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June 10, 2004

Neha and Bollywood

Where filmgoing is concerned, I enjoy (and probably over-enjoy) putting on a jaded, seen-it-all act. But the sad fact is that, despite years of the worst kind of movie-geekiness, a few holes still remain in my film education, prime among them the films of Bollywood.

Well, I've finally watched my first Bollywood movie musical, Taal (buyable here, rentable here). For those who haven't run into the phenomenon, "Bollywood" is the name given to the popular-movie industry of India, the country with the world's most prolific filmbiz. (No one seems to take offense at the name Bollywood, by the way.) Although highbrow Western film buffs have long treasured the arty films of Satyajit Ray -- I'm a big fan myself -- most of what the Indian filmbiz produces is extravagant, escapist entertainments. Some Westerners have become aficionados of Bollywood movies; I notice that Netflix offers a lot of them for rent.

Do Western fans love Bollywood films straightforwardly, or in a camp way? I'm not entirely sure. And how enchantingly strange are these films? Lord knows that it can be a lot of fun to dive into an unfamiliar film culture and get a taste of an entirely different set of conventions than you're used to.

So what was "Taal" like to watch? Here's some of what it contained:

  • Many unwittingly-surrealistic, out-of-nowhere musical numbers that mixed up traditional Indian singing and temple-dancing with heavy techno beats and rap moves. Hindi breakdancing is a sight to see.
  • A fleshy, balding star pretending to be a hunky 22-year-old rich boy.
  • A gorgeous, slender young actress (a former Miss World, I believe) pretending to be an ingenuous country girl.
  • Scenes of romantic partner-yoga performed on a cliffside at sunrise.
  • Schticky supporting-role performances by actors who, back in the home country, are no doubt much-beloved for their schtick.
  • Endless story manueverings involving family-honour issues I had trouble decoding.
  • A riot of Busby-Berkeley-meets-Ravi-Shanker colors. I'm not sure what the film's art-director had in mind aside from "bright" and "strong"; the film was full of turquoise, gold, saffron, emerald ... As a friend who'd just returned from India once said, "It's like they've never heard of the concept of a muted color."
  • Enough plot to service three or four seasons of an American TV series.

Part novelty, part campfest, and pretty hard to resist, if also exhausting and overrich, in other words. The film was three hours long, for one thing; I managed to get through it only by spreading my viewing out over four nights. I was left with the strong impression that the Indian mass audience demands a lot of movie for their hard-earned rupee.

The hot and rich colors ... The enormous length of the picture ... The bizarro plot elements ... The unfamiliar conventions ... The mixed-ethnic-cuisine musical sequences ... Snoozing off as the DVD machine played on ... I found that the film merged with my dreamlife in the strangest ways. Looking back on these hours, and cheesy though the movie in truth was, it's as though I was lost in a druggy state, meandering through some exotic mythical epic while TVs and radios blared.

I've been having a good time recently swapping emails with Neha Bawa, who runs a lovely blog here. Neha took a moment to offer a few tips about Bollywood films:

Good gosh, I'm so sorry you had to begin Bollywood 101 with "Taal." The thing with Hindi movies is that if you're looking for art or a good story, you don't head that way. If you're looking for dream sequences and feel like turning your brain to mush, or just unwind with something absolutely senseless, then they're definitely doable. Songs are the backbone of any movie made in Bollywood, and frankly, people waste good money to watch/hear just those.

Although, not all movies made in Bollywood are bad. There's a good one out there, "Lagaan." It's about the British dominion in India. Highly emotional topic for me. Most Bollywood pictures run at least three hours long, but good quality films come from the parallel cinema side of the fence.

Don't miss this Neha posting here, by the way. Taking off from my recent blah-blah about "diversity" and the realities of the workplace (here), Neha goes into fascinating detail about ambitious Indian families, and the kinds of career pressures they put on their kids.

