09/11/2013 06:31 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Bollywood in the Classroom: An Idea for India's Future

Each year, beginning with Teacher's Day in September and ending with the festival of Dussehra, India restores its reverence for the spirit of learning. We salute our teachers, past and present, and then we place our schoolbooks ceremoniously before Ganesha and Saraswathi in worship. In the secular public sphere too, the debate often turns to important issues in education: the gap between private and government schools, the inadequate language skills of college graduates, even engineers and scientists, and of course, the factory-like culture of cramming for exams all through one's life. Underlying these issues is of course a deeper concern about the meaning of education itself. Given the highly instrumental view of education children grow up with (marks, degrees, jobs), the fact remains that most of the education in what it means to be a good human being today often comes from (or is seen as coming from) spaces outside school, such as religion and family. There is however one cultural mirror that educators need to recognize for its pervasive influence in India more carefully as well, and that is Bollywood.

Cinema (since we didn't call it "Bollywood" back then) was not a subject that was ever discussed in the classroom when I was in school in India over 25 years ago. It was something of a forbidden topic, reserved for idle conversations among friends and never for any serious discussion with our teachers. I still recall a diatribe our nineth class science teacher launched about our alleged preference for "dirty cinema star magazines" over science magazines (the provocation was not that a film magazine was discovered in class, but simply that no one responded to the science magazine he had brought with him). I would imagine that teachers today have even more serious distractions to contend with than mere paper magazines, and students too have a more challenging sensory and cultural environment to navigate in addition to the school curriculum. That is precisely the reason why, more than ever, the classroom should become a place where students are not desperately (and vainly) insulated from the popular culture, but a place where students are taught to confront it intelligently.

The growth of media studies has popularized the idea that at least some sort of critical media awareness is an essential part of citizenship in a modern democracy. A good media studies curriculum at the university level today teaches not only the practical production skills students often seek in to get good jobs in the media industries, but also the importance of thinking critically about the media. Even if the realities of working in the media may seem far from the idealism students are encouraged to cultivate while in college, the fact remains that a fairly large core group of people in India today are aware of what it means to academically engage with media and popular culture. While this is a good beginning, the more important, and vital, task in my view, would be to translate the insights and practices of critical media studies into a curriculum that would prove meaningful to students at a much younger age. For that, nothing is more necessary than putting Bollywood in the Indian classroom while students are still in school.

Teaching Bollywood would mean not simply showing students how movies are made but how movies are making us. There is often a knowledge gap among us as media consumers between the scale of our emotional investment in media culture, and our ability to engage with that culture. Simply put, the way students might talk about a movie in class might seem no different at first from how they talk about it with friends, online or face-to-face, with references to celebrity gossip and mere likes and dislikes. But if the classroom can turn Bollywood into a window into students' own lives, hopes, and dreams, and encourage them to see that as a social narrative using readings and ideas from media studies and other appropriate subjects, then a Bollywood curriculum would prove tremendously engaging and insightful. For example, a history of independent India could be taught not merely as names and dates to memorize but as a story marked eloquently through the stories in our popular cinema. Students could be encouraged to engage with important ideas in the humanities and social sciences, even at the school level, through examples from cinema.

It is one thing, for instance, to watch Devdas as a movie about what today's youth might call a loser, but quite another to see the character as a symbol of India's stranded journey between village and city, its mixed modernity, as scholars have observed. It is one thing to talk about consumerism as a mere slogan, and quite another to show it in the dazzling movies of the 1990s where everyone was named Raj or Prem and wore ubiquitously branded clothes. Teaching our movies will help us do more than merely teach concepts though. Ultimately, by engaging students on the terrain they are most familiar with, we will have a chance to teach them about life, and to train them to think of life not as an individual journey but as a social and historical phenomenon in which each one must make ethical, and directly, or indirectly, political commitments too. The classroom must prove to our students as meaningful a source of ideas about the self and others as, say, a movie like Hum Aapke Hain Koun.

I dedicate this post to the memory of my dear friend and colleague Andrew Goodwin