visit to North America I was told of a dance professor who refuses, as a matter of principle, to offer any teaching and to make any assessment of her students’ work, on the grounds that to do so would be an illegitimate restriction on freedom of individual expression and development. She insists that there must be no such external ‘‘imposi- tions’’ of standards and techniques, but that each student should be free to develop in his own way, and to decide what is and what is not of artistic value. Hence she was able to raise no objection when some of her students, as their dance performance, simply sat on the floor of the stage eating [potato] crisps. [Best 1982 (1979): 89]1

‘‘How clever!’’ a friend joked upon hearing that story. ‘‘Wish I had a job like that—no teaching, no exams, no assessment; just baby-sitting and

DRID WILLIAMS was recently a professor at United International College in Zhuhai, China. She has taught at New York University (1979–84), Sydney University (1986–90), and Moi University and U.S. International University in Kenya (1991–92 and 1993). She is the founder and co-editor of the Journal for the Anthropological Study of HumanMovement [JASHM] which is in its 28th year of publication. Her most recent book is Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures [2004, University of Illinois Press, Chicago and Urbana]. A former professional dancer and choreographer, she finished her Doctorate in Social Anthropology from St. Hughes College at Oxford in 1976. E-mail:

Visual Anthropology, 23: 20–32, 2010 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0894-9468 print=1545-5920 online

DOI: 10.1080/08949460902782096


role-taking—nothing but a good salary and no work. Where do I apply?’’ On a more serious note, she asked, ‘‘What happened?’’

I told her that I believed the professor lost her job because taxpayers weren’t willing to spend their money on frauds. Unfortunately, there are many in the dance world who pay dearly for this kind of thing.

It started in the 1960s . . . a growing number of young dancers were no longer interested in making deeply meaningful statements or in artistic excellence as defined by the earlier generations of movers. They felt that most modern dances and ballets were overly emo- tional, idealistic, and elitist representations, having little to do with the experiences of the person in the street. Instead, the choreographers were, as the dance historian Sally Banes has written, engaged in finding ‘‘new ways to foreground the medium of dance rather than its meaning.’’ [Banes 1987, cited in Jackson 2000: 216]2

Jackson also explains:

In her introduction to Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, Banes traces the connec- tion of the Judson dancers to a larger trend away from meaning in art. ‘‘Sontag calls for a transparent art—and criticism—that will not ‘mean’ but will illuminate and open the way to experience’’. . . .Banes points out that this ‘‘foregrounding of the medium’’ was attempted by challenging the ‘‘nature, history and function of dance as well as its struc- tures. . . .The younger generation of choreographers showed in their dances that they departed not only from classical modern dance with its myths, heroes, and psychological metaphors, but also from the elegance of ballet’’. . . .Choreographers, . . .were engaged in saying no to everything that came before, claiming that you did not need to have virtuosic technique or use dramatic narratives in order to be a dancer or choreographer. You could be an ordinary person performing a simple task of moving a mattress from one spot to another. A person might run around in sneakers and sweatpants, spit on the floor, walk along a wall—and all that could be dance. [Quotes are from Banes (1987) cited in Jackson 2000: 216]

What can be learned from these paragraphs? First, the anecdote about the professor who wouldn’t teach indicates that dancing in any form is doomed to exist without any means of assessment: a post-modernist ‘‘anything goes’’ attitude resulting in the destruction of high-quality, skillful performance.

To most of us, excellence vs. mediocrity in dance performances (techniques, characterization and much else) is determined according to rules that, among other things, establish what kinds of dancing presently exist. Put simply, it is the rules of the dancers’ game that tell us what we are seeing: ballet, Bharatana- tyam, hip-hop or a routine by the Rockettes at Rockefeller Center in New York City. So far, so good. Most of us can see the differences in idioms of dancing, whether we are dancers or not.

But here the going gets tough, because Banes asks us to see an ordinary person moving a mattress from one place to another or someone running around a stage in sneakers and sweatpants, even spitting on the floor, as ‘‘could be dance,’’ just as the students of the (non)professor of dancing were meant to see sitting on the floor eating potato chips as some kind of ‘‘dance’’ [Banes 1987; Jackson 2000].

