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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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 pièce de résistance 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".)

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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."

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 ä 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:

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