9 September 2020
by David Lunn
It is with a deep sense of personal as well as professional regret that I sit down to write this notice of the retirement of our dear friend and colleague Rachel Dwyer after a bout of ill health.
And what to say of an association with SOAS that stretches back to undergraduate days? After her BA in Sanskrit, Rachel moved to Oxford for an MPhil in General Linguistics and Comparative Philology. Then, having spent a couple of years as a computer programmer at British Airways (!), and a curator at the British Library, she returned to SOAS in 1989 as a Training Fellow in Gujarati, and embarked on her PhD on the Gujarati lyrics of Kavi Dayarambhai. Appointed a lecturer in Gujarati in 1991, her 1995 publication of Teach Yourself Gujarati marked the beginning of a truly impressive—and extraordinarily diverse—academic publishing career. In terms of authored books alone, this was swiftly followed by All you want is money, all you need is love in 2000, the revised PhD on Dayaram in 2001, and Cinema India (co-authored with Divya Patel) in 2002. Others included her biography of Yash Chopra in 2002, Filming the Gods in 2006, and the 2014 Bollywood’s India (or, in India, Picture abhi baaki hai). And this is not to mention a host of edited volumes, book chapters and articles that have established her as one of the leading experts on Hindi cinema in the world.
Over this long career, quite literally generations of students have been the beneficiaries of Rachel’s teaching and mentorship. And the benefits of her extensive connections to the Hindi film world have been felt by many of them. Aside from the many PhDs supervised, and regularly introduced to just the right people in the industry, I know of at least one MA student who was beyond delighted to have a sit-down interview with Amitabh Bachchan thanks to a few well-placed calls.
Of course, all the glitz and glamour of Bollywood might make it appear a less than serious topic of study—and so its detractors have regularly implied. Rachel’s work has done much to disabuse academia of that notion, and along with so many of her collaborators has firmly established the importance of taking Indian cinema seriously.
That said, and lest this all get too serious, there’s always been a healthy dose of the light-hearted and dare I say mischievous about Professor Dwyer. If I have the story right, I believe it was an old school teacher who once remarked, “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I don’t like it.” But this (carefully cultivated?) demeanor masks decades of not just intellectual but also administrative work. Rachel has sat on more committees at SOAS than I’d care to count, including three spells on Academic Board, served twice as Head of Department, and among many other things ran the SSAI’s predecessor, the Centre of South Asia, back in the early 2000s. And yet there’s also always been the high-profile, crowd-pulling events: Rachel Dwyer “in-conversation” with some of the biggest names in Hindi cinema, be it Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rishi Kapoor, Karan Johar or Javed Akhtar to name but a few. A well-known face at film and literary festivals in the UK, India, Pakistan and beyond, Rachel has done so much to bring together the popular and the academic understandings of Hindi cinema, albeit in ways in which our brave new world of metrics and “impact” would find hard to quantify.
40 years to the month after arriving at SOAS for her BA, Professor Rachel Dwyer—“Madam Bollywood” as some of her former students nicknamed her—is leaving an institution that we all know has changed profoundly in that time. Happily, it’s not an absolute ending: Rachel will retain her links to SOAS as a research associate of the Institute, as well as Professor Emerita in the department. So, as we look forward to an ongoing association and friendship, and to elephant-related research long in the planning, it seems fitting to end on a note from that magical 1971 Hindi film Haathi Mere Saathi (Elephants are my Companions):
Tu yaaron ka yaar hai kitna wafadar hai
Tu pagla na badla sari duniya gayi badal chal
Chal chal chal mere saathi o mere haathi…
You are a friend among friends, how loyal you are,
Oh crazy, don’t change, though the whole world has changed,
Come on, let’s go, my companion, my elephant…
Rachel, you will be sorely missed, and we wish you well.
by Dr David Lunn
South Asian and Postcolonial Studies in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.
SOAS, University of London