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
Bollywood has a much longer row to hoe in the U.S., and the current ragtag NRI distribution system simply isn't up to the challenge. "Overseas," in general, is seen not as a true foreign territory, but simply as a segment of the larger Indian market. According to business and entertainment consultant Vipul Gupta, the growth of the U.S. theatrical and video markets for Hindi movies has been stifled by the limited outlook of the head men in Bombay: "They feel they're already getting enough business in the U.S. just from the Indian audience."
Another factor contributing to the insularity of the U.S. wing of the Indian market could be seen as psychological rather than institutional. For decades, Hindi film screenings have been important social events in NRI enclaves around the world, offering opportunities to reconnect with the home culture in a relaxed, all-Indian atmosphere. (Film Comment critic Maithili Rao refers to such screenings as "tribal celebrations.") Many desi ("homeboy") fans talk about their favorite movies with a peculiar mixture of pride and defensiveness; they are passionate but also wary, as if they can't quite set aside the suspicion that the films they love will inevitably fall short in the eyes of viewers house-trained by Hollywood.
THE FILM THAT SERVES AS A TOUCHSTONE FOR many newly minted crossover dreams, not just in India but throughout Asia, is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which — with its strong showing at the 2001 Oscars — established that foreign filmmakers, when they are working with the right basic ingredients, don't have to abandon their distinctive national specialties in order to seduce the infidels. Director Ang Lee's central innovation was actually quite subtle: a brush-stroke application of psychological nuance to characters that, on their home turf, were familiar heroic archetypes. A true Bollywood epic like Lagaan, which honors but also tastefully elides some of the core narrative conventions that Westerners find most off-putting, stood some chance — even despite its nearly four-hour running time and its presumptions of familiarity with what goes into a cricket match — to become the Indian Crouching Tiger. But although producer-star Aamir Khan says that he chose Sony Pictures Classics as his American distributor on the strength of its slow-build box-office triumph with the Chinese hit, in fact the company did not even attempt to duplicate that strategy with Lagaan, allowing it to dribble away in a handful of one-off bookings. Megastar Amitabh Bachchan, bearing up in San Pedro
It's no wonder that Krutin Patel, the director of ABCD, chose to bypass the American indie distributors in favor of EROS, a company that in the past had handled only Bollywood releases on the NRI circuit. "EROS knows the Indian market," Patel says, "and many of the independents in Hollywood just don't. Either they don't know how to market to it, or they're not interested in it. They offer you a much smaller release, because they don't know how to capitalize on the Indian audience." In other words, Vipul Gupta's "two different audiences" argument cuts both ways: Four-walled Bollywood releases now turn up routinely on Variety's Top 50 domestic box-office chart, edging out many domestic productions, while U.S. distributors seem to be oblivious to a marketing opportunity that they should be pouncing on with a wolfish grin.
For the last two decades, domestic distributors have tried to woo the art-house audience with "transgressive" films like Takeshi Miike's Audition (or anything by Guy Ritchie). Such an approach is hopeless with Bollywood, which is a radically conservative cinema not of unease, but reassurance. Still, the very things that make it seem square could potentially attract the hipster audience that loves Gilligan's Island. Even more, one can easily imagine some of the more mild-mannered, family-oriented Bollywood films catching on with the older, My Big Fat Greek Wedding crowd (my parents love Indian musicals), or even with opera queens and Broadway-musical fans.
Indeed, one of the leading non-Indian voices — and the best writer — on the Usenet group rec.arts.movies.local.indian is Canadian drag artist Muffy St. Bernard, who performs in clubs in the Toronto area dressed up as Helen, the legendary dancing vamp of high-'60s Hindi cinema; his piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance is Helen's "Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu" number from Vijay Anand's pop-art thriller Jewel Thief (1967). "I grew up on a constant diet of pessimism, cynicism and irony," says St. Bernard, "and quite frankly, that sort of thing turns my stomach now. I've seen too much of it. What I love about Bollywood movies is what makes them different from other types of films." (For further observations from this source, see the accompanying article "I Rejected Coronation Street".)
The 19th-century roots of many of Bollywood's signature narrative conventions are, naturally enough, echoed by the content — and even the world-view — of its most aesthetically coherent productions. That these British-influenced elements may also, in a sense, be the most distinctively Indian was brought home to me recently by the cross-cultural commentator Pico Iyer, in his review of Rohinton Mistry's wonderful new novel, Family Matters: "Visitors to India, even in the 21st century, are often surprised by how heavily the recent British past still weighs upon the present, with P.G. Wodehouse still dominating many a bookshop, and schoolchildren routinely [asked] to memorize Tennyson . . . Indian writers from the middle classes, writing in English, are naturally connected to a 19th-century tradition that has never been displaced in India (as it has been in almost every other English-speaking country) . . . People still carry on their lives as if religion had not been unsettled by science, and Nietzsche had not arrived to tell them about the death of God."