A publicity synopsis for the film Society (1942) ends with these words: “One evening Veena goes to a picture—something happens which excites Veena into a sudden action. . . . What made Veena wild in the cinema hall? Come and see on the Silver Screen.” In this talk I probe the relation between screen and spectator, and further, between the filmic image and the labor that goes into image production. Is cinema a reliever of exhaustion, a producer of energy, a catalyst for wild action? In late colonial India, where the energetic human body and productivity in indigenous industry were both enlisted in the service of nationalism, energy became a recurring theme in public discourse. I read the recurrence of bodily attitudes, postures, and narratives of vitality in Bombay films of the time as an attempt to position cinema as an “innervating” technology that coupled visions of corporeal energy with fantasies of a machinic apparatus premised on indefatigable, continuous motion. My aim here is to describe and theorize the place of energy in film history as a relational force that joins the space of the image, the body, and the machine. This route joins the techniques and technologies of film production with film exhibition and reception, thus revealing continuities between practices of the screen, the studio, and the world in between.
Debashree Mukherjee is Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University. Her first book, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (Columbia University Press, 2020) joins production and industry studies with histories of embodiment. She edits the peer-reviewed journal BioScope; has published in venues such as Film History, Feminist Media Histories and several film anthologies; and is currently working on a second book titled “Mediated Ocean: A Techno-Aesthetic History of Migration Between Africa and Asia.” In a previous life Debashree worked full-time in Bombay's film and TV industries.