Watching Iruvar (Maniratnam’s film that traces the political careers of MGR and Karunanidhi) a few days back got me thinking about Bombay cinema’s “national” status and specifically, the idea that Bombay cinema managed to forge a “national audience” in post-independence India.
It is difficult to imagine a large audience for Hindi films in Tamilnadu given the agitations and struggles against the imposition of Hindi that defined politics in Tamilnadu for over three decades (from the late 1930s-early 1970s, chronology here). Anti-hindi protests organized by E. V. Ramaswamy’s (aka Periyar) in 1938 were taken up by other prominent politicians and served as a major campaign issue for the DK and DMK parties (more here). And I also wonder if distributors and exhibitors in Tamilnadu during this time period needed to bring in Hindi-language films given the strength of the Tamil film industry and the close ties between the Tamil film industry and mainstream politics.
My grandparents and parents lived in Madras during this time and were generally supportive of the anti-Hindi platform, and tell me that they did not get to watch many Hindi films during this time. An occasional big-budget Raj Kapoor film, but nothing on a regular basis. Besides, neither they nor anyone in their circle of family and friends spoke or understood much Hindi.
Yet, they are all fans of Hindi film music! Their anti-Hindi sentiments did not, in any way, interfere with their ritual of tuning in to Binaca Geet Mala (Radio Ceylon) and listening to the most popular Hindi film songs of the time. And once All India Radio relented and began broadcasting film music on Vividh Bharati, the popular Chaya Geet became a part of their daily routine. To this day, my grandfather spends a few hours each week listening to compilations of songs by playback singers like Talat Mahmood, Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi even though he doesn’t quite comprehend the lyrics.
I think our narratives of Bombay cinema’s mediation of the “national family” (and perhaps more broadly, of nationalism in postcolonial India) will be so much more interesting if we take into account the role that radio played.