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The activities Banes describes as ‘‘could be dancing’’ if they were incorporated by a legitimate choreographer3 into a real idiom of dancing presented in the repertoire of a modern dance or ballet company, but what has any of this to do with Bollywood dancing?4

Recently, while reviewing an essay by an Indian post-modernist cum post- colonialist on Bollywood dancing, I was forcefully reminded of a statement made in early 1954 by Dame Ninette de Valois, who opened a ballet class at Sadler’s Wells School5 by saying,

Everyone who comes here strives to be a genius, whether they are potential dancers, choreographers or teachers. What they don’t know is that genius in any field breaks rules. But in order to break rules, you have to know them, and that’s where one starts at Sadler’s Wells—learning the rules. People who don’t know rules can’t break them. They waste a lot of time pretending. [Italics added]

Bollywood’s originators and managers are aware of the rules of Indian aes- thetics, Indian dancing and the many traditions that over the centuries produced India’s dance forms: for example, Kathak (a north Indian idiom of dancing with three distinct forms: from Lucknow, Benares and Jaipur); Bharatanatyam (South Indian; several forms, including Trivandrum and Pandanallur, associated with various temples and villages) from the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala; Kuchi- pudi (from Andhra Pradesh); Orissi (from the state of Orissa); Manipuri (from Manipur); Cchau (from the former principality of Cchau in Bihar); Kathakali (from the state of Kerala); Satriya (from Assam); Yaksagana (from Karnataka) and Bhagavata Mela (from Tamil Nadu). Bollywood’s pundits undoubtedly know—or at least know about—such things, but they have chosen rampant commercialism and consumerism with its inherent tastelessness instead.

Because Bollywood is a powerful member of several global media corpora- tions, it also (consciously or not) chooses for its audiences. Its directors and producers are successful in their endeavors, if success is defined solely by mak- ing money. As we know too well, for many people money is the major criterion of success and the sole reason for living—the dominant factor in otherwise poverty- stricken intellectual and spiritual lives. For many (not only Indians), making money is the sole reason for existing on earth. The fact that Bollywood seems to be an institution that is ethically and morally bankrupt hardly matters. Still, one wants to ask, ‘‘Where are the critics?’’

The automatic disclaimer to criticism of any kind in Bollywood or its name- sakes is the mass popularity of the films they produce: ‘‘This is what people want to see. That’s why we make such films.’’ Never mind that this is the excuse for producing crudeness, debasement of culture, malevolent narcissism, plagiarism and all the rest; now we can add irresponsibility to the list. The whole depressing package really amounts to a moral vacuum. Why not simply call it that? And why not recognize the fact that the phenomenon probably couldn’t happen in other contexts?

For example, few in theworld of sports would stand for Bollywood’s visual butch- ery of sports figures or the games they play, nor would they stand for Sontag’s and Banes’s postmodernist redefinitions. In the sportsworld postmodernismwouldhave

22 D. Williams

zero credibility: concepts of no meaning, no boundaries, no rules would be laughed out of court. Try telling football (tennis, basketball or cricket) fans that the identity and meaning of the games they love no longer exist because some critic or historian has decided that meaning itself is passé. Try telling them that excellence in perfor- mance is not desirable, then add that the next time they come to a stadium to see their favorite game theymight see ordinary people walking around engaged in mundane activities, because these are all ‘‘could-be’’ games. Yet the postmodern concept of no meaning and the notion of finding ‘‘new ways to foreground the medium of dance rather than its meaning’’ [Banes 1987, cited in Jackson 2000: 216], seems to have an over-long shelf-life so far, given that it started with a group of dissatisfied American dancers circa 1960.

It is easy to understand why certain dissatisfied dancers might depart from established techniques of dancing. In the 1960s the American modern concert stage was dominated by such giants as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Anna Sokolow, Daniel Nagrin, Nona Shurman, Alvin Ailey, Cliff Keuter, Paul Taylor and others too numerous to mention here. Apprentice- ship into these companies was (and still is) long and arduous. Money was (and still is) a problem for dancers and choreographers in the United States. As the old saying goes, ‘‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’’

One possible answer to the problem is this: if you can’t cope with meaning, then pretend it doesn’t exist. If you can’t cope with highly skilled techniques, dis- card or abolish them. If you can’t really dance, then imitate—or pretend. This is what the alleged dancers of Bollywood do. It is this meaninglessness that makes Bollywood’s self-styled ‘‘dancing’’ part of postmodernism’s legacy to the interna- tional dance world.