Hey, here's the official Satyajit Ray website.

posted by Michael at June 10, 2004


Oh, the glorious Bollywood films! Love of my childhood.
The first ever film I remember vividly, to the extent of plot, color schemes (yes, M, there ARE harmonius schemes, not just bright colors), melodies (alas, not the songs themselves) and beautiful actress' eyes in the final scene - the one I saw when 6 y.o. in rural village in Kazakhstan; it was called (in Russian) "Poem of two hearts". Tears were streaming down my face in finale, when lovers sang for good 10 min having choosen to be burned at stake rather than separate. (And I felt the fire on my cheeks).
Oh, the moon! The mountains! Beautiful jewelled horses! Orange/magenta saris and emeralds aplenty!

For my mom, growing up behind the iron curtain outside-world biggest movie star was undoubtedly Radj Kapoor. She can still sing that catchy tune from "Bum" (Don't know how it was called in English; in reverse translation from Russian the song starts with "I'm dressed like a Cover-page dandy: Japanese boots, huge Russian hat and Indian soul... I'm the buuum, I'm the buuum")

Unrecognized heirs or separated at early childhood twins (who then met, felt inexplicable attraction and almost married - and died of sorrow when learned of their history), scheming villians, divinely kind mothers (who sometimes look younger than their supposed sons) - why, it's an early Victorian novel in exotic package!

Accidentally I recently came across the Indian channel while some such "opium for the masses" was in progress -was immediately glued and had to fight for the remote with my son. Ah, youth of today, corrupted by wrestling matches, South Park and autoshows; what do they know of Art?!!!

To my infinite shame, I have to admit - that's the only side of Indian cinema I know of. Thanks for the tip for "the other side of the fence".

Posted by: Tatyana on June 10, 2004 5:05 PM

A second vote for "Lagaan". Dance sequences were incredible, especially one early on in the film that was an imploring rain dance. A good deal of the film deals with a cricket match between the evil Brits and the (basically) enslaved Indians. Even this is made interesting...which is quite a feat if you've ever watched (been in a daze) a cricket match.

Posted by: DarkoV on June 10, 2004 5:11 PM

Sorry for the double entry. I had to share a small illustration to the "Indian kids and career pressure" topic.
While I was visiting Ann Arbor' Open House with my son last fall, we were listening to a very dull orientation session @ the engineering school. My eyes were wandering around; there were kids of different ethniciies with one , rarely two relatives present. There was a very good looking Indian boy, surrounded by his family: a grandmother, mother, father, 2 younger siblings and a women (aunt? cousin?), who were making notes and/or admired the boy intensely.
Imagine the pressure!

I know also of another guy, teammate of my son (Bangladashi-sp?) who told him (swear YOU're not going to tell anyone) that he conceded to his family' wishes to apply for medical school and plans as soon as he gets there to switch to the athletic management major.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 10, 2004 5:22 PM

Oooh cricket! There's something to be said for watching twenty-two men running around after a ball maybe 3 inches in diameter.

Tatyana, that Raj Kapoor movie you've mentioned is titled Shri Chaar Sau Bees (Shri 420). Fine entertainer, that man. And what a legacy he's left behind. I'm a sucker for old Hindi movies.

Five stars for Satyajit Ray, although Michael, I'd wager you'd have just as much fun watching movies made by Shyam Benegal, Amol Palekar, Gulzar, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Thanks for bringing Wanderlust out here.

Posted by: Neha on June 10, 2004 7:09 PM

Bollywood movies are too long to watch yet just the right length for background noise while housecleaning.

If you want to know what life was like for Victorians, date an Indian man and hang out with his family. Those boys are to a manner born, indeedy.

Posted by: j.c. on June 10, 2004 7:40 PM

At the risk of being the proverbial party pooper, I feel uncomfortable watching Bollywood product. I'm always uncomfortable when other people throw around terms like exploitation or opiate of the people but in this case I think it fits. I always see (in my mind's eye) hordes of dark skinny ragged untouchable types staring up at the impossibly distant populated by big healthy light skinned upper caste types pure escape dream spectacle.
I realize that our own Holly-Bollywood has produced many films of a similar type. But not exclusively. There have always been Hollywood films with some connection to reality in the mix.
Or am I alone in this concern?

Posted by: ricpic on June 11, 2004 7:23 AM

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