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December 10, 2008

Ramesh on Bollywood 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Filmbuff though I am, I'm a complete blank where India's Bollywood tradition is concerned. Not only do I not know the lore, I'm unsure of what the values are, and I have no idea where to start. So I asked Ramesh if he'd be willing to explain some context, and to make some recommendations.

Here's the first of two postings that Ramesh has been good enough to write for us. It's always good to receive coaching from an expert. I see that both Amazon and Netflix carry a decent number of Bollywood titles.


2002 When Bollywood said “Yes We Can” (Part I)

This is a tribute to the three years bordering 2002 (1 &3) when Bollywood had its global coming-out party. This essay is in two parts and I have hyperlinked to YouTube videos of songs from the films, and to other resources in case you are curious to explore further information about the personalities or films involved.

In many respects, these years represent a creative and business peak that Bollywood films will need to strive to equal in the future.

Devdas (2002)

To watch a clip from "Devdas," click here

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's extravaganza that featured Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit was a tribute to the largeness and over-the-top-ness of Bollywood in every way. The costumes and the sets were like never seen before (except in "Mughal e Azam," "Pakeeza," "Razia Sultan," "Anarkali" ...) and sparked jewelry and clothing sales all over the US. Men wanted to be with Madhuri Dixit, women wanted to be like Madhuri Dixit. And then there was Aishwarya Rai. It seemed the gift that was "Devdas" wouldn’t stop giving.

The film went to Cannes and had a special screening (and birthed the Indian pavilion there), at which it is reported there was a stunned silence from foreign audiences that hadn’t quite seen anything like it since Satyajit Ray’s "Devi" ("The Goddess"), in a year when the exquisite corpse film "Sud Sneha" from Thailand won the Un certain regard and Elia Suleiman’s Yadon Illeha ("Divine Intervention") won the Jury Prize.

Sanjay Bhansali went on to direct operas and a Bollywood version of Dostoevski’s "White Nights," produced by Sony Pictures; Shah Rukh Khan stayed the ruling monarch of all he surveyed in Bollywood; and Aishwarya Rai, after a brief Hollywood career, became Ms. Rai Bacchan (marrying the superstar Scion Abhishek), with a thriving Bollywood career.

Lagaan (2001)

Considered the "Seven Samurai" of Bollywood, this film can be credited with teaching the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (in the other film industry) the rules of Cricket. It won a foreign Oscar Nomination.

To watch a clip from "Lagaan," click here

"Lagaan" -- which was three and a half hours long and featured seven five minute songs in an eclectic movie soundtrack by superstar composer A. R. Rahman -- was not your grandfather’s Satyajit Ray art-house Indian film.

The director Ashutosh Gaurikar went on to make much appreciated (but much less accepted by audiences) films such as "Mangal Pandey" and "Swades." The star of the film, Aamir Khan, became director of such critically acclaimed films as "Taare Zameen Par," and A R Rahman, the music composer, grew from strength to strength, making movie soundtracks for such films as "Rang de Basanti," Broadway musicals such as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s "Bombay Dreams," and Danny Boyle’s collaboration "Slumdog Millionaire."

Bend it like Beckham (2002)

Gurinder Chadda's British film about the diaspora did for UK girls' soccer with countless soccer moms all over the US, what "Lagaan" tried to do for cricket.

To watch a clip from "Bend It," click here

Parmindar Nagra went on to a career of television on "ER"; the ethereal Keira Knightly became an A-lister in Hollywood, starring in such hits as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, in remakes of British classics like "Pride and Prejudice," and in "Atonement."

Chadda continued to direct British-Indian films, including a 2002 adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," with the Indian star Aishwarya Rai, called "Bride and Prejudice."

Monsoon Wedding (2001)

To watch a clip from "Monsoon," click here

Mira Nair’s Golden Lion (Venice festival) winner was a cult hit all over the world and featured inexpensive production values, lush cinematography in the New Delhi winter, and a beautiful (independent) soundtrack including Quwwali music by Nustat Fatheh Ali Khan (featured here in a collaboration with Peter Gabriel in "Signal to Noise"), and a Gazal by the Pakistani singer Farida Khannum.

It is fair to say that five years out, none of the "Monsoon Wedding" alumni has grown into really big international careers, although Mira Nair ("Hysterical Blindness"), Naseeruddin Shah ("League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"), Roshan Seth ("Gandhi"), and Vijay Raaz are highly respected Indian film icons.

Munnabhai MBBS


"Munnabhai" was Bollywood comedy coming of age. Produced by star director Vidhu Vinod Chopra ("Mission Kashmir," "Parineeta") and directed by Raj Kumar Hirani, this film starred Sanjay Dutt as a goofy Mumbai gangster who decides to enroll in medical school to impress his visiting father. It displayed a mature melodramatic comedy script.

This is when Bollywood said “Yes we can." And yes they did.


Thanks to Ramesh. Please come back to enjoy Part Two of his Bollywood thoughts and recommendations. Ramesh blogs here.



posted by Michael at December 10, 2008


The dance numbers are fantastic! Indian women are so exotic, feminine and sexy.

During my years in Jersey City, I got Indian and Filipino channels on TV. So, I watched more than a few Indian music videos.

The emergence of a traditional society onto the world scene is exciting. That point at which the society is still traditional and is just beginning to assimilate into the global scene is the most interesting period. Once that assimilation is complete (as has been true for some time in the U.S.), the Wonder Bread syndrome sets in. Quickly, everything becomes Stuff White People Like.

I've never visited India, although that's on the horizon.

Indians were flooding Jersey City, buying huge houses for cash. Unlike Filipinos, Indians are not particularly fond of mixing with whites. Indian society is clannish and secretive... and endowed with a sense of superiority. Marrying an American (unless they are fabulously wealthy and connected) is not a step up for an Indian... it's a step down.

Bollywood seems to be where Hollywood was back in the 1930s, with the lavish dance numbers and the cast of thousands productions. That seemed corny to me when I was an artsy-fartsy kid. Now, that seems so much better than the gloom and doom "problem" movies produced by the western intellectual crowd.

I've stopped watched the intellectual problem movies. Somehow, the conceit of those movies no longer makes a damned bit of sense to me. Just because some nitwit makes a weepy sob sister movie about the plight of some purported victim... What in the hell does that prove? You can visualize any fantasy on a movie set. You might call that "lying."

That incredible energy in the dance scenes almost puts me in a trance.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 11, 2008 10:20 AM

I had an aunt and uncle who were pure homo economicus. They owned a small business and everything, everything was about money. We're all partly homo economicus, nothing wrong with that and in fact it would be suicidal not to be concerned with ones economic well being, but to be totally homo economicus is obscene. Why am I going on about this? Because it's the vibe I get from the assembly line product of Bollywood. Same vibe I get when, using the remote, I occasionally click on Telemundo. Same absolute cash nexus mentality.

Posted by: ricpic on December 11, 2008 11:02 AM

I had put together a "similar movie" explorer for the Netflix prize competition a while back. An interesting consequence was that international movies were bunched together and easier to explore and read about. You can click on individual posters to browse through to movies liked viewers who also liked the one whose poster you clicked on.

Here are some of the movies mentioned above:

Munna Bhai MBBS:


Monsoon Wedding:

Posted by: sai on December 11, 2008 12:25 PM

Much effusiveness in praise is causing embarrasment , then...

Thanks Michael..

Posted by: Ramesh on December 11, 2008 1:34 PM

I blow hot and cold on Bollywood, sometimes I'm in the mood for it, sometimes not. I thought Munnabhai was funny and I liked Parineeta. A lot, actually. Often, I just want to watch the dance sequences. The 'stories' bore me, but when their is a narrative I like, then it's just pure fun. Hey, it's why I like TCM. I just want to have a good time watching a movie.

I am currently in love with slumdog millionaire, which is not bollywood, and which rajesh did not like, and whose criticisms (I mean the critics of the movie) I accept and sort of agree with, but I don't care. When you love a movie you love it, and that's all their is to it.

Apparently, I am not really into a properly constructed sentence. Eh, carefulness takes all the fun out of commenting.

Posted by: MD on December 11, 2008 4:21 PM

Ramesh/Michael, in 2002 I started a short-lived blog about Asian culture. My post about Devdas was one of my first. (Alas, if only Youtube were around then). Maar Daala was for me the most memorable song/dance number--forward to 1:50 minute mark).

In the Bollywood films I've seen recently, there have been so many reprises of the dancing girl/consort performing for king/male admirer/royal court. See Mughal-e-azam - Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam's song Saqiyaa Aaj Mujhe.

IN US Cinema, I don't think we have anything equivalent except maybe in recent music vids. The cliches of American musicals seems to be the Broadway production/woman trying to impress the director/financier (See We're in the Money ). Vive la Difference.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 12, 2008 5:41 AM

I'm tempted to think of the contrast mentioned by Ramesh (hey! Canada is great!) between art films such as those by Satyajit Ray, which have been widely praised in artsy circles in the West, though seen by few anywhere, really, and Bollywood, as paralleling the dichotomy between lit-fic and genre fiction that's been commented on here many a time.

It seems that genre "stuff", if I may so describe Bollywood, which is really a meta-genre, a system or world of genres, has all the technical wow of art films, but so much more life, energy, style, wit, panache, brio, and yes, fun.

Which of the two is raking in the coin? Which of the two is really having an impact on the actual lives, the cultural lives, of the people of the world?

You get no guesses.

Great post, Ramesh. Now...about your opinion of Canadians...Clio wants to talk to you, my friend. Then Will S has a word or two he'd like to share.

After which you and I will have a full and frank exchange of views, from which I know I at least shall benefit. :-)

Look forward to seeing you...

Posted by: PatrickH on December 12, 2008 8:32 AM

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