Religion, Violence and Cinematic Fears in India
- ISBN: 9781350143159
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: November 2020
Bollywood Horrors: Religion, Violence, and Cinematic Fears in India is an edited volume of essays treating various kinds of horror within Bollywood movies. Originating in a panel at the 2016 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, the assembled essays discuss horror as a genre, Indian Aesthetics, South Asian religions, the cinematic portrayals of real-life horror, and the affective response to all of the above.
The introduction places the volume within the intersections of media studies and religious studies, and reflects on horror and terror as “rasas” (affective moods in classical Indian aesthetic theory) deployed to invoke emotions within the viewer. The book itself is divided into three sections. The first, “Material Cultures and Prehistories of Horror in South Asia,” consists of two chapters by Brian Collins. The first discusses the material culture of Bollywood horror posters, placing them within the context of “oppositional taste” (33) and analyzing their visual content with recourse to psychoanalysis and Hindu bhakti theology. The second chapter treats the fascinating figure of Devendra Varma, an Indian Diplomat, Shakespearian actor, Gothic Horror scholar, and personal confidante of world historic figures like Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Nasser, and Christopher Lee. As Collins shows, Varma played an important part in the cultural exchange and that culminated in Bollywood horror films, in addition to being a significant post-colonial figure at the intersections of 20th-century politics and culture.
The second section, “Cinematic Horror, Iconography, and Aesthetics,” contains perhaps the most straightforward chapters. Kathleen Erndl’s third chapter examines how a number of Bollywood films use visual, auditory, and lyrical cues to create “Divine Horror” and invoke the “Avenging Goddess” theme. Hugh Urban’s chapter, “Horrifying and Sinister Tāntriks” examines another aspect of South Asian horror in Bollywood movies, namely the “sinister yogi,” an evil wizard-like figure who haunts the margins of contemporary Neo-Hinduism, and an abject reminder of Tantric practice that most Hindus would prefer to forget. Chapter 5, by Aditi Sen, examines the content of the 2002 film Raaz within the context of Hindu mythology, emphasizing how it draws from but subverts its mythological forebearers.
The final section, “Cultural Horror,” ambitiously expands the potential archive of Bollywood Horror to include portrayals of some horrific aspects of Indian modernity, such as communal violence, rape, and human trafficking. Chapter 6 examines the portrayal of communal violence in the 2004 film Dev, using the works of Frantz Fanon, Hannah Arendt, and Sigmund Freud to argue that the Indian state internalized and repressed the violence of colonialism and Partition, condemning the Indian public to continue the violence themselves, in banal and everyday ways. Chapter 7 by Morgan Oddie examines the film Bandit Queen from a subaltern studies approach, demonstrating how the film exploits the heroine Phoolan Devi through its graphical portrayal of her own violent rapes without her consent, all for the lurid consumption of Western audiences. Lastly chapter 8 examines how the 2014 film Mardaani subverts Bollywood gender norms in its story of an empowered female police officer bringing down a child sex trafficking ring.
Bollywood Horrors is a challenging and ambitious volume, broad in scope and brimming with critical analysis and intriguing insights. Particularly strong pieces include the discussion of the “pizza effect” (this term refers to the process of cultural adoption and then reintroduction into its native environment) at work within the Dracula story, wherein Bram Stoker freely borrowed from Indian Vetāla tales (in a footnote to page 100), which was then reintroduced into India. Furthermore, Erndl skillfully illustrates the vernacular rasa theory at work within the “masala” elements of Bollywood movies, informed by but autonomous of the high Sanskritic aesthetic traditions. Lastly, the final section is especially impressive in its scope, challenging conventional categories of “horror.” These final chapters touch on thoroughly mundane forms of “cultural horror” within the modern urban metropolis, lurking just out of sight but invoking the same emotions as “art-horror.” It may seem redundant to offer a content warning for a book on Horror films, but readers should be warned nonetheless. Also, while this does not appreciably detract from the quality of the work as a whole, at times the chapters lapse into film recaps that can seem indulgent.
All told Bollywood Horrors is a welcome treatment of an underdiscussed topic within South Asian studies, media studies, and religious studies. The volume treats a variety of topics and perspectives, setting the standard for further exploration into a rich and largely untapped field. The volume is sure to interest scholars in the above-mentioned disciplines, as well as Bollywood and horror enthusiasts as well.
Jackson Stephenson is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.Jackson StephensonDate Of Review:May 27, 2022