Planet Bollywood? 

Indian musicals are hip, sure, but the Hollywoodization of Bombay cinema may not be as imminent — or as desirable — as advertised

Thursday, Mar 6 2003

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Such dismissive stereotypes, however, are at least a decade out of date. The typical Indian commercial movie today is probably handsomer than it has been at any time since the 1950s, the so-called Golden Age of Bollywood — or, more precisely, the Expressionist Chiaroscuro heyday of noir-inflected auteur directors like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt.

By the early 1970s, however, Bombay's great studios, and the giants who flourished there, had either passed on or were in steep decline. Financing had to be cobbled together from shady entrepreneurial sources (e.g., the mob got its hooks in), and a system developed known as the "heterogeneous mode of production," whereby each essential "attraction" in the standard mix of action, music, dance and comedy that defines the unique Indian format known as "the masala film" (from a culinary term for a combination of flavors) was farmed out to a semi-autonomous craft specialist. Budgets that were already small by Western standards were stretched paper thin, so that even major releases ended up looking like three-hour poverty-row B-movies into which stars and disco numbers had been unaccountably inserted. By the 1980s, when video piracy was becoming rampant and every Indian production was a long shot, actors had acquired the habit of attaching themselves to six or seven fly-by-night projects simultaneously, just to be on the safe side. Much to the detriment of continuity, the films were often shot piecemeal in two- or three-week chunks, whenever the actors happened to be available, over a period of up to two years. "In America," says Sanjay Dutt, "they plan for years and they shoot for weeks. In India they plan for weeks and shoot for years."

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."

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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 but the 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.

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