Modern India: Literature and Film

English 198/Asia 198

Spring 2005



Professor: Amardeep Singh
Professor's nickname: Deep
Office: 221 Drown Hall
Meets: Tuesday-Thursday 10:45am-12pm

Film Lab: Tuesday night 7-10pm (will not meet every week)


Office hours: Generally Wednesdays 1-4

Cell Phone:



Course Description:


An introduction to 20th and 21st century India through literature and film. 

The aim is to survey the transformations in the life of the country provoked by the advent of modernity. We will read novels by authors such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mulk Raj Anand, Salman Rushdie, Manju Kapur, Amitav Ghosh, and Rohinton Mistry, and watch a selection of films by directors like Satayajit Ray and Mani Ratnam.  We will take a close look at how writers and filmmakers represent historical events such as the independence struggle, partition, women’s rights, religious conflicts (“communalism”), and caste politics. We will also discuss recent hot-button issues in public health (AIDS), development (big dams), and the complex problem of globalization.  Historical and critical readings will be assigned to supplement the primary texts, in order to acquaint students with relevant aspects of Indian history, politics, religion, and culture.  No prior knowledge of the Indian subcontinent is required.


Required texts:


Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World
Manju Kapur, Difficult Daughters
Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines
Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey
Githa Hariharan, In Times of Siege
Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood
Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Additional essays and short stories we will read. Most of these are quite short, and will be assigned to supplement primary readings and films. They will be available on Blackboard:


·       Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, “A Popular Literature for Bengal” (1870) “The Confessions of a Young Bengali” (1872)

·       Andrew Robinson and Krishna Dutta, excerpts from Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man

·       Amit Chaudhuri, “Modernity and the Vernacular,” “The Construction of the

       Indian Novel in English”

·       Salman Rushdie, “Introduction” to Mirrorwork anthology

·       Amrita Pritam, “Pinjar

·       Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, short excerpt from Pather Panchali

·       Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi”


A few others may be added along the way.


Please remember, when an essay or short story is assigned from Blackboard, to print it out and bring it to class on the day it will be discussed. I will not bring extra copies of materials assigned to Blackboard.




Assigned films: Pather Panchali, Mr. 420, Silsila, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Dil Se..., Satya,



On reserve in the library: Mother India, Devdas, DDLJ, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Bombay, Mission Kashmir, Lagaan, Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam, Kandukondein Kandukondein, The Terrorist

These are films I would have liked to have on the syllabus, but there won't be time. Don't feel any obligation to see these.


I might also suggest that people take a look at a Charlie Chaplin film. I'll bring in clips, but if you've never seen Modern Times, you might want to do se before we see Mr. 420.





Tentative Syllabus


1/18     First day of class; Introductions

1/ 20    Read three essays by Amitav Ghosh on Tsunami. Also: Tsunami blogs

            Read as much as you have time for on your own about the progress and problems

            of Tsunami relief.


1/25     Bankim Chandra Chatterjee short stories; Begin Tagore's The Home and

            the World.

            W.B. Yeat's poems “Easter, 1916” and “A Prayer for My Daughter” -- on women

            in politics.

            Film screening 7 pm: Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. Post response paper to


1/27     Read: Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, short excerpt from Pather Panchali

            Discuss film, Bengali Renaissance, Satyajit Ray. View more Ray clips in



2/1       The Home and the World

2/3       The Home and the World


2/8       Kapur, Difficult Daughters

            Film Screening: Earth

2/10     Discuss Earth, religious communalism; partition; Religious groups (Parsis,

                        Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims).


2/15     Difficult Daughters

            Film Screening: Mr. 420 (also known as: Shree 420)

2/17     Read pp. 1-83 of Ganti's Bollywood. Silent and talkie films; rise and fall

            of studio system; production and technical features; songs and musical

            format; Indian star system.


