February 19, 2020
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The Plot Sickens

The box office verdict on Rachel Dwyer's Bollywood book

The Plot Sickens
All You Want Is Money, All You Need Is Love
By Rachel Dwyer
Cassell, London Price: Rs 1,120; Pages:248

It zooms in on Shobha De, Stardust magazine and the films of Yash Chopra; the subtitle proclaims "Sex and romance in modern India". But that's where the excitement stops in Rachel Dwyer's All You Want is Money, All You Need is Love, which is actually an intensely academic sociocultural exploration of the relationship between the supposedly 'new' middle class and the 'new' Bollywood blockbuster.

Dwyer, who teaches courses on Indian cinema, literature and the Gujarati language at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, lived for a while among what she calls the "modern metropolitan Indian bourgeoisie" in Bombay before writing this book. She spent much of that time identifying the "new middle classes" so central to her thesis.

As the title - a quote from the cinema world - indicates, the book seeks to connect the concepts of love and money, but with scattered success. The often chatty tone is at odds with the patchy but academic underpinnings. What Dwyer claims is the "first study to discuss the culture of the new middle class" identifies three distinct components of Bombay's middle classes: the old middle classes, or the professional or service elite; the lower middle classes, or the petit bourgeoisie and the 'new' middle classes. This last, Dwyer says helpfully, is located at the "upper end" of the economic spectrum.

Members of the 'new' middle classes have high patterns of consumption, live in the western suburbs and speak English. Admitting that some would prefer to classify them more simply as the nouveau riche or as a separate elite, Dwyer still insists that they constitute a middle class because they contest the "middle ground, the centre of Indian life".

Representatives tend to be Hindu nationalists, marry along caste lines and pay homage to feudal values of honour and status while challenging concepts of individuality. Dwyer also describes a battle between the old and the new middle classes - a microcosm of the "tussle for hegemony of India's national culture".

And where does Bombay's cinema come into all of this? The '90s, Dwyer says, produced a new cinematic genre that showcases the cultural aspirations of the new middle classes via the medium of the high-budget romantic films, which have been the superhits of the last decade.

These films, she says, "depict the nature of sex, romance and the family in the context of the super-rich and set the pace for India's upwardly mobile". Though Dwyer's "new middle class" is not numerically huge, she sees it as a driving force behind the commercial cinema market that effectively dictates the content of today's films.

She suggests that the new films engage in a dialogue with a certain, select segment of the audience, leaving the rest (read most) of the audience to play the spectator's role.

The book argues that the cinemagoer used to be the lower-class urban male, but that films are now being produced for the new, affluent middle class.

They think nothing of paying Rs 100 for a ticket; their tastes dictate the overwhelming shift towards romance - an upper class indulgence, the author reminds us. She identifies the 1988 Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak as the film that opened the floodgates for today's family saga-romances, including Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Kaho Na Pyaar Hai.The world of the new middle class - consumerist, but socially and religiously conservative - is, she argues, the world of today's films.

But her entire argument rests on the reader's acceptance of the somewhat dubious concept of Bombay's new middle class. While Amitabh Bachchan spoke with generous admiration of Dwyer's "scientific precision" at the book reading in London's Chor Bizarre restaurant, it is unlikely that social scientists will agree that her definition of Bombay's "new middle class" is waterproof or indeed necessary.

Her approach is academic, which in this case translates into a work that is not either easily understood or meant to be. Instead of becoming a sharer in Dwyer's thought processes, the reader often ends up merely being a witness to the author's pre-processed thinking; one reads the book almost in expectation of having to sit through an examination at the end.

As case studies, Yash Chopra's films, Stardust and Shobha De mix uneasily with Dwyer's unconvincing arguments. Little if anything is gained by rechristening one man's nouveau riche as another's new middle class. The suggestion that this "new" class dictates the contents of contemporary cinema is hardly revolutionary - the idea that cinema is reflecting society is either a terribly obvious argument, or it hides a mystifyingly obscure thesis. If the contents are disappointing, so is the subtitle. While the "romance" in the title is dealt with in academic fashion, sex never makes an appearance. Don't judge this book by its cover - the subtitle at least is a clear case of false advertising!

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