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Diasporic Bollywood Cinema Going as South Asian Presence

Rajinder Dudrah

The following account of South Asian presence is developed out of research that was undertaken to examine Bollywood cinema going in Britain and the US (1). Two sets of fieldwork sites were chosen for analysis and comparison: One, comparing the Loews cinema in Times Square and the Eagle cinema in Jackson Heights, both in New York (2). The second site looking at the Trafford Centre shopping mall in Manchester, UK, in which Bollywood films are shown at a multiplex cinema (3). The research undertaken for this project and its ensuing results allow us to also consider the issue of diasporic ‘presence’ as it relates to, and might be extracted from, an understanding of Bollywood cinema going in urban centres of the West.

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Figure 1 The Eagle Cinema, Jackson Heights (photo: Rajinder Dudrah).

Diasporic Bollywood cinema going is a social act seeking leisure and entertainment, and also one that is involved in the making and remaking of urban social and cultural geographies, in and around the sites of cinemas. For example, post-war British cinema houses largely left unused by white Britons were taken up by British Asians for popular Hindi film screenings in large urban cities such as Birmingham and London. British Asian entrepreneurs reopened British cinemas as theatres of Bollywood entertainment that were located in predominantly black and ethnic minority areas of settlement, most notably during the seventies. Around the cinema houses there was also developing a nascent culture of pre- and post-screening small eateries, restaurants and mini supermarkets selling multi-ethnic foods and household goods. The period of seventies Bollywood cinema going in Britain lasted through to the early-eighties, until the arrival of home VCR viewing culture - this virtually halted British Bollywood cinema-going. It was in the mid-nineties that Bollywood films returned to the big screen with a revival in big budget spectacular movies, some of which began to focus on the Indian diaspora as a thematic issue and also as a result of changing leisure patterns in British South Asian households. The mainstream cinema chains also started to tap into Bollywood cinema going as an emerging market niche in the late nineties (for a more developed account of this cultural history of Bollywood cinema going in Britain, and in the city of Birmingham in particular, see Dudrah 2002).

South Asian presence vis a vis Bollywood cinema going in the South Asian diaspora, then, can be articulated as a notion that simultaneously invites us to consider the actual diasporic body of the cinemagoer (i.e the British South Asian as a physical, biological and socio-culturally mediated being) and the actual and metaphoric body of the cinema (i.e. popular Hindi cinema as an actual matrix of filmmakers, artistes, technology, theatre halls, and local-global industry as a mobile body that disseminates ideologies and values as images and sounds as metaphorical bodies through the cinematic screen and its wider popular cultures). These two bodies – the body of the cinemagoer and the body of the cinematic apparatus – interact, coalesce, cajole and compete with each other to produce understandings of the self and his or her relationships with, and in, the social world. The body, then, is mediated and given expression both as presence as actuality (the physical act of going to the cinema), and presence as mediated and configured through spatial, temporal, and imaginative bearings (the socio-cultural geographies of the cinema houses and the audio and visual signs as signifiers that are disseminated in and around them, see figures 1 and 2).

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Figure 2 The outside of the Loews cinema in Times Square situated in the Virgin Megastore (photo: Rajinder Dudrah).

From the two fieldwork sites in New York and in Manchester, what emerges is an understanding of ‘presence’ that needs to be located and contextualised not only within the settlement histories of South Asians in the West (i.e. migration history as an act and movement of presence), but also the contemporary settlement of diasporic South Asians as marked differentially by class, racial profiling in the 9/11 context, and by performances of arrival and global consumer aspirations. The seemingly innocuous act of Bollywood cinema going is argued as one as being part and parcel of the historical trajectory of the post-war mass migration of South Asians and other non-white immigrants to places of settlement in the West. Here, non-white migrants were being marked by and constructed according to skin colour and perceived cultural differences, which led to various kinds of racisms, direct and indirect, as part of ongoing white colonial legacies. Presence at this juncture was about arrival and settlement as politicised movement.

With the decades that followed, South Asians and other Black British social groups, together with white anti-racist allies, lobbied for the means to wider and eclectic representations of inclusiveness and cultural hybridity, as well as access to the means of cultural production itself (see Ross 1996). This was, and it might be argued still is, a fraught history in which the geographies of settlement in which these debates took place were literally formed and marked by blood on the streets (e.g. the social unrests, or ‘race riots’ as they came to be termed in the mass media, in post-war areas of Birmingham, London, and Bristol, to name a few cities; see Hesse 1993).

In the contemporary moment, Bollywood appears to be ‘in’, it is the vogue of the popular cultural moment (see Desai 2004: 40-69; and Dudrah 2006: 16-18). Bollywood cinema and its related popular cultures of songs, dance, music, and loud and colourful images have been taken up by the mainstream entertainment and cultural industries as a safe and palatable commodity of cultural difference. South Asian ‘presence’ in this guise is chic and in. However, other aspects of South Asianness such as the cultural politics and aesthetics of the Bollywood films themselves, and the perceived threat of brown bodies, and Muslims in particular, as the danger inside the West, most notably after 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK, remain a complex problematic. The actual diasporic body of the South Asian and the actual and metaphoric body of Bollywood cinema, then, is fine as long as it does not disrupt conventional ways of making sense of the South Asian migrant and his/her popular cultures as ‘safely managed other’ in the Western cultural sphere. However, the histories of diasporic places of settlement in Western cities, in which Bollywood theatres and popular cultures are made and remade in the act of cinema going and other leisure practices, warrants a further consideration of ‘presence’ relating to diasporic South Asians. One such strand of enquiry, as speculated here, draws attention to the context of presence (e.g. the safe multicultural celebrations of Bollywood, and the increased racial profiling of South Asians since 9/11); a context which is useful for situating the actual socio-cultural and biological body of the diasporic South Asian as she/he mediates their way through the diasporic world in which the body of Bollywood cinema marks its own technological and socio-cultural presence through its theatre halls, offering signs and scripts in need of further mediation. These two bodies (of diasporic spectators and of cinema) are in need of further exploration as they physically meet, communicate and mark presence.


(1) Rajinder Dudrah and Amit Rai 'From the Trafford Centre (Manchester, UK) to Times Square (New York City, USA): Transatlantic Bollywood Cinema Going and the Social Spaces of Diasporic South Asian Identity'. This work was carried out under the aegis of a British Academy Joint International Research Activities Scheme awarded in December 2002.

(2) The results of this New York-based comparison have been published as Chapter 4 in Rajinder Dudrah (2006) Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies. New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London: Sage (website: [link]); and Rajinder Dudrah and Amit Rai (2005) 'The Haptic Codes of Bollywood Cinema in New York City', New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, Vol. 3, no. 3, pp.143 - 158.

(3) The results of this research have been presented as an international conference paper: R. Dudrah and Amit Rai (2004) 'From the Trafford Centre (Manchester, UK) to Times Square (New York City, USA): Transatlantic Bollywood Cinema Going and the Social Spaces of Diasporic South Asian Identity', Transcultural English Studies, 16th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English (ASNEL), J.W. Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany, 19-23 May 2004. At both sites in Manchester and in New York, a participant observation methodology was undertaken, to elaborate on and refine theoretical work on cinema-going and the diasporic imaginary in and around the Bollywood cinema sites in Manchester and in New York. Additionally, other qualitative data was also collected by speaking to cinema-goers in order to ascertain a sense of the social profiles of cinema audiences in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, geographical location, and class.


Some useful Links

On Bollywood cinema going in North America and in NYC: [link]

On the popularity of a Bollywood film at the British box office in 2006: [link] and [link]

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