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Planet Bollywood?

AMITABH BACHCHAN IS THE MOST POPULAR movie actor in the world. And he can prove it: Back in 1999, he was voted the Star of the Millennium in a global poll conducted by the BBC. But if you've never heard of him, don't curse Entertainment Weekly. Bachchan is instantly recognizable only within the alternate universe known as Bollywood — a slang term, popularly credited to a Bombay fan-magazine columnist writing in 1979, for the Indian movie capital that turns out more than 1,000 films per year.

Then again, Bollywood is not just an Indian, but a global, phenomenon. "Our films have reached half the world," declares the expat Indian director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). "The Middle East, all of Africa, all of Russia, the Far East, and the Indian diaspora everywhere — the half of the world that Hollywood has not yet recognized." For many of those people, Amitabh Bachchan is Bollywood personified. He's their Robert Redford or Harrison Ford — only bigger.

It's October 2001, and Bachchan is on location in downtown San Pedro to shoot Kaante (Thorns), an unabashed Hindi-language remake of Quentin Tarantino's career-launching 1992 indie hit, Reservoir Dogs — an adaptation which, as it turns out, will open worldwide early in 2003 (and which plays next week at an L.A. Weekly-sponsored special event at the Directors Guild of America). Bachchan has signed on to this, the first Indian movie to be shot entirely in the U.S., to play the eldest of the criminals involved in Reservoir Dogs' famously bungled bank heist — the Harvey Keitel role.

Unfortunately, on the day I meet Amitabh Bachchan, the great man has a toothache. I am informed by my contact on the set that my scheduled interview with the Big B will, with profuse apologies, have to be canceled. The idol of millions is about to be whisked off to Beverly Hills to undergo a root canal. 'A slo-mo walk, familiar to Tarantino fans...'

Bearing up stoically in the face of blinding physical discomfort, the 6-foot-3-inch, 59-year-old Bachchan, dapper in a floor-length black Armani overcoat, looks a great deal like the brooding poets and doctors he portrayed in his youth in middlebrow semi-art movies — figures close to his own patrician upbringing as the son of a famous poet. He became a fixture of Bombay cinema only in the mid-1970s, when he went down-market in a string of popular action films, including Sholay (Flames, 1975), the industry-altering "curry Western" whose box-office grosses stood unchallenged in India for more than 15 years, and Mard (He-Man, 1985), in which he laid waste to hundreds of leering foes and could communicate with animals. But now, in the comeback projects of his middle years — epic melodramas like Mohabbatein (Loves, 2000) and the gorgeously upholstered superhit Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happy Sometimes Sad, 2001) — Amit-ji has regained all of his missing dignity, and then some, as the most imposing patriarch of the Hindi screen, reinventing himself yet again, this time as a monumental representative of Hindu family values. Twilight of the gods

Still, the brief snippets of ferocious action I witness on the set that afternoon in San Pedro suggest that Bachchan has undertaken a fairly ferocious, Mard-like role in Kaante. There is a pistol-whipping, a plate-glass-door-smashing and a brief gun battle, after which a half-dozen prop police cars are loudly detonated. A few days later, the crew repairs to Century City, where the principal cast of six tough-guy bank robbers does a slow-mo walk, familiar to Tarantino fans, across the pedestrian bridge spanning Century Park East.

Could we be talking crossover here? Stylistically, anyway, the signs — and the signifiers — all point in that direction. According to Sanjay Dutt, the droopy-eyed "Robert Mitchum of Bombay" who is Bachchan's co-star in Kaante and also one of its producers, "We guys have all grown up with Hollywood films. All the educated people in India stay up-to-date with the films made in the U.S., and we see the quality. It was always my dream to do this, to come here and work with an American crew, and shoot like they shoot here."

 

IF YOU'RE LIKE MOST AMERICANS, BOLLYWOOD IS at worst a tired Apu joke from The Simpsons, at best a faraway rumor, golden anklets jangling in the distance. If you've seen only a few grainy clips of Hindustani song and dance on TV shows like Namaste America, or in the opening-credit sequence of Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, or in the snide trailers for The Guru, you can be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that Indian musicals (which, to judge from these glimpses, means all Indian movies) are badly crafted, garish orgies of joke-shop wigs and ill-fitting body shirts. The new faces, etc., of Bollywood

 

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."

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.

 

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.

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 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".)

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:

 

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 animé 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 Lagaan director 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.

 

Working almost nonstop this year on Bollywood-related projects, for this publication and for Film Comment, tapping into the DVD mother lode and watching Hindi movies almost exclusively, I've begun telling people that I no longer think of myself as a tourist, but as a "resident alien" in Bollywood, increasingly comfortable and conversant with the local customs, even though I never expect to go native altogether, or to renounce my Hollywood citizenship. This assertion seems somewhat outlandish to some people, even to many Indians who claim to love their movies dearly. It elicits a wonderfully expressive variation of that all-purpose subcontinental gesture, the side-to-side head wobble, the exact desi equivalent of the French pout-'n'-shrug, which in this case unmistakably means: "If you are pleased to say so, sir, I have no response. I am much too polite a person to dispute this bizarre claim of yours."


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