2/22     Difficult Daughters

            Paper #1 due on Tagore or Kapur (4-5 pages)

2/24     Read: Amrita Pritam, “Pinjar” (on Blackboard). Discuss: partition, abductions of



3/1       Such a Long Journey

            Film screening: Silsila

3/3       Discuss film; also: Indira Gandhi's “Emergency”; Nehruvian system of

            government; “License Raj”; Corruption


3/8       Spring break

3/10     Spring break


3/15     Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey

3/17     Such a Long Journey


3/22     Such a Long Journey

            Film screening: Mr. And Mrs. Iyer

3/24     Read: Ghosh's essay “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi”; discuss communal

            violence and inter-religious tensions in class


3/29     Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines

            Film Screening: Dil Se... (With the Heart)

3/31     Discussion of: Kashmir separatist movement, problems with terrorism and

            secession movements in India


4/5       Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines

            Paper #2 due: on Mistry or Ghosh

4/7       Githa Hariharan, In Times of Siege


4/12     In Times of Siege

            Film screening: Satya (Truth)

4/14     Talk about Satya; Finish In Times of Siege


4/19     Maximum City

            Film screening: Yuva (Youth)

4/211   Maximum City


4/26     Maximum City

            Film screening: Bhoot (Ghost)

4/28     Last day of classes. Paper #3 due: Research on Bombay


Final exam : During exam week, to be scheduled


Terms, concepts, and historical events you will be learning about:


Basic regional familiarity

            “South Asia” vs. “Southeast Asia

            India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal

            Major languages: Hindi, Bengali, Gujurati, Tamil, Punjabi, Marathi, Urdu,


            Major religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism,


            Literature and art: “Bengali Renaissance”

Indian independence movement
            Partition, Independence (1947)

            Mohandas Gandhi ("Mahatma")

             B.R. Ambedkar: “Untouchable,” “Dalit

             Congress Party

Concepts in politics, religion

  "Mandal Commission"

Post-independence historical figures, events
            Wars with Pakistan

            Indira Gandhi

            Emergency (1975)

            P.V. Narasimha Rao

            Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

            Atal Behari Vajpayee

            Liberalization (1991)
            Manmohan Singh (1991, 2004)


Gender issues, women's rights

            Arranged marriage

            Extended family living arrangement
            "Uniform Civil Code"


            Importance as a business in India; role in Indian popular culture

            Financing and structure of industry; connections to mafia, etc.

            Musical vs. non-musical films

            Sync-sound vs. “playback”

            Technical issues and limitations in the industry

            Recent turn to globalization

Notes for first day of class.


On the board:

Goals of the course.

            Introduction to modern Indian history and culture. Why does it matter? 

            Indian literature

            Indian cinema

Modernity, nationalism, globalization


This course has three basic goals. One is to introduce you – if you aren't already familiar with it – in a general way to India's history and culture. The second is to survey a small sampling of 20th century Indian literature, with an emphasis on recent writing (most of the books on the syllabus have been written in the last decade). And the third is to look at Indian films, also mainly recent ones, and to think about what is so unique about film language. Both the literature and the film will do a great deal of the work of familiarization on their own. You might need a little bit of background and explanation to follow what is going on – I'll try and provide it where necessary – but I've chosen these particular texts and films because I think they are both highly accessible even to people who don't know anything about India to begin with, and because themselves have a high educative value. In lectures in class, I'll provide a good deal more information and ideas about how these things fit together.


How does this related to life in Bethlehem PA? One of the presumptions I'm making in this course is that these three goals I'm outlining are things you as students want to do. I'm assuming that knowledge of a different culture is important to you, and that you're curious and want to learn. That said, I'm not expecting that you are necessarily automatically interested in Indian literature and cinema. Along the way, I'll probably stop at certain moments to explain the connection of the literature we're studying to what's happening in the rest of the world, including the United States. There are some Indian writers who have had a global impact, and won all kinds of major literary prizes. Many of the contemporary Indian writers make an attempt to publish in the west, and some are physically located here. Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh, for instance – two of the most famous Indian writers – are actually based in New York.