The Bollywood dancers can’t really dance (real dancing is ‘‘a relic’’), so they imitate MTV clips, fashion runway moves, and=or music videos. Present-day Indian choreographers do not (because they cannot) choreograph;6 they spend their time in editing rooms, helping to assemble so-called ‘‘dances’’ out of bits and pieces of movement; using disc-jockeys, stereo systems, computers and high-tech equipment to produce what? Sound-plus-movement bytes that are high-tech hard-sells for consumer products,7 such as Pepe jeans and Suzuki motorbikes.


I don’t know what the dancers of Tollywood, Lollywood or Kollywood do. It is likely however that they mimic Bollywood’s imitations, keeping in mind that Tollywood is the Telugu film industry, based in Andhra Pradesh. Lollywood is Pakistan’s film industry, combining the ‘‘L’’ of Lahore with ‘‘Hollywood.’’ Kollywood is the Tamil film industry, based in Chennai (formerly Madras), and owing its nominal existence to the word Kudambakkam (a suburb of Madras with film studios) and Hollywood.8 These absurd film industry titles surely add new meaning to the maxim, ‘‘We’re not out of the woods yet.’’

There is and always has been a category of commercial dancing in the United States, too. Hollywood was (and still is) a producer of commercial dancing.

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For example, Agnes de Mille called Jack Cole ‘‘the first important choreographer in the commercial sphere,’’ saying that ‘‘he set the Broadway jazz style’’ [de Mille, cited in Loney 1984: 13–l4]. He was praised by the gossip columnist, Dor- othy Kilgallen, for taking the art out of dance and giving it a ‘‘hotfoot’’ [ibid. 99]. Professors of film education have written about him [McLean 1997].

Although known bv several names—‘‘nautch dance,’’ ‘‘Oriental dance,’’ and ‘‘Hindu rou- tines’’—the type of jazz dance Cole presented, he wanted called ‘‘Broadway commercial,’’ or something like that. ‘‘To me it’s rife with sentimentality, it’s self-indulgent, but one thing else it is—it’s commercial. It fits in with—the stuff—on television and such kindred ‘artistic’ endeavors. Maybe it helps orient a dancer to the harsh realities of hoofing for a buck.’’ [Loney 1984: 121, cited in Williams 2004: 70]

But how does Bollywood and postmodernism enter this picture? In a way, they don’t, because Jack Cole wasn’t a postmodern dancer-choreographer and he didn’t produce the kind of movement trash that Bollywood does. He was dissat- isfied with existing forms of dancing in films and he experimented, mainly with Bharatanatyam, because ‘‘it opens up a new vocabulary of movement, different ways to approach the problem [of ‘‘new’’ moves], rather than a balletic way’’ [Jack Cole, from an interview with Jerome Delameter 1978–81: 193; see McLean 1997].

Unlike his contemporaries (e.g., Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman), Cole did not choose to pursue serious modern dance, which was the ‘‘less travelled path, and certainly far less well-remunerated than the work of star dancers in musicals and revues. Cole decided not to take the less-used road’’ (Loney 1984: 121). Nevertheless, he was a clear inheritor of Denishawn’s teaching. [Williams 2004: 71]

Cole chose to submit himself to the demands of the commercial American mar- ket for sex, sensationalism and the bizarre that in terms of money and celebrity override alternative cultural, artistic and ethical considerations that so-called purists (the ‘‘serious’’ dancers) provide. Counterfeit sells. Culture doesn’t—or so the dominant commercial dance tradition would have it. Jack Cole was an inheritor of a leading school of counterfeit dancing:

The fashionable Orientalism of Denishawn [which] was never, for the most part, based on much more than extant popular imagery (St. Denis’s revelatory source of dance inspiration was the image of Isis on a poster advertising ‘Egyptian Deities’ cigarettes—No better Turk- ish cigarette can be made. . . .Yet neither Shawn nor St. Denis ever really claimed that their Oriental dance was anything more than pastiche, adaptation, a picking and choosing of the most dazzling theatrical effects. [McLean 1997: 134–135]

