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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bollywood is not Indian Cinema

Bombay is always hot. The sheltered bit next to a pav-bhaji-wala outside the cinema is the threshold between the grime of the real world and the air-conditioned escape of Bollywood. There is a large crowd standing outside the decrepit theatre – a threatre that has been here for 50 years. It has 4 screens and is dwarfed by the size of the new multiplexes, whose neon facades are like an over-botoxed face. Tickets and conditions here are reasonable enough that pretty much anyone feels comfortable going for a Wednesday afternoon show. College students in cheap jeans and sagging back-packs, young couples holding hands defiantly, groups of single-men in office-wear, middle-class families complete with grandma and baby... all jostle for position as the cleaners emerge out of freezing theatre.

Going to the theatre and getting lost in the fantasy of it all is easier than you think. I challenge you to go to a local theatre for the first weekend show of a big new opening and not be gripped by the passion of the audience around you. Sometimes it’s more infectious, more entertaining than the movie itself. There is whistling, there is truly innocent laughter, there are tears and there are fist-pumps. Often, the national anthem is played before a film and everyone will stand and sing. Most would probably get up and sing during the film if they knew the words. This is actually something that has happened to me once, that I’ve experienced personally, where the entire audience sung the last emotionally charged word of a masterful duet like they were singing it to their soul mate. It was a film called Roja and its soundtrack is one of the all-time greats. A R Rahman won an Oscar for the awful, awful music in Slumdog Millionaire – but the music in Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, Rangeela and Lagaan is something that will set him apart from his modern peers and raise him to the pedestal of the old masters of the charming 60s and 70s.

The songs from that era (note how much I’m referring to music, when discussing Bollywood) are without a doubt the most wonderful in Indian cinema’s history. By songs, I include the videos as well as the actual tracks themselves. They wouldn’t be complete without the terrible lip-syncing and 60’s haircuts – all filmed in glorious speckled black-and-white, of course. The grainy tunes from my parent’s cassette collection can make any long-drive turn into a dream-sequence. I’m not sure any frenetic modern dance numbers will surpass those romantic ballads for sheer whistle-ability.

More often than not however, a trip to see a Bollywood ‘fillum’ in a theatre fails to deliver anything but clichés, a cold and sore ear-drums. There is so much dross churned out by the industry every year. But people will always go to watch their favourite stars, almost as if ‘it might be good’. It’s peculiar. Too many times do film-makers, actors and studios get away with making terrible movies that adhere to the strict ‘Bollywood checklist’. Only recently have film-makers started to break from traditional patterns and try to address modern issues or look at old themes with fresh perspectives.

Bollywood is not a genre; it is a pass-time. It is a drug. Bollywood movies are where normal people with average lives, go to watch perfect people live fantastical lives. They go for the heroes – the leading men whose biceps seem intent on tearing at their bizarre item-number outfits. They go for the heroines – the pristine goddesses who wash their grandparents feet, pray to God twice a day and are always, always the victims of some sad circumstance. They go for the inevitable story – the timid start, the bold end and all the implausible adventures in between. They go for the music. Ahh, the music. The music that usually overshadows the movie itself. You’ll find people saying, “It was a decent movie yaar... but had really nice songs. I’ll go watch it again with my family” or “what a waste of flop... she can’t dance at all”. Film titles are deliberately misspelt, because ‘numerologists’ say that having too many of a certain letter is a bad omen. It’s all a bit surreal.

This is not Indian cinema – its Indians going to the cinema. Bollywood is closing your eyes and dreaming. Film is opening your eyes and seeing.

There are fantastic movies out there, made by Indians but not really appreciated by Indians, which deal with the country, its people and its issues. I want to tell you about three of them – three that I implore you to watch if you have the chance. They are categorically not Bollywood – no silly songs, no cheesy dances and no ridiculous plot. These are films. These are art, in my opinion. These are Indians holding the mirror up to society and really looking. These films, in my opinion, are movies you interact with, rather than simply consume.

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

Amir Khan was one of India’s most famous Bollywood heroes. He started off staring in the usual song and dance routines but then began to take an active interest in writing, production and direction. As time went on, his movies actually dealt with ‘issues’ while still keeping the basic Bollywood ‘formula’. One of his more recent offerings, however, has broken from the traditional Bollywood model altogether. The thought of an Amir Khan movie without songs, set in Bombay really excited me and the film itself didn’t disappoint.

Dhobi Ghat, it must be said, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, as far as international film-making goes. It follows the ‘intertwining story’ pattern of movies like Pulp Fiction, for example. There are 4 separate sub-plots that meet each other only a few times in the course of the film. Amir Khan stars as the brooding artist, Monica Dogra as the Indian-American investment banker back in India for some soul-searching, the excellent Prateik Babbar as the poor, small-town boy aspiring to be a Bollywood hero and Kriti Malhotra is the first voice you hear in the movie and whose beautiful character I will not spoil. I loved all their performances, though Amir’s felt a little forced at times. Prateik Babbar’s mannerisms as the timid street kid were just superb.

