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Bollywood Flakes

Regretably DVDs don't wear out.

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Hello? Hello? Can you hear me now? No? Well, hold on. How's that? OK?

Well, as I was saying, I don't know about you, but it's like never before. Every one now wants to talk about this Bollywood thing, but I'm having the hardest time trying to explain what's going on. I have yet to read a single movie critic who has anything illuminating - or nice - to say. So that's been no help. Every new review announces a new low in movie-making. Okay, so there was this film called Lagaan. But I thought we rather lost it there for a while with the tireless praise. Have you seen films from any other countries recently? Do you have any idea of what's coming out of Korea, Tunisia, Taiwan, Iran these days? Only our films seem to need special pleading: "This is how we like our movies, you see. We just l-u-u-v them. Simply c-r-a-a-z-y."

 
Ritz Cinema, Delhi, Gelatin silver print by Ram Rahman from the Heat exhibit.
Still, if your only standard for comparison is Govinda and Akashay films, perhaps I can understand the euphoria. But to call it the greatest film ever? And then all the hysteria at Oscar time? (I had an even harder time sitting through that other film with the drinker-guy who moves into the five star kothi.) Lagaan looked like it had some more logic and thought and credibility. But shouldn't every film have a bit of that?

And what should you realistically expect when it's now generally known that scripts are rarely fully written up when production starts? It's a minor miracle that our films have any coherence at all. The surrealism that people are probably responding to is just part of the process. It's how films are made. In fact, sometimes films actually become more interesting when last minute changes are introduced. I think that's what they say about Ram Gopal Varma's Satya.

Reportedly, songs were introduced under pressures from the financiers, but the powerful combination of realistic violence and lovable Runyonesque gangsters made it arresting. I'm convinced that the films could be more interesting if it were possible for there to be less in the way of design, not more.

But all the song and dance! It's about all I can take when I'm at Jackson Heights in New York. It runs without interruption stop on every TV screen in every music/movie store. (I note with regret that DVDs don't wear out.) I don't know about you, but I can say that there are limits to how much film music the unaided mind can take in a lifetime without going completely nuts. Hold on a second, I seem to have the wires a bit tangled here ...

So the question then: what is to be made of all this nostalgia for "Bollywood"? It was a smart neologism, I suppose, even if a bit infelicitous. But it was all wrong and very bad timing, because soon after, they went and called it "Mumbai" - which it always was in Marathi, but now they want it called Mumbai in English too, and I say why not call it "Bambai" as it was in Hindi, and it's all rather confusing. But to get back: when we were seeing all of those films, wondering how films made this badly and (save for exceptions) with such little attention to craft, could be so successful. It was not a bit baffling.

And just in case you thought that the films are somehow fighting for visibility and attention, you have to remember that all mass culture in India draws from the cinema, while the cinema is busy exhausting whatever it can find or lay its hands on. That explains the controversies and counterclaims about who is borrowing what from whom. You can't possibly be creative when you are turning out dozens of pictures a year - and this is not even Hollywood in the studio days where they had a lot of great writers trying to look busy.

People who cared for movies went to many things besides Deewar and Sholay and Qurbani, and when we saw Hare Rama Hare Krishna there was some real dismay and amusement at the weird way in which this hippie thing was being exploited for rather uptight audiences. A lot of this oughtn't to be forgotten as we look for new stuff we can dance too - and these days almost anything with a beat seems acceptable. I mean, it's OK as dance music goes, and you can do as you please. But it's another thing to make it a fundamental question of identity and to reach for it as a starting point. It's just that there is a lot of it, it's easy to find, you can make anything of it, especially if you don't speak the language and it all vaguely signifies some "truth" about who you think you are.

So it's all well and good that Bombay films are doing all right at the box office again and raking it in (when they do.) But I'd still like to talk to someone who has an honest kind thing to say about all this, some genuine enthusiasm, especially now that we have decided to kiss and make it up with the film business: all is forgiven. It's all good.

Sometimes I think you could date this phenomenon to the time we started turning out films with four word titles (deriving from old movie dialog or song lyrics and ideally rendered as acronyms in English: HAHK, DDLJ, KNPH, KKHH, K3G and so on).