Ruth St. Denis was an Orientalist (in Said’s definition) par excellence. She became famous for dances such as Radha, Kumn Yin, Nautch and many others. Few Asian countries were left from her impressionistic, exoticized repertoire. And the school (Denishawn) was an abundant resource of personnel for Hollywood films [Williams 2004: 71], all of which took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

24 D. Williams

Neither Jack Cole’s nor Martha Graham’s careers followed Denishawn’s trajectory. Although Cole worked in films and studied Bharatanatyam because it provided him with a vision of different ways to move, the ‘‘Broadway jazz’’ style that he originated ultimately didn’t resemble any recognizable form of Indian dancing, even though he did produce corrupted ‘‘Orientalist’’ movement work in movies such as Kismet [1953]. Like St. Denis and Shawn, he was at least honest about what he did [see previous quotation]. He never fabricated ‘‘cut and paste,’’ jerkily edited versions of moves calculated to sell consumer products through crude sexual imagery—the sort of thing Bollywood churns out by the mile.

Interestingly, Bollywood’s movement clips (I refuse to call them dancing) do imitate some of the hastas (hand gestures) in Bharatanatyam, and other recogniz- able transitional moves from Indian dance forms; something non-Indians wouldn’t dare to do. For we must remember, Bollywood’s clips are put together by Indians, not by Westerners. The question is, can Indians themselves be ‘‘Orientalists’’ and ‘‘oppressors’’ with regard to their own traditions? Can the same labels of imperialism, oppression, Orientalism and others that were leveled at Hollywood’s filmmakers now be applied to them?

In a postmodern (now ‘‘postcolonialist’’ or ‘‘pseudomodern’’) world I assume provisionally they can, but will again turn to Jackson for clarification, for she offered the only lucid account of postmodernism in the American dance world that I have encountered:

Today there are two opposing poles of post-modernism with contrary ethics: one advances the idea of a pluralist, egalitarian America that is both cultured and tolerant; the other, an America where an identity politics of resentment thrives. The first view fosters an inclu- sive, cosmopolitan America that integrates difference into itself: the second acclaims dif- ference to the exclusion of all else. The first takes the newer insights of cultural theory and post-structuralism regarding the mechanisms of cultural production and dissemina- tion of power as a means of creating a world of greater equality and compassion. The sec- ond revels in the gaps, holes, fissures and fragmentation of so-called cultural texts to decry the reality of individuals, meaning, truth and even history. Given these differences, it is clear that the ‘‘Y’’ [New York YMCA] acted as a forerunner of the first mode of post- modernism, reflecting as it did a humanist tradition in Jewish thought and ethics that strove to create a framework for equity and for individual and social betterment, rather than a space of separation, nihilism, skepticism, or lack of meaning. [Jackson 2000: 210–211]

Does Bollywood embrace postmodernism or postcolonialism, or is it even a problem? So-called ‘‘Bollywood dance’’ is a debased version of traditional Indian culture that lacks any value-based perspectives whatsoever. In that sense it is both nihilistic and meaningless. It follows both postmodern and postcolonial guidelines, but what does that mean in today’s world?

When post-modernists established their position—i.e., that dancing is better off with no meaning, no technique and no rules—they also set about demoralizing anyone who didn’t agree with them. Who wants to be called an elitist, a purist, a neocolonialist, possibly a homophobe and a racist? No one. How do

Bollywood 25

we avoid these labels and get to the root of the problem? Perhaps it doesn’t have a root:

When it becomes possible for people to describe as ‘‘postmodern’’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis [sic] of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘‘scratch’’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘‘intertextual’’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti- teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘‘metaphysics of presence,’’ a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post- War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age, the ‘‘predicament of reflexitivity’’ [sic], a group of rhetorical tropes, a proliferation of surfaces, a new phase in commodity fetishism, a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and=or crisis, the ‘‘de-centering’’ of the subject, an ‘‘incredulity towards metanarratives,’’ the replacement of unitary power axes by a plural- ity of power=discourse formations, the ‘‘implosion of meaning,’’ the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university, the functioning and effects of the new miniaturised technologies, broad societal and economic shifts into a ‘‘media,’’ ‘‘consumer’’ or ‘‘multinational’’ phase, a sense (depending on who you read) of ‘‘placelessness’’ or the abandonment of ‘‘placeles- sness’’ (critical regionalism) or (even) a generalised substitution of spatial for temporal coordinates: when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘‘postmodern’’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘‘post’’ or ‘‘very post’’) then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword. [Hebdige 2006; italics added]

Clearly the phenomenon of postmodernism reaches far beyond the dance world, but for the purposes of this essay the sentence in italics is the impor- tant one: when it becomes possible to describe all these things as ‘‘postmodern’’ (or more simply using a current abbreviation as ‘‘post’’ or ‘‘very post’’ then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword. Fortunately postmodernism, like several intellectual fads that preceded it, is on its way out. If this is so, what is taking its place?