I think it's reasonable for you as students to wonder what the value of the texts you're reading might be. Why is this good? How does it relate to me? I hope you'll give the material I've selected the benefit of the doubt, but I'm open to those questions as well.


Watching films critically. The hardest of the three goals, believe it or not, will be #3. Watching a lot of films may seem easy to some of you, compared with reading novels. But I'm going to be asking you to watch films critically, with an eye to what in film studies is called the language of cinema. How does the director of the film tell a story visually? How do they produce point of view, a sense of space and time, and continuity via editing? There is a whole technical language of film that we'll at least be flirting with a little along the way. Above all, I'll be asking you to watch actively and intelligently, rather than passively. Watching films this way may feel a little like pulling teeth, but there is no other way to do it in a college classroom.


Another issue is cultural difference. We'll be talking more about this, but the most direct way in which you'll probably grapple with the issue of cultural difference in this course is in watching these films. Things that many Americans perceive as bad – excessive melodrama, for instance – are quite common in Indian films. Indian audiences don't mind them as much. Is it because Indian audiences are less sophisticated than American audiences? Probably not. There are other features of Indian commercial films that western viewers don't always initially know how to read. So if you haven't seen many of these films, there may be a bit of a learning curve. You may not like them at first, even the more modern films.


I can't guarantee that you will like them. But even if you end up not liking them, I am going to ask you take them seriously as art, and make an attempt to understand them. The films I've selected focus on three overlapping themes: modernization, nationalism, and globalization. The first two go together. Historically, India's experience of modernity is a product of British colonialism. The British brought capitalism to the Indian subcontinent, a modern form of government, and of course technology (among other things, they built railroads, schools, factories).


At the same time as modernization was happening in India, there was also a nationalist movement. Indians – led by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru – were arguing for the right to govern themselves. Nationalism is, in a simple sense, a struggle for the right to self-government. Nationalism is linked to modernity because philosophically, the idea of nationalism comes from modern ideas, especially the idea of the right of the individual to control his or her own destiny, and the right to participate in a political process (democracy).


India became independent in 1947, and that becomes a key date both for filmmakers and for novelists. Most of Indian literature before independence was strongly focused on nationalism, and that carried over into the post-1947 generation of writers, but with some changes. When I say it was focused on nationalism, I mean that writers were preoccupied with what exactly an independent “India” might look like. Such a thing had never really existed before. How big would it be? Would it have a national language (this would be difficult to do in a subcontinent where hundreds of languages are spoken)? Would it have a national religion (equally difficult to imagine)?


Also, how should Indians go about achieving it, when most of the country was relatively indifferent? Only the more privileged people in Indian society were directly affected by British rule – they were the ones who were learning English. It was the economic dominance of Indians who were already wealthy that was threatened. Most ordinary Indians were apathetic, because being poor under one set of masters is no worse or better than being poor under another set. More important than the apathy was the question of strategy. Should India negotiate with the British, or take a more aggressive tact? Tagore is what today we would call a moderate: he felt that political independence was less important than a kind of cultural autonomy. And he was deeply worried about the turn to terrorism that was becoming dominant amongst some members of the nationalist movement.


Tagore was writing beginning in the 1890s, and was active until the 1930s. He wrote novels, essays, and poetry, and was one of the few Indian writers of his day to be widely recognized in the west. He even won the Nobel Prize in 1913, for poems that he himself had translated into English. We'll see this struggle with nationalism directly dealt with in the first book we'll be reading, The Home and the World. And it will raise one other issue, which is what role, if any, women should play in this new movement. Tagore was sensitive to the problem of the repression of women in traditional Hindu society. In some sense, he was a feminist. But he also worried about what would happen to society if women entered into modernity without any checks... He's ambivalent about it.


