Cinema and the Urdu Public Sphere: Literary imaginaries in the making of film cultures in north India (1930-50)

Niazi, S. 2021. Cinema and the Urdu Public Sphere: Literary imaginaries in the making of film cultures in north India (1930-50). PhD thesis University of Westminster Westminster School of Arts

TitleCinema and the Urdu Public Sphere: Literary imaginaries in the making of film cultures in north India (1930-50)
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsNiazi, S.

Urdu language and its literary culture had a considerable influence in shaping the narrative and aesthetic vocabularies of cinematic practice in India. While film scholars have recognized the role of Urdu in film dialogues and lyrics, few have attempted to understand the crucial processes by which film culture was fashioned within the Urdu public sphere. This dissertation aims to map the entangled networks of the literary with the cinematic and brings to light the vibrant debates of the Urdu public sphere on cinema from 1930 to 1950. Drawing on an interdisciplinary approach, extensive archival research was conducted to excavate previously undiscovered materials in Urdu on film. In the thesis, these marginalized texts in Urdu are juxtaposed with and studied alongside film sources in Hindi and English to complicate and diversify existing discourses on film in India. The thesis is divided into two sections. The first part focuses on the relationship between cinema and the Urdu public sphere through a study of printed texts such as Urdu film journals, translations of film theory, and biographical dictionaries of actresses and acting manuals. These textual artefacts highlight how cinema as an institution was formalized and disseminated in Urdu with an active engagement in values and codes of etiquette borrowed from an Urdu cultural milieu. I show how these texts were produced with serious pedagogical intent to refine the taste of the cinephiles and at the same time make accessible global film theories through translocation and translation. Part two engages with early sound cinema’s mobilization of the tropes from an Urdu imaginaire, a term I have coined to refer to an affective literary imaginary that provided not only narratives but also cultural frameworks for representation in north Indian cinema in the 1930s and 40s. The coming of sound technology in the 1930s was a momentous technological shift. The thesis demonstrates how cinematic aurality ensured that the Urdu imaginaire blossomed within the film texts through the strategic evocation of the semantics of authority, romance and reform. I employ speculative research trajectories to contextualize the place of the Urdu imaginaire within a heterogenous and variegated film aesthetic by discussing case studies of film personnel, genres, film styles, literary adaptations and codes of respectability in the cinema from 1930 to 1950.

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