Pseudo-modernism belongs to a world pervaded by the encounter between a religiously fanatical segment of the United States, a largely secular but definitionally hyper-religious Israel, and a fanatical sub-section of Muslims scattered across the planet: pseudo- modernism was not born on 11 September 2001, but postmodernism was interred in its rubble. [Kirby 2006: 37]

Kirby’s take on the situation isn’t encouraging. It’s not nice to look at, but he may have finally provided Bollywood’s commercialism and the film and televi- sion industries in general with a philosophical justification for their contention that it is ‘‘the public,’’ ‘‘the masses’’ or ‘‘consumers’’ that determine the content of its productions. That is,

This pseudo-modern world, so frightening and seemingly uncontrollable, inevitably feeds a desire to return to the infantile playing with toys which also characterises the pseudo- modern cultural world. Here, the typical emotional state, radically superseding the hyper-consciousness of irony, is the trance9—the state of being swallowed up by your

26 D. Williams

activity. In place of the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of post-modernism, pseudo-modernism takes the world away, by creating a new weightless nowhere of silent autism. You click, you punch the keys, you are ‘‘involved,’’ engulfed, deciding. You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘‘author’’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded. [Ibid. 37]

Are the Bolly-, Lolly-, Tolly-, Kolly- and Hollywoods of this world finally coming into their own, along with video games, the internet, iPods, cell phones (cum cameras) and anything else technologically imaginable?

Readers may be interested to know that

The academy, perhaps especially in Britain, is today so swamped by the assumptions and practices of market economics that it is deeply implausible for academics to tell their students they inhabit a post-modern world where a multiplicity of ideologies, world- views and voices can be heard. Their every step hounded by market economics, academics cannot preach multiplicity when their lives are dominated by what amounts in practice to consumer fanaticism. [Kirby 2006: 36]

Would Kirby like to see a revival of postmodernism? For the dance world, at any rate, it is a cul-de-sac: it always has been, and still is. If it is true (and I think it is) that

The world has narrowed intellectually, not broadened, in the last ten years. . . . [P]seudo- modernism sees the ideology of globalised market economics raised to the level of the sole and over-powering regulator of all social activity—monopolistic, all-engulfing, all- explaining, all-structuring, as every academic must disagreeably recognise. Pseudo- modernism is of course consumerist and conformist, a matter of moving around the world as it is given or sold. [Kirby 2006: 36]


What are we to do about this, if anything? How do those of us who have never con- formed (in Kirby’s terms) oppose the bad fairy’s curse? If he is right, we are relieved of the burden of opposing postmodernism because it has effectively ceased to exist, but postcolonialism is still going strong. Sadly, it hasn’t yet disappeared into the limbo-land of fashionable cultural theory, although I suspect that the following example of writing will contribute to its demise sooner rather than later. For me, Horace identified postcolonialist writing verywell: Parturient montes nascetur ridicu- lus mus. That is, the mountains gave birth to a ridiculous mouse: Postcolonial theory made its mark by challenging the hegemonic narrative of nationalist discourse. It showed how nationalist discourse followed the grand teleological structure of enlightenment histori- cism. Apart from anything else, these two sentences are stupefying examples of the worst kind of academic gobbledygook.

Translated, the first sentence might read, ‘‘Postcolonial theory made its mark by challenging the dominant influences of colonial powers in stories of colonized nations.’’ The second sentence might read: ‘‘It showed how national discussion followed a pattern of ‘ends and utility’ of an 18th-century intellectual movement in Western Europe that emphasized reason and science in philosophy and the

Bollywood 27

study of human culture and the natural world.’’ The translated sentences make very little sense. Perhaps this is because a primary aim of the majority of post- colonial writing is to bring the word ‘‘nation’’ into disrepute; to cast aspersions, to discredit tradition and to level obscure charges of hateful intent to colonials, whether it really existed or not.