In the new films, the "NRI" perspective seems to have finally taken over. No more now the bumbling and ungainly "foreign returned" babu with affected mannerisms. Our heroes are now equally at home and abroad. The havelis are in picturesque Scotland, and foreign accents are now grown at home. The concepts and moves are ripped off from American videos, but now Madonna is also looking at our stuff and picking out things. Perhaps in our times when call centers in Bangalore are handling your questions about your AT&T bill or your new vacuum cleaner, it all makes sense somehow. We are all now "non-residents." But there was always some truth in that idea. As recent ex-colonials, you grew up with the notion that "real" things happened elsewhere. Somehow, nothing of true import was possible where you happened to be, but now it can work both ways.

ut I gotta tell ya: there's something about films you saw when you were 16 years old that never leaves you. Man, was it a thrill. To add to the excitement, there was the lying and deception about where you were and who you went with and so on. There was almost nobody around you who actually approved of the movies, which added to the allure.

 
Bollywood Dreams Exhibit by Jonathan Torgovnik.
But after the initial drama, I found I wasn't quite that fixated on popular movies. I was discovering great filmmakers I'd heard nothing about: the Hindi films I really liked at that time happened to be in black and white and were made a good two or three decades earlier. Then there were the American movies. I went for everything that came our way: Eastwood's movies, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy (incidentally, did you hear that Schlesinger died a week ago?), Kubrick, everything by that crazy guy Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Altman and many many more. What's more, you had to be quick, because the better ones never ran for more than a week. Sometimes, especially interesting European films (say a Truffaut film or Visconti's Death in Venice) could be withdrawn on the weekend and replaced by that sexy old Swedish chestnut Blow Hot Blow Cold (sure to fill the theaters for a few days.)

And then there were all the great films from everywhere else. We practically lived in the little consulates' auditoriums (British, French, German, American). And then we were also involved in running film societies, which had regular screenings of what was not in commercial distribution. Now that I think about it, we had no idea how fortunate we were as college students in Bombay to have access to such a wide variety of films. O.K., it wasn't like the cinematheques in New York or London or Paris, but it was more than you could handle. And it was inexpensive. So, it wasn't all just the product from the local studios. I guess we were a bit jaded about all that "glamor" - movie people were to be seen here and there in Pali Hill and Juhu - Parle, and like in any film colony, people had the movie style. It is, to some extent, at least, a two way street.

Sure, like everyone else, I took in all the big Hindi films just to see what was going on, but it was rarely all that satisfying. The films for the most part looked hurriedly made, the audiences were even slightly oppressed by them (the loud soundtracks, the confusing overabundance of action and complication, the arbitrary juxtapositions, the shameless pillaging of ideas from everywhere.) Sometimes I wonder if all those people went to the movies just to get away from the heat.

Then there were the film sequences that TV, when it started, used to show with evident delight. There was this chubby little child star (well, no longer a child) who was never at a loss for words, unfailingly gracious and flattering to her guests. But all that now seems so naive and innocent compared to the obscene amounts of money people are making these days and how much (cable) TV is being used to push new movies.

Anyway, it was all so much around us that we used to fight to stay away from it. I can tell you I've gotten into some real scraps in interstate buses to get them to turn off the mind-numbing all-night videos. Not to mention the awful decibel levels of processions and religions festivals which treat music over public loudspeakers as a kind of sacred duty.

So the question then: what is to be made of all this nostalgia for "Bollywood"? It was a smart neologism, I suppose, even if a bit infelicitous. But it was all wrong and very bad timing, because soon after, they went and called it "Mumbai" - which it always was in Marathi, but now they want it called Mumbai in English too, and I say why not call it "Bambai" as it was in Hindi, and it's all rather confusing. But to get back: when we were seeing all of those films, wondering how films made this badly and (save for exceptions) with such little attention to craft, could be so successful. It was not a bit baffling.

And just in case you thought that the films are somehow fighting for visibility and attention, you have to remember that all mass culture in India draws from the cinema, while the cinema is busy exhausting whatever it can find or lay its hands on. That explains the controversies and counterclaims about who is borrowing what from whom. You can't possibly be creative when you are turning out dozens of pictures a year - and this is not even Hollywood in the studio days where they had a lot of great writers trying to look busy.

People who cared for movies went to many things besides Deewar and Sholay and Qurbani, and when we saw Hare Rama Hare Krishna there was some real dismay and amusement at the weird way in which this hippie thing was being exploited for rather uptight audiences. A lot of this oughtn't to be forgotten as we look for new stuff we can dance too - and these days almost anything with a beat seems acceptable. I mean, it's OK as dance music goes, and you can do as you please. But it's another thing to make it a fundamental question of identity and to reach for it as a starting point. It's just that there is a lot of it, it's easy to find, you can make anything of it, especially if you don't speak the language and it all vaguely signifies some "truth" about who you think you are.

So it's all well and good that Bombay films are doing all right at the box office again and raking it in (when they do.) But I'd still like to talk to someone who has an honest kind thing to say about all this, some genuine enthusiasm, especially now that we have decided to kiss and make it up with the film business: all is forgiven. It's all good.

Sometimes I think you could date this phenomenon to the time we started turning out films with four word titles (deriving from old movie dialog or song lyrics and ideally rendered as acronyms in English: HAHK, DDLJ, KNPH, KKHH, K3G and so on).

In the new films, the "NRI" perspective seems to have finally taken over. No more now the bumbling and ungainly "foreign returned" babu with affected mannerisms. Our heroes are now equally at home and abroad. The havelis are in picturesque Scotland, and foreign accents are now grown at home. The concepts and moves are ripped off from American videos, but now Madonna is also looking at our stuff and picking out things. Perhaps in our times when call centers in Bangalore are handling your questions about your AT&T bill or your new vacuum cleaner, it all makes sense somehow. We are all now "non-residents." But there was always some truth in that idea. As recent ex-colonials, you grew up with the notion that "real" things happened elsewhere. Somehow, nothing of true import was possible where you happened to be, but now it can work both ways.

ut I gotta tell ya: there's something about films you saw when you were 16 years old that never leaves you. Man, was it a thrill. To add to the excitement, there was the lying and deception about where you were and who you went with and so on. There was almost nobody around you who actually approved of the movies, which added to the allure.

But after the initial drama, I found I wasn't quite that fixated on popular movies. I was discovering great filmmakers I'd heard nothing about: the Hindi films I really liked at that time happened to be in black and white and were made a good two or three decades earlier. Then there were the American movies. I went for everything that came our way: Eastwood's movies, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy (incidentally, did you hear that Schlesinger died a week ago?), Kubrick, everything by that crazy guy Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Altman and many many more. What's more, you had to be quick, because the better ones never ran for more than a week. Sometimes, especially interesting European films (say a Truffaut film or Visconti's Death in Venice) could be withdrawn on the weekend and replaced by that sexy old Swedish chestnut Blow Hot Blow Cold (sure to fill the theaters for a few days.)

And then there were all the great films from everywhere else. We practically lived in the little consulates' auditoriums (British, French, German, American). And then we were also involved in running film societies, which had regular screenings of what was not in commercial distribution. Now that I think about it, we had no idea how fortunate we were as college students in Bombay to have access to such a wide variety of films. O.K., it wasn't like the cinematheques in New York or London or Paris, but it was more than you could handle. And it was inexpensive. So, it wasn't all just the product from the local studios. I guess we were a bit jaded about all that "glamor" - movie people were to be seen here and there in Pali Hill and Juhu - Parle, and like in any film colony, people had the movie style. It is, to some extent, at least, a two way street.

Sure, like everyone else, I took in all the big Hindi films just to see what was going on, but it was rarely all that satisfying. The films for the most part looked hurriedly made, the audiences were even slightly oppressed by them (the loud soundtracks, the confusing overabundance of action and complication, the arbitrary juxtapositions, the shameless pillaging of ideas from everywhere.) Sometimes I wonder if all those people went to the movies just to get away from the heat.

Then there were the film sequences that TV, when it started, used to show with evident delight. There was this chubby little child star (well, no longer a child) who was never at a loss for words, unfailingly gracious and flattering to her guests. But all that now seems so naive and innocent compared to the obscene amounts of money people are making these days and how much (cable) TV is being used to push new movies.

Anyway, it was all so much around us that we used to fight to stay away from it. I can tell you I've gotten into some real scraps in interstate buses to get them to turn off the mind-numbing all-night videos. Not to mention the awful decibel levels of processions and religions festivals which treat music over public loudspeakers as a kind of sacred duty.  

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | August 2003

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