After Tagore, all of the writers in the course are essentially contemporary, even though several of them are writing about events that took place some time ago. Manju Kapur is writing about women's involvement in the independence movement in Lahore in the 1930s. (I'm going to assign a short story called The Skeleton about Partition, which occurred at the moment of independence)

And Rohinton Mistry is writing about some events that occurred in in India in the 1970s.


Several of the novels and films I've selected deal with the theme of religious violence. Each one takes a slightly different approach. But it will be something we'll be discussing all along: what makes people commit acts of violence in the name of religion? How did India become a place where religious tolerance is both completely essential to the fabric of everyday life and so extremely fragile?


The third main issue is globalization, which has really become an issue since 1991, and is one of the ways in which I hope to make the case that the literature and film of India are relevant to American college students 10,000 miles away.


For more than 40 years, India's economy was largely socialist in structure, which means that private industry was allowed, but nearly all business transactions were authorized and controlled by the central government. The goal was to protect local Indian industries, and encourage a kind of independent process of development. It largely worked, at least in terms of the modernization of India's agricultural production. But India's other industries remained fairly far back. Ambitious Indians frequently found there to be too much red tape to actually follow up on new ideas. The growth rate in the 1970s and 80s was quite slow – about 2 percent a year.


But then in 1991, the central government started a process of liberalization. The goal was to open up the economy to more imported goods. Since then the growth rate of the economy has jumped ahead – averaging anywhere from 5 to 8 percent. A lot of wealth has been created. New industries have emerged, especially the high tech industry in cities like Bangalore.


The change also opened up the media environment. More foreign films and TV shows became available as satellite television and cable ended the government's television monopoly. India soon had its own version of MTV, its own version of CNN, and so on.


To some extent, the boom within India has also extended abroad. More and more films are available in the west, and the Indian film community has a growing profile in places like England and the U.S., where big Indian films have started opening in the top 10 (in England) or the top 25 (in the U.S.). Many of the viewers for these films are people of Indian descent, but a growing number of non-Indians have developed an interest.


It's not entirely clear why this is the case, but along with the explosion in the media environment has been a boom in South Asian literature. There are dozens and dozens of new writers on the scene, many of them selling a large number of books in the U.S. Here, it's clear that the readership is quite diverse. Novels by Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri have been New York times Bestsellers, largely because they are reviewed in prominent American newspapers and magazines, and subsequently purchased by non-Indian readers who are curious. Why these novels have become so popular is a question we'll discuss over the course of the term.


The 1990s and 2000s, in short, have been an incredibly exciting time for India, both domestically and in terms of developments abroad. That's why we'll be spending a somewhat disproportionate amount of time on it this semester. 


I should add that we'll be ending the semester with one non-fiction book as well, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, which is really all about the 1990s. As a person who has lived both in Bombay and New York City, Mehta has some interesting insights on the very changes I've just been describing.  



A practical matter: Screenings will be on Tuesday nights. Instead of having you write formal papers on the films, I'm going to be looking for written responses to be posted to Blackboard. In part, you can use these responses to debate with your classmates the relative merits of the films you're seeing, but I want to see that you're identifying and substantially debating the social issues the films are concerned with.


Another practical matter: Pronunciation of some words may be difficult at first. I'm going to encourage you to just say it however you feel comfortable. If you really want to work on getting Indian names and places to sound right, set up a meeting with me. It might seem a little weird, but I'm happy to do it if it helps. I should also say that since I myself am raised in the U.S., my own pronunciation of a lot of Indian place-names is somewhat Americanized.


For Thursday: I wanted to start the class off with a look at some of the issues that have come out of the tsunami in December. It's been a huge catastrophe, one which has  killed 150,000 people (maybe more), and affected the lives of millions. The worst hit area is in Indonesia, but things are almost as bad in Sri Lanka and on the southeastern coast of India (primarily the state of Tamil Nadu/Tamilnad).