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teach- ing administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperial- ism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitor- ing bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan. [Stewart 2004: 272; italics added]

Further research doesn’t help, because we can read:

Post-colonialism is an intellectual discourse that holds together a set of theories found among the texts and sub-texts of philosophy, film, political science and literature. These theories are reactions to the cultural legacy of colonialism. As a literary theory (or critical approach), it deals with literature produced in countries that once were colonies of other countries, especially of the European colonial powers Britain, France, and Spain. In some contexts, it includes countries still in colonial arrangements. It also deals with literature written in colonial countries and by their citizens that has colonized people as its subject matter. . . . Following the breakup of the Soviet Union during the late 20th century, its for- mer republics became the subject of this study as well. Edward Said’s Orientalism [1978] has been described as a seminal work in the field.10

Many of the epithets leveled at Hollywood filmmakers (imperialism, oppression and orientalism are favorites) come from post-colonial writers, although the origin of the first two probably originated with communism. Earlier on, I asked if Bollywood’s directors and producers could have the same labels attached to them, even though they are Indian, not Westerners. The reason for the question?

28 D. Williams

Postcolonial writers object to the colonised’s depiction as hollow ‘‘mimics’’ of Europeans or as passive recipients of power. Consequent to Foucauldian argument, postcolonial scholars, i.e., the Subaltern Studies Collective, argue that anti-colonial resistance accompanies every deployment of power. [Wikipedia under ‘‘Subject Matters’’ at the start of the website article]

This is all very well, but how would the ‘‘Subaltern Studies Collective’’ repre- sent Bollywood? Their problem is obvious. They regularly seem to target Britain, France and Spain, but what about the Ottoman Empire, or the fact that Britannia was a Roman colony for many years? African empires are known to have existed; the Ashanti, Ghana and Edo empires, for example. Arabia was one of the earliest colonies of the ancient Cushite empire of Ethiopians. At its height, the Dutch Empire consisted of the East Indies (Indonesia), Borneo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); a bit of South Africa; important trading posts at Dejima (Nagasaki) in Japan, Formosa (now Taiwan) and Canton in China; Bengal, the Coromandel Coast, the Malabar Coast, and Surat in India; Mokka, Basra, and Gamron in Arabia and Persia; slaving ports on the African Gold Coast; dozens of Caribbean islands (some of them strategically important); New Netherlands (New York State and its environs) in North America; a string of plantation colo- nies on the northeastern coast of South America (Demarary, the Essequibo region, Berbice; and, later, Guyana, and later still Suriname), and Brazil. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Holland was one of the greatest maritime empires the world has ever known.

Would contemporary postcolonial writers have us believe that no other nations in the history of the world have been imperialistic? How do they justify Imperial China which disintegrated after the Opium wars? And how do they justify Chinese expansionism, even today? What about the growth of the Russian empire into Europe (1482–1878)? Or Genghis Khan? But enough of this. There are more than enough examples given to support the argument.

For the next point, I will turn to a leading critic of postcolonialist theory and its writers––to Ibn Warraq and his essay ‘‘Debunking Edward Said (Edward Said and Saidists, or, Third World Intellectual Terrorism).’’

In order to achieve his goal of painting theWest in general, and the discipline of Orientalism in particular, as negatively as possible, Said resorts to several tactics. One is to depict the Orient as a perpetual victim of Western imperialism, dominance, and aggression. The Orient is never seen as an actor, an agent with free-will or designs or ideas of its own. Said first articulated for an elite intellectual audience the popular belief that all the ills of the Middle East are the result of Western–Zionist conspiracies, and first struck the deep, bathetic notes of self-pity that have characterized contemporaryMiddle Eastern attitudes ever since. In ‘‘The Question of Palestine’’ Said asserts that the Zionist movement and Israel were invented to hold Islam and communism at bay. [Ibn Warraq essay from the Internet, pp. 5–6; italics added]

Does it ever occur to postcolonialist writers that their contributions may be a negative factor in the lives of the colonized peoples about whom they write?

