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
Much the same could be said of India's popular cinema, and this sense of a deeply embedded tradition may be at the heart of why at least a few of us find Bollywood movies so immediately, instinctively satisfying. It's easy to imagine a card-carrying cultural-studies academic waxing Ã¤ wroth about the "post-colonial nostalgia" of this suggestion. And how might a conservative Bollywood producer react to the kind of flagrant hijacking that Muffy St. Bernard is perpetrating — to the fact that, even as we learn to stop worrying and love Bollywood, we are bound to understand the movies differently, to make something of them that their creators could never have anticipated?
Besides, appropriation is a two-way street. What critic Nasreen Munni Kabir has to say about Indian film music is also true of Bollywood cinema as a whole: It has "always been a magpie form, hungrily absorbing influences from all corners of the globe." From their beginnings, Bombay talkies latched on to imported Western technology, and to the conventions of the already-Westernized form of popular theater, and put them to work on stories drawn from the ancient Indian epics. One of the most famous of all Bollywood film songs, the opening "tramp on the road" number in Raj Kapoor's Shri 420 (Mr. 420/The Grifter, 1955), makes exactly this point:
Mera joota hai Japani My shoes are Japanese
Meh padloon EnglishstaniMy trousers (are) English
Sarpeh lal topi RussiOn top (a) red Russian hat
phir bi dil hai HindustaniStill my heart is Hindustani
"This song is a direct retort to globalization," says Mira Nair, who quoted it in her steamy diaspora romance, Mississippi Masala. "It accepts all these foreign goods but says that your soul remains Indian. A cinema that embraces everything, as Indian cinema does, without losing its heart — that's the cinema that really does work for me." In the politically polarized climate surrounding issues of globalization, we feel all but obligated, now, to see any hint of Western influence upon a Third World society as a form of cultural imperialism, of alien forms imposed from abroad by a conspiracy of international conglomerates. But in so doing, we underestimate the force with which foreign cultural elements are often actively confiscated and put to use in new ways, the liberating freedom with which their meanings can be rejiggered and reassigned.
"YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO ENJOY trashy shamelessness to enjoy old Hollywood," Pauline Kael once wrote. Much the same could be said of even some of the finest Bollywood melodramas.
Consider Devdas, the lavishly romantic literary adaptation that was India's unsuccessful candidate this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. One of the clearest recent examples yet, along with Lagaan, of the emergence in Bombay of what could be called a neo-traditionalist movement, Devdas is something like the 10th film version of a classic 1917 novel about a weak and self-pitying rural Bengali aristocrat who exiles himself to the corrupt metropolis of Calcutta in order to drink himself to death in a miasma of unrequited love. The Devdas-style hero — the type of the pampered male heir, the mama's boy writ large — was supposed to have been supplanted once and for all in the 1970s by none other than Amitabh Bachchan, setting the standard of Bollywood masculinity for most of the subsequent two decades. So the attempt now to rehabilitate Devdas, updated for the new millennium by the ebullient '90s megastar Shahrukh Khan, is a gesture fraught with symbolic significance — an attempt to revive, or reinvent, one of Bollywood cinema's foundational archetypes. If a smart American distributor were able to get on its florid wavelength, Devdas could prove to be an irresistible wallow for a certain kind of American movie geek.
Unfortunately, indie-cinema gatekeepers in the U.S. will probably be a lot more comfortable with the synthetic Kaante, a conscious attempt to give a Bollywood gloss to the sort of cynical neo-noir crime film that American distributors already know how to sell to the fan-boy crowd that has already embraced animÃ© and Hong Kong cinema. But while Kaante's $8 million dollar budget may have been huge by Bollywood standards, each dollar buys a lot less here than it does in India. The on-location footage often looks rushed and threadbare, and Kaante owes most of its visual flash to ex post facto digital-editing manipulation. It's odd, but I think also telling, that recent state-of-the-art films made entirely in India, like Lagaan and Devdas, end up looking much more "world class" than the self-consciously "global" Kaante.
"I really think that you cannot design a crossover film," says Lagaandirector Ashutosh Gowariker, who did, in fact, manage to make a film with something like universal appeal from all the way inside the Bollywood idiom. "We cannot make movies by keeping an American or a European market in mind. Because then you will not be making a movie anymore. It will just be a package. Filmmakers should make what they want to make, and what they believe in, and if those films find an audience in America, then so be it."
This seems exactly right: Let Bollywood be Bollywood, and let the chips fall where they may. Ambitious entrepreneurs looking to expand into foreign markets may bristle at the following suggestion, but as a card-carrying xenophile I would have no problem with a future in which Bollywood remained irremediably a world apart, in which it absolutely failed to cross over. As a moviegoer, I really have no stake in these films bowling over Western audiences (beyond, that is, the thought that it would be nice to be able to see a few more of these films on the big screen with subtitles, at venues closer to my apartment). Their otherness is, if you will, part of their essence — or at least, of the essence of their appeal to the xenophile. Bollywood really does depict a parallel universe of movies, just different enough from the mundane environments we're used to, to be exhilarating.