Bollywood culture links professor to childhood

Priya Joshi published a book on how Bollywood portrays Indian culture.

English professor Priya Joshi wrote Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy to explore the world’s obsession with Bollywood. | Jenny Kerrigan TTN
English professor Priya Joshi wrote Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy to explore the world’s obsession with Bollywood. | Jenny Kerrigan TTN

Priya Joshi connects with her childhood through Bollywood films.

Joshi, an associate professor of English, explores the role of popular Hindi cinema in Indian culture through her latest book, “Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy,” which was published earlier in 2015.

Joshi started working for Temple in 2005. Prior to then, she was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.

Joshi said one of her first projects at Temple involved a collaboration with former professor Ben Rifkin – the two created a new class within the Gen-Ed program, World Society.

“[We] felt that one of the key ways that we as adults, and our students … really grapple with the world is through media culture,” Joshi said.

The course is called World Society Through Literature And Film. Joshi’s class focused on Indian culture, while Rifkin’s course looked into Russian culture.

Joshi, who was born in Kolkata, India, left the country with her family at 14 to live in Washington D.C. She said relatives told her father the move was a better opportunity for his children.

“D.C. in the 1980s, at least where we lived, was very monocultural … and quite boring,” Joshi said. “And I think for most of us growing up, the only way to hold onto our memory of India was through cinema and Bollywood.”

Joshi said that by the 1930s, a few decades after the invention of the moving image by the Lumière brothers, India had an up-and-coming cinema industry.

Bollywood is only a small part of the Indian film industry, Joshi said. There are films written in the Hindi language and also in Bengali. But something about the Bollywood industry is able to capture a wide array of audiences, and Joshi said that is what she looks at in her latest book.

Joshi said the films are a way for her to hold onto her memories from India.

One of the Bollywood films she addresses in her book and said her students love is “Kal Ho Naa Ho,” about a young woman living in a Brooklyn brownstone, whose life changes drastically after a new neighbor moves in.

“It’s a very contemporary story, and those kind of films didn’t exist when I was growing up,” Joshi said. “I was watching what my parents watched, but I loved the music, the stories and the romance.”

In her classes, Joshi uses Bollywood to talk about India and globalization. Through developing her class and seeing the student’s responses to Bollywood, it was clear to her that there was “something bigger that needed scholarly treatment,” which is how her latest novel came into play.

After graduating from the University of Maryland as a double major in English and science, Joshi rejected medical school and decided to live in Paris, the city where “all the great writers,” like  William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot lived, she said.

Joshi said she used to read poetry in the metro subway of Paris and took on some part-time jobs in the city – she once translated a travel book for a man who needed French to Hindi translations and wrote for a man who started a foundation called Les Chemin des Enfants.

She lived there for a little more than a year and then attended graduate school at Columbia University in New York.

Joshi wrote her first novel in 2002, called “In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture and the English Novel in India.” It involved a study on how novels in the 19th century were able to bring ideas across cultures.

“It’s easy to overlook the connections between ‘In Another Country’and ‘Bollywood’s India,’ but Priya’s work excavates the stories of common readers and viewers to reveal that both literature and film provide solace in a rapidly changing society,” said Daniel Morse, a 2014 Temple Ph.D graduate in global modernism. Morse worked with Joshi on a Bollywood conference at Temple in 2011.

Joshi said she began to think about how ideas travel visually. Soon after, she started to see Bollywood as a tool for understanding culture.

“Many of my students learn Bollywood or watch Bollywood living far outside India or maybe not even being Indians, so there’s this weird way in which this hyperlocal culture oddly seems to travel very well,” Joshi said.

In the past few years, Joshi has developed another Gen-Ed class called Detective Fiction In The World. The course includes a look at detective fiction as a popular genre.

Rana Ashfaq, a sophomore mathematical economics major who took Joshi’s Detective Fiction course, said the books were made easy to comprehend.

“I found this historical analysis amazing in that it illuminated many aspects of the work that could be glossed over as a pretty detail of characters are traveling from and why they would need to make that journey,” Ashfaq said.

The first idea Joshi had for “Bollywood’s India” changed dramatically, she said. Though she first intended for the class to take a look at Bollywood’s representation of crime in a criminal society, the book evolved. Joshi saw Bollywood as the “conscience of India.”

For her courses on Bollywood, students watch films and read three to four novels a semester, Joshi said.

For her next book, Joshi said she wants to look more into the detective fiction genre.

“Cinema is a very efficient genre – camera light here, image there, and they’ve conveyed 200 years of history,” Joshi said. “The novel just pauses everything and slows down our perception.”

Emily Scott can be reached at

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