Watch this movie for its beautiful musical score and for its clever utilisation of the city of Bombay. It is a place that has inspired many writers, artists and film-makers but I suspect Amir Khan, like his character in the movie, has fallen a little (more) in love with the bustling, grimy and always romantic metropolis. Without being too pretentious, the film shows India’s contrasts (yawn) and its complexities (yawwwwwn) in a very clean, unassuming manner. It is a film I recommend to all my European friends, to get a sense of what my favourite Indian city is really like.
It’s even on Youtube in High-Definition with English subtitles.

John and Jane.

I saw a very well made trailer for this on TV and decided to give it a watch.
Check it out here.

Ashim Ahluwalia’s dark, poignant, nuanced take on call centre workers is something to behold, if you’re a fan of documentaries. Even if you’re not generally into them, this beautiful, quiet film will give you a well-round insight into the lives of call centre workers. You know, the ones who answer the phone with the lie, “Hi this is Michael speaking”.

The film looks at the vastly different lives of 6 such workers; it explores how working in a call centre affects young people. It’s something quite amazing, seeing a room of hundreds of 20-somethings rattling off product descriptions, taking a barrage of abuse from a lady in Texas and generally putting people on hold. All this at 4am.

There is something eerie about the double-life a call-centre worker leads and I think the film has captured that very well. There is the clash of cultures (being Indian during the day and American at night), the stormy work-life balance and perhaps most importantly, a seismic shift in what this generation Indian youngsters are exposed to vis-à-vis their parents’. The money, the partying, the crazy hours... it is a very real, largely unexplored part of modern India that goes unnoticed in global coverage.

I love this movie because it goes one step further than simply showcasing the nocturnal life of a call-centre worker, but exploring the impact that speaking to people on the other side of the world (and clock) has on their lives. They all have to go through ‘accent training’ and learn about American culture. At the end of the movie, one young man simply says, “Now I would rather be American”. Think of the implications of that, if you will. This movie will very subtly change your opinion about fake-accent Michael.

Salaam Bombay

Slumdog Millionaire won a lot of awards. It was a very carefully crafted piece of marketing, with a (to some) catchy musical score, big name director, romantic story line and fantastic on-location filming. But it was just Bollywood with funny English accents. If you want a real look at the many facets of life in the slum, you simply must watch Salaam Bombay.

Directed by Mira Nair, this slightly older movie (1988) was nominated for an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe and won the Audience Award and Golden Camera at Cannes. It is truly a masterpiece.

The film follows the life of a street kid, through the disturbing, filthy back streets of Bombay. The direction is superb and always gives the viewer both a sense of the scale of the city as well as its density. It is not an easy watch – not at all. The sadness and profound sense of futility that the film manages to depict are really something to behold. I have lived in India and seen the poorest of the poor, both in inner cities and rural areas and this movie touched me to the point where I questioned what I was doing with my life. It made me look at myself in disgust. I was un-desensitised.

Personally, I loved the change in the female character in the film, who goes from being a scared, young, exploited girl to embracing the husband whose bought her and, indeed, bought her love. The paradoxical plight of the prostitute who had to take her child along on a, ahem, house-call was also riveting. You feel sad for nearly all of the film’s characters and because I watched it a few weeks after watching the fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire, it hit home harder than I could have ever imagined.

If you love great films, great direction and want to get a sense of life in a slum for its variety of residents is really like, then this is the closest you’ll get without actually visiting Dharavi. Don’t watch this film on a sunny Saturday afternoon, expecting a happy ending and a movie that will smile at you after the credits and wave goodbye. This movie that, from its quiet start to its heart-wrenching end, will stay with you, engage with you and hopefully change you. There is no song and dance in the slum, only human beings.


I have nothing against Bollywood. There is a reason why it succeeds (all over the world, not just India) and there is a reason why people in the West loved Slumdog. I would love to see more diversity though. Not just in style, but in casting, direction, cinematography and theme. I hope that, as the country changes and embraces Western thinking more and more, more Indian films get made and appreciated. We are seeing the first signs of it, with movies exploring homosexuality, fidelity, gang violence and religion. They still cling to the tried-and-tested Bollywood script but they are a step in the right direction.

I hope that one day, Bollywood becomes a genre; perhaps one of many strings in Indian cinema's bow rather than it's only arrow.


anja said...

Wonderful piece and spot on! Agree with you about everything! Those three movies you refer to as 'Film' in recent times are my picks too. Decided to get into film when I watched Salaam Bombay when I was in high school.

Scarlett said...

Oh, I loved Dhobi Ghat. Ironically, the person whose acting I liked the least in the was Aamir Khan. But loved Prateik Babbar. It was one of those very few movies I've watched in theaters that I didn't come out cribbing about. The other being Peepli recent times at least.

Salaam Bombay is amazing!

Nefertiti said...

couldn't agree more. a majority of film-makers are still holding on to the safety net of formula movies given that they have huge money at stake. In that respect movies made with shoe-string budget often surprise us because they can afford to break the stereotypes. For example, I found "I Am" and "Love, Sex and Dhoka" refreshingly different. Even commercial movies are slowly experimenting with new themes. You mentioned Dhobi Ghat which I loved. And Delhi Belly too shocked us into laughter!

Vijay Bhat said...

Beautifully captured. I loved your comment "Bollywood is closing your eyes and dreaming, Film is opening your eyes and seeing".

Also nice to know that Bollywood songs seem to have registered so deeply with you ... those long car rides I suppose?

Love, Dad.