Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Modern Girl in India in the Interwar Years: Interracial Intimacies, International Competition, and Historical Eclipsing

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Modern Girl in India in the Interwar Years: Interracial Intimacies, International Competition, and Historical Eclipsing

Article excerpt

Cheeky, cosmopolitan, and seductive, the Indian Modern Girl made her flamboyant and very public appearance as the "worldly and wicked" sitara, or starlet, of Indian silent cinema; as an icon of commodity culture; and as the "English-educated" college girl (kallege ladki) in the 1920s and 1930s.1 The Indian Modern Girl, as a social identity and a wildly popular icon in multiple media, spurred intense political and economic debate. Nationalist leaders, among them Gandhi, decried her, and American and British companies found themselves in competition with each other and, increasingly, with Indian companies, for her huge cinema audiences and for the growing market to meet women's modern consumer desires through commodities such as soaps and "snows" (face-whitening creams), lipsticks, and see-through saris. Yet there is, to my knowledge, no scholarly study of the Modern Girl in India. In this essay, with a spotlight on the sitara, or cinema star, I argue that the Indian Modern Girl has been eclipsed because she is not easily recoverable as an anticolonial project. If feminist scholars do not pay attention to the Indian Modern Girl, especially to her interracial origins, her fluid minority religious affiliations, and the international economic contestations she indexed, we too risk reifying nationalist history and historiography and forgetting the ways in which gendered modernity has long been a transnational project that has linked the intimate and the global in ways that are contradictory and compelling.

This essay has two purposes: it is an effort at historical recovery that asks when the Indian Modern Girl appeared, who she was, how she was coded and coded herself, and when and why she was displaced. In answering these questions, my focus is on why the Indian Modern Girl is a particularly appropriate site to think about interracial intimacy in the Indian context, a "charged space" where not just colonial but also international and nationalist categories of inclusion and exclusion were articulated and fortified but also contested and disordered.2 My second purpose is historiographical. The Modern Girl cinema star was receded and faded after the 1930s in the face of a more strident anticolonial cultural nationalism and the contradictory imperatives of economic competition, as I will demonstrate, but contemporary popular histories of Indian film continue to construct her dislodgment as a "natural" consequence of her mixed-raciality. In so doing, contemporary film historiography eclipses the complex identity of the Modern Girl and skews it toward a nationalist and linear rendering of history. In the conclusion, I suggest why Indian feminist historiography, which has all but ignored her, is politically enriched by engaging with the Modern Girl of the 1920s and 1930s.

A NOTE ON THE ARCHIVE

The first cinema show was held in Bombay in 1896, a few months after its debut in Paris, to packed houses, including special sections for "ladies in purdah." Shortly thereafter Indian businessmen imported films and set up cinema "tents" in the major cities and sent "touring cinemas" in small towns and villages. The film industry in India started in 1912 and grew rapidly in the 1920s. More than thirteen hundred silent films were produced from 1912 to 1931, when the first talkie was released. During the 1930s, many of the most popular silent movies were remade as talkies. Since the expense of converting cinema houses to sound projection was very high, silent movies were shown alongside talkies throughout the 1930s. Of these early films, unfortunately, only a handful survive. The bulk of them were "photographed and printed on highly combustible nitratebased stock and has [sic] either gone up in flames in warehouse fires or crumbled to dust in rusty old cans in forgotten lofts" (Looking Back, 26). Notwithstanding their physical loss, it is the lack of cultural memory that is my concern.

The Indian Modern Girl sitara was star of the silent movies and early talkies in the 1920s and 1930s. …

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