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CSAS Lecture Series | Talking Pictures, Noisy Audiences: Early Sound Cinema in South Asia

Friday, September 11, 2015
12:00 AM
School of Social Work Building Room 1636

This paper considers how the advent of sound cinema in India in 1931 interacts with longer genealogies, both indigenous and colonial, of aural performance and audition in South Asia. Lahiri focuses on the influential studio Bombay Talkies, whose pioneering genre of the social film popularized many of the conventions of the Bollywood cinema style, from the song and dance sequence to the unspecified village locale. Indian cinemas were always famously noisy, even in the silent era, yet with the advent of sound films the location of the sound changed: the use of an embedded soundtrack created the sense that the sound came from within the image itself. With the advent of sound, Indian films became dominant in the domestic market, rendering imaginable, for the first time, an Indian audience for Indian cinema. Lahiri argues that the social films of 1930s, which mainly used live location sound, worked to inculcate proper listening practices in its viewer-auditors through their formal conventions, in concert with their explicitly thematization of problems like untouchability and forced marriage.The social as a genre aimed to produce a modern Indian audience, addressing its audience both as an emerging political collectivity and as individualized citizens-to-be — a dual agenda which often necessitated a divergence between visual and auditory registers.

Lahiri will discuss the early Indian sound film Karma, released in 1933, which represents both chronologically and conceptually a transition – and a commercial failure – between two moments of filmmaking practice by Himansu Rai and his associates. In the 1920s, Rai made a series of phenomenally successful silent films, often marketed on their shooting in India itself, with “real Indians”; in the later 1930s and 1940s, Rai would make the social films of Bombay Talkies. In between, however, he made Karma, which diverged most decisively from the earlier films in its inclusion of an embedded soundtrack – and, in comparison to the later sound films, in its meticulous recording of ambient noise. Yet whereas the durative gaze of the camera, and hence the audience, was seen as appropriate for the silent filming of India, the slow listening necessitated by Karma proved unappealing, for Indian and international audiences alike. Karma thus serves as a key milestone in the Bombay film industry’s increasing desire to tightly moderate the soundtrack of commercial films, producing the “Bollywood” conventions around music, dialogue, and live location sound which accelerate the experience of listening (but not necessarily of viewing) these films.

Madhumita Lahiri is an Assistant Professor in the department of English at the University of Michigan. Her research considers the connections between 20th century political movements, language ideologies, and aesthetic forms, and it has appeared most recently in the journal Interventions, in an article entitled “An Idiom for India.”

Madhumita Lahiri, Assistant Professor of English, University of Michigan