Their insistence on blaming all Third World ills upon Western imperialism cre- ates a fertile field for self-pity and a tendency to blame current problems solely on Western sources, doesn’t it? It makes out of the inhabitants of ‘‘Third World’’ countries what Ibn Warraq aptly calls ‘‘post-imperial victims’’ (or PIVs).

Bollywood 29

Moreover, Western writers tend to praise other cultures at the expense of their own— not a healthy attitude, nor one becoming to scholars either.

If their aim is genuinely to criticize Western writers for promoting Ibn Warraq’s ‘‘post-imperial victim hood,’’ then recognize that it is typical of Western beliefs to embrace universalism and globalization—highly redolent of idyllic fantasies in the face of formidable language barriers. Perhaps it is the passion for disregarding language and culture that causes such imbalances in Western thinking. We should recognize too that our attitude toward others can prevent them from realizing their own unique potentials as human beings, apart from the fact that doubtful or insufficient knowledge about the Other is a fertile breeding-ground for censure and the moral condemnation of Western cultures.

Even Kirby commits a scholarly gaffe when he attributes the World Trade Center disaster not to the besotted Muslims who flew the planes but to ‘‘a reli- giously fanatical segment of the United States’’ (by which we assume he means religiously fundamentalist Republicans and the recent President Bush). Second, to ‘‘a largely secular but definitionally hyper-religious Israel’’ (but he does not tell us how to resolve the contradiction between a ‘‘largely secular’’ but ‘‘definitionally hyper-religious’’ society). We may well ask, by whose definition? Finally, he men- tions ‘‘a fanatical sub-section of Muslims scattered across the planet.’’ While it is true that Osama bin Laden and other groups of Muslim terrorists were indeed ‘‘scattered across the planet,’’ the men who drove the two aircraft into the World Trade Center towers weren’t scattered. They were right there on the spot.

It is possible to avoid demoralization11 even in the presence of the social condition of all-encompassing consumerism and the media super-hype that inevitably goes with it. Bollywood and its namesakes may distinguish themselves over time merely as the archetypes of plagiarized, computer-generated, imitative mishmash:

The cultural products of pseudo-modernism are also exceptionally banal, as I’ve hinted. The content of pseudo-modern films tends to be solely the acts which beget and which end life. This puerile primitivism of the script stands in stark contrast to the sophistication of contemporary cinema’s technical effects. Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all. [Kirby 2006: 35]

Maybe Henrik Ibsen was right, when, in An Enemy of the People [1928 (1882): Act 4],12 he said,

‘‘The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society Is the compact majority. Yes, the damned, compact, liberal majority.’’


1. The students were clever on this occasion: their actions might be interpreted to mean that they didn’t learn anything about dancing, therefore they performed what they learned, which was nothing.

2. Dance forms aren’t the ‘‘medium.’’ Movement is the medium that dancers use to con- vey expression or to communicate ideas, feelings, meanings and such. The statement would be accurate had she said ‘‘the medium of movement.’’

30 D. Williams

3. A composer of ballets, modern dances, dance routines or sequences of steps in an idiom of dancing, comparable to a composer of music.

4. Bollywood has expanded their name to include a dance style that has little to recom- mend it unless one is a fan of imitation, uncontrolled commercialism, narcissistic desires for prestige, vulgarity and, guess what? No real dancing—but more of that later.

5. Sadler’s Wells School and the attached ballet company later became the Royal Ballet. 6. A musician couldn’t compose without trained instrumentalists and some knowledge

of what music consists. Likewise, a choreographer can’t compose without trained dan- cers and an idiom within which to work.

7. Dhoom 2 is a prime example of the kind of ‘‘choreography’’ now used in Bollywood films. The alleged song and dance sequence in this epic opens with a Samba festival in Brazil.

8. These names were taken from Wikipedia. 9. Of course, he doesn’t mean ‘‘trance’’ in an anthropological sense: that of the trance

dances of the Kung Bushmen, for example [see Glasser 1996; also Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1989].

10. Access to this passage may be obtained by writing ‘‘postcolonialism’’ into a Google search engine, or it was accessible on July 8, 2008. Whether it is now or not is any- body’s guess.

11. Any good tactician knows his or her enemy. See Fevre [2005]. 12. Ibsen’s play was adapted and filmed in the United States in 1977; directed by George

Schaefer, with Steve McQueen as the leading character. It is distributed by Warner Brothers Classics.


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