By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Then another shift took place, in the early '90s, when a group of gifted filmmakers from South India's Tamil-language cinema — many of whom had cut their teeth on music videos and commercials — helped set new visual standards for the medium. A younger generation of Westernized Bombay directors, including Mohabbatein's Aditya Chopra and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham's Karan Johar, took up the Southern challenge. Today, says Krutin Patel, the writer-director of the successful Indo-American indie ABCD (2001), "Bollywood movies have some of the highest technical standards in the world, second only to Hollywood."
Aamir Khan, who became a major star in 1989 and is now in his mid-30s, is at the forefront of Bollywood's "young Turks," commercially ambitious craftsmen who are vigorously pursuing the aesthetic and technical reforms — synch-sound recording, unified production schedules — that have helped make recent Indian films look more presentable to Western eyes. Today, more and more Bollywood movies (including Kaante) are being shot "Hollywood style," on a single production schedule, a condition Khan insisted on for both of his 2001 releases, the Oscar-nominated colonial-era cricket epic Lagaan (Land Tax) and the yuppie-buddy drama Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires). This one-movie-at-a-time approach has obvious financial benefits, especially if you're borrowing money and sweating interest payments, but it can also pay creative dividends: Rather than sport a single generic hairstyle designed to be more or less appropriate for half a dozen disparate roles, Khan was able to change his appearance radically when he shed his peasant dhoti to move from Lagaan to Dil Chahta Hai, adopting for the latter a close-cropped, mini-bearded look that sparked a tonsorial fashion craze among Bombay teens.
Even more damaging to perceptions of Hindi cinema than various technical shortcomings are knee-jerk responses to the idiom itself, to characteristics that will seem inherently outlandish to most Westerners no matter how adroitly they are executed. Take the one thing that almost everybody knows about Bollywood movies: that by rigid convention they all contain five or six (or more) elaborate song-and-dance sequences. The split between native and tourist is especially wide on this issue. Indians regard the film song (and the decades-old tradition of the pre-recorded "playback singer") as the crowning glory of their cinema. For many Westerners, though, the songs are the deal-breakers — which is why they are often the first element a Bollywood go-getter thinks about removing when plotting a crossover to the "mainstream" (read "white") audience in America or Europe.
The problem is, in well-integrated examples of the Bollywood style, major issues of plot and character development are worked out as often in the song lyrics as in action or dialogue — the music, in other words, can't be skipped without gutting the narrative. (This would be much more obvious to Western viewers if the theatrical and DVD distributors of Hindi films dropped the frustrating practice of subtitling everything butthe song lyrics.) Bollywood movies are "melodramas," and not only in the sense of heightened conflict between characters who are embodiments of social forces, but in the root sense of "music dramas," operas (or operettas) in a glossy pop format, achieving a range of emotional effects that, at their best, can be scalp-crawlingly effective.
To put it another way, Bollywood isn't just a random collection of inexplicable gestures that has accumulated over time. It is a form, an all-encompassing "supergenre," combining within itself all the possible permutations of story line and every possible kind of entertainment. That Hindi films all seem, one way or another, to be based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; that the incorporation of ritual elements from village folk theater inevitably ends up favoring repetition over innovation; that the idiom is steeped in the conventions of British blood-and-thunder stage melodramas and Victorian fiction — what all of this adds up to is an approach to storytelling that has always been, to a degree, stylized, and that continues to honor narrative conventions that haven't had much currency in the West since the early silent era.
STILL, IF YOU LISTEN TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE YOU could swear that a Hong Kong-style Bollywood-chic movie cult is even now gathering force to erupt into the mainstream. Supposedly there are hopeful signs everywhere: in that photo of Madonna sporting henna and a bindi at a Hollywood premiere; in Baz Luhrmann's famous nods to the genre in Moulin Rouge; and in the Bollywood-themed stage productions that have set their sights on Broadway — the Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced London hit Bombay Dreams, and a full-dress musical adaptation of Mira Nair's art-house favorite Monsoon Wedding. The odd thing is that very little of this trendy talk has yet translated into bookings of films at venues outside the flourishing "four-wall" circuit — where distributors rent space at your local multiplex — that serves the NRI (non-resident Indian) community. Rarely has there been so much buzz in the U.S. about a species of cinema that so few "mainstream" Americans have ever actually experienced. The question is, can this buzz be transformed into a positive Need To See among the firangi (foreigners), and if so, how?
Some of the more delirious predictions of an imminent Bollywood incursion into Anglo consciousness have arisen in England, where Lagaan played to packed houses in central London, was well reviewed in the English press, and edged into the Top 10 at the British box office, attracting measurable numbers of non-Indians in the process. One reason for such success is Britain's Asian-oriented ethnic mix. There are roughly as many South Asians in the U.K. as in the U.S., around 1.5 million, but they constitute a much larger percentage of the overall British population.