A piece by Salman Rushdie, “The Shelter of the World,” ran in last week’s New Yorker, and while I didn’t find the story (a tale of Emperor Akbar and maybe-real, maybe-imaginary wife Jodha) as gripping as I have some of his work, one passage jumped out at me:

“The court was also full of foreigners, pomaded exotics, weather-beaten merchants, narrow-faced priests from the West, boasting in ugly, undesirable tongues about the majesty of their lands, their gods, their kings. When the Emperor showed her the pictures of their mountains and valleys they’d brought with them, she thought of the Himalayas and of Kashmir and laughed at the foreigners’ paltry approximations of natural beauty, their vaals and aalps, half-words to describe half-things. Their kings were savages, and they had nailed their god to a tree. What did she want with people as ridiculous as that?

They came in search of—what, exactly? Nothing of use. If they had possessed any wisdom, the inutility of their journeying would have been obvious to them. Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and spirited you away into fairlylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Not sure whether it’s happenstance or by calculation, but Rushdie’s not the only person who’s got something to say about the erstwhile emperor. Jodhaa Akbar, a Bollywood flick billed as “a sixteenth-century love story about a marriage of alliance that gave birth to true love between a great Mughal emperor, Akbar, and a Rajput princess, Jodhaa,” debuted on February 15 and has been in the news ever since, not least because its historical accuracy has been called into question. The Times gave it a fairly good review, but people in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Sonepat, and Ambala will have to wait for pirated VCDs of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Cecil B. DeMille-esque grasp of cinematic grandeur.

The Times of India offers a fairly good precis of recent controversies related to Bollywood releases; the Hindustan Times also chimes in with analysis of the phenomenon.

Mass hysteria, the making of a mountain out of a molehill? Or a microcosm of a deep sense of unrest about (historical and contemporary) identity in India? I can’t say that I have any answers, or even insight. But Bollywood — and artistic expression, disciplined studies or street-level outpourings — does, however, seem like an important vehicle for understanding the subcontinent; I certainly find it, and the way people in the middle class interact with it, more enlightening than figures from the World Bank about the economy’s growth.

Additional links:
Bollywood literacy for the 1990s and today, a Berkeley course coordinated by Leena Kamat and Katherine Good
Hindi cinema: making meaning of a popular culture
Desi critics
Queering Bollywood
Bollywood as India’s cultural ambassador
Bollywood for the skeptical
Upperstall: a better view of Indian cinema
Bollywood fashion police
BollySpace 2.0
Beth loves Bollywood

Profusion of art is connected to my recent procurement of a combination printer, scanner, and copier. Fervor will fade soon, I imagine.

Related:

Communal tensions crackle between Christians and Hindus in Orissa, India: The Hindustan Times, Time

Fallout from Benazir Bhutto’s assasination: The Associated Press, The New York Times

Price increases hitting the tea industry in India: The Times of India

Coffee culture in the subconty: The Independent