Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Merits of Bollywood Cinema

What is Bollywood?  I feel like I shouldn't have to answer this question and thus I will momentarily save the answer.  I both love and hate to be writing an essay about Bollywood movies.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, when you put something into it's own sub-category, you possibly weaken it in the context of the main category.  For example, does Black History Month raise up black history or does it implicitly say that it's an inferior sub-category?  Perhaps it's a necessary starting point, but general history should naturally include black people.  I have integrated Indian film into my other articles where appropriate because Indian film history is a strain of film history as valid as anything else, but the fact that it has rarely been integrated, which is becoming increasingly less true, has created challenges for me because I play with a back-drop of mainstream film criticism on this blog and so I have decided to address the rift at the risk of exacerbating it.

Bollywood is the term for the Hindi language film industry based in Mumbai, formerly Bombay.  It is not the only film industry center in India or the only language that Indian movies are filmed in.  Bollywood produces about 1,000 feature-length movies annually, so by that metric, they are the largest film industry in the world.  Just a few qualities Bollywood movies are known for are nearly all of them being musicals, having a length of roughly three hours, mixing multiple genres and emotional moods, love-triangles as a common trope, and lastly, obviously reflecting an Indian cultural and religious, often multi-religious, milieu.  One more thing, and I don't want to over-emphasize this because many Indian movies are quite deep, but they are so much fun.  These, of course, are merely the brief, shallow observations of an American outsider.  Indian film has been historically largely left out of general film studies and cinephilia.  While it is becoming increasingly popular, it still has retained a certain Otherness. 

I believe that some of the not taking Bollywood seriously is the result of a pro-Western bias.  Even highbrow art critics are not always as open-minded as one might think. When traditions of Eastern art are so different, not necessarily worse, it's hard to integrate them into conceptions of Western art.  You're opening up a huge new category.  We see this in film, among other arts.  Why is Akira Kurosawa the most famous Japanese director?  Partially because he is more Westernized than Ozu.  To make a more obvious example and bring it back to India, why is Satyajit Ray, perhaps the director least representative of Indian cinema, the most famous Indian director in the West?  Because he works in the European neorealist style.  Using Ray as the first example of Indian cinema is like trying to introduce someone to American cinema through indie movies.

The second hangup many people have about Indian movies, oddly enough, is that they are too entertaining.  Honestly, some of these movies function better as entertainment than many Hollywood movies.  The problem is, there's such a strong association of foreign with art house so the notion that subtitled movies can be really fun throws people off.  If only audiences were such snobs when watching American movies.

The biggest thing that throws people off is that all the movies are musicals.  It seems odd that Americans would stick up there noses at a genre that has brought us some of the greatest American movies of all time.  Over the years in America, the musical has proven to be a versatile genre that need not only work with obvious contexts such as show business intrigue.  Virtually any theme can be put into song.

What are the great pros of Bollywood cinema?  Firstly, as I have already mentioned, it is so much fun.  Art and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive, though.  Secondly, the songs are awesome.  The best Indian movies have numerous memorable songs. Thirdly, the movies are long so you really get a bang for your buck.  Fourthly the cinematography is so colorful and beautiful.  Fifthly, the movies are often all over the map from a narrative and tonal perspective.  While this breaks with classical narrative logic, in a strange way, it reflects the often random flow of life, giving a sense of a universe and not a mere narrative construction.  There's a certain freedom that tightly-constructed Hollywood movies do not have.

What are some cons of Indian cinema?  While American movies have their own set of repetitive conventions, Indian movies, to me, can be much more monolithic.  Of course, this may reflect an outsider's bias.  I mean, for starters, they are all musicals.  Also, certain tropes and story devices repeat over and over again, sometimes the nuance feeling like it leads to a valid new creation and sometimes feeling blandly unoriginal.  Also, the movies are generally about three hours long which is not inherently bad, but as Roger Ebert once said, "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."  Lastly, most Indian movies are melodramatic.  In my opinion, they usually don't overdo it or only overdo it in brief parts that don't ruin the whole, but I would certainly respect disagreement on that point.  In my opinion, they are no more guilty on this account than a lot of American Oscar bait.

Some Important Hindi Movies

Mother India
Director: Mehboob Khan     Year: 1957

Mother India is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, epics of all time in Indian cinema.  Nargis gives an incredible performance as a strong Indian woman living out years of life in an Indian peasant village.  It is full of hardship, cruelty and back-breaking work.  Few people could pull off such a blatantly archetypal role with such gravitas.

Director: Guru Dutt     Year: 1957

Pyaasa is the tale of a celebrated student who is now an unemployed bum.  It doesn't help that he is a poet.  He also befriends a prostitute, another outcast of the time.  It was an indictment of the social cruelty and misplaced values of India at the time.  It is deeply moving and full of great twists.  The ending is absolute powerhouse.  This movie is actually among movie critic A.O. Scott's all-time favorites.

Director: Ramesh Sippy     Year: 1975

Sholay is a fantastic Curry Western and one of my all-time favorite Westerns.  It essentially borrows the plot of Seven Samurai, but puts it into a more modern, rural Indian setting and with only two heroes.  The different cultural milieu and the Bollywood approach to film making make this different enough to be an awesome movie in its own right.  The story is gripping, the songs are fun and the villain is one of the greatest screen villains of all time.  This is often considered a sort of unofficial greatest Indian movie of all time.

Amar Akbar Anthony
Director: Manmohan Desai     Year: 1977

This is possibly the most fun movie I have ever seen and it is my all-time favorite Bollywood movie.  In this madcap action-comedy-musical, three brothers are separated at a young age and each raised Hindu, Muslim and Catholic Christian.  All three religions are respected.  Each brother gets involved with gangsters in some way and love interests.  The musical numbers are mind-blowingly awesome, especially "My Name is Anthony" and the eponymous song.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
Director: Aditya Chopra     Year: 1995

Also known as DDLJ, this is arguably the best starter movie for introducing someone to Indian cinema.  It covers so many of the common themes and tropes, but, in my opinion, it is the best movie of its type.  Raj and Simran meet while living and traveling in Europe, an opportunity to cover many beautiful European locations on screen.  The best Indian movies, and often the best movies, deal with cultural themes.  This is a movie about holding onto tradition in a foreign land and finding compromise.  DDLJ has been playing daily movie theater showings